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Introducing: Christian Hipsters

I am writing a book about Christian hipsters. It’s a book I’ve been thinking about for years, planning in my head, and “researching” by every means necessary. I signed the contract with Baker Books in September, and since then I’ve been visiting churches throughout the country, seeking to understand “cool Christianity” in all of its skinny-jean, big-haired glory.

Over Christmas break, I picked up the new Welcome Wagon album. For those who don’t know, Welcome Wagon is a Brooklyn duo made up of an admitted hipster Presbyterian minister and his wife. The album is produced by Sufjan “Christian hipster icon” Stevens, and it is super nerdy and ironic and earnest and cool. The album came out on December 9 and promptly made my top ten of the year.

On December 28, I visited Jacob’s Well church in Kansas City, one of the hippest congregations in America. On the way to the church, I made a tongue-in-cheek comment about how the worship band would probably eventually start playing Welcome Wagon songs. Sure enough, one of the first songs we sang that night at Jacob’s Well was the Welcome Wagon version of the nineteenth century hymn “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed.” I was giddy. Was the pipeline of Christian hipster subculture really this efficient? A mere two weeks after the album is released, and it’s already showing up in the repertoire of hipster churches in the Midwest? What does that mean?

It’s the kind of thing that makes me happy I’m writing a book about all this.

In 2009, as I’m writing and researching this study of cool Christianity, and talking with pastors and visiting churches all over the country, I will be sharing bits and pieces of it with you on this blog. I’ll start by sharing an excerpt from the article that started it all in September 2005–“A New Kind of Hipster”—which I wrote for Relevantmagazine.com: 

The new generation of “cool” Christians recognize that copycat subculture is a backward step for the Church, but unfortunately the alternative requires a creative trailblazing for which most are far too tepid. Thus, we’ve settled for a reactionary relevance—a state of “cool” that is less about forging ahead with the new than distancing ourselves from the old. We know we do not want to be the stodgy, bigoted, bad-taste Christians from the pages of Left Behind. We are certain we do not want to propagate Christianity through catch phrases and kitsch, and we are dead set against preaching a white, middle-class Gospel to the red-state choir. Perhaps most of all we are tired of burning records, boycotting Disney and shunning Hollywood. We know exactly what the relevant new Christianity must not be—boring, whitewashed, schmaltzy—but we feign to understand just what we should be instead.

The problem with the Christian hipster phenomenon is not as superficial as the clothes we wear, the music we download or the artistic movies we see, nor is it that we exist largely as a reaction against something else. No. The problem is that our identity as people of Christ is still skin-deep, that our image and thinking as progressives does not make up for the fact that we still do not think about things as deeply as we should. The Christian hipster pretends to be more thoughtful or intellectual than the Podunk fundamentalist, but are we really? We accept secular art and (gasp!) sometimes vote for a liberal candidate, but do we really think harder because we are “hip”? I don’t think so.

OK, so I concede this: Evangelical culture needed to be rebelled against, and the result is at least a step in the right direction. But our generation must be careful to remember that we were never called to be a cool subset of the larger culture. We are to be a counterculture—in and not of the world, accepting yet not acquiescent, flexible but not compromising, progressive though not by the world’s standards. True relevance is not about making faith fit into a hipster sphere as opposed to a fundamentalist box. True relevance is seeking the true faith that transcends all boxes and labels.


Comments

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It is very interesting looking at how people understand cultures from the outside but I guess I fail to see why this one? This one being 'hipsters' as you say. Or more so, I suppose, why there needs to be a Christian book on it. I can say that in many ways I am part of this hipster group but where that and the Church comes together is nothing, I believe, out of the ordinary. It doesn't matter the kind of clothes the attendees are wearing, the music or shows they're listening to... as if it is this special veil over their own kind of Church. No, in the end it is still the Church with very much the same means and goals as any Church dealing with youth and twenty-somethings. It's not as if it really is a different movement. I've seen this view from attending service in urban areas where, as you say, 'hipsters' are majority as well as in the suburbs where not so much. The style might be different, message still the same. So, I guess my question is: what is the point or aim of this book? Just another Christian book on a subject to make it relevant? I hate to seem harsh but it was the same kind of thing when there seemed to be a new book on Bono's faith every couple months a few years ago. I couldn't help but wonder what really was behind all of these books either copying or without entirely a real message.

