Saturday, September 18, 2010

My Underlying Hipster-dom and How It's Not What You Think

Recently, Christianity Today, a magazine I’ve long respected and read, released a cover story on hipster Christianity by Brett McCracken. My wife was able to read through the article before I was, and, before I started reading it, she told me she felt we were very much “hipster Christians,” in terms of what we value.

After I read through the article myself, I realized that, strangely enough, we only fulfill less than half of the ascribed stereotypes in the article. Sure, I have a goatee and a Mac, and I like to work and meet in coffee shops (I only drink tea, even), but we have two little daughters and are settled down in an otherwise seemingly non-hipster lifestyle. What gives?

Having read other reviews, McCracken’s very definition and understanding of hipster Christianity is actually seen as incomplete and disorganized (is it a matter of style or belief? He doesn’t seem clear). I’m far from a sociologist or cultural analyst, but I feel that, while McCracken was able to give surface-level caricatures and some possible interpretations of “hipster-dom,” he did not accurately (or positively) portray much of an amount of the underlying values of a Christian hipster. Many of such are the values with which I resonate, based on my journey in ministry and my experience working with fellow hipsters.

Same as Always, Cultural Packaging is Bad

The driving question of Brett McCracken’s earlier book on hipster Christianity is: “[A]s messengers of Christ, are we to let the message speak for itself or must we adapt and package it for a specific context?”

What’s annoying to me is that this is not a new question. It was asked when Bill Hybels began Willow Creek’s “seeker”-oriented approach. It was asked when the pioneers of Christian rock music like Larry Norman and Petra emerged decades ago. I imagine this question could be traced back through many cultural shifts and ministerial innovations. It perpetuates because those who ask it fail to realize the following reality. “Packaging” is inevitable.

Jesus himself used parables dominated with agricultural metaphors and similes, knowing that his audience had a vast majority of farmers or those who understood the proverbial ropes of farming. Was He, then, guilty for “adapting and packaging” the message for a specific context?

Every delivery of the Gospel comes in a package. Even if you strip the packaging as much as you can by, for example, walking up to a complete stranger on the street and reading them the “Romans Road,” the message is still packaged by the translation used, the overall context of your delivery, your personality and self, etc. I could go on.

Yes, if the core message of the Gospel (not any cultural or theological addenda) is being compromised in the process of said packaging, then red flags should be raised. But packaging, in and of itself, is not wrong.

The question, actually, can easily reveal dangerous bias. Missionaries, for example, will utilize ethnomusicological studies to help put sacred text, liturgy or Scripture to the indigenous music of their mission field (which perhaps was previously used, by the way, for pagan rituals). Their ministry instantly becomes more effective. Christians in the States are very supportive of that method overseas, but when local believers seem to do similar for the sake of a subculture of a musical style which makes many uncomfortable (because of the actual musical approach and/or the philosophical/cultural connotations, as people often have trouble separating the two), there is little-to-no support. Rather, this typical and timeless question gets asked, biases are revealed and, as I’ll get to later, the very core intentions of those trying to fulfill the Great Commission are cynically questioned.

When you have two different packages delivering the Gospel without compromise, to assume one type of package (perhaps a longtime or familiar one) is “letting the Gospel speak for itself” and the other is wrongfully “adapted and packaged” only reveals one’s own preferences and potentially shows a belief in an en-cultured Gospel.

Just Trying to Be Cool and Rebellious?

The aforementioned doubting of intention has also been a common thread in all criticisms of “rebellious” movements within the Church.

It’s all a marketing ploy.

Just like all the other movements, this is just an effort to make church “cool,” completely submitting oneself and identity to the consumerist culture, “rehabilitating” the face of the church to fit an image more likable by disgruntled churchgoers and those they’re trying to reach.

Really? To virtually generalize the background of Christian hipsters, belittle ministerial intentions, and reduce their whole approach and philosophy into sounding like a selfish marketing strategy is a bit insulting, to say the least.

As a pastor and a service producer, I need to clear the misconception that there’s a fine black line between church outreach/evangelism and marketing/advertising. It’s actually a very gray and muddy line with overlap. People use marketing and advertising techniques when conceiving outreach initiatives and even sermons, and that’s okay. Where it crosses out of bounds and into the strive for “cool” is measured by intention. As McCracken himself estimated in another ranting article (this from the Wall Street Journal), the generation hipster churches are trying to reach doesn't “want cool as much as [they] want real.” And again, intentions are cynically (and unfairly) doubted.

Again, I can’t speak for all hipster Christians, and there are churches out there that do, in fact, callously dedicate their resources and energy to appeal and attract, all the while arbitrarily disregarding all church heritage, association, and biblical values, also letting the core of the Gospel and deep relational discipleship to be shallowed and watered down. Those churches need to heed some of McCracken’s allegations. But to consolidate, over-simplify and stereotype all culturally and philosophically dissenting movements (not just hipsters) within the American Church since the Baby Boomers into one box of rebellion, immaturity and ulterior motive is highly inaccurate, judgmental and unnecessarily divisive, and it’s what McCracken seems to do.

