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Cooler Than Thou: Will Hipsters Ruin Christianity?

Where's the proper balance between hip and devout? Between the "natural" and the "marketed?"

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Jay Bakker’s Christian Star Power

Jay Bakker, pastor of Revolution Church and son of famed televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye, is undoubtedly an icon of Christian hipsterdom. It’s not only that he sports full-sleeve tattoos and multiple piercings, that Revolution holds its weekly church services at a local bar, or that he’s been labeled a punk preacher. Bakker also, as McCracken puts it, “epitomizes the strain of Christian hipsterdom that is primarily a reaction against the excess and corrupt nonsense of the evangelical world he grew up in.” He believes that the legalism associated with such conservative Christianity has caused a moral decay within the church. As a response, Revolution’s motto is “Religion Kills,” and the church has offered a telling apology on stickers and in online advertisements: “As Christians, we are sorry for being self-righteous judgmental bastards. Revolution NYC: A church for people who have given up on church.” To Bakker, religion is dangerous because of its rules and regulations and lack of emphasis on personal belief. “It’s like going to work,” he told me several years ago. “We need to agree to disagree because right now there’s a war within the church and innocent bystanders are falling victim. Grace provides freedom from that.”

By making these bold statements, Revolution markets its brand of Christianity to a distinctly reactionary crowd; some looking for a new form of the religion they grew up with, others who simply like the idea of a religion without the work. And although McCracken warns against rebellion—or, more accurately, the rebellious nature of hipsters, leading to individualism and creating a sense of alienation within the church—it works for Bakker and Revolution. Coupled with a laissez-faire attitude toward evangelizing, this is the new, soft-sell way of doing Christianity. “We take the secular avenue instead of the Christian one,” Bakker says, explaining that his method is to form real relationships, be normal, become part of the community, inspire people to make change happen. The days of fire and brimstone are a thing of the past to such groups because, as the director of a Manhattan-based artist ministry says, “that just wouldn’t fly in a post-Christian city like New York.”

At Pete’s Candy Store, the bar where Revolution holds its Sunday evening services, Bakker tries to build not just a solid community—through a deep commitment to fighting social injustices, for example—but an egalitarian one as well. He doesn’t want to command all of the attention, and he doesn’t want to be the hand-shaking, holier-than-thou pastor seen at many evangelical churches. It’s another method of the “don’t want to push Jesus and church down your throat” evangelizing that characterizes both Revolution and other hip, urban churches. By deemphasizing leadership roles, and in spite of his Christian celebrity status, Bakker creates the relaxed, friendship-based community he, and his church’s members, desire.

Bakker constantly reminds people in his sermons that his life and experience, his relationship with Jesus is no better than theirs. It is unclear whether Revolution will ever be the tight-knit, everyone-is-equal church community he envisions. Because even though people may be attracted to the message of grace, church in a bar, or to social justice, many ultimately go to see the rebellious son of Jim and Tammy Faye. It is his Christian star-power and his family history that will keep Jay Bakker in the spotlight, preventing him from being a normal hip and young preacher, a job he says any one of Revolution’s members can perform. “Your stories are just as special as mine,” he told an attentive audience soon after the release of Sundance Channel’s six-part documentary series in which he was prominently featured. “Any one of you could be up here doing this.”