Although, interesting enough, you could say you're not the only one from the outside trying to look in: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-566481/Why-child-safe-sinister... - I think this article is entirely lacking of facts but it is a writer not really understanding, trying to find blame, and picking on something easy: a culture. I wonder if there are Christian books on 'emo'?

Love Welcome Wagon and Sufjan Stevens (who would never consider themselves hipsters) by the way.

Neil, thank you for commenting. The reason I am writing this book is because I love Christianity and the church. I want to see her thrive, expand, and be all that she can be in the world. This recent phenomenon of cool Christianity and Christian hipster strikes me as a vitally important topic that needs to be addressed with tenderness, nuance, and--when appropriate--constructive rebuke. I also think it needs to be approached from an insider perspective, from someone whose motive is not to expose some interesting subculture but to provoke needed self-reflection for the purpose of sharpening and building up the church. To my mind, the relationship of the church to the notion of "cool" (and I mean the existential, philosophical meaning of cool... above and beyond superficial image and trendy stylings) is one of the most important questions of the 21st century. As we try to articulate Christianity to a post-Christian world, are we going to try to normalize it and make it stylish? Or are we--seeing the value of counterculture currency--going to brand ourselves as rebels? Or are we going to eschew all notions of trend and style and cool, choosing instead to be happily out-of-touch and nerdy? These questions are important and have great bearing on contemporary ecclesiology. The "Christian hipster" stands firmly in the middle of it all. And that's why I'm writing the book.

I think that the most difficult part is to do research for the book. I am sure that it will be great reading. Jan from Möbel Team

Your quote sums up the entire debate that surrounds hipster iconography,

"The problem is that our identity as people of Christ is still skin-deep, that our image and thinking as progressives does not make up for the fact that we still do not think about things as deeply as we should"

I would just add one small (but significant) thought: that we also don't do as we should. When we evaluate any culture we need to look at how well connected the outward expression is to the inner life and the relational sphere (with an emphasis on justice). A good example of this integration would be Jesus People's (the original Christian hipsters) hosting of Cornerstone Festival. It has always been a wonderful blend of music, art, and social issues.

To me your book idea has value as a historical document, like the "History of Hip". Too often genuine expressions of Christian thought and creativity are lost to the past.

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Thanks Paul. I heartily agree that we must look beyond the outward expression and evaluate a culture on the basis of what they DO as well as how they dress, etc.
And the Jesus People are a good example indeed. They will play a prominent role in Ch. 4 of my book, which is on the history of Christian hip. I'm going to Chicago next week to interview a leading scholar on the Jesus People, Larry Eskridge, at Wheaton College. Should be interesting.

There's no word to describe such a great masterpiece. You made such an interesting piece to read, giving every subject an enlightenment for us to gain knowledge and information without any arguments to deal with. Thank you very much and more power!

I've enjoyed all this give and take . . . if you want a slightly different perspective, I wrote a blog related to this last year: http://www.conversantlife.com/church-sub.... I think you will find it an interesting counterpoint to some of the ideas in your book. The second half in particular has some important things to consider during our transition from kitschy evangelicalism to whatever it is we're gravitating to right now. Keep it going--your book will no doubt offer all of us some interesting things to consider.

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Brett, I hope your book emphasizes the skin deepness cool Christians can often have. Your magazine article gives me hope you will.

Great clothes, great attitude, great music is meaningless if we don't exalt Christ. I think you understand this.

I struggle with the label "Christian hipsters" the same way I struggle with the label "reformed Christian." Both communicate a self-conscious, narcissistic mindset.

And one thing you have to remember: Christian hipsters will one day become the established target for some upstart who doesn't want to be like his parents. Or grandparents.

