10 Signs a Church May Be Trying Too Hard to Be Hipster

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Nobody wants to be on the losing team.  In an effort to attract a larger clientele, many businesses attempt to project that their services or products are a lot more popular than they necessarily are, in order to leverage peer pressure as a part of their marketing strategy.

Shame on us; when that happens in the church.  Following Jesus is not, has never been, and will never be about being trendy.  It will often require you to embrace the death of cool and to hold to things that are socially frowned upon.  It will require you to follow Jesus as he went through betrayal and rejection, suffering want and abuse.

Sign me up, right?  That will bring the crowds running.

Actually, it can.  If you give people a faith worth living and dying for, more people might take your confession seriously.  When you sell people a religion designed primarily to make their lives more comfortable, they may eventually realize it is unnecessary and irrelevant.  Yet the practices of many seem, from the way their churches are put forward, committed to the proposition that what’s good for business is good for the church.

It’s not that all things “cool” should be marked and avoided as if Christ wanted the church to be repellent.  But these sorts of things should give us pause to consider what we are doing, and why we are doing it.  Are we trying to bandwagon customers into the kingdom?  Or are we directing people to the means of grace by which faith is created and sustained?  Here are ten signs that a church might be trying too hard to be hipster:

1.  Trendy names.

THE Well/Fount/Rock/Edge/Flood/Bridge/River.  Gateway.  Mountain View. North/East/South/Center/Grace/Life Point/Pointe.  Velocity, Revolution, Elevation, Celebration, Resolution, Encounter, Epic, Portal, Echo, and no joke, “The Cool Church.”  (Subtle, ain’t it?)

These are all real church names.  Thirty years ago these may have set you apart, but now, they kind of blend in.  What do these names tell you?  They may hint on some ambiguous theological motif, but generally, the subtext is either “we’re different” or “you’ll have fun here.”

A better idea:  Don’t be afraid say something substantively deeper with your church name.  If your congregation does not want to own being Lutheran, maybe it’s not, really Lutheran.  Sure, we want to cut past denominational stereotypes, but do people even know these in today’s post-Christian culture?  Might we inadvertently imply that we are presumptuously infatuated with our own “innovation?”

2.  No visible leadership over 40.

You generally don’t sell the church to teens with nonagenarians, and vice versa.  But we shouldn’t be “selling” the church to anybody.  Too many congregations appear devoted to promoting an image of youth, beauty, and health in order to attract those who either have or want these.  I’ve known several larger congregations to implement a policy of “Nobody over 40 on the platform,” kicking devoted career servants of the church to the curb in the process.

This suggests the congregation doesn’t value or want old people.  Do we want to be known primarily as generational dividers, or uniters?  Are we a peer group social club or a timeless continuum of saints in one, giant, diverse, eclectic, and yes, at times, dysfunctional family?

A better idea:  Show the world that our common faith in Christ is greater than anything else that might divide us.  Show them who the family of God is.

3.  God is apparently doing everything (and endorses every leadership decision).

“God” is always leading us to whatever new idea the religious entrepreneur wants to try.  Unlike other churches, OUR pastor has a special direct line to God through which He reveals silver bullets to evangelize our community.  Such “visionary pastors” learn secret tricks the less spiritual don’t have access to.  When these ideas fail, we somehow forget to blame God.

A better idea:  Let’s just admit “This seems like a good idea.”  We don’t need to pretend our ideas fell from heaven to mobilize the troops.  Honesty is a better policy, and most critical thinkers (whom this drives far away) already know we’re figuring a lot of this out as we go.

4.  Overactive social media presence.

I get it, your church wants a Facebook page.  Nothing wrong with that, but consider what unintended messages your use of it could send.  Does it convey the impression that this congregation is all about its programs and charismatic leaders?  Is it functioning as PR for the institution or creating a brand image?  Are most posts spamming logos, slogans, and promotionals?

A better idea:  Let your online presence focus on connecting members rather than pushing the activities that are exhausting them.  Try not to turn it into a pandering theological bumper sticker.

5.  It sounds just like the radio.  Really, JUST like it.

Maybe there are tons of unbelievers out there who have no interest in Christ, but are just waiting for the church to adopt the “K-Love sound” before they beat a path to your door…or is it possible that, in our haste to ape the culture of the world around us to heighten appeal, we’ve actually created a completely different subculture which outsiders don’t relate to?

I don’t personally know any non-Christians who listen to contemporary Christian music simply because they enjoy the sound, yet numerical growth always seems to be the justification for adopting the CCLI top 50 as the core of our congregational hymnody.  Let’s be honest about who really likes this stuff:  Christians who are bored with tradition.  Meanwhile, heathens of artistic discernment are driven away by our “relevance.”

