By Brett McCracken
My book, Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, comes out next week, and in it I ask one fundamental question: Is “cool Christianity” a good thing?
Many will say that making the church “cool” is simply a means to an end—to spread the Gospel in a world where cool is the most efficient conduit of communication. Isn't it simply about "all things to all people" contextualization? Others will say that cool Christianity is an abomination, and never a good thing. What do I think? I think it all has to do with what sort of “cool” we are talking about.
I’d like to make a distinction between two types of cool.
The first type is the natural, organic, authentic cool. This is the cool that is defined as such by outside observers (and emulated by them), but is never consciously strived for by those on the inside. These are the people who are fans of indie music and fashionable clothing because they actually love it, not because they care about it being fashionable.
Then there is the marketed cool, or wannabe cool—self-conscious about being fashionable and motivated mostly by the invidious distinction that it brings. They are the people who try really hard to like the right sorts of esoteric things, so as to set themselves apart from the pack. For them, a thing is valuable or pleasurable less because of its inherent quality than its ability to signify cool distinction, elite taste, or hipster credibility.
It's the difference between being an "insider" by accident (by virtue of simply having a community of friends who do things together that they like) and being an insider because being on the inside is a position of power and prestige.
In his lecture "The Inner Ring," delivered to university students in 1944, C.S. Lewis spoke to the dangers of letting ourselves fall prey to the allure of the "inner ring" for the sake of being an insider. Lewis notes that "in many men's lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside."
It's not that what's inside of inner rings is necessarily bad, Lewis is careful to point out. Rather, it's "our longing to enter them, our anguish when we are excluded, and the kind of pleasure we feel when we get in" that is harmful.
Unfortunately, this motivation—to be an "inner ringer"—is widespread in the evangelical church today. Some churches are naturally hip even while they are not self-consciously seeking it. Good for them.
But most churches are of the "wannabe cool" variety—terrified of being excluded, left behind, or undesirable. They are playing catch up, frantically maneuvering to be in the inner rings of culture and fashion rather than the dreaded periphery. But the problem, as Lewis so wisely points out, is that the desire is not as much for the good things that made the inner ring cool in the first place, but rather for the "delicious sense of secret intimacy" that comes with being on the inside.
Churches today that are scrambling to develop thriving arts or film ministries should ask themselves: Do they really value the arts and film for their own sake? Or is it mostly about being on the inside rather than outside of a cultural trend? Likewise with churches involving themselves in social justice issues, or adopting liturgical forms of worship, or proclaiming themselves "missional." Are these things truly understood and valued? Or are they means to a "relevant church" end?
Perhaps pastors and church leaders should focus their energies more on understanding and valuing culture for itself instead of always trying to use it to bolster their church's insider credibility, suggests James Harleman, a pastor at Seattle's Mars Hill Church:
Instead of trying to be cool, we should seek out and support the places in culture that we believe are hitting the nail on the head. We need to re-train our minds in how we engage culture. Why do we listen to the music that we do? Why do we like the films that we like? Rather than force ourselves to like what is cool, we should seek to understand better why we like what we like. Be authentic to what you like. You can’t become a prize fighter if you’ve never trained your whole life.
The problem with the wannabe cool, "inner ringer" mindset is that it blinds us to our true desires and true enjoyments, replacing them with an overarching desire—pervasive and deeply ingrained in humanity—to want to be in the know. But As Lewis notes, the inside of the circle will never satisfy us if the whole goal was always just to cross the invisible line. If you only wanted to be "in," the pleasure will be short-lived once you get inside.
"As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want," writes Lewis. "Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain."
Here’s hoping that we Christians stop worrying so much about being outsiders, and start living like we love what’s already, by grace, within our grasp.
Brett McCracken regularly writes movie reviews and features for Christianity Today and Relevant, in addition to working full-time at Biola University as managing editor of Biola Magazine. His first book, Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, comes out in August. He comments on movies, media, and popular culture issues at his blog, The Search.