Does your pastor wear v-neck shirts, have tattoos on both forearms, and ride a fixed-gear bike? Is the building where you go to church on Sunday morning a tavern/microbrewery on Saturday night? Are the communion wafer at your church gluten-free?
Probably not, because you (i.e., the typical GetReligion reader) are old and no longer cool. But if you hang around with young evangelicals long enough, you’ll recognize the tropes associated with “hipster Christianity.” Although hipster churches have been around a long time, they’ve only recently begun to develop into the pinnacle of evangelical ecclesiological success, the megachurch.
Yesterday, the AP wrote a profile about the pastor of one of the fastest growing megachurches in America, a congregation located at the heart of the Hipster Kingdom: New York City.
Carl Lentz is not your typical pastor.
Along with his half shaved head and slicked back Mohawk, he’s dressed in his usual Sunday attire: black jeans and an unbuttoned denim shirt with a tank top underneath. His tattooed arms, including one with two guns crossed, peek out from under his rolled-up sleeves.
There seems to be a missing adjective between “typical” and “pastor.” Typical compared to what? The typical Baptist pastor is typically different than the typical Episcopalian, Catholic, or Unitarian pastor. And while Lentz’s style of dress may not be typical of most evangelical pastors, it’s not all that different from many typical evangelical worship leaders or youth pastors. It’s also rather typical (or at least fits the stereotype) of many hipster pastors in urban areas.
While the article is brief and focused mainly on Lentz, it does a decent job of putting Hillsong Church in context of a broader trend. For instance:
New York has become a magnet for startup evangelical churches in recent years. There are currently more than 200 in Manhattan alone, according to Tony Carnes of the research project, A Journey Through NYC Religions, and Hillsong is one of the fastest growing.
While it’s an entertaining — if not exactly fresh — story, it includes too many adjectives that obscure more than they enlighten. For example, the AP claims, “Much of Hillsong NYC’s success can be attributed to its unorthodox leader.” Within a religious context the term “orthodox” has a variety of meanings, almost all having to do with theology. To claim a pastor is “unorthodox” because he has tattoos and hangs out with Jay-Z is bit misleading.
Similarly, Hillsong is described as a “modern progressive church.” What does the term “progressive” mean when talking about a Pentecostal church? Is it progressive theologically, socially, politically? Or is the term progressive referring to the stylistic (i.e., hipster) elements?
Despite these missteps, the AP does a commendable job of highlighting an intriguing religious figure and his church. Hillsong may not be particularly large (at least not by evangelical megachurch standards), but it’s location in Manhattan means that it will likely have an outsized influence among culture-makers. That alone makes it worthy of this type of feature.
Still, there is likely to be more to hipster churches than skinny jeans, fauxhawk haircuts, and tattoos. Hopefully, once religion journalists get over their fascination with deviations from conventional pastoral dress codes, they’ll start reporting on what really makes such congregations so appealing to young urbanites.
Addendum: If you’re unfamiliar with Christian hipsters, here’s a brief guide to identifying them.