Today’s post was written by Miguel Ruiz, and is reposted with permission from Miguel and The Brothers of John the Steadfast.
Nobody wants to be on the losing team. In an effort to attract a larger clientele, many businesses attempt to project that their services or products are a lot more popular than they necessarily are, in order to leverage peer pressure as a part of their marketing strategy.
Shame on us; when that happens in the church. Following Jesus is not, has never been, and will never be about being trendy. It will often require you to embrace the death of cool and to hold to things that are socially frowned upon. It will require you to follow Jesus as he went through betrayal and rejection, suffering want and abuse.
Sign me up, right? That will bring the crowds running.
Actually, it can. If you give people a faith worth living and dying for, more people might take your confession seriously. When you sell people a religion designed primarily to make their lives more comfortable, they may eventually realize it is unnecessary and irrelevant. Yet the practices of many seem, from the way their churches are put forward, committed to the proposition that what’s good for business is good for the church.
It’s not that all things “cool” should be marked and avoided as if Christ wanted the church to be repellent. But these sorts of things should give us pause to consider what we are doing, and why we are doing it. Are we trying to bandwagon customers into the kingdom? Or are we directing people to the means of grace by which faith is created and sustained? Here are ten signs that a church might be trying too hard to be hipster:
1. Trendy names.
THE Well/Fount/Rock/Edge/Flood/Bridge/River. Gateway. Mountain View. North/East/South/Center/Grace/Life Point/Pointe. Velocity, Revolution, Elevation, Celebration, Resolution, Encounter, Epic, Portal, Echo, and no joke, “The Cool Church.” (Subtle, ain’t it?)
These are all real church names. Thirty years ago these may have set you apart, but now, they kind of blend in. What do these names tell you? They may hint on some ambiguous theological motif, but generally, the subtext is either “we’re different” or “you’ll have fun here.”
A better idea: Don’t be afraid say something substantively deeper with your church name. If your congregation does not want to own being Lutheran, maybe it’s not, really Lutheran. Sure, we want to cut past denominational stereotypes, but do people even know these in today’s post-Christian culture? Might we inadvertently imply that we are presumptuously infatuated with our own “innovation?”
2. No visible leadership over 40.
You generally don’t sell the church to teens with nonagenarians, and vice versa. But we shouldn’t be “selling” the church to anybody. Too many congregations appear devoted to promoting an image of youth, beauty, and health in order to attract those who either have or want these. I’ve known several larger congregations to implement a policy of “Nobody over 40 on the platform,” kicking devoted career servants of the church to the curb in the process.
This suggests the congregation doesn’t value or want old people. Do we want to be known primarily as generational dividers, or uniters? Are we a peer group social club or a timeless continuum of saints in one, giant, diverse, eclectic, and yes, at times, dysfunctional family?
A better idea: Show the world that our common faith in Christ is greater than anything else that might divide us. Show them who the family of God is.
3. God is apparently doing everything (and endorses every leadership decision).
“God” is always leading us to whatever new idea the religious entrepreneur wants to try. Unlike other churches, OUR pastor has a special direct line to God through which He reveals silver bullets to evangelize our community. Such “visionary pastors” learn secret tricks the less spiritual don’t have access to. When these ideas fail, we somehow forget to blame God.
A better idea: Let’s just admit “This seems like a good idea.” We don’t need to pretend our ideas fell from heaven to mobilize the troops. Honesty is a better policy, and most critical thinkers (whom this drives far away) already know we’re figuring a lot of this out as we go.
4. Overactive social media presence.
I get it, your church wants a Facebook page. Nothing wrong with that, but consider what unintended messages your use of it could send. Does it convey the impression that this congregation is all about its programs and charismatic leaders? Is it functioning as PR for the institution or creating a brand image? Are most posts spamming logos, slogans, and promotionals?
A better idea: Let your online presence focus on connecting members rather than pushing the activities that are exhausting them. Try not to turn it into a pandering theological bumper sticker.
5. It sounds just like the radio. Really, JUST like it.
Maybe there are tons of unbelievers out there who have no interest in Christ, but are just waiting for the church to adopt the “K-Love sound” before they beat a path to your door…or is it possible that, in our haste to ape the culture of the world around us to heighten appeal, we’ve actually created a completely different subculture which outsiders don’t relate to?
I don’t personally know any non-Christians who listen to contemporary Christian music simply because they enjoy the sound, yet numerical growth always seems to be the justification for adopting the CCLI top 50 as the core of our congregational hymnody. Let’s be honest about who really likes this stuff: Christians who are bored with tradition. Meanwhile, heathens of artistic discernment are driven away by our “relevance.”
A better idea: Show more solidarity with the collage of peoples, places, cultures, and periods that is our common heritage as believers. Let the musicians sound like themselves rather than imitating celebrities. Challenge the culture of the world with the higher culture of Christ’s kingdom.
