When I read this blog post on Melbourne’s Ridley College website I sat down in shock, drew a draught from my topped-up long macc, scratched my new Hebrew verb tattoo – which has been itching like crazy lately cos I’ve run out of Savlon, and cleaned the glass of my horn-rimmed specs just to make sure I’d read it right. You see when Ridley College comes out with a critique of the church then it is worth taking note of, or beware of, as the case may be. After all various luminaries that many evangelicals know – and may have even read – have sprung from, or worked in, Ridley’s hallowed halls. I associate Ridley with good scholarship, based on sound biblical and cultural exegesis. Which is why when I read the post by Tim Foster on the perils of hipster church planters that I was like, you know, whatever, nevermind (enough already – Beardie Ed).
But seriously (as opposed to ironically) an article such as this, and from such an establishment as Ridley, does little to advance any good reason to church plant in Australia. Indeed it gives fodder to those who are all too quick to dismiss church planting as just another fad. How so? Well, put down your fair trade coffee, stub out your cigar, loosen off your One-Star Cons, and settle back in your Eames reproduction chair, cos I’m gonna let loose.
1. Caricaturisation. It’s like, you know, Christian youth, and church planting Christian youth are being overrun by hipsters whose calorie intake is so low, whose pants are so skinny and whose tee-shirts so tight that they can barely switch on their Bibles and scroll down to that verse in Ecclesiastes about meaninglessness or whatever it was that that Paper Kites video was about just before the candles were lit. Where exactly do these mythical hipster beasts hang out? Where, more to the point, are they planting churches at a rate of knots to be such a problem? It seems to me that the writer is simply transposing what is an American experience on the Australian church (certainly the Perth church). Much of the “Hipster Peril” had to do with the emergent church movement in the USA, a breakaway from the behemoth that is Baby Boomer soft-evangelicalism in that country. Guess what people? There is no evangelical behemoth in Australia to spawn such a bastard child. Nada, zilch, none. The peril simply doesn’t exist. But more than that, is anyone really that much of a cardboard cut-out as this post implies? I would have thought it beneath a Ridley publication to stoop to such caricaturisation. It would be a bit like saying that all evangelical Anglicans in Australia were tertiary educated, North Shore dwelling, stock-brokers who do the occasional evening congregation sermon from Mark’s Gospel when they are not away on the weekend in the Blue Mountains (if that’s you – sorry, Ed). And if so, does anyone else take them that seriously? Are we really going to see the Australian church swamped by wave after wave of illegal immigrants (er, “wave after wave of hipsters” right? – Ed) blacking out the windows of gothic church buildings and replacing the Tetleys/Black and Gold with 5 Senses? There just aren’t that many Christian hipsters to go around in Australia because there aren’t that many Christians to go around!
2. Conflation. The writer conflates a long history of social change in the Western world, squeezes it through a sausage machine, and voila – the hipster. When he states that the “last decade” has seen the shifts in society that led to the hipster he is about fifty years out. It was the decades of the late fifties, early sixties in which the seismic cultural shifts occurred and that have produced ripples right out into these early decades of the 21st century. Hipsterism is the love child of Woodstock culture, the Sexual Revolution, the golden age of TV and the rise of mass marketing. The Boomer generation were the power-brokers and builders of that culture, a culture they happily marketed to the next generation – my age group (35- nearly 50) (before bequeathing its riches to the next generation – their so called Y-Gen children). Hence the world view of hipsters is nothing unusual to a 65 year old Baby Boomer who made their money in the early eighties during the heights of the stock market and is living the sea change life. They would recognise – and approve of – everything the hipster stands for. Why is this important? Well, look at the article again. What are the three areas of hipster church that are most disturbing to the author? Consumerism, Charisma and Ego, and Homogeneity. Please! If those three things don’t exactly correspond to the problem of the evangelical movement in the Western world (read United States) throughout the 80s/early 90s during the Boomer Period, then what else does? It was for exactly those reasons that the emergent movement grew, dissatisfied with the top-down, formulaic, get-bums-on-seats, rock-star pastor approach of the Church Growth Movement and its recipe for success.
As an aside, I happen to believe that the reason the emergent movement has moved so tragically from its traditional evangelical base is because it was never there in the first place. The Boomer Church Growth Movement used the word “evangelical”, but what it meant was a far cry from what I see it to mean. It was cultural evangelicalism without the biblical roots, though they could not see that. The hipsters simply said “Ta-ta”, and moved away, thinking that because they had done the “evangelical” thing and it hadn’t worked, then they would have to be post-evangelical. The resultant 21st century version of early 20th century liberalism will not see hipster emergent churches sprouting up like Patterson’s Curse the length and breadth of the country, because like its early cousin it doesn’t have gospel DNA. (Sorry, but it’s true!)
3. Cost. Church planting costs (at least Foster’s article states that!). It’s true. It is hard. Sure there was a day when it was the new black, so to speak, but those days are long since gone, as the reality set in and many people hived away from planting after getting their fingers burnt. Now, having been involved with church planting in Australia for some time, I have to say that it takes all sorts, all shapes, all types, all ages to do it. The people I meet that plant churches are fat/skinny, bald/hairy, One-Star Con/KT26 wearing, tea/Milo/coffee drinking, young/middle aged, socially conservative/socially liberal PEOPLE – as likely to have a hip replacement never mind be hip. Here’s what they do have in common though: they all love Jesus, His people, His Word, and seeing the gospel get out there and change lives, suburbs, neighbourhoods, cities. It’s hard enough doing that as it is, but add to that suspicion from established churches, dismissal from those who should be ministry colleagues, an aura of being a threat to some local pastor, and an unspoken thought that you are theologically awry, and it becomes even harder. The simple fact is, the cream rises to the top. Whilst being a solid, well rounded, theologically educated, stable-familied, financially resourceful person does not guarantee church planting success, you can pretty much guarantee that the flaky types so caricatured in the article simply don’t last. And they don’t so much as burn out, as move on. The tone of the article does a disservice to church planting in general because it singles out a strand of church planting – and a minor one at that – and aligns that with the new wave of church planting in Australia these past ten years.
There is much more to say, but 1300 words is enough for now. I am going to trawl through Ridley’s other material to see how much support they have to offer to church planters, blogs posts that praise planting etc, to see if this is out-of-left-field, but my suspicion is that Ridley isn’t big on it. I could be wrong, but I’m willing to be. I just hope Tim Foster is too.