Cooler Than Thou: Will Hipsters Ruin Christianity?
It was pouring rain, cold rain, on an early March morning, as I headed to Brooklyn Label, a café near my apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I was meeting Vito Aiuto, pastor of Resurrection Presbyterian Church in Williamsburg, a plant of Redeemer Presbyterian, one of the largest and most influential evangelical churches in New York City.
I arrived drenched and he arrived late, wearing a utility shirt, jeans, and a maroon wool hat he never removed. We sat at the counter, sipping bottomless coffee from oversized mugs, and talked about our neighborhood and how to build community, his experience starting and leading a church, music, education, and his recently adopted son. Aiuto told me that he tries to keep things simple at Resurrection; he lets the congregation decide the church’s programs and activities. He also admitted that ministering in the hipster neighborhood of Williamsburg is both a blessing and a curse, that although Resurrection mainly attracts young and educated artist types, he has an explicit goal of ensuring it is not a “hip” church. There are no gimmicks to draw that crowd in.
According to Brett McCracken, however, Resurrection Presbyterian is the quintessence of hip, one of seven examples of Christian hipster churches he profiles in Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. He defines a hipster church as disproportionately packed with hipsters—“tattoos, scruffy beards, and skinny jeans galore” in Resurrection’s case—media savvy, fashionable, artistic, culturally aware, socially concerned. Resurrection meets all these criteria, except perhaps for its minimal reliance on technology both during and outside of services. And while Aiuto didn’t make the list of iconic hipster Christian figureheads, McCracken lauds him as a “full-blooded Christian hipster who is a reverend but also an indie musician.”
Aiuto’s indifference toward his own hipness (a trait McCracken repeatedly highlights, mentioning the pastor’s band and close relationship with Christian hipster darling Sufjan Stevens) along with his resistance to prioritizing a hip congregation, are precisely what, by McCracken’s estimation, make Aiuto and his church “hip.” For a central part of being hip is not trying to be, or at least not caring whether you are or not. And you certainly can’t be hip if you label yourself as such. “Pastors who think they’ll win over the cool kids by forming the church in the cool kids’ pop-culture image,” he writes, “are liable to find themselves even less relevant than when they started.”
For McCracken, there are two types of hip churches, two types of hipster Christians: the natural and the marketed, the authentic and the wannabe. Both Resurrection and its leader fall squarely into the former categories. And after presenting a brief history of the evolution of cool and proffering definitions of key terms—the hipster, for example, is defined in a remarkably vague way as “fashionable, young, independent-minded contrarian”—McCracken explores both sides, glorifying the likes of Aiuto and Resurrection and criticizing the wannabes, somewhat playfully, for trying too hard, for “bending over backward to meet the culture where it’s at,” for being too high-tech, too shocking, too “rebellious.” But in part three of Hipster Christianity, McCracken, a self-described “hipster Christian,” adopts a different tone altogether, a tone decidedly more Christian than hipster, lashing out at culture, at “the outside,” at cool itself, for thrusting Christianity into “an identity crisis unrivaled in the history of the faith.” Christianity and cool are at odds, he argues, irreconcilable forces that, when engaged with each other, breed narcissism, incite recklessness, and encourage deviation from faith.
Conservative Christian concern over the appropriate degree of engagement with the secular world is certainly nothing new. But in his effort to urge Christians to “think deeply about their identity and place in contemporary culture” in the final part of his book, McCracken underestimates the significant role hip churches play in the modern, urban evangelical landscape. Within the course of 100 pages, McCracken shifts from normalizing the trend (“They might be hipster churches, but they are also just churches like any other—trying to preach God’s Word and spread his gospel throughout their community”), to denouncing it through a series of sweeping generalizations (“The necessarily individualistic, egocentric nature of hip makes it a poor companion for a faith that calls us into community and collective purpose”; “It’s hard to deny yourself or take up any cross daily when you’re chained to the shackles of hip”; “Hipsters care only about freedom, partying, and transgression”). While McCracken does leave a small window of potential for a “positive, proactive” Christian version of hip, he ultimately views all that is “cool” as a threat to Christianity and misunderstands the movement’s desire for relevance as vain, self-absorbed, and insincere. A closer look at one community in the “hipster Mecca” of Williamsburg, Brooklyn reveals the complexity of the relationship between church and cool, individual and community, faith and rebellion, authenticity and imitation, truth and relevance.
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.”
But everyone in the place, including, it seemed, Bakker himself, knew that couldn’t be further from the truth. According to Brett McCracken, Bakker is one of the few pastors who strike the right balance between cool and Christianity. In a sea of wannabes, he’s the real thing.