Jesus Was A Hipster? 7 Funniest Ways Christian Churches Are Trying to Get Hip With the Kids

Young people are fleeing conservative Christianity, and religious organizations and churches are trying to win them back, with hilarious results.

Christianity is having a youth recruitment problem. The much-analyzed Millennial generation is turning away from religion, especially Christianity, in record numbers. The Pew Forum has found that one in four Milleninials is unaffiliated with a religion, putting the numbers of their irreligious at a significantly higher rate than Generation X and at twice the rate of the Baby Boomers.

Christian churches find the fleeing of young people from their pews a troubling trend and routinely publish articles and books trying to figure out what it would take to entice them back. Some Christian elders have decent ideas, such as emphasizing service, abandoning homophobia and considering social justice issues. Other churches, however, are too wed to fundamentalism and conservatism to even consider that.

The result is that many Christian churches are coming up with tone deaf, out-of-touch, and downright comical outreach strategies to try to get young people in the door, and keep them once they’re there. Here’s a list of some of the worst strategies seen in recent years.

1) Talking about sex a lot. A whole lot. Mark Driscoll is a well-known nutty preacher in Seattle whose entire schtick is trying to dress up old-fashioned fundamentalist misogyny like it’s the cool new thing the kids are doing these days. His main strategy is talking about sex all the time. It’s incredibly important to Driscoll that you understand he’s a sex machine, and to generally imply that following Christ turns men into insatiable horndogs. He published a sex manual for Christians last year, one that portrays Christian marriage as something of a pornographic fantasy of women living in a state of permanent submission and sexual availability. Driscoll’s obsession with sex is extreme, but it’s part of a larger attempt of right-wing Christians to try to shake off their image as prudes by claiming that they’re all for hot, hot sex within the confines of monogamous marriage between two virgins. Understandably, this sales pitch doesn’t work very well, but it does mean that the public gets to be frequently creeped out by evangelical preachers talking about getting it on with their wives.

2) Sexy virgins. The Christian right knows that Millennials find it unsettling to have the church more interested in rifling through women’s panty drawers than, say, saving the planet for future generations. However, giving up the patrolling of female sexuality would be more unthinkable to the Christian right than giving up the Lord’s Prayer. The strategy? Put up a sexy, young woman to be the face of the movement to control and punish young women for being sexual. Enter Lila Rose, a mean-spirited protégé of James O’Keefe who tries to take the hardline anti-abortion/anti-contraception message to the masses by creating invariably falsified videos accusing Planned Parenthood of all sorts of made-up nonsense. The attempts to convince young people that the anti-choice movement isn’t an assault on young women by making a young woman a leader haven’t panned out, as 60% of younger voters support abortion rights, a rate slightly higher than the public at large.

3) Advertising Jesus as “the original hipster.”The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn has littered the city with bus stop ads that show a man in robes and dirty Chuck Taylors with the tagline, “The Original Hipster.” Apparently, no one let them in on the fact that 99% of uses of the word “hipster” are derogatory--something someone who is actually hip would know--making the ad roughly as hip in 2013 as a sign declaring Jesus to be a hep cat or a fly boy.  

4) Claiming Christianity is a good source of fashion and makeup tips. Young people can’t be bothered to read the Bible, so some Christian evangelists have come up with the idea of trying to trick them into it by disguising Bible verses as youth-oriented magazines. The most iconic of these is Revolve, a magazine that tries to convince teenage girls that it’s something akin to Seventeen, and then wallops them with the Jesus talk with features like “Are You Dating A Godly Guy?” The magazine got a lot of attention from the media when it came out, but there’s no indication that actual teen girls paid attention. The magazine only limped along for a few years and its Facebook fan page only has one like on it.

5) “Broing” up the Gospels. There’s widespread concerns among evangelicals that young men reject religion because it’s not manly enough and so they continuously try to highlight the abundance bros within their ranks. It’s always a losing battle, as evidenced by the rushing enthusiasm for the Christian band Creed that was followed by the amazing letdown that was Scott Stapp’s gross personal behavior. Now all the hopes are being pinned on Tim Tebow as a role model to prove to young men that being a Christian doesn’t mean being a drip, but sadly, Tebow’s irritating personality plus his below-expectations performance as a football player are quickly deflating his appeal.

6) Trying to appear accepting of gay people while not being very accepting of gay people. Millennials hate the anti-gay thing, and dislike of conservative Christianity homophobia factored heavily in Pew’s research into why young people turn away from religion. The response from conservative Christians is to try to have it both ways, to both disapprove strongly of gay people living their lives openly while also claiming to be accepting and tolerant of gay people. The results can be incredibly strange, such as the case of Josh Weed, a young Mormon who has decided to self-identify as an openly gay man who nonetheless is married to a woman and living the supposedly God-instructed life of heterosexual marriage. His pitch seems to be that you can have it both ways, both be an out gay man and not have to defy church prohibitions against living as a gay man. It got him on a reality TV show, but in terms of convincing people that they can reconcile a pro-gay stance and conservative Christianity, it leaves much to be desired. 

7) Coming up with the term “relevant.”Within Christian circles, attempts to be hip and attractive to young people are often described as “relevant,” and will advertise themselves as such. Christian writers Stephanie Drury and Joey Sanchez mocked the movement with this description: “Pastors vie to be as relevant as possible. Distressed jeans, brewery T-shirts, wireless headset mics and thin Bibles that they hold rolled up in their hand whilst preaching are a must.” The intention was to draw young people in by making church seem hip, but instead these efforts have simply turned into a cliché. Now a bad goatee and spiked hair with frosted tips signals “uptight fundamentalist church” just as surely as big hair and ill-fitting suits did in days of yore.

All these attempts by Christians, especially conservative Christians, to attract young’uns by aping what they imagine to be cool attitudes and hip fashions aren’t just failures, but only end up reminding their intended audiences how cool conservative Christianity isn’t. At the end of the day, the real reason that churches are bleeding members isn’t their lack of preachers in fashionable shoes and monitors blaring good-enough imitations of indie rock music. It’s because young people have turned away from the ideological values that conservative Christianity has worked so hard to embody: homophobia, hostility toward science, misogyny, sex-phobia, and support of regressive economic policies. Becoming more open-minded ideologically would do them a whole lot more good than becoming more fashionable, as no one has ever really joined a religion in order to improve their cool quotient.

But for conservative Christians, giving up right-wing ideology will never happen, meaning they’ll be watching their membership age and die off while they keep trying to come up with the “hip” new ad to bring in people who have no use for their belief systems, no matter how dressed up in faux-modernist drag they are. 

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte. 

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