Recently, the Wall Street Journal published an article by Brett McCracken on “The Perils of Wannabe Cool Christianity“. McCracken bemoans churches that try to be hip in order to attract more young people back into church. He sees churches that attempt to be cool by various means, e.g. quoting Lady Gaga or Stephen Colbert, holding services in a bar, or using sex-themed marketing gimmicks, are missing the point. McCracken concludes: “If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that “cool Christianity” is a sustainable path forward, they are severely 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. If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular. It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It’s because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched—and we want an alternative. It’s not because we want more of the same.”
Around the same time I was reading McCracken’s article, I was also reading my denominational magazine’s (The Banner) latest issue. In the article, “Hearing God in Unlikely Places“, Rev. John Van Sloten who recently wrote a book titled The Day Metallica Came to Church: Searching for the Everywhere God in Everything regularly preaches sermons that refer to popular culture like rock music, movies, sports, etc. Van Sloten did this not to try and entice young believers to attend church. Van Sloten’s stated motivation is the 16th century Reformer John Calvin’s words: “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Westminster, pp. 273-274). Van Sloten writes, “By not claiming truth as God’s—‘wherever it shall appear’—we disrespect God, demean him. We make God into something less than God—a God made in our own image who is way too small. With this biblical and theological background, I found myself thinking, ‘Hey, I’m not just allowed to look for divine truth in this world, I’m obliged to!’” Van Sloten recalls the day when the rock band Metallica actually sent a crew to videotape the church service that opened up with four Metallica tunes and where he preached a sermon on anger and forgiveness illustrated by Metallica’s lyrics.
Van Sloten’s church services would certainly be regarded as cool or hip but according to McCracken, Van Sloten is missing the mark and this actually wouldn’t appeal to the younger generation. On the other hand, Van Sloten seems to be arguing that it is our Christian duty or obligation to listen to God’s truth or voice in such unlikely places as pop culture. To be cool or not to be cool? That is the question.
In my humble opinion, this is an issue firstly, of 3D Christian thinking and secondly, of authenticity. Van Sloten sees cultural engagement, even pop cultural engagement, finding God’s truth wherever it may be found, as a legitimate dimension (what I call the creational-cultural dimension) of Christian discipleship, of a Christian’s attempts at following Jesus. The churches that McCracken chastises in his article are rather exploiting pop culture, not engaging it, as a means to market the confessional dimension of church life. In the former, engaging pop culture is a spiritual end in itself: we can still hear God’s voice in these unlikely places. In the latter, pop culture is merely means to the end of packing in the church. (For more on 3D Christian Thinking, see posts under that category.)
This brings me to the issue of authenticity. If we use the metaphor of dialogue, Christians like Van Sloten are engaging in genuine authentic dialogue with the culture around them. This means listening carefully, affirming or agreeing with what they can affirm or agree, and disagreeing where they disagree. It means challenging and accepting. It means being willing to be open to change, to be changed by the culture’s voice. That is genuine dialogue.
Churches or Christians that merely exploit pop culture to be cool are not engaging in dialogue. They are doing monologues in the guise of dialogue. They are not really interested in hearing what culture has to say. They are not really accepting the culture and definitely not open to change by the culture. They are merely quoting excerpts from the culture – even out of context, if necessary – to make their own points and their own voices to be heard. Ultimately, culture is not an equal partner in this so-called dialogue. It’s really the Christian church speaking over and against, and speaking to, the culture and not really listening in return or responding to what culture has to say.
This leads me back to McCracken’s statement: “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.” To engage in genuine dialogue is to be real. And being cool might just be a by-product of that authentic engagement with culture as an equal partner. On the other hand, to try and be cool by exploiting pop culture without any genuine dialogue is to be phoney, and that is definitely not cool.