Christian hipsters is a movement. Possibly a fad. It's a reaction.

Good luck on your book.

I like what your intention is here but I'm a bit confused about the way in which you are getting to your destination. I wholly agree to where you would want believers to reside, in a place where there is a heart change and a renewal of the mind, but the theme of you book loses me.
Are "hipsters" going to read this because it's about said "hipsters?" I strongly doubt it. So what it becomes is just another treatise for people to observe, comment upon and ultimately condemn. By using these words and critiquing (sometimes) natural associations that have arisen aren't we just reinforcing the lines that we draw? I think that much of the culture you are describing here is merely a copy of the genuine thought that people like Sufjan have unfortunately been thrust to the vanguard of. I appreciate you venturing down this rabbit hole relations between culture and the Church but I think it can be done without buzz words and cultural boxes.
I daresay generations before us have had their "cool Christians" (insert John Schlitt, Carman and "Two honks and a negro") and their "secular" music in church (U2) Really "cool" is in the eye of the beholder. There's Christians that thinks it's "cool" to rip phone books in half (to God's glory of course) others who think that the ultimate sense of cool is Jeremy Camp. Does following a certain fashion or a certain band put me, by default, into the "Christian hipster" fold? Do these lines help me... identify myself?
The walls in Christian culture do need to be addressed, but by putting us all into sub cultures aren't we perpetuating the problem rather than fixing it? Start a movement with new words and thoughts that push people's minds forward rather than critiquing that which has already been said. Write the book, your heart needs to be heard but I'm against positing it on the laurels of a buzzword and a catchy prose.

A couple of things come to mind as I return to this post and read the comments.

First thing, is it possible that we may be limiting our definition of Christian culture to white, middle to upper class evangelical Christianity? If so, how does that view limit the conversation?

Second, what strikes me most about the evangelical (and by extension the post-evangelical/postmodernal evangelical church) is the extent to which they use/focus on marketing and demographics to drive their activities. What appears to be a shift in approach between the postmodern churches and ministries tracks directly with the shift in business marketing tactics in the mainstream (direct mail, etc. in the 1990s/Twitter and Blogs in 2009). As an professor of marketing and a Christian that did not grow up in the Church, I see very little difference between older evangelicals and younger evangelicals (sorry hipsters). Both groups are taking the temperature of the culture and marketing the Christian product to their chosen demographic based upon the 4 Ps of marketing--Product, Promotion, Place and Price. People 40+ define the product, handle promotion, define the space and examine the price one has to pay to get/stay in the door one way. And the "next generation" aka hipsters have redefined the product, promote it differently, jazzed up the place and have redefined the price one has to pay to show up and stay. Innovative marketing tactics, maybe. But it is still the same strategic/sales oriented approach used by previous generations.

is that necessarily a bad thing though? A lot of people got saved through making the church more relevant through business models 20 years ago. It's when it that becomes a bigger focus then the essential principles of the gospel that causes unrest..both 20 years ago and now.

Hi CJ: I don't know if it is bad or good, since I cannot examine hearts and motivations and I do not know what the Spirit is prompting others to do. I'm just pointing out that rebelling generally involves doing a different thing--not the same thing in a different way. It is my understanding that commercialization of the faith is one of the chief criticisms of the nextgen Christians. And yet they are doing the same thing--just with new methods and products (i.e. concerts and cool tee shirts instead of bracelets and bumperstickers).

I daresay generations before us have had their "cool Christians" (insert John Schlitt, Carman and Skin Pigmentation "Two honks and a negro") and their "secular" music in church (U2) Really "cool" is in the eye of the beholder. There's Christians that thinks it's "cool" to rip phone books in half (intertrigo to God's glory of course) others who think that the ultimate sense of cool is Jeremy Camp. Does following a certain fashion or a certain band put me, by default, into the itchy skin bumps "Christian hipster" fold? Do these lines help me... identify myself?

Hey CJ: Check out the cover story of Christianity today on Branding/Marketing Jesus...as if on cue....