A better idea:  Show more solidarity with the collage of peoples, places, cultures, and periods that is our common heritage as believers.  Let the musicians sound like themselves rather than imitating celebrities.  Challenge the culture of the world with the higher culture of Christ’s kingdom.

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6.  Everything is really, really, ridiculously real.

Nobody likes a church full of hypocrites, right?  So let’s create a church where you don’t have to pretend that you’re holier than you really are, just because you’re around your religious friends.  A church where we really mean it when we say, “Come as you are,” where we are honest about the burdens that we carry and the junk we have hidden in our hearts.  Unlike all those other churches, which are, like, totally full of fake people…did I mention how judgmental they are?

In all seriousness, little wears out faster than pretentious uber-authenticity.  The only real authenticity is the truth, which never needs to be couched in disclaimers.  The Gospel is the only “safe space” for sinners.

A better idea:  Let’s just confess that we are poor, miserable sinners whom Christ has redeemed.  It doesn’t get more real than that, and nothing says it better than our traditional liturgy.

7.  Everything is super casual.

We dress comfortable to feel comfortable.  People like being comfortable, and we want them to like being in church, so let’s make church comfortable!  After all, if God accepts us as we are, why bother getting all fancy?  We wouldn’t want to project the impression that our good work of formality makes our worship more valid, right?

If people think they have to straighten up before God will accept them, they will probably never come to him.  And for Pete’s sake, please don’t conduct the liturgy like Pope Frankenstein the third!  Let’s be lively, warm, and welcoming so that people feel like the sanctuary is their second home.

It’s not like God is really present when we come together!

A better idea:  What if we made worship, in presentation and conduct, look like it was the most important thing that happened in our week? 

8.  Endless cycles of catchphrases, buzzwords, and cliches.

They infect the mission statement, the promotional materials, the song lyrics, and the stenciling in the restrooms.  All done in the name of relevance, and always leading to a collection of colloquialisms that mystify the uninitiated.  Unbelievers don’t care about your up-reaching, seeker-driven, spirit-purposed mission.

If the phrases dominating your congregational nomenclature could be found on a “corporate bs generator,” it may be actually creating barriers to evangelism.  Are we selling the faith to outsiders by having the latest model of Christianity, or are we giving them the greatest Savior?

A better idea:  If you have to use “insider words,” let them be words whose meaning, once learned, will convey actual teachings of the faith.

9.  They are unlike any other church in your area.

…just like the rest of them.  A successful business identifies something people will need or want that is not being sufficiently provided.  What makes you different is what makes your product worth more than the competitors.  When it comes to churches, shouldn’t we all have the same thing to offer?

Is the Gospel a sufficient product, or is Jesus waiting for our new and improved delivery method to catalyze the expansion of His kingdom?  Maybe your congregation really is peculiar in some way, but isn’t the Christ who unites us infinitely greater?  To which do we want to draw attention?

A better idea:  Be comfortable enough in your own skin to be ordinary.  Don’t be afraid to proclaim the Gospel, die, and be forgotten.

10.  Their leaders are more spiritual than yours.

Celebrity culture is the bane of true religion; it fosters a climate of scandal and cover-ups.  Charismatic figureheads are often promoted as mascots, with constant extolling of their character, virtue, and accomplishments.  Never mind the labor of the countless selfless volunteers upon whose backs the ministry empire was built; those at the top receive the glory.

Any legitimate critiques of their personal shortcomings are brushed aside and justified with reference to all their valiant exploits.  Newsflash:  we’re only fooling ourselves, unbelievers see it clearly, and it stinks.

A better idea:  Let’s confess that our pastors are poor, miserable sinners like the rest of us, ditch the pedestal, and let them be human.  We don’t need spiritual rock stars in the pulpit.  We need humble, faithful, sincere men who are devoted to caring for our souls by nourishing them with grace.

In all honestly, I’ve been guilty of several of the preceding.  Let’s not kid ourselves and get offended when somebody dares to question the purity of our motives.  We should be thinking of ourselves with sober judgment, rather than bending over backward to give ourselves the best construction.  If you find yourself or your congregation doing any of the above, ask yourself some hard questions about the “why,” and be painfully honest.

About Miguel Ruiz

Miguel Ruiz is a post-Evangelical adult convert to confessional Lutheranism and a vocational church musician. He is a commissioned Minister of Religion in the LCMS, serving Our Savior Lutheran Church and School in Centereach, New York, as the director of parish music and music teacher. His journey down the Wittenberg trail began when he was roused from his dogmatic slumber by the writings of Michael Spencer and Robbert Webber. After a period of Cartesian doubt seeking a confessional identity, he finally found his home in the Lutheran church. When he isn’t busy running upwards of 12 rehearsals a week, he loves writing as a way to interact with other perspectives and to pontificate on his doxological agenda. He enjoys exploring the treasury of 2000 years of sacred music, and has found his life’s calling as a cantor, with a mission to “put the Gospel on the lips of the people of God through song, that the Word might dwell in their hearts through faith.”

