The AP discovers the Christian hipster pastor

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.

  • Darren Blair

    My guess is that the author of the article didn’t realize that “unorthodox” and “progressive” had established – and sometimes serious – definitions in place when used in religious circles and instead went with the “common” definitions as used by society. If so, then it would appear that the author was not properly instructed on which terms mean what in a religious context. This goes back to the importance of having people on the Godbeat with at least some proper training and/or background in religious matters and having editors who are aware enough to pick up on such things.

  • Brett

    It wouldn’t hurt to clean up the writing, either. I am sure the intended meaning was that the *tattoos* peek out from beneath the sleeves; judging by the picture the *arms* extend the usual distance beyond them.

    Other than that, the story seems fixated on the superficial and unwilling to do much with context. Joe notes “hipster” and trendy dress is no new thing among a lot of today’s pastors. Trying to maintain points of contact with the culture in presenting the gospel is also nothing new — a fellow who worked over in New Haven wrote a book in 1951 about the struggles, challenges and opportunities such an effort presents. Rev. Lentz has 67,000 Twitter followers, but Rick Warren has more than a million. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC has just under 50,000 for his personal feed and 130,000 for his “daily thoughts” devotional feed. I’m sure both of those gentlemen would be amused to be described as “hip.”

    None of this is to talk down Rev. Lentz or his congregation, who appear to be doing good work and God’s work in a place where many need it. But I’d almost expect the AP story byline to read “by Marlin Perkins” and wind up, “…and so while Jim goes to wrestle the python, I’m going to relax in my tent with a martini.”


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X