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/january/10.20.html?start=3

Hi, Brett. I was linked to this site thru Twitter, and I find your subject and thoughts fascinating.
Yesterday, my husband and I were talking about the folks we grew up with. After high school, all our Christian friends wanted to be missionaries and they went to mini seminaries and they bought Christian t-shirts and Newsboys CDs.
Then something happened, and we can't really put our finger on when or how. Along the way, they all became disenchanted with those ideas. They traded those t-shirts for arty glasses and important causes that had very little to do with evangelism. It's certainly not a bad thing to care about the One campaign, but it is interesting that the plan to save the AIDs victims/children/planet/hungry is so disconnected from their old plans to spread Salvation.
But let me be clear: The foundation is still there; they still long to worship and to know. Many still go to or teach Bible studies. And yes, Sujfan is everywhere. But none of it is merely for show. Something else is guiding where that youth group ideology once reigned. It's the search to connect to the world, with all its diseases and hurts and pitfalls, outside the confines of the church walls. It's a me-generation struggling out of a us-vs.-them tradition.

PSA: For all you guys who stumbled upon this blog through twitter, know that this is part of a BIGGER conversation we're having on our main page, www.ConversantLife.com. We've got over 40 cultural commentators blogging on all aspects of life. Please take a moment to check it out. Tweet it if you like what we're doing. Thanks!

I totally agree with this point of yours "The problem with the Christian hipster phenomenon is not as superficial as the clothes we wear, the music we download or the artistic movies we see, nor is it that we exist largely as a reaction against something else."...nubrilliance

I loved your post and I wanna say it's not boring at all.

I'm not here to preach but I happened apon this article, and as a fringe member of the 'hipster' culture I thought I could bring some food for thought. Specifically through an article published last fall by a magazine in Vancouver, Canada. Here is a link http://www.adbusters.org/magazine/79/hipster.html
Its very much worth a read, but I can sum the major points. Hipters are inherently nihilistic, as they are the result of a generation of middle-class children who have never known anything but material satisfaction. Hipster is not a synonym for cool, every hipster dreads the thought of being called a hipster though he or she is quick to call everyone else at the party a hipster. And, hipster counterculture is devoid of motivation, as the title of the article, 'the dead end of western civilization' suggests. Hipsters are carrying out the standard generational rebelliousness without any meaningful ethos.

So the label 'hipster', once you enter the nonculture, really has little to do with the clothes they wear or the music they listen to or the cameras they stand in front of. Those things are simply indicative of nihilistic, nepotistic consumers who are looking for ways to spend their parents money in ways that their parent's would abhor (flashy styles and party drugs) Anyway, Brett, I thought the article would probably help serve your research for your book.

Thanks Mark. I did read that article last fall in Adbusters and have already quoted it a few times in my book. I think it made some really good points. And you're right: "every hipster dreads the thought of being called a hipster though he or she is quick to call everyone else at the party a hipster."

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Haha...Oh man you guys.Christianity will Always be reactionary has been since the discovery that we dont live on a flat plane with heaven above and demons below.Ive met you hipster christians well mannered kidos wearing your Arcade Fire t-shirts,talking about Iron and Wine,drink one michilobe ultra and patting your self on the back for voting for a Democrat even though your parents would "totally freak man" if they knew.You who thinks its not cool to argue religion "man".Like I'm so crude or insenitve to ask ,with a smirk of course, "you really belive in miracles?" or "you really belive in the virgin birth?"Don't you know that is ill mannered.But its only impolite because its embarrassing! Its embarrassing because your answer is yes.
Really,what we really are talking about here is the square kids want to be cool too.The squares want to know why the devils music is sooo much better than gods.Look, the answer is, when you try to do the (insert whatever) version of anything and stop being honest it will always suck.ALWAYS.The first rule (need there be any)for any artist must be to be honest with how you feel right now and damn the consequences;religion is all about fighting that.Rock n roll is all about that tantrum and the kids who throw the best tantrum are the ones who dont say sorry to Jesus afterward.You cant please your grandma and be cool at the same time.
Besides when I met you squares all I can think is your just building your testimony story for your youth group."Yea man I've been their brother.I hung out with punk rockers and dope smokers and people who just hated Jesus and I saw in thier eyes the emptiness of their lives,right there on thier faces.I was there I saw bands like The Flaming Lips and The GO! Team and wore thrift store sweaters.Let me tell ya friends the devils alive and he wants your soul,he wants your heart,he wants your home made purse."Don't steal this.I might need this when my band doesn't cut it in clubs and I have to start playing churches.Judas can't have no day job forever.