Comments

10 Signs a Church May Be Trying Too Hard to Be Hipster — 12 Comments

  1. What a great article! I thank God that you “get it.” There is yet hope for Lutheranism in America if more pastors and church musicians lead like this.

  2. Best one in a long time. Although you didn’t include Waters Edge. That’s my favorite silly name.

  3. Excellent article. ALL Christian churches regardless of denomination would be wise to follow this. This applies to all of Christendom.

  4. Love this article, agree with it, and want even more liturgy, more reverence, and more Reformation. That said, we need to give more for each person to be able to serve in the congregation. Don’t ask for volunteers and have the same people do everything. Every person should be active and it happens by asking them.

    We need to put more effort into more than academics. Our pastors should be able to perform a baptism without Cliff notes. Baptisms should bring emotions within us, not just the ritual.

    Advent pre-service singing should be more than people shouting out a number and everyone singing just 2 verses. Where is our joy??? I am so glad that I have searched many years and now found a LCMS that has melted the frost from the Frozen Chosen. We have Communion every Sunday.Our pastor sometimes sings the hymns while serving Communion. We are conservative in doctrine but have joy and reverence and liturgy. I won’t even say the church because someone will come and make it stop!

    I am a Lutheran School teacher. I had my children pose their hands properly when we prayed. They had to be taught. We studied the liturgy and they learned why it should thrill them. We talked about appropriate dress and posture when approaching the altar for Holy Communion.

  5. Thank you, I’m embarrassed though, I had not meant to point out my virtues but to show what needs to be done to keep our faithful faithful. I am deeply concerned about what is happening to our churches when we seek the lowest common denominator and end up with 0. Reach up, study what kept people faithful in the OT and NT. God loves ceremony and drama . The Red Sea did not have to be parted, they could have found logs and rowed across and still left the Egyptians scratching their heads. God loves beauty, we only need to look at the Ark of the Covenant and the details of the Tabernacle. We know how He loves music and Lutherans love to sing. Where I now attend there is a hymn sing weekly. I hesitate to describe it , again, there is no other church that does it as well and someone will find a way to stop it.Lets reach up and out to reach people. Make every member an ambassador and rehearse everyone’s idea of how to help each other. My son had a rough time as a teenager. The Lutheran church we attended, instead of loving him back looked at him with distain and criticism. He has returned to Christ, but it wasn’t through the Lutheran church, and he is totally involved in church and is training to be a prison lay minister. He finds the Lutheran church repugnant. I understand him, though it does tear at my heart that the church that brought me to Christ as a teen has turned my son away.

  6. @Rev. Robert Fischer (Emeritus) #7

    #11 Your church has a coffee shop. See: Coffee and Faith-based Spaces: Considerations for Cafe Design in the Church

    “Coffee” should not be a “business”; in Lutheran style, have a contribution basket (which may be ignored, if you don’t have money). It’s “fuel” for Bible class, (especially if the ladies donate pastry or someone is delegated to bring in donuts). 🙂

  7. @Margaret Wulff #4
    I understand what you’re saying and agree… to a certain point.

    Certainly churches should not be confused with gatherings of emotionless Vulcans. We are not called to be like Mr. Spock. There certainly can be, AS AN INCIDENTAL ASIDE, emotion in church. One should not simply regard the gospel and communion as simply stale facts to be regurgitated and filed away in an abstract manner. That is an unfortunate thing to see.

    However… and I’m trying to be very careful when I say this, because I have met others with your thoughts, and understand why you think as you do… I would postulate a few things for you to think about.

    1.) Emotion is not the goal of worship; emotion is at best a byproduct of doctrinally sound worship. When you make emotion the goal, you undermine true worship and substitute it for sentimental experience. That is a VERY dangerous place to go. As somebody who went to American Evangelical churches for years that overfocused on the emotional/”relational” side to Christianity and sacrificed sound doctrine in the process, this is a real danger that needs to be considered. I may come away from the service with “good feelings,” but that’s not why I go to church. I go to hear the Word proclaimed, to receive the Eucharist, to be convicted by the Law, to be forgiven through the gospel, and to be strengthened for good works in my vocation, that I may have an opportunity to bear witness to Christ before unbelievers. Emotion may accompany that, but it is incidental at best. Making emotion the goal and the focus is a step in the direction of enthusiasm and experientialism, and that leads to a skewed Christianity (read about Luther’s dealings with the enthusiasts).

