No one ever wants to be identified as a hipster. Especially hipsters.
I came to peace with my unavoidable hipster-ness in June of 2011. It was already over 100 degrees in the nation’s seventh most hipster neighborhood, East Austin. I was listening to NPR when I decided to ride my bike to a coffee shop. But, before I could leave, I would have to cut my old pair of jeans into shorts.
Slicing through denim, I mumbled under my breath, “Chris, you are such a stupid hipster.”
Another time, as I was sitting in a coffee shop drinking a Milk Stout (on nitro) at five in the afternoon rapidly underlining every word of a Stanley Hauerwas tome, it occurred to me, “Chris, you’re such Christian hipster.”
Before hipster-ness was totally co-opted (yes, I know how hipster that clause sounds), it seemed to revolve around a simple and meaningful criticism: We lose something fundamentally human when we give up the ability to make our own goods or form our own opinions. The twin tragedies of bland suburbia and relentless consumerism tell us that we have everything we need, except for an identity.
These criticisms can easily be applied to the American church. There is the bland, suburban megachurch and the relentless stream of “Christian” media to be consumed. Then there’s the criticisms that strike a little closer to the heart: that the church is too political, too judgmental, too “corporate.” I tend to agree, and I’ve lobbed a few of these criticisms myself.
Hipsters and New Forms of Church
It shouldn’t be a surprise that entrepreneurial church leaders often get labeled as hipsters. I’ve heard it said about youth ministers, church planters and fresh expressions pioneers. It usually comes in the form of a slight (“you’re such a hipster-pastor”) or a self-deprecating insult (“I’m just not cool enough for your hipster church”).
We quickly label those who don’t fit in with names like “hipster.” Those who start new forms of church are almost always there because, on some level, they feel like they don’t fit in.
That might be true, but there’s also a dirty secret behind my criticisms: they often have more to do with my personal, yes, hipster taste. Perhaps our arguments against the established church have very little to do with theology and the mission of God and more to do with personal preference and the desire to “be on a team.”
This sense of animosity and our veiled motives are a problem. They’re a problem because we need each other. Those who start new churches need the wisdom, experience and, frankly, resources of the established church. The established church needs the hipsters for their culture awareness and thoughtful criticisms.
Confessions of a Hipster Christian
I don’t know if there’s anything I can do to make people see the value of hipsters or their hipster churches, but maybe some humility can help. Perhaps in confessing my hipster faults I can critique myself and make some important observations about the larger church, as well.
Confession #1: I like my hipster music.
Hipsters are known for only liking obscure music. It shouldn’t be surprising that many younger Christians burned out by family-friendly, stadium-rock imitators would be quick to point out their disdain for Christian music.
Here’s a good argument against the often whitewashed sounds marketed as Christian Music: We serve a Creator God, yet our churches often sound like cover bands. Jesus and Paul spoke in the parlance of Galilee and the Mediterranean, but our music speaks to a local, homogenous culture.
This is true, and a missionally minded church should take it seriously…
..but it’s not why I dislike Christian music. I also don’t care for Top 40. I just prefer my obscure hipster music.
If my theology drives me to create incarnationally appropriate music, great! But if I look down at others for preferring something other than, say, “Come Thou Fount” played on banjo, then I’ve lost the whole point of worship music altogether.
Confession #2: I consume some “liberal media.”
There’s a lot of talk about how millennials are a bunch of liberals. But it’s not the whole story. Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert are also just plain likable. That makes their shows fun to watch.
I think we often go too far when we judge others, even within the Church, based on their media consumption. We and the issues we face as a society are more complex than we want to admit.
Let’s start by saying “I like what I like.” For me this tends to be This American Life and David Brooks. Let’s not automatically make taste a moral issue. Instead, let’s seek to understand what it is people like about those things.
Confession #3: I judge people who wear ties.
My first moment of shame over my hipster Christianity occurred when I saw a man at my church in a suit and tie. I immediately thought, “Who does he think he is coming in here dressed like that?”
Years before, I had rebelled against the “Sunday’s best” mentality. Suits had been replaced with pearl-snap shirts, but the judgmental attitude had not gone away.
Scripture teaches time and again that God judges our hearts. My preference for the hipster uniform is a clear sign that I have yet to take God seriously on this one.
Confession #4: I judge teetotalers.
Richard Beck, Chair of the Psychology Department at Abilene Christian University and author of the hit blog Experimental Theology, has pointed out that post-evangelicals like to drink. A lot.
One problem associated with this—other than the obvious, alcoholism—is a temptation toward an arrogance of the free.
When you drink you signal that you are more enlightened than those conservative Christians with bad atonement theology. These feelings of theological superiority can become such an important source of self-esteem that we begin to intellectually invest in our drinking, cultivating a peer status of connoisseur…For these Christians, it’s not just that they drink, it’s that they drink well. (“Drinking Christians”)
Still, the fact is Jesus did turn water into wine, and Paul touted the health value of a good red. My preference is for dark beers—a porter or stout, especially when it’s cold outside.
I say let’s just drink in moderation because we like it—or not drink because we don’t.
Confession #5: I more easily trust non-Christians.
For some reason it’s hard to trust Christians. I’m always afraid they are judging me for what they assume my politics are, or what I’m wearing, or how old I am. Many of the Christians I’ve known have been upper-middle-class suburbanites, and I’ve struggled to keep up with the Jesus Joneses.
Then there’s this weird Christian sheen. It’s like a forced optimism bolstered by churchy-sounding words. Some people come across like they think the world is a Thomas Kincade painting.
I wish I could say that my missional-incarnational impulse is what’s led me to focus on creating relationships with non-Christians. The honest truth is they sometimes seem more authentic.
Confession #6: I have taken stands that some people may not find “Biblical.”
Some people believe they know precisely what the Bible teaches on major issues. They can give you scripture and verse for their theology, ecclesiology, and even their politics.
I’ve given up on that approach.
As a Jesus follower, my life is rooted in the stories of scripture. I only want to be a part of churches that are rooted in the stories, models and principles demonstrated in scripture.
I’ve given up on being exactly “right” about everything. Scripture is a narrative. It’s a story that doesn’t always make sense. Some parts are prescriptive. Some parts are descriptive. Huge sections are poetic. All are products of a long-dead culture. All I can do is try to apply the teachings of Jesus to my situations in light of the narrative arc of scripture, the teachings of the Church and the guidance of the Spirit.
That may be too loose for some. Too “hipster.” But all I can say is this is what seems best. But let’s be honest, isn’t that what we all do?
Confession #7: It’s easier to be Hipster than to be Incarnational.
Being incarnational is a lot of work. It requires learning languages and cultures. First your own, then that of scripture. Combine that with the leading of the Holy Spirit and you get an authentic representation of Jesus for your own time and place.
The world desperately needs the church to say, as Paul did in his day, that we will become all things to all people in order that we might win some.
There are things I’ve done and said—stands I’ve taken, criticisms I’ve lobbed—in the name of being incarnational. Sometimes I was right. But sometimes I was just baptizing my hipster preferences.
Being incarnational is really hard. It’s a lot easier to do what I prefer.
Let’s all confess together: we each have things we like. It’s the first step to admitting that we aren’t God. If we can admit that, maybe we can stop fighting for our preferences and join the mission of God.
Chris works across the organization to help get new projects off the ground and into the world. He also helps to manage our email, social media and other digital communications. He helped plant Austin Mustard Seed, where he served for five years as Community Developer. He also works with several other non-profits and businesses to tell their story with content and social media. In 2012, he graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary with a M.A. in Global Leadership. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Laura.