The Rise and Fall of the Hipster Church




Published Date: 09 Sep 2013

At that time Frodo was still in his tweens, as the hobbits called the irresponsible twenties between childhood and coming of age at thirty-three”. J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings, Part One, The Fellowship of the Ring (1953).

Until midway through the 20th century you were either a child or an adult. Then, in 1944 LIFE Magazine announced the existence of the ‘teen-age phenomenon’. This new life-stage was the product of significant social shifts, including longer education, delayed marriage and greater mobility. More recently we have seen the advent of ‘tween-agers’, a mainly female phenomenon describing 10-12 year olds who are ‘too old for toys, too young for boys’.

However, the phrase ‘tweens’ was coined by J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1950s and originally applied, not to those sitting between childhood and adolescence, but between adolescence and adulthood. He described Frodo as being at the life-stage ‘called the irresponsible twenties between childhood and coming of age at thirty-three.’ This tongue-in-cheek comment was probably aimed at a small section of upper-class British society, and yet it was prophetic. Similar social shifts to those which produced teenagers have combined in the last decade to produce a distinctive life-stage exactly as described by Tolkien.

This group, commonly described as ‘hipsters’, is characterised by a rejection of mainstream values and a strong personal identity which is reflected in their vintage clothing, indie music and edgy hairstyles. Rather than consume mass produced items they are more likely to go for micro-brewed beer and single-origin coffee which represent authenticity and close the gap between producer and consumer. Along with progressive politics is a concern for social justice and a desire for activism. Hipsters are highly self-conscious and maintain a strong sense of the aesthetic. Fashion is enormously important as are other means of self-expression. Above all, they must hang out with the right people and be seen in the right places.

It is a wonderful thing that for many hipsters one of those places they can be seen is in church. But not in your average suburban church. No way. With the rise of the hipster has come the rise of the hipster church which has become so distinctive and pervasive that it is a phenomenon. We once had youth services, now we have hipster churches.

The hipster church will, of course, embody hipster values, in particular the desire not to be mainstream. Their spirituality is less concerned with personal piety and more interested in social justice and the environment. Services, which can be held in any venue except a church, may be characterised as intellectually robust with solid sermons, acoustic hymns that give off an aura of ‘authenticity’, and stunning multimedia. Other elements will give the church a non-conformist edge, such as the church in Sydney that meets in a different to location every week. But two things are especially important in a hipster church – a hipster pastor and a hipster crowd.

The hipster pastor cannot be older than the congregation.  Skinny leg jeans, a love for cigars, micro-brews and a fixed-gear bike are optional, but being older than the congregation is not. One reason for the hipster pastor’s relative youth is that he (and 99 times out of 100 it is a ‘he’) may not have completed a theological degree and is unlikely to have undertaken any form of apprenticeship.

As for the congregation, the hipster likes to be part of a groovy crowd. The values of hipster churches are so distinctive that anyone who is not hipster is unlikely to be attracted and will immediately feel out of place because of the crowd, the pop-culture references and the tech-savvy environment. This makes for highly homogenous churches.

As I said above, I am delighted that people in their 20s are following Jesus and have found churches that promote a lively faith. This is a stage of life when many who professed faith through their teens have been swept away by the plethora of alternatives, and the existence of such communities provides a much needed plausibility structure. In most cases these churches promote a commitment to biblical authority and Christian orthodoxy that would otherwise be increasingly rare.

Nevertheless, I am concerned that some of these churches may have already sown the seeds of their own destruction.

Seed 1: Consumerism.
The first seed derives from the strong appeal to the highly refined tastes of a group of consummate consumers. Instead of challenging these consumer instincts these churches appeal to them. Make no mistake; this is a demanding group not known for loyalty. The vast majority of members were in another church previously and a proportion moved because they were disaffected. Hipster churches have set high expectations that will demand constant creativity. Staying on the cutting edge is time-consuming, difficult and ultimately exhausting.

Seed 2: Charisma & Ego. The second seed relates to the strong relationship between the emotional well-being of a pastor and the success of his church. These churches are often personality-driven enterprises with their success largely a function of the pastor. When things are good this has the effect of stroking his ego. And often they go well for the first few years. But when things get tough the pastor carries a particularly heavy personal burden. The demand to become financially self-sufficient only adds to this. Combine this with my previous point and there is great potential for depression and burnout (which are sometimes accompanied by moral failure and marriage breakup).

Seed 3: Homogeneity. Theological objections aside, there are some important pragmatic issues with homogenous churches. Homogenous churches tend to enjoy rapid initial growth, but in the long term they fragment and stagnate. This effect will be exacerbated in highly homogenous churches. As people enter their 30s differences related to marriage, children and career will emerge which produce different sets of constraints and values.

There seems to be a strong drive among hipster church planters to be the hippest pastor of the hippest church full of the hippest people. Yet within each of these aspirations is a seed that will assure the future destruction of the pastor and the church. Paul’s warning could never be more apt: “each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid.” (1 Cor 3:10-11) It seems to me that being hip is not the right foundation.

 Tim Foster

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