6. Everything is really, really, ridiculously real.
Nobody likes a church full of hypocrites, right? So let’s create a church where you don’t have to pretend that you’re holier than you really are, just because you’re around your religious friends. A church where we really mean it when we say, “Come as you are,” where we are honest about the burdens that we carry and the junk we have hidden in our hearts. Unlike all those other churches, which are, like, totally full of fake people…did I mention how judgmental they are?
In all seriousness, little wears out faster than pretentious uber-authenticity. The only real authenticity is the truth, which never needs to be couched in disclaimers. The Gospel is the only “safe space” for sinners.
A better idea: Let’s just confess that we are poor, miserable sinners whom Christ has redeemed. It doesn’t get more real than that, and nothing says it better than our traditional liturgy.
7. Everything is super casual.
We dress comfortable to feel comfortable. People like being comfortable, and we want them to like being in church, so let’s make church comfortable! After all, if God accepts us as we are, why bother getting all fancy? We wouldn’t want to project the impression that our good work of formality makes our worship more valid, right?
If people think they have to straighten up before God will accept them, they will probably never come to him. And for Pete’s sake, please don’t conduct the liturgy like Pope Frankenstein the third! Let’s be lively, warm, and welcoming so that people feel like the sanctuary is their second home.
It’s not like God is really present when we come together!
A better idea: What if we made worship, in presentation and conduct, look like it was the most important thing that happened in our week?
8. Endless cycles of catchphrases, buzzwords, and cliches.
They infect the mission statement, the promotional materials, the song lyrics, and the stenciling in the restrooms. All done in the name of relevance, and always leading to a collection of colloquialisms that mystify the uninitiated. Unbelievers don’t care about your up-reaching, seeker-driven, spirit-purposed mission.
If the phrases dominating your congregational nomenclature could be found on a “corporate bs generator,” it may be actually creating barriers to evangelism. Are we selling the faith to outsiders by having the latest model of Christianity, or are we giving them the greatest Savior?
A better idea: If you have to use “insider words,” let them be words whose meaning, once learned, will convey actual teachings of the faith.
9. They are unlike any other church in your area.
…just like the rest of them. A successful business identifies something people will need or want that is not being sufficiently provided. What makes you different is what makes your product worth more than the competitors. When it comes to churches, shouldn’t we all have the same thing to offer?
Is the Gospel a sufficient product, or is Jesus waiting for our new and improved delivery method to catalyze the expansion of His kingdom? Maybe your congregation really is peculiar in some way, but isn’t the Christ who unites us infinitely greater? To which do we want to draw attention?
A better idea: Be comfortable enough in your own skin to be ordinary. Don’t be afraid to proclaim the Gospel, die, and be forgotten.
10. Their leaders are more spiritual than yours.
Celebrity culture is the bane of true religion; it fosters a climate of scandal and cover-ups. Charismatic figureheads are often promoted as mascots, with constant extolling of their character, virtue, and accomplishments. Never mind the labor of the countless selfless volunteers upon whose backs the ministry empire was built; those at the top receive the glory.
Any legitimate critiques of their personal shortcomings are brushed aside and justified with reference to all their valiant exploits. Newsflash: we’re only fooling ourselves, unbelievers see it clearly, and it stinks.
A better idea: Let’s confess that our pastors are poor, miserable sinners like the rest of us, ditch the pedestal, and let them be human. We don’t need spiritual rock stars in the pulpit. We need humble, faithful, sincere men who are devoted to caring for our souls by nourishing them with grace.
In all honestly, I’ve been guilty of several of the preceding. Let’s not kid ourselves and get offended when somebody dares to question the purity of our motives. We should be thinking of ourselves with sober judgment, rather than bending over backward to give ourselves the best construction. If you find yourself or your congregation doing any of the above, ask yourself some hard questions about the “why,” and be painfully honest.
Miguel Ruiz is a post-Evangelical adult convert to confessional Lutheranism and a vocational church musician. He is a commissioned Minister of Religion in the LCMS, serving Our Savior Lutheran Church and School in Centereach, New York, as the director of parish music and music teacher. His journey down the Wittenberg trail began when he was roused from his dogmatic slumber by the writings of Michael Spencer and Robert Webber. After a period of Cartesian doubt seeking a confessional identity, he finally found his home in the Lutheran church. When he isn’t busy running upwards of 12 rehearsals a week, he loves writing as a way to interact with other perspectives and to pontificate on his doxological agenda. He enjoys exploring the treasury of 2000 years of sacred music, and has found his life’s calling as a cantor, with a mission to “put the Gospel on the lips of the people of God through song, that the Word might dwell in their hearts through faith.” Read more from Miguel…