Reflecting on Brett McCracken’s “Uncool” WSJ Online Article

Over the weekend, I read Brett McCracken’s article, “The Perils of ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity” in the online Wall Street Journal opinion page and had a few thoughts. First, it was a well-written and informed article. I nodded my ahead in agreement several times. I read Brett regularly in Relevant, he has an insightful blog (and brilliant quotes on the right sidebar), and I follow him on Twitter. He seems to have a sincere heart, a good head on his shoulders (he’s a Wheaton grad), and as a brother in the Lord, all in all I respect him and what’s he’s doing.

Sharing a similar suspicion and criticism of the evangelical consumer church mentality, I also see a great deal of catering, treating worshippers as customers, a fair amount of shallowness and the list goes on. Having been in pastoral ministry for the last ten years, I am among the countless who have seen the underbelly of the church and I can testify that sometimes, the “Church” is the one of the ugliest places to be. Bottom-line is that we all have enough reasons to have given up the faith at some point.

I’m all for self-awareness, constructive criticism, and engaging in conversations that will serve the Kingdom. I’m also fine with creating a buzz for your book (really, I hope Hipster Christianity sells countless copies particularly to the “70%” who are leaving our churches). But a few things bothered me. One is Brett’s starting point.  As one who has presumably spent his entire life in the Church, I imagine he’s grown extremely tired of Hawaiian shirts, Madonna mics, and various other artifacts from the Christian sub-culture. We all have, including Rick Warren (he even stopped wearing them). Still, I wished Brett would have identified a little more of his context, aside from, “as a 27-year old evangelical myself …”

Second is his finishing point – “He wants real”. We all do but what is real? Who judges that? Is it the same people who determine what is cool and hip? These are all pretty relative terms. How else can Brad Pitt and Michael Cera both being considered cool? Someone could probably write a very similar piece and cut through all the evangelical headlines of the past couple years and criticize “real” Christianity. Then in the end write, “As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want real as much as we want some thing loving, life-giving, humble, transforming, insert your preference _______.”

Further, it bothered me that he came across as dismissive to some of the better ministries, pastors, writers and practitioners on such a public forum. Now here’s where I risk being hypocritical, because I enjoy making fun of Christian t-shirts, televangelists, and lame attempts of imitating the culture. (I kick myself every morning for not thinking of or being talented enough or disciplined enough, and not creating Stuff Christians Like. It’s a great blog and Prodigal John is perfect for it.) But yeah, there are a number of wanna-be’s out there BUT there’s a lot of people out there who are simply speaking out of the context and calling that God has placed on their lives. Again, I just found it to be too dismissive.

There is an entire other avenue we could pursue when it comes to “church marketing” in general. I won’t spend too much time here except to remind everyone that everything is marketed. Among the questions are to whom, to what extent, to what cost, the motives, mediums, devices, objectives and subtleties, but everything is “marketed” to some extent.

Of course I didn’t not my head in agreement with this line, “…something called “the emerging church”—a sort of postmodern stab at an evangelical reform movement. Perhaps because it was too “let’s rethink everything” radical, it fizzled quickly …” Sorry brother, among other things, I believe the Lord used the emerging church discussion to save my faith and ministry. And it hasn’t fizzled, it’s evolving as conversations do.

If the twenty-somethings (and supposedly 70%) are leaving, than why are we criticizing churches who are on the cutting edge of technology? And is there an irony that this piece was published online and shared via Facebook, Twitter and the almost old-school way, email? Are churches like Liquid Church (whom I truly respect) online because that’s where part of the 70% are? The idea of online church does not appeal to me in my current context, but if there was a reason I could not attend a physical church and not experience the joy of community (whether be overseas serving say, in the military or in a “closed” country), the online church would be a beautiful use of technology. Further, some people are so repulsed by walking in through the doors of a traditional looking church that there only way of connecting is a pub or coffee-shop church. Regardless of the abuses, there are healthy, doctrinally-sound, disciple-making, community-serving, all welcoming churches that have a “hip” pastor and great music – it’s just who they are. To imitate it for your own success may be wrong, but to be who you are isn’t.

If the twenty-somethings (and so do we thirty-somethings) want something real, than why are we complaining about Rob Bell writing a book on sex? And how dare we complain about Lauren Winner writing from the female perspective. Is this not a real topic in our lives? Granted, this is an area where the Church has made some questionable/terrible decisions (and will continue) but I also see it as an area where the Church is criticized for talking about sex and criticized for not talking about it. Let the Church talk wisely, openly and truthfully about sex.

And don’t get me started on 70%. McKracken was careful to phrase it a particular way but the Lifeway study’s had a particular context and its primary point was 70 percent of young adults ages 23-30 stopped attending church regularly for at least a year between ages 18-22. (That’s still not good but not as bad as assuming that 70% drop off completely as implied. Statistics and studies are helpful but they easily manipulated just like creating caricatures of “cool”, “hip”, “indie”, and attaching the adjective “wann-be” to them. Throwing statements around like, “They drink Guinness, wear Toms Shoes and sport cool eye glasses.” Yeah, they probably all sleep a little at night, eat a few times a day and breathe in oxygen too – how cliche.

As a brother in the Lord, Brett has be careful that he does not fall into his own trap that he has set and become the judge of “cool” and all things “hipster”, (which I don’t think he is intentionally trying to do). Between expressing his appreciation for hymns (I know everyone is tired of being reminded but many of the hymns we cherish are old bar tunes) and quoting David Wells (whom I respect), and criticizing churches that meet in third places, he quite frankly sounds like a guy who is hard to impress.

To his credit, he’s doing something. He’s writing, researching, and stirring conversation worth having. And like I said, I too, am among the many who are frustrated with certain elements of the evangelical tradition, the bait-and-switch tactics, the apathy, the self-indulgence, the entitled attitudes , etc, so please know, I am not defending all things evangelical but let’s just not be dismissive of the noble efforts of some who are being faithfully led by the Spirit.. And when given the opportunity to write for the Wall Street Journal online opinion page as an evangelical, perhaps considering not offering a cynical world another reason not to believe in Christianity but instead something that might offer the hope of Jesus to a world that is hurting and in need of redemption. That would be counter-cultural, maybe even creative, or relevant, and dare I say, that, may be considered cool.

For more, check out, Thomas Turner’s review of Hipster Christianity and his interview with Brett on Everyday Liturgy.  I think the interview is more true to what he’s really trying to say.

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