I also think it needs to be approached from an insider perspective, from someone whose motive is not to expose some interesting subculture but to provoke needed self-reflection for the purpose of sharpening and building up the church. To my mind, the relationship of the church to the notion of "cool" (and I mean the existential, philosophical meaning of cool... above and beyond superficial image and trendy stylings) is one of the most important questions of the 21st century. Green Products

Thank you for the excellent article here. I was looking for something like this for a long time and finally found it here.
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"True relevance is seeking the true faith that transcends all boxes and labels. "

I agree. We can't repackage or rebrand Christianity by how we pose. We change how Christianity is viewed by cultivating a deeper faith and not by accepting a shallow version of the wells of living water that should be springing up in our life.

I would suggest checking out Dick Staub's book The Culturally Savvy Christian: A Manifesto for Deepening Faith and Enriching Popular Culture in an Age of Christianity-Lite. I just finished this book and it struck me in a powerful way.

I just started Andy Crouch's book Culture Making, but I'm not far enough into it to tie it into this post.

I happened by here from a link from Largehearted Boy blog, but I'll have to check deeper into the conversation here. Thanks for sharing.

You've done more research than I have, but are the majority of these hipsters really trading a reactionary, surface lifestyle for deep, life-transforming theology. I know my friends, who are unsatisfied with the subculture, enjoy sufjan, and indie films are also incredibly deep people who care deeply about theology and are actively working it out in their day to day lives. Now, granted, my friends include you =) Wellness Lisa

God bless you. You are so right. Your words are so enlightening. Thank you so much!

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Look forward to that book spinnehjul

No no no! Largehearted boy? Really,you know they got their name from a Guided By Voices song.What you see happening is the youth of the "church" moving away from fairy tales and interacting with the real secular world.The world is getting smaller and smaller.A shift will be made.A revolution will happen.Not with the tongue, not with fashion,but with our minds.And we will shake this land.All your 700 clubs and all your Falwells, all your Gram's and Olsteen's will not stop evolution.A god that can be killed must be killed.Lets take it one step farther.

Judashippreist,

Thanks for giving your point of view here. That's awesome. You seem to resent the church and Christianity in your comments. I agree, there are A LOT of reasons to resent these things. Where does the resentment stem from for you?

i have to agree with the statement above that the term 'hipster' is used incorrectly throughout the post.

My resentment,CJ, comes from the last 2 decades of conservitive mania and reason. I don't resent christianity but all faith for I know it impedes progress.Times are all to important to fight uphill with the writings from the bronze age any longer.This very web sight is sickening with its news on gay-rights and christian beat downs in forein lands where your message was not asked for nor welcomed.Like many things evangelical it only comes to hurt you in time.For time is the worst agent against god.

Dear Mr. Halford,

You seem to be interested in progress. What do you deem 'progress'?

Nick

Great question. Interesting blog.

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thank you!

Times are all to important to fight uphill with the writings from the bronze age any longer.

Christian hipsters. That is a clever term. Funny how there has not already been a term for this group yet. best debt consolidation loans. Cheers.

I do not think the problem is faith i thik it is each faith thinking they are right and everyone else is wrong. All religions say le god judge not you but all regilions try to convert the others. cd rates web hosting domain name

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I totally agree with you. And not only the religions, and even scientists, everybody things he is right. But nobody have ever told any real truth.
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About
Brett currently works full-time for Biola University as managing editor for Biola magazine. He also writes movie reviews for Christianity Today and contributes frequently to Relevant magazine.


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