A couple days ago the Wall Street Journal printed an article by Brett McCracken called “The Perils of Hipster Christianity.” Anyone who’s up on the discussion of the decline of 20’s and 30’s in the church today would read McCracken’s article and simply shrug and say, “nothing new or helpful here. Yes this demographic is in decline and yes there are a lot of failed attempts at being current and culturally relevant. And no the answer isn’t simply to try and be hip.” That’s how his article first hit me. But I continued to give it some more thought. . . and below is the response I have to it.
Review & Response:
One of the things McCracken does early on in the piece is alert his readers to a statistic that says 70% of all young Protestant adults between 18-22 stop attending church regularly. It’s an old stat. One that has generated its own discussion inside social-scientific criticism. I find sources like Christian Smith’s book “Souls in Transition” a better guide on what that stat actually means for churches and young adults than just ‘hey they’re not here anymore???’. All and all the stat is real and acurrate but there’s more to the story. Of that 70% that vacate the church many of them fall into para-church campus ministries away from home or return latter in their post-college lives when they’re married (that is an old trend). So the 70% isn’t the whole picture but there is a problem, churches aren’t connecting well to college and post-collegiate young adults.
The rest of McCracken’s article goes on to say a lot of people are trying to fix the problem by being hip, “Increasingly, the “plan” has taken the form of a total image overhaul, where efforts are made to rebrand Christianity as hip, countercultural, relevant.” McCracken chooses a number of examples to demonstrate this: a movement called “the emerging church”; hipper techniques like R rated movies at church or quoting cultural icons in sermons or use of new media solutions; and shock tactics like talking about sex.
McCracken at this point in the article raises a valid question: will these changes work? On the surface he admits they seem to, because younger generations are coming back and some people are converting, but McCracken follows up with a more significant question, “what sort of Christianity are they being converted to?” Enter David Wells. McCracken goes on to quote the well-known critique of evangelicalism who basically says this kind of Christianity is “putting itself out of business with God…younger generations…are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.”
McCracken closes out his piece by saying “If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that “cool Christianity” is a sustainable path forward, they are severley 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…Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true.”
A couple things stood out to me about McCracken’s particular approach to the issue:
1) He’s right the answer isn’t being hip and he’s also right that for some churches that is the only answer they’re trying to apply to the problem. He’s also right that we need to ‘go back’ (something he shared in an interview on his book). The discussion of course is what does that mean, what does that look like, and how do we do it in community with others without branding people in uncharitable ways.
2) He’s evidently not down with the ‘hip-scene’ and has some animosity toward it. One question I had as I read him was is he able to separate consumerism from the emergence of new cultural trends? Trends that people aren’t simply trying on but are identifying with in genuine ways (I think Crouch’s work on culture would do him a world of good). Does he realize, for instance, that Indie music isn’t the problem and neither is new social media or good marketing and if a church practices these things it doesn’t then therefore mean it minimizes being “real” or holding out Jesus to culture. My assumption is McCracken does realize these things, check his bio out on his blog. However you definitely leave his article asking can he distinguish between the two and is he helping his readers distinguish between the two?
3) His examples were a mixed bag of research. I think his take on the emerging church as a movement that simply seeks to be cool is totally misguided (check out Fuller Seminary’s research on Emerging Churches by Bolger & Gibbs; or one of the movements speakers Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church). His quick stab at Mosaic church in Los Angeles as a church that meets in a nightclub as an example of wannabe cool Christianity does disservice to the missiological/pastoral questions that church is raising. Also his critique of Bell and Winner for using the word Sex in their materials or speaking to that subject was strange to say the least. They’re both responsibly dialoging with the wider culture from a clear framework shaped by the biblical-story (Winner has done grad work at both Duke and Cambridge and is very careful in her work). Bell & Winner’s contextualizing of the Christian faith is significant and mature and are in their own ways models of how to speak in the language of today’s culture (something btw Scripture models for us in its use of Koine Greek which was the language of the streets). To me McCraken’s research comes off sloppy at best or passive-aggressively jaded at worst.
4) His own irony is what stuck out to me most from his piece. He is in effect suggesting and expressing a different countercultural movement within the younger evangelical generation: a throw-back traditionalist movement as a way to protest mainstream which is itself considered ‘cool’ in some circles. What I’m saying is this: McCracken’s answer slots him into his own countercultural grouping and that doesn’t necessarily help him find or hold out the “real” anymore than anyone else’s. This is where sociologists work on cool-culture can I believe mature McCraken’s own self-criticism and allow him to see the shaping effects of rebelling he himself has been crafted by (“The Nation of Rebels,” “Branded Nation,” “No Brow,” “Hello I’m Special,” etc.).
5) I do believe he genuinely wants to help people find the real and escape unsustainable answers but I’m filled with concerns regarding his posture, research, and proposals.
I’m hoping that his book will be a better showing than his article was where brevity may have forced him to act in a short-order manner with his arguments or editorial forces may have been less kind than Baker Press’s process was.
For those out there looking for mature answers with less angst than McCracken for the absence of 20’s and 30’s in the church today I turn you to works like Christian Smith’s social-scientific study “Souls in Transition” at Notre Dame or Tim Keller’s pastoral ministry with Post-Everythings at Redeemer NYC or Andy Crouch’s work on Culture-Making with InterVarsity.