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Can hipster Christianity save churches from decline?

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This opinion piece is by Brett McCracken, author of “Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide” (2010) and “Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty” (2013).

Do people want Christianity to be cool? What happens when churches become too driven by the desire to be trend-savvy and culturally relevant? Can a church balance hipster credibility within an orthodox tradition?

These were questions at the heart of my book “Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide,” which released five years ago. The book seemed to fascinate reporters, with outlets like The New Yorker, The Atlantic and NPR covering what they saw as a deliciously paradoxical story.

“If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that ‘cool Christianity’ is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken,” I wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, The Perils of ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity. “As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want cool as much as we want real.”

Five years later, has the cool-church movement done anything to reverse trends of declining church attendance, particularly among young people?

Most evidence suggests the answer is no. Recent Pew Research data showed across-the-board declines in Americans who identify as Christian and dramatic increases in those who are “unaffiliated” with religion, particularly among younger adults.

Research also indicates that millennials do prefer “real” churches over “cool” ones. Contrary to the belief that churches must downplay their churchiness and meet in breweries or warehouses in order to appeal to millennials, a 2014 Barna study showed that millennials actually prefer church spaces that are straightforward and overtly Christian. The same study reported that when millennials described their “ideal church,” they preferred “classic” (67 percent) over “trendy” (33 percent).

More evidence for the unsustainability of hipster Christianity comes by reflecting on what happened to some of the key figureheads and churches I profiled for the book.

Rob Bell was one of seven “Hip Christian Figureheads” featured in the book, and I also wrote about his then-church Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. In the early 2000s, Bell was an evangelical luminary and the poster boy for cool Christianity (“he puts the hip in discipleship,” wrote Andy Crouch).

Since then, Bell has quit pastoring, moved to California, palled around with Oprah Winfrey and become anathematized by many evangelicals on account of his evolving views on hell, gay marriage and “zimzum” theology. In the last five years, Bell went from megachurch pastor to no longer attending organized church at all.

Then there is Mark Driscoll, who was also once a pastor of a hip megachurch named Mars Hill (Seattle). Driscoll was the shock jock of the cool-church pastors and his brazen penchant for controversy eventually (perhaps unsurprisingly) led to his undoing.

After scandals mounted — plagiarism, manipulating book bestseller lists, vulgar online rants — Driscoll eventually resigned from his church in 2014. His resignation was quickly followed by the disbanding of the 15 campuses of Mars Hill Church, a church that in the span of two years went from being the third-fastest growing large church in the country to being dissolved.

Of course, for all the stories of the flameouts of fashionable churches and hip pastors, there are counterexamples that suggest a staying power for some forms of cool Christianity.

The Hillsong movement is perhaps the best example. Founded in Australia in 1983, Hillsong Church now has congregations in most of the world’s hippest cities, including London, Paris, Stockholm, Barcelona, Cape Town and Buenos Aires.

Hillsong also spawned a chart-topping music enterprise and a soon-to-be-released film. The church’s popular New York City location, and particularly its tattooed, adored-by-Bieber pastor Carl Lentz, have become the media’s new face of hipster Christianity.

A profile in Details described Hillsong NYC as “a destination for the in crowd,” and said Lentz “conveys a hip, iconoclastic image: religion in a designer wrapper.” Vice described the church as “the BuzzFeed of Christianity,” noting Lentz’s “PR-friendly” message and avoidance of the parts of the Bible that might offend people.

But is avoidance of potentially offensive topics (refusing to publicly comment on the church’s stance on same-sex marriage, for example) really a sustainable path forward for churches like Hillsong? Putting on a fashionable face may bring in energetic crowds in the short term, but in my experience a church’s honesty about the cost of discipleship is what grows people in the long term. I’m convinced that as culture changes and the values of Christianity become more marginalized, the church’s relevance becomes even more prominent as she provides a refreshing alternative to, rather than uncritical affirmation of, society’s prevailing values.

Christianity’s true relevance lies not in the gospel’s comfortable trendiness but in its uncomfortable transcendence, as a truth with the power to rebuff, renew and restore wayward humanity at every epoch in history.

“If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular,” I previously wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It’s because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched—and we want an alternative. It’s not because we want more of the same.”

An e-mail I received a few weeks ago from a reader — a self-described “lapsed, lazy, backsliding and confused” Christian — reinforces the idea that we don’t want church to mirror our messy lives. He described his desire for a community that challenges rather than “cosily affirms” him and provides a refuge from rather than a mirror to the world.

“I may be someone who cusses from time to time myself, who gets drunk, who has done lots of things I shouldn’t have done (and still do), but that doesn’t mean I want to be seeing those things where I (very occasionally) worship,” he wrote. “The point of church and faith is that they are sanctuaries from ourselves, they are places where we can lay it all down and know that God hears us, that he forgives us, and that we are only saved by his grace.”

Further time will tell whether the legacy of the “hipster Christianity” phenomenon will be one of decline or revival for churches. It could be that in certain parts of the world, and particularly in cities, cool churches are exactly what is needed to inject life into stagnant tradition.

But my guess is that sooner rather than later it will become clear that what people want from church is something different than what is offered on the pages of Vogue or the streets of Brooklyn.

Many don’t want the church to be like a sceney bar or a stylish boutique. They want the church to be the church: an institution that embraces awkward people, confronts sin, transforms lives, subverts the sovereignty of self, serves others and provides meaning more substantial than the ephemera of fickle fads.

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