Christianity Shouldn't Be Cool
By cole nesmith
October 19, 2011
I remember my first Critical Mass Bike Ride. I had been invited by an acquaintance, and I showed up on my old mountain bike with a rusty chain. It was an intimidating environment—about a dozen crust punk and deliberately nerdy kids riding these road bikes with no brakes. I had no idea what this culture was all about. After several months of going to Critical Mass and getting on some friends’ fixed gear bikes, I built my own—largely unaware of the cultural phenomenon that was beginning to brew across the world.
“Cool” is such a interesting idea—an idea that is always changing.
Oscar Wilde said it well with this statement about fashion: "Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."
But even when “cool” is exposed as unstable as it is—whether by the quantitative data of science or the rhetoric of literature—we are still bound by its lure.
In August of 2010, Brett McCracken released his book Hipster Christianity. It’s an insightful and academic work that traces the history of “cool” and how it has intersected with the Church. As a pastor of one of the churches unwillingly mentioned in his work, it got me thinking about the implications of his research.
There are two iterations of the idea of cool. In bike culture, there are people who genuinely enjoy riding fixed gear bikes; then there is a second group who enjoy the idea of and association with fixed gear culture. The same is true for the Church. There are communities who pursue being simply and honestly themselves—and churches who try with all they are to be “cool.”
While “cool” will always go out of style, being authentically yourself is what both God and the world are looking for.
In John 4, Jesus is talking to the woman at the well. In this, Jesus is breaking all kinds of social norms as to what is acceptable for someone of His nationality, gender and social status. He is taking a risk in how others will perceive His “coolness.” And in the conversation, Jesus says something poignant about the idea of cool.
“That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship” (MSG).
Jesus' words, social science, literature and thousands of years of recorded human history lead us to one conclusion about “cool”: It can never be the foundation of anything lasting.While the temporary nature of “cool” is good for some quick cash, it’s rubbish for building anything sustainable.
When local church communities build upon what’s “cool,” we perpetuate the plague of transience in our society. We encourage people to constantly view things through the eyes of the consumer and make decisions based on cultural trends. As long as we pursue trends for the sake of trends, we will reinforce the developed tendency of Westerners to be in a constant state of detachment from the people around them in their pursuit of the ever-changing palate of consumable goods, thoughts and attitudes.
In the end, church-hopping hasn’t been the only detrimental effect of “cool” on the Church. Many of the two dozen people who were at Critical Mass when I first arrived had a statement somewhere on their bike, bag or body: “One Less Car.” But when the ride went from 24 to 400, most of them stopped showing up, and after the bubble, many gave up on riding their bikes.
Just like Fixed Gear culture, the Church has been unable to effect lasting change in the culture at large. There are movements that see a temporary increase in number— mostly by attracting Christians from the church down the street by offering the latest version of what’s cool—but it’s simply a lateral shift in organizational attendance.
I will admit that some of my own personal decisions have been in reaction to cultural influences. But over the last several years, I have learned something important. If I and my community are going to grow in wisdom and maturity, it will not come from hopping from one church to another based on style and preference. It will come only from growing alongside the people I call my church family.
And let’s remember here that the Church is meant to stand forever.
When many people think about considering whether or not they will be part of a community, they use words like “cool” or “fun” or “like” or “agree” or “challenge” or some other word that reflects a consumer mentality. There’s nothing wrong with liking things. We’re meant to like life. But there’s no doubt that the things we think are “cool” will one day be “uncool,” or there will be days when we don’t “like” something or when we won’t “agree” with the people around us. But these affinity terms are the primary factors one considers when determining his or her commitment level to one another. There has to be something deeper—something that reflects the depth of what it truly means to be connected. And when we move away from the futility of cool, we begin making our decisions based on a question much more sacrificial :
Am I willing to stay committed to this when I do not like it?
That’s the question we have to begin asking ourselves if the Church is going to be what it is intended to be: a collection of people encouraging, challenging and equipping one another to recognize and continually live in God’s presence.
The Church has the one thing that can truly allow people to be themselves before God in their worship and in life: Jesus. And when we move from our obsession with contextualization and cultural relevance, we will be able to step into that authentic life: A group of people who are so freed from the pretense of “cool” that they can be more open about their weaknesses than ever and simultaneously be completely free from shame and guilt.
Let’s lay down the insecurity of cool and embrace a much more lasting commitment: unconditional love.