Hipster Replacement Church

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.

10 Comments

  1. “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?”

    YES!! Maybe ‘hipster churches’ do need to be called on this stuff, but then, so do we all!

    Just regarding your final comment: I’m not sure the Ridley blog is the best example – posts tend to be fairly sporadic. Ridley has a course on church planting though and many of those I studied and graduated with (2009-2011) are church planters.

    1. Hi Tamie
      Thanks for that. I will check out what Ridley does. I have a friend who was on staff there, so I have to be careful about intemperance on my part too! But yes, we all need to be called on the stuff don’t we?

      Steve

  2. Thanks Steve – I appreciated your article … my experience is that the big cost of church planting is perseverance … running the race that the Lord set before us … adapting and changing as we’ve grown older and the community has grown in faith and in numbers. Blessings 🙂

  3. A few points in response Stephen if I may…

    I do hope that views like mine do not undermine the important enterprise of church planting in Australia, or allow people to dismiss it as a fad as you suggest they might. But do you seriously suggest that this possibility ought to make the movement immune from critique? My concern is that not all church planting is healthy. We need to encourage planting of healthy churches, and so we need more critical engagement on this issue and not less.

    Of course I have made generalisations, although generalisations are not the same thing as caricatures. Generalisations are necessary when talking about any phenomenon. Indeed, you make several in your own response. The questions are: are these generalisations fair and do they apply? (By the way, I think your generalisations of Boomer churches are fair and do apply). Ironically, it is you who offer a caricature when you caricature my generalisation. I am not sure if the phenomenon can be as easily dismissed by drawing inaccurate parallels or asking a series of rhetorical questions to which I would want to offer different answers to those implied.

    And yes, I am guilty of conflation. This is not due to ignorance of the phenomena. I teach generational and cultural theory I am well acquainted with the movements and shifts that have given rise to the phenomenon I described. However, I judged that this history was not germane to my major points. Sure the origin of the hipster can be traced from the ‘50s along the lines you suggest. But the last 10 years has seen the kind of shift I describe, and your response seems to confirm that point.

    You make an interesting point when you say:
    “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?”

    Now, it is good to see you using generalisations (caricatures?) here, and I must say that I agree completely. My critique of ‘hipster churches’ echoes the critique I made of the Church Growth Movement in my dissertation some 15 years ago. My concern is that I see these being taken to new levels in the phenomenon I am reviewing.

    What I don’t find in your response is any serious engagement with the key concerns I raise, except to say such churches simply do not exist. I am afraid they do.

    As for Ridley’s record – as your search will reveal, we are one of just a few theological colleges that have a subject on church planting, and the only one that teaches on Gospel, Church and Culture. Our new vision includes developing partnership with three church plants to deliver an MDiv in the context of church planting (not in the traditional classroom). We want to train church planters who plant healthy churches.

    Every blessing Stephen.

    1. Tim, upon reflection:
      I would first of all say, that I do not think that church planting should be immune from critique, having done that myself on many occasion. I am even ok with those outside of church planting doing that critique.
      You mention that not all church planting is healthy. Is that not simply a reflection on churches rather than plants per se? Much of that unhealthiness stems from churches coming adrift from their gospel moorings. But, and this is perhaps even more insidious, there are plenty of exceptionally unhealthy churches that are tied tightly to their gospel moorings – in name – but are full of problems, led by problematic people, and planting out problematic church plants that tick all the right theological boxes. There are also other churches – far more unhealthy than hipster churches I would claim – that have the backing of an institution, theological college and land/money to propagate that lack of health. Churches/denominations rot from the top down not the bottom up, and the higher up the go, the deeper the rot goes. Generalisation? Perhaps, but the most self-consciously institutionalised churches in Australia are the ones that, in my observation, have strayed the most from the gospel.

      Secondly, the Church Growth Movement comments I made are less a caricature and more an accurate reflection on the single most formative movement in church in the Western world today. It is no caricature. Hipster church has sprung from it (self-consciously rejecting it), the Hillsong-esques are the new iteration, and virtually every non-reformed Baptist and Churches of Christ church across the length and breadth of Australia has taken its cues from that movement as to how church should be done, having flown in pastors and leaders at a rate of knots over the past twenty years to help them stem the outgoing tide (been to the conferences, taken the notes, seen the unfortunate results). That the movement was also the power base of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority movements in the USA bears witness to its weight. It was not a sub cultural expression of non-conformist church in the West, rather it became the paradigm from which the vast bulk of the Western non-conformist church has taken its cue (with much trickle down into the small “r” and big “R” reformed crew as well). Much of that was based in the fact that it mirrored itself on the power base of the wider culture, which was enamoured with impressive people and events, as well as highlighting and addressing secondary “felt” needs among its congregations. Hipsterism is boutique, completely urban-centric, and unlikely to be very robust – given that mongrels are far more adaptable to change than thoroughbreds.

      Thirdly, I think that the three issues you raise about hipster churches are probably my bone of contention with the article. This is a problem for all churches. In particular, and in my experience, it is not the flashy ego of the cigar smoking, skinny jeans wearing pastor that is most dangerous, but rather the wordless, sullen ego of the thwarted pastor who, in spite of his moderate tastes, moderate clothes, moderate house and moderate role, feels thwarted and affronted by his congregation, who cannot cope with criticism, and will, with a gentle, sly manner, carefully let you know who the boss is. And those are the blokes that are burning out in droves.

      And kudos to Ridley for the church planting stuff. As I said in the post, I have great admiration for what they do and produce.

      Cheers Tim, hope it’s not sounding too spiky

      1. Thanks Stephen. So what it comes down to is that you think the thwarted pastor more dangerous than the ego-driven, highly homogenous hipster pastor.

        That may or may not be true.

        My interest was not in identifying the *biggest* danger, but a series of problems with a particular phenomenon and a concern that unless these issues are addressed such churches will implode.

        I maintain that the particular problems I have identified, while they are to be found in many churches (do you really mean ‘all churches’?), are being taken to new heights. I would not deny that there are other movements, pastors and churches with problems.

  4. Hi Tim – thanks for pushing back on this. I am not saying “more dangerous”, but “just as”, in other words I think you have singled out hipsterism as a problem rather than an example of the problem. Perhaps you were showing it as an example – and I would argue whether or not it is the most extreme – but I wondered why the blog post about it, as it seems such an easy target. I genuinely don’t view it as the most pressing issue facing evangelicalism today, nor do I think it is more susceptible than other groups to the three issues you raise.
    Perhaps the primary question for church planters is not whether those “inside” the church view such and such a group as homogenous, but whether those “outside” do. Working as I do in a working class area, the single most pressing issue for me is, why is so much small “r” reformed evangelicalism so middle class and “script-bound”? Theological education for the working class bloke who is gifted to lead and teach others is culturally and educationally prohibitive. There is no half-way house for such blokes. The greater part of Australia is bypassed by our church culture, and indeed, would come inside and see homogeneity wall to wall. It’s a nice problem to have if hipster churches are the problem, but it is only the problem for those inside looking inside. (Not saying that is your experience either Tim!)

    I think that, as I said, boutique churches such as these, are not robust enough to weather the cultural storms, and eventually implode. Not that we shouldn’t be careful about that, but in my experience when you set up a strawman/pinata it allows everyone else to go “look, there’s a pinata, let’s beat it to death”, and allowing serious critique to fall away.
    More to the point, whilst I know that blog posts are given to either/or perspectives on such issues (and you point out my own guilt! 🙂 ) it still strikes me as over-egging the cake.

    Yours in unity with King Jesus

    Steve

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