Hip or Holy? Can We Be Cool and Christian?

COOL OR CHRISTIAN (excerpt from God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To)

Co-opting the entertainment ethos as many churches have done, has brought some large hipster churches to the attention of the mainstream media. And they’re not all critical.

“The music! The lights! The crowds!” gushed a reporter on a CNN segment after a visit to an 8,000-member hipster church in NYC. “It looks like a rock concert. And the lines around the block are enough to make any nightclub envious.”

Sophisticated, men’s high-end fashion and lifestyle magazine GQ embedded a reporter, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, in a Hillsong worship service “to find out if Christianity can really be this cool and still be Christian.” Studying the 8,000 attendees entering the worship center, including Justin Bieber, Akner gave her first impression: “It’s where the cool kids spend Sunday morning after Saturday night at the club.”

The GQ journalist continued, “the singing is hot-breathed and sexy-close into microphones.” But she wrote, “It made my body feel confused.” After listening to the singing for a while (there’s more music on the stage than anything else going on in most cool churches), Akner’s assessment was that the songs had “melodies that all resemble one another, pleasingly, like spa music.” She admitted to being drawn into the ethos, at least to some extent, by songs that “call to mind deeply sincere love songs.”

Though not falling on her knees in repentance, by any stretch, Akner’s over-all assessment was tentatively positive. She even confessed to wanting to raise her hands the morning after her visit to Hillsong. But not everybody who comes agrees, and not everybody stays.

“Hillsong has done for Christian music,” wrote feminist writer Tanya Levin, former Hillsong Church member now atheist, “what the Dixie Chicks did for country and western: made it blond, sexy, and mainstream.”

Put another way, they made it seem cool.

CLEVER DEVIL

Does anyone actually think that if God came down, he would dress that way, talk that way, sing that way? Would God sing “hot-breathed and sexy-close into microphones”? Would God our Maker “who gives songs in the night” (Job 35:20) sing those songs in anything that could remotely be labeled “sexy and mainstream”? None of this is God’s way. It seems blasphemous even to consider it.

Would God inflect the way some cool pastors inflect? You’ve heard it, the perpetual up lilt, as if every statement is a question; it sounds so breezy and urbane, as if to say that you alone have come to pose the questions no one else is asking. What’s more, by your seeming spontaneity that showcases your cleverness and wit, you let others know that the answers come easily for you.

God, for whom alone answers do come easily, doesn’t talk that way. His voice does not sound that way, he does not sing that way. It’s as if we think he ought to, but there is zero biblical evidence that God, who is “a consuming fire,” takes a casual, cool, hipster approach to anything. Nor should we.

“Preacher, give up trying to be cool,” wrote Southern Seminary President Al Mohler. “Cool changes so quickly… Do what cool can’t do. Bathe your heart and mind in the ancient Scriptures. Devote yourself to proclaiming the eternal truth of God.”

A heart bathed in God’s holy Word produces one thing. A heart bathed in pop entertainment and celebrity culture produces quite another. One cannot have it both ways.

Even agnostics Strunk and White, in their classic book on writing, understood that an affected and artificial tone of voice and manner of communicating was indicative of pride: “Do not affect a breezy manner. The breezy style is often the work of the egocentric.” They strongly suggest avoiding “uninhibited prose” that “creates high spirits.”

The “breezy manner” sounds suspiciously like the hipster cool voice in the pulpit on the stage. These egocentric pretentions place the author, the pastor, or the music leader at the center. This comes so naturally to the entertainment ethos because that’s how it all works. The performer on the stage is there to perform, and the fawning crowd are there to be amused, to take for themselves, to be entertained. It’s how it works, regardless of the words. Remember, most of us don’t listen to the words.

The focus of breezy entertainment is me-centered. The focus of worship is God-centered, and there is no place for breezy when entering the presence of the living and holy God.

There were versions of entertainment evangelism long before anyone used the term hipster (a term that may outlive its cool status soon enough). Even in Charles Spurgeon’s day. “The Devil has seldom done a cleverer thing,” he wrote, “than hinting to the Church that part of their mission is to provide entertainment for the people, with a view to winning them.”

A DANGEROUS PLACE

However in step with the popular culture entertainment worship may be, it is profoundly out of step with the Bible. Like his Father, Jesus was not cool. The Son of God was so radically out of step with the culture around him that viscous critics tore off his robes, flogged him until his naked back was raw and bloody, and then they nailed him to a cross, suspended him in mockery and shame, and crucified him, the world looking on, deriding and making sport of him. No, Jesus was not cool. The world hated him.

Holding the hipster approach to worship and singing up next to the persecuted church further unmasks the fallacy of cool. It is not cool to be a Christian in Nigeria today, or China—the list is long. Imagine the bewilderment of any of our brethren in the persecuted church as they try to get their minds around the notion that it’s cool to be a Christian, at least cool if you identify with our brand. They would likely think that it was something else altogether, not the Christianity they experience. It would seem ten million miles from the cost of following Christ in their bloody world.

“Consumer-based, me-centered, music-driven, reductionistic, therapeutic, and theologically vacuous Christianity,” wrote Gospel Reformation Network Executive Coordinator Jon D. Payne, “is ten million miles from the real thing. It mirrors the world more than Scripture.”

There’s little argument that no single entity has more shaped music-driven, entertainment worship in recent decades than Australian mega-church Hillsong. In a period of just eighteen months, there were 760,000,000 downloads of Hillsong songs, creating vast sums of money for the writers of those songs. Amidst a wave of apostasy among high-profile church leaders, one of Hillsong’s songwriters, Marty Sampson, joined in the trend. “I’m genuinely losing my faith … and it doesn’t bother me.”

It ought to bother the Church, however, when a key contributor to the lyrical content of what millions of professing Christians sing in worship says of the gospel, “it’s not for me. I am not in anymore.”

Dr. Payne helps us connect the dots. “It’s no wonder, then, why so many celebrity pastors and leaders are abandoning the faith for the idols and approval of our culture. It’s the culture, not objective truth, that has been chiefly shaping their thinking all along.” Pew Research Center findings concur, but it’s not just celebrity leaders abandoning the faith. In our rapidly secularizing society, there’s a spiraling decline of people willing to identify themselves as Christians. Especially young people. Which is odd considering the rationale justifying the use of the entertainment ethos is evangelism and church growth. If it's working, statistics ought to be showing an increase in young people identifying as Christians...

Douglas Bond is author of Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn't) and twenty-seven other books of historical fiction, biography, devotion, and practical theology. He is lyricist for New Reformation Hymns, directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, speaks at churches and conferences, and leads Church history tours in Europe. His book God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To), from which this post is an excerpt, is available at bondbooks.net/shop; order today and receive a free Rise and Worship cd.

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