Making religion hip

It’s not every week your own congregation gets a write up in the New York Times. This happened last week to members of Resurrection Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn with a piece entitled “A Congregation in Skinny Jeans.”

A friend of mine who attends the church chatted with me, calling it “a very silly article,” revealing more about the writer than the subject. Of course, a member will likely see “the story” behind a church differently than an outside observer.

You get a picture that the church is hip but little sense of what sets it apart from any other church. Here’s how it begins:

ONE recent Sunday night on the south side of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a crowd of more than 100 men and women in their 20s and early 30s gathered.

True to the unspoken dress code of the neighborhood, they were wearing high-waisted skinny jeans, vintage T-shirts and deliberately homely sweaters. One woman in a floral romper, her platinum-blond hair cut in a shag, carried a Bob Seger vinyl record under her arm. After a gospel band played, the group listened as a man with a tattoo and a shaved head, Thomas Vito Aiuto, gave a talk that referred in turn to Woody Allen, jogging and London cabdrivers.

They were at church.

We are supposed to be shocked that people who dress hip, listen to cool music and reference cultural artifacts would be found in a church. The attitude is that religion is pretty uncool, so it’s newsworthy that people are trying to make it cool.

“Surely a church cannot be identified by how its congregants dress or what the listen to, especially when the outside aesthetics of many of its members are simply in sync with the neighborhood where the church is planted,” my friend told me.

The Times also recently published a piece on hipster Mormons, which Bobby looked at how it included lots of hipness but not a lot of religion. A similar critique could be applied here, since this church doesn’t sound that different from quite a number of other hip churches. Ask Brett McCracken, who wrote an entire book about it.

My friend who attends the church says, “Our main identity is as resurrected people who love Jesus and are trying to live out the gospel.”

But, of course, one can’t blame a NYT writer for not identifying that as a trait of our church because 1) that wouldn’t make a good news story and 2) those things are quite intangible and without any familiar reference points, a secular writer seems to be unable to describe a spiritual body of people in any other way than simply how they look.

The story profiles pastor Thomas Vito Aiuto and describes his sermons as having “a somewhat secular inflection.” What does that mean, though? What is secular inflection, and how it different from other sermons?

The writer puts the pastor in the same context as Jay Bakker, who has been profiled by other publications as a sort of new evangelical.

While only one-quarter of the so-called millennial generation, those born after 1980, attend weekly religious services (according to a study by the Pew Research Center), young pastors like Mr. Aiuto and Jay Bakker, the son of the televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye, as well as groups like the Buddhist-inspired Dharma Punx, are tailoring their messages to young worshipers.

The thing is, though, Bakker sees nothing theologically wrong with members who are in a gay relationship. Does Aiuto believe the same thing? Or I would be curious whether Aiuto affirms gay marriage, for instance, and whether that would still be considered hip, according to the Times. Just because Bakker and Aiuto look the same and might have similar goals to reach a certain demographic, that doesn’t mean they hold the same theological beliefs.

Beyond that, though, the piece seems fairly surface level where we don’t learn anything about what the pastor or the congregants believe about their faith. Unfortunately, the writer saved the best line for last.

Mr. Aiuto, who said he prays every day — in the morning, at noon and 4 p.m., and before bed — and works 60-hour weeks that include counseling, writing his Sunday sermon and performing weddings, acknowledged that his persona presented contradictions.

“In some ways, I’m a hipster, depending on how you use the term,” he said. “If I’m fighting against it too hard, that’s my fault.”

But “that’s an unhelpful description of our church. It’s a way of looking at a person and not acknowledging their personhood. I’m trying to battle the trend of irony and sarcasm and not meaning what you’re really trying to say.”

The tensions revealed in these quotes suggest there was potential for the article to be interesting.

Image of Hipster Girl Fashion via Shutterstock.

Print Friendly

  • Gabriel Austin

    For years the New York Times has been desperate to overlook the “New York” part of their title, hoping in their anglophilism, to be mistaken for the Times of London.

  • Jerry

    Sarah,

    The problem with your analysis is that this piece appeared in the “Fashion & Style” section of the paper, a fact which you should have mentioned.

    I would have agreed with you if this piece were not a fashion article but a straight-forward news article.

    So I think your friend wanted a different article in a different section of the paper.

  • http://bullschuck.blogspot.com Bull

    Totally not journalistically related, but Thomas Vito Aiuto was the subject of a song by Sufjan Stevens, and you don’t get more hipster-y Christian than Sufjan. You just can’t.

    Vito’s Ordination Song

  • sari

    Wow! The reporter missed a biggie. Church attendance drops in the teens and twenties, when kids move out to live on their own, and picks up again when they marry (or cohabit) and raise families. Aiuto is attracting an under-served demographic, not just the arty crowd. That alone would merit more intense scrutiny. Is it his message, the music, his delivery, or the fashion? As a parent of a soon to graduate teen, I’d sure like to know what he’s doing to make his church so appealing.

  • Dave

    As someone intensely involved with a small congregation, my first question is how the church described in the article would feel about that description. I guess “superficial” would be my response.

  • Anna

    There seems to be several issues going on here. First, while it is true this story appeared in the Fashion section, it doesn’t really even deal with fashion/style other than the first couple paragraphs. Perhaps it would have better achieved it’s purpose it looked at something like–Can you determine a church’s theology by it’s fashions? (now that could be interesting) But, I wonder if the fashion/style placement meant that you had a reporter who isn’t really engaged in the religious community attempting to report on religion and completely missing it. Unfortunately this happens all too often, even with seasoned religion reporters. They simply buy into stereotypes instead of digging deeper.

  • Michael

    “After a gospel band played, the group listened as a man with a tattoo and a shaved head, Thomas Vito Aiuto, gave a talk that referred in turn to Woody Allen, jogging and London cabdrivers.”

    Is this what passes as “church” today?