(I once remember reading a submitted complaint in Campus Life magazine, claiming that the Christian latin/rapcore group POD simply dressed in black, etc. to “attract” the secular crowd. It didn’t occur to this reader (and many others) that POD was not, in fact, home-grown clean-cut Christians “converted” to a certain culture (which is what McCracken seems to assert for all hipster Christians). Their frontman, Sonny Sandoval, for example, grew up in the gangs-and-drugs street life of San Diego. His musical preferences, lyric-writing, appearance and testimony are not an act. They’re all very real.)

In defending intentions, another reviewer of McCracken’s book (a writer for Wunderkammer Magazine) put it this way:

“ . . . it is not apparent whether these themes among younger Christians testify to a longing to be cool or indicate maturation. For example, McCracken devotes one chapter to social justice because ‘Christian hipsters’ have an ‘activist core.’ But does their interest in justice have anything to do with being a hipster? Or is it evidence that young Christians are rediscovering the importance of being a voice for the voiceless and taking seriously Christ’s call to be his hands and feet? Are young Christians reading Thomas a Kempis, Flannery O’Connor, C. S. Lewis, Henry Nouwen, and Marilynne Robinson because they are hipsters? Or do they read because they are hungry for beautiful and wise works of literature that will nurture their faith? Are young Christians demanding a more nuanced understanding of art because that is what hipsters do? Or is it that they are coming into a fuller appreciation for the complexities of the gospel and how they relate to creativity?”

Hipsters do have ministerial intentions, and their approach could also be out of a type of cultural celebration, not adaptation. And maybe Mark Driscoll could be talking about sex from the pulpit because he believes it’s something the church should further address, not because it’s a shock tactic to help fill the pews or rack up the website visits. The historical Church made great strides in evangelism when they hopped on board with the Romans’ roads, Koine Greek, and the printing press, but now parts of the American Church are doubting the productivity in the use of Twitter and Facebook.

Words That Shouldn’t Exist

McCracken also seems to have a particular pet peeve regarding buzzwords.

Yes, I would describe myself as “missional.” And I would describe the services that I produce and the sermons I write as “relevant.” I don’t like these words, though, and I wish I didn’t have to describe myself as them. I wish these words didn’t exist. They shouldn’t have to, but they do.

When a preacher, teacher, or any Christian looks at the revelatory, ingenious and transcendent essence of Scripture, is there really any effort at all necessary to “make it relevant” and applicable to people’s lives? From the poetry and stories of love and hope in the Old Testament to the stories of healing, rescue and commission in the New Testament, isn’t Scripture inherently relevant? And aren’t churches supposed to be inherently “missional”? Isn’t that part of their denotation and purpose? To me, the phrase “missional church” sounds redundant.

My Journey to Hipster-dom (Which Didn’t Happen as McCracken Would Guess)

Like hipsters, I have roots in a Christian home. Like McCracken, I have roots in the Midwest and an alma mater at Wheaton College. But I don’t feel that my journey to hipster-dom actually consisted of a conversion to hipster-hood.

I was a musician before I was a Christian, studying composition at Wheaton’s Conservatory of Music, ready to dedicate all my energy to the excellence and diversity of a worship arts department. The studies at Wheaton in philosophy of the arts, ethnomusicology, church music history and the general feast of music inspired me toward a musical holistic form of worship, hence what many see as my atypical taste in music and worship (with no particular fondness for Ancient-Future worship, Over the Rhine, Sufjan Stevens or anything necessarily “different” as stereotype would have it)..

Discarding my previous and immature (for me) vocational dreams of Christian rock stardom or film music composition, I felt called to bring my love for and training in music and the arts to Church. I felt, to better be qualified for serving the Church, I would go to seminary to learn more about theology, church history and practice, philosophy of worship and, of course, a deeper study of the Word.

God used my seminary experience to imprint the mission of the Church in my heart. I was so inspired, particularly, by the stories and ministry philosophy (not so much the liturgy and music, as stereotype would have it) of the apostolic fathers. I was awed by how they were able to change countless lives, despite governmental oppression and false teaching, in an ancient and larger version of Las Vegas. Their aggressive compassion, charity, social work and martyrdom-willingness fueled their evangelism like gasoline to a wildfire.

In essence, my “new” vision for ministry didn’t base from a rebellion, rather a rediscovery of the ways of old, arguably a renaissance.

Call to Unity?

Having been trained also for church planting, having served in church plants and emerging churches, I know my story is not a rare one among whom McCracken would describe as hipsters or those with hipster values. Many such hipsters, upon sharing this adventurous and biblical vision for ministry, face, for whatever reason, a lack of support from churches and feel (ironically, as some would think) betrayed. Some hipsters break off from the Church in their association (hence some rebellion). Others stay and try to seek unity (hence me).

St. Augustine is famous for his purposefully paradoxical quote, “The Church is a whore, and the Church is my mother.” I’ve seen dissenting churches and movements only acknowledge the former, while those who they seem to rebel against only acknowledge the latter. The mature Christian will acknowledge both, and not stop people from driving out demons in Jesus’s name (Mark 9:38-41).

As a pastor, I strongly value the cultural transcendence of the Gospel, cultural engagement in ministry, and aggressive charity and evangelism, not so much relying on political clout but God’s empowerment. Outer appearances and other characteristics don’t stereotype me as a hipster, but do these biblical values distinguish me as such?

My hope is always for unity under the common purpose and value: the cause of the Gospel. It’s the words of some hipsters and McCracken that only seem to divide.