Friday, August 13, 2010

"Wannabe Cool" Christianity

As we move more deeply into a post-Christian era, with as many as 70% of young adults between the ages of 18-22 defecting from regular church attendance (according to a 2007 Lifeway Research study), it's not surprising to see churches deploying all kinds of tactics to try and be "relevant" and "cool" in order to attract younger persons into the fold.

Writing for The Wall Street Journal in an essay entitled "The Perils of 'Wannabe Cool' Christianity," Brett McCracken notes: "Increasingly, the 'plan' has taken the form of a total image overhaul, where efforts are made to rebrand Christianity as hip, countercultural, relevant." McCracken pinpoints the motive behind this "plan" as the desire "to rehabilitate Christianity's image and make it 'cool.'"

Here's some of what McCracken notes about this "wannabe cool" Christianity:

There are various ways that churches attempt to be cool. For some, it means trying to seem more culturally savvy. The pastor quotes Stephen Colbert or references Lady Gaga during his sermon, or a church sponsors a screening of the R-rated "No Country For Old Men." For others, the emphasis is on looking cool, perhaps by giving the pastor a metrosexual makeover, with skinny jeans and an $80 haircut, or by insisting on trendy eco-friendly paper and helvetica-only fonts on all printed materials. Then there is the option of holding a worship service in a bar or nightclub (as is the case for L.A.'s Mosaic church, whose downtown location meets at a nightspot called Club Mayan).

"Wannabe cool" Christianity also manifests itself as an obsession with being on the technological cutting edge. Churches like Central Christian in Las Vegas and Liquid Church in New Brunswick, N.J., for example, have online church services where people can have a worship experience at an "iCampus." Many other churches now encourage texting, Twitter and iPhone interaction with the pastor during their services.

But one of the most popular—and arguably most unseemly—methods of making Christianity hip is to make it shocking. What better way to appeal to younger generations than to push the envelope and go where no fundamentalist has gone before?

Sex is a popular shock tactic. Evangelical-authored books like "Sex God" (by Rob Bell) and "Real Sex" (by Lauren Winner) are par for the course these days. At the same time, many churches are finding creative ways to use sex-themed marketing gimmicks to lure people into church.

Oak Leaf Church in Cartersville, Georgia, created a website called to pique the interest of young seekers. Flamingo Road Church in Florida created an online, anonymous confessional (, and had a web series called, which featured a 24/7 webcam showing five weeks in the life of the pastor, Troy Gramling. Then there is Mark Driscoll at Seattle's Mars Hill Church—who delivers sermons with titles like "Biblical Oral Sex" and "Pleasuring Your Spouse," and is probably the first and only pastor I have ever heard say the word "vulva" during a sermon.

And to think that all this time, I thought that the U2charist was "cool."

Writing as a 27-year-old evangelical, McCracken continues:

But are these gimmicks really going to bring young people back to church? Is this what people really come to church for? Maybe sex sermons and indie- rock worship music do help in getting people in the door, and maybe even in winning new converts. But what sort of Christianity are they being converted to?

Good questions.

His response: "we don't want cool as much as we want real."

And: "we want an alternative" to a world that is "utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched."


Read all of "The Perils of 'Wannabe Cool' Christianity."


Anonymous said...

The problem is finding the balance in all this. A question to start with is are we doing this to bring people to Jesus or to bring people to church and I would argue they are not the same thing.
On the flip side of the coin I think a failure to look for ways to communicate the gospel in a language that the youth of today understand (and maybe we don't give the youth as much credit as we should) is the same as conducting the service in Latin, if would just leave the majority of the attendees out of the communal aspect that is 'church'.

Of course being older than 50 I think some of the methods used listed in the article are crap *smile*

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, George. I'm particularly drawn to this part of what you have to say: "are we doing this to bring people to Jesus or to bring people to church and I would argue they are not the same thing."

Quite right, they are most definitely not the same!

IMHO, in spite of the ongoing problem of hemorrhaging membership and money, the Episcopal Church does a decent job of converting people to the (Episcopal) Church. I see evidence of that in some of the youth events I've participated in.

On the other hand, we do a pretty lame job of converting people to Jesus. I see evidence of that in some of the youth events I've participated in. (And, to be fair, in many other areas of the church, as well.)

Steve Hayes said...

There seems to be a basic confusion in all this. There is a sense in which Christianity is counter cultural, but so much of what is described in the article seems to be ateempting to be ubercultural, which is not at all the same thing. And there is an important difference between "wannabe cool" and "real cool".

I blogged about this a few months ago, and you may find it interesting -- see Hipster Christianity | Khanya

Anonymous said...

If we take this further I wonder how many people attend 'a' church because of things like convenience and comfort and would continue to attend that same church if the denomination sign over the door changed but the service structure stayed the same?

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the link to your blog posting, Steve. I think you're right about "a basic confusion in all this." It is, indeed, more ubercultural than countercultural.

George - good question. My sense is that, for many of us in the USA, denominational loyalty is a thing of the past. If we like the service and there are things for our kids to be involved in, etc., it matters very little whether it's an Episcopal Church, or Presbyterian, Methodist, etc. With some possible exceptions, theology and polity are irrelevant, whereas consumer satisfaction is paramount.

Derek the Ænglican said...

In one of the best books available on the physical media of early Christian Scriptures (which is packed away or I've give a lot more detail...) Gamble argues that Christians were early adopters of the codex format as opposed to the scroll. Cutting-edge tech for Christians may not be something new... ;-)

None of which takes away from your central point--there have been shallow manifestations of Christianity since Christianity's been around.

Bryan Owen said...

Well said, Derek!

James Coder said...

One of the best little responses to "What do young people want in church" was penned by Dr. Leander Harding's 20's-something daughter, here. She basically says they don't want tortured relevance.

Attempts at "relevance" frequently produce results which would look nice in a press release or at a first glance for someone "tired of church," but which, for some reason or other, is a bit ridiculous.

I like the way a parish spot is a "sacred space," something set aside to God. But that also becomes a bit boring after a while. A professor of mine said when he was in the Belgian army, there was a phrase: "work is work, schnapps is schnapps" (schnapps being play). I think this works well in church communities. I used to take a lot of our tiny church community to a café after the service, where we'd drink beer and tell jokes that we really shouldn't tell in a sacred spot. Christians need to come together to earnestly worship God. But they also need to come together outside of that sacred space to have fun and get to know one another.

I believe we need this more than we need "outreach." If we do not know one another, we do not love one another enough. And it's in the context of people who are obedient to God in worshipping together, and loving one another, that God starts doing interesting things amongst us.