Recently a major secular magazine put together a feature piece on one of America’s largest and most influential megachurches. The author wanted to capture, portray and investigate the “cool” factor of this church. I saw one person share the article on social media with the caption: “Jesus will always be cool.”
But is he? Should he be? Will he be?
I want to be careful as I engage with this question for two reasons. First, while I start by referencing this magazine article, this piece is not a reaction against or for the church being profiled. It was just the event which caused my mind to think about our perception of the issue. Secondly, I want to be clear that I am not a casual observer of this “hipster Jesus” culture. It is true that my clothes look more like Old Navy than a vintage thrift shop, but as I write this post I am sitting in a local minimalistic coffee shop, drinking specialty roasted craft coffee brewed through a giant Chemistry set, jotting notes in a Moleskine, sitting at a reclaimed wood table beneath an interesting yet artistic rendition of what appears to be an abstract portrait of the female reproductive system (no joke).
This piece is not an attack on any individual, church or movement. It is some biblical reflections on what is being described to a secular world as a Christian phenomenon. I think every generation goes through some sort of cultural identification between faith and the sphere of expression. Therefore my concern isn’t the cultural identifiers (tweed jackets, brimmed glasses and craft coffee) but rather the subtle cultural expectations which can accompany these movements.
I really could care less what our Christian-culture wears, but we all should be concerned with what our Christian-culture is saying. I am worried that if we are not careful our culture can begin to say two things which are contrary the gospel. First, the Christian’s comfort and joy is in culture’s acceptance of their beliefs. And secondly, the expectation of Christianity is general acceptance when rightly obeyed and lived.
The Christian’s Comfort and Joy
The very bearded J.C. Ryle once said this: “It is not enough to hear and admire popular preachers. It is no proof of our conversion that we always worship in a place where there is a crowd. Let us take care that we hear the voice of Christ himself and follow him.”
The thing about cool is that it’s cool. It’s attractive. The benefit of “cool” churches is that they attract. The danger of “cool” churches is that they attract. Doing something because it’s cool isn’t a substitute for doing something out of conviction. What’s “cool” changes (hello Myspace!). What truly convicts, truly lasts.
As we seek to become “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22), we must realize that in identifying with the weak we do not idolize weakness, in dressing like the strong we do not institutionalize strength. In becoming all things to all people we emphasize the saving reality of Jesus Christ and the necessary faith which accompanies. Are people being won by the seed of the gospel or the fruits of the gospel? Are people falling in love with the person of Jesus, or the benefits of Jesus?
As a guy who would like to be seen as cool, and who works primarily with college students, this is the question I must always press into. I have seen many people come into my church and my ministry because they like the community, or the music or the whatever. But if they are not ultimately led to believe the gospel what happens when the community changes? What happens when the music shifts?
Often people can fall in love with the functional saviors of acceptance, comfort or experience and these will lead to disillusion or disappointment. For it was to these people that Jesus said, “Away from me I never knew you” (Matt. 7:23). From feelings of belonging, to subjective experiences, we must learn to ground true faith in the objective reality of the gospel, not a personalized stand-in.
I fear the tendency to latch onto and celebrate celebrity Christians (be it Tim Tebow, Duck Dynasty, Justin Bieber…etc.) is actually less about celebrating conversion and more about finding validation. But no amount of popular converts are able to validate our faith. Jesus validates our faith. Christianity isn’t attractive because Russel Wilson won a Super Bowl. Christianity is attractive because Jesus Christ died for our sins so that we might know and experience salvation forever.
This belief becomes our deep confidence. This belief becomes our joy which brings us a peace which surpasses all understanding (Phil. 4:7).
Attractional Christianity needs to be ultimately attractional because the gospel calls out to the sinner, not because the coffee calls out to the thirsty. We need to understand the heart of the issue. People don’t avoid church because it’s not cool. People avoid church because since day one sinners have ran from God (Gen. 3:9-10). The greatest need our world knows is not an attractional church, but an aggressive Savior who calls out with salvation to those who are lost. A believer and a church must embody this before it embodies anything else.
Because we are finding ways to intersect culture and Christianity we need to be very intentional of proclaiming the message above everything else. It can be easy and insulating to believe and to follow Jesus when it is easy, but true Christianity isn’t concerned about ease. It’s concerned about Holy Spirit empowered faithfulness.
The Christian’s Expectation
I am for churches which attract. I am for believers who look culturally normal. I am for believers engaging in, participating in, and enjoying culture. But in order for this to be effective we must not only realize the dangers as listed above, but we must be upfront with the biblical expectation of following Christ.
By God’s grace the last hundred years has seen a global conversion of people to Christ which is unrivaled historically. We in America have enjoyed a life of relative comfort surrounding the acceptance and practice of our faith. But in this season of God’s great blessing, we need to realize that this isn’t due to our ability to “figure it out.” It’s not that we have found a way to make the gospel attractive in ways previous generations couldn’t. It’s that God has chosen to grow his church through the faithful efforts of his people.
Which means we need to labor hard in this time knowing full well that such an occurrence is not the expectation biblically or historically. There will be times, possibly soon, where Christianity is not cool.
This means that we must not become disheartened when we begin to encounter this. We should expect it. Look at how Jesus himself speaks of our expectations as believers:
“If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more with they malign those of his household.” –Matthew 10:25
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.” –Luke 6:22-23
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you…” – John 15:18-20a
Here is the apostle John:
“Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.” -1 John 3:13
“The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” -1 John 3:1b
In times where we are afforded a coolness, we must also call people to the reality that we will not always be accepted. In fact cultural acceptance should be seen as a gracious anomaly. For we are more often described as “sojourners and strangers,” we will be “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor 4:8-10).
We must realize that a people redeemed and saved by a suffering Savior must too expect to be further redeemed and transformed through suffering in our own life.
When this becomes our reality our call to arms is one of a longsuffering winsome message. We hope to be reasonable, but we know the gospel is unreasonable to those who are perishing (Matt. 13:11). We hope to be seen as wise, but we know gospel is seen as foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18). We hope to be seen as loving, but we know the world doesn’t know the love of God (1 John 4:8).
Is Jesus Cool?
Is Jesus cool? Yes. No. Maybe. But more than that, he is our Savior. We should be less concerned about him (or his church) being seen as cool, and more concerned with him being seen as righteous Lord. And he calls us to follow him even when we are kicked out of our coffee shops for our belief. He cares for us when our large gatherings are relegated to small numbers. He still saves us when our Bibles studies are forced to be clandestine. And he will endure us even when times seem to be overwhelming.
And that’s because Jesus is the center of our faith. And we the church, though possibly cool in the immediate, are more concerned about Christ’s call than culture’s response. And we will labor in this environment knowing full well that Christ may call us to a new one. And even then, we are his. This is the culture of Christianity.