In a world of dizzyingly disposable trends, so much seems to collapse as quickly as it arrives: brands, celebrities, movements, institutions, ideas. When we misconstrue faith as just another thing in the consumerist stew, it too becomes a flash-in-the-pan fashion, as fragile and fickle as the latest viral trend on TikTok. The life of Christian faith should be altogether different: a long obedience, a slow burn, a quiet diligence to pursue Jesus faithfully, with others in community, in good times and bad, for better or for worse.
“Hillsong, Once a Leader of Christian Cool, Loses Footing in America.”
By now, headlines like this one (from a March 29 New York Times article by Ruth Graham) have become sadly predictable. It seems almost every “leader of Christian cool”—whether a tattooed celebrity pastor or a buzzy nightclub church—flames out and loses its footing fairly quickly. Which is not at all surprising. By their very nature, things that are cool are ephemeral. What’s fashionable is, by the necessity of the rules of fashion, quickly obsolete.
This is one of many reasons why chasing cool is a fool’s errand for churches and pastors, as I argue in my book Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. If you prioritize short-term trendiness, your ministry impact will likely be short-lived. If you care too much about being “relatable” and attractive to the fickle tastes of any given generation or cultural context, the transcendence of Christianity and the prophetic power of the gospel will be shrunk and shaped to the contours of the zeitgeist. Relevance-focused Christianity sows the seeds of its own obsolescence. It’s a bad idea. It rarely ends well.
Lament and Learn
From the Mars Hills to the Hillsongs (and countless others), it’s tragic to see churches fail—however predictable and ill-advised the “cool church” arc may be. We don’t rejoice over this. We should lament and learn.
What are the lessons?
For one, these headlines ought to remind us that relevance is no substitute for reverence and indeed may compromise it. The Christian life shouldn’t be oriented around being liked; it should be oriented around loving God and loving others. Far more important than being fashionable is being faithful. Far more crucial than keeping up with the Joneses is staying rooted in God’s unchanging Word.
Things like confession and repentance, daily obedience to the whole counsel of Scripture, and quiet commitment to spiritual disciplines aren’t cutting edge and won’t land you in a GQ profile about “hypepriests.” But these are the things that make up a healthy, sustainable, “long obedience in the same direction” faith. And with every hip church that closes and celebrity pastor who falls, more and more Christians are hopefully waking up to this fact.
Maybe boring, uncool, unabashedly churchy church is actually a good thing. Maybe a Christianity that doesn’t appeal to my consumer preferences and take its cues from Twitter is exactly the sort of faith I need.
Short-Term Success, Long-Term Failure
It’s counterintuitive, though. In the moment, a large church crowded with 20-somethings—eager to hear the celebrity pastor’s sermon and enthusiastic in their singing of arena-rock worship songs—seems like an unassailable triumph. Because our metrics for success in the American church have for so long mirrored the metrics of market-driven capitalism (bigger is always better; audience is king), we assume if a “cool church” is packed to the gills with cool kids, it’s working.