The Church of Cool

You may have seen Brett McCracken’s excellent editorial in the Wall Street Journal recently, “The […]

David Zahl / 8.16.10

You may have seen Brett McCracken’s excellent editorial in the Wall Street Journal recently, “The Perils of ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity.” McCracken is the author of Hipster Christianity, a surprisingly controversial new book we’ve referenced on here before. So many folks have forwarded the article to me that I’m not sure whether to be flattered or concerned…! He writes:

“Increasingly, the [evangelical church’s] “plan” has taken the form of a total image overhaul, where efforts are made to rebrand Christianity as hip, countercultural, relevant. As a result, in the early 2000s, we got something called “the emerging church”—a sort of postmodern stab at an evangelical reform movement. Perhaps because it was too “let’s rethink everything” radical, it fizzled quickly. But the impulse behind it—to rehabilitate Christianity’s image and make it “cool”—remains.

There are various ways that churches attempt to be cool. For some, it means trying to seem more culturally savvy. The pastor quotes Stephen Colbert or references Lady Gaga during his sermon, or a church sponsors a screening of the R-rated “No Country For Old Men.” For others, the emphasis is on looking cool, perhaps by giving the pastor a metrosexual makeover, with skinny jeans and an $80 haircut, or by insisting on trendy eco-friendly paper and helvetica-only fonts on all printed materials. Then there is the option of holding a worship service in a bar or nightclub.

“Wannabe cool” Christianity also manifests itself as an obsession with being on the technological cutting edge. Churches have online church services where people can have a worship experience at an “iCampus.” Many other churches now encourage texting, Twitter and iPhone interaction with the pastor during their services.

But one of the most popular—and arguably most unseemly—methods of making Christianity hip is to make it shocking. What better way to appeal to younger generations than to push the envelope and go where no fundamentalist has gone before?…

If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that “cool Christianity” is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken. 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.

If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular. 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. 

Let me underline what McCracken is saying here: Cool for cool’s sake is a non-starter, especially Christianly-speaking. We’re not just talking about how the time-tested rules of high school apply in equal measure to believers and non-believers – which they do, namely, that any attempt to be cool is, by its very nature, the opposite of cool. Translating religious language is one thing; dressing something up as something that it’s not in order to dupe people into coming to church is another. Particularly when the new dress makes it less appealing, which it almost always does.

The Gospel will never be cool because the Gospel is for the uncool. The lame, the strange, the nerds, yes, even folks with bad taste. It’s for people who try too hard and fail. For those who say they don’t care but actually do, deeply. But that’s probably giving these categories way too much credence – ‘coolness’ is not only a construct, but a dangerously Pharisaical one. The law of Cool has crushed more than a few, many of us included. Brooklyn is not a happy place.

Is Mockingbird cool? Is it hip? I don’t think that’s for me/us to say. It certainly isn’t a big concern. The Gospel is no more or less relevant than it ever has been, and even if we wanted to, we couldn’t change that. Thank God! This doesn’t mean we don’t have plenty of opinions (too many) about the relative quality of art, music, movies, etc. Lord knows we do. But please, if you ever catch us trying to be cool, or consciously engaging in the bait and switch – you have our permission to stop reading.


P.S. The August playlist I’m working on is the coolest yet!