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
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
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.