An Uncool Church

Blessed are the un-cool, says Rachel Held Evans. She makes a lot of great points in that blog. My primary complaint against the church tends to be that we are too obsessed with being comfortable, but after reading this post from Rachel I am pondering whether we have just as much of a problem with trying to be cool. I admit there are some challenging questions here. For example, using a projector to display the words to a song is undoubtedly more “cool” to most people than reading them out of a book. But from my own experience starting up that practice at a former church, I received a lot of positive feedback not from younger people who thought it was cool but from older people who could finally see the words which they couldn’t in the hymnbook. So there are some cases where implementing the cool thing for the church is beneficial in more important ways so I don’t want to just write off anything that seems cool.

Where it runs into a problem is once we start to do things for the sake of being cool. I’ve heard many say that the church needs to target the young adult population since that is the demographic that is the most frequently leaving church (some come back later, some don’t). I don’t disagree with that – we do often feel ignored in a lot of churches and consciously thinking about us some more would help. But how many advise targeting us I think is largely missing the point. They target us by offering flashier technology, the concert-like worship band, the fair-trade coffee shop within the building, the bookstore, the mobile applications (iPhone-only of course, though, since that is the cool brand), etc. In and of themselves you could argue those things are good or bad or neither or both, but that’s not my point here.

As a young middle-class white male, dead-centre in that supposed target demographic, I would like to say that those aren’t the point for us. We don’t want a church that is cool. We want a church that aims to be like Jesus. In Rachel Held Evan’s words we:

 want to be part of an un-cool church because [we] want to be part of a community that shares the reputation of Jesus, and like it or not, Jesus’ favorite people in the world were not cool. They were mostly sinners, misfits, outcasts, weirdos, poor people, sick people, and crazy people.  (emphasis hers)

We look at Jesus, and we look at a lot of churches, and we see a huge disconnect. Instead of helping fix that, when churches try to be cool, it makes it worse, because Jesus wasn’t cool.

Another example: I’m a terrible singer, but some churches really need to turn down the volume of their worship band so I can hear myself and others sing. I don’t feel like I’m worshipping – I feel like I’m watching a performance. If we want cool, we could go to a concert. Most people who qualify as cool and therefore in that target audience can afford to do that. Concerts are good, but they’re not and they shouldn’t be the same as worshipping. So please let my terrible amateur voice be heard by at least me and a few others around me, and let me hear the other non-professional voices around me. Dare to let the terrible singers be heard. Dare to let the church stop being a performance long enough that we can worship an awesome God who loves us no matter how horribly we sing.

Evans challenges us to allow the “cool” people to mix with the “un-cool” people, the people who Jesus would have mixed with:

Jesus taught us that when we throw a banquet or a party, our invitation list should include “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” So why do our church marketing teams target the young, the hip, the healthy, and the resourced? (emphasis hers)

I know it is a rhetorical question meant to challenge us, but it is an interesting one from a sociological viewpoint to actually try to answer. Simply put, I think much of the church (including myself sometimes) has bought into the lie that those are the people who matter. We still acknowledge the other people matter, too, but as an afterthought. Or else we reason that once we get the young and cool crowd, everybody else will follow because those are the people who everybody looks up to, right? And even though the church has been trying this in recent years and it isn’t working, a lot of people still buy into it.

The problem is that act of targeting the cool audience distorts Christianity to such an extent that nobody is left having any interest in it. To those who are cool and think they are completely fine, hip, healthy, and resourced, the church just comes across as another entertainment possibility. And of course that’s what they see, because that is what the church has reduced itself to. Cool people don’t need another mediocre form of entertainment, because they already have TV, the Internet, better professional music always with them on their iPods and smartphones and tablets, and social circles that they see more in common with without the awkwardness of a potentially uncool person showing up, too. So you may convince a couple of cool people to come once or twice, but you’re unlikely to keep them around and we can’t blame them for that. Some think the solution is just to make our entertainment better than everybody else’s, but even if that worked it would require a complete unraveling of the Christian message.

The uncool on the other hand just look at the entertainment church and immediately recognize the truth that they don’t belong there. While the heart of the Christian message is supposed to be one of healing and forgiveness available to all, they similarly see that many churches are just about adding one more voice to the already media-saturated culture. No matter how much the sermon says that God loves everybody including the uncool outcast, everything else about the service is telling them they don’t belong here because everybody else here is young and healthy and middle to upper class. So of course even if they bravely enter the church to hear the sermon, they’re going to have a pretty tough time actually believing it because everything else they’re experiencing is saying that Christianity is about being cool. They’re going to walk away believing that the church is just another source of entertainment, albeit a not-as-good one, and that it doesn’t have any interest in helping their outcast selves any more than anybody else does. So maybe some brave the church once, but they aren’t likely to stick around either and we can’t blame them for that.

We hurt the Christian message when we try to make it cool. It is about bringing Jesus to the sick, not the healthy, to the uncool, not the cool. It is not a new form of mediocre entertainment, but a display of the power of being free from such distinctions as male and female, slave and free, Jew or Gentile (Galatians 3:28) and even the distinction between the hip and the loser. So churches, when are we going to finally start acting like we are free of that barrier? When are we going to dare to love the uncool and really change the world?

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.