    2.) Emotion does not have to be visibly seen to be real, nor should it distract from the mass. If I am in line for communion and have emotional guilt as I ponder the sins I silently confess while preparing for the supper (and let us acknowledge that penitential emotion is just as valid as “good feelings”), I keep my eyes shut and my head down. If I am “wearing my emotions on my sleeve” in a way that draws the attention of others to myself instead of the liturgy, the Word, or the Sacrament, I am dishonoring God by making myself the center of attention. Likewise, we must be VERY careful to not judge the apparent lack of emotion seen on others; just because somebody doesn’t have tears flowing down their face does not mean that they aren’t being moved by the Word. Far too many times, we look at others and assume (often erroneously) that they’re not being “spiritual” because they’re not reacting in some visible way. That’s pride and that’s dangerous.

    3.) I would say that joy is more of an attitude than an emotion. Joy is not about how loud I am when I sing. Joy is not about whether or not I’m bawling my eyes out or sobbing. Joy is not about talking with a phony “happy salesman” voice (as I have heard before from people). Joy is an inward attitude of contentment more than an outward display of exuberance. It is resting in Christ, satisfied in His atonement for our sins.

    So hear me when I say that I agree with you that church should not be a sterile, emotionless place; but at the same time, there is a real danger in chasing the emotion and turning it into an idol. And btw, there is nothing wrong with you if you DON’T feel anything from time to time. Beware that fallacy as well. We all have days where emotion doesn’t come; there’s nothing at all wrong with that. We don’t always get emotional about our spouses, our children, our jobs, or over any other area in life. Church in many ways is like that. Let emotions come when they come AFTER concentrating on doctrine and liturgy, and if they don’t, thank God for the Word and Sacrament anyway 😀

  8. Deep positive emotions in Christians are often falsely perceived to be the presence of the Holy Spirit, especially in those raised in the older Methodist and/or other pietistic neo-Evangelical environments. This can cause one easily to fall into false doctrine.

    Case in point: myself. After being told to believe in Jesus “with my heart, not just my head” (oh, gosh, am I believing in Jesus in the right way, how can I tell if I’m really saved?), I started thinking to myself that “maybe there are those who don’t know about Jesus in their head, having never heard His Name, but in their hearts they believe in Him”. This is the dangerous heresy of inclusivism/pluralism/universalism. People such as John Wesley, Zwingli, C.S. Lewis and the present-day RCC all have espoused this lie. And I almost fell for it. Praise God that after becoming Lutheran I reclaimed the exclusivity of faith in Christ alone as the only Way, Truth and Life. Anything added to trust in His Person, His atoning work and His imputed Righteousness given to me and for me in Baptism, or in place of this holy gift of salvation will only lead to eternally dying in woe, rather than eternally living in joy with my God and Savior and all His saints.

    “Trust your feelings!” That’s not Christian faith, that’s Obi-Wan Kenobi and pantheism. And our Evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ are being led astray by the ostensibly Bible-believing movement which they follow. The same errors of Rationalism that wrecked the Mainline churches are now creeping into Evangelicalism. And nothing says our own LCMS is impervious to these very same tactics of the enemy who wants to tickle our ears with “Did really say…”

    I’m not trying to slam anyone for being emotional during the Divine Service; I just add my caution that we need to watch that our emotions don’t lead us into false doctrine or become a litmus test for saving faith. Yes, I approach the Lord’s Table with bowed head, remembering my unworthiness in the Presence of my Savior as He offers His Body and Blood to me afresh. I have been known to say the General Confession with a tear in my eye. And an occasional goosebump pops up during the hymn “Crown Him With Many Crowns” when I sing “Who died eternal life to bring and lives that death may die”. But I must watch, lest I make my feelings my own personal idol. The still, small voice in my head is not that of God but that of my sinful conscience. God has spoken in His Word, only there will I hear Him.

    One last word about churches that would seek to make the message of Law and Gospel more palatable. Reality check; the message of the Cross is foolishness to the unregenerate. There is but one Gospel; anything else is a fraud. May we pray that neither the Law nor the Gospel disappear from the LCMS. This is how I explain the lukewarm church of Laodicea. Neither hot (the Law) nor cool (the Gospel). Hey there, seeker-sensitive pastors, how hard must Jesus bang on your door before you repent? There may be proper ways of tailoring the delivery of the message to the hearers, but the Law must crush the sinner before the true Gospel can reveal Christ. Any monkeying with the Gospel is sin against the Holy Spirit, it’s resisting Him. And it’s deadly poison to the Church…

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