How Hipsters Became More Powerful than the Gates of Hell

August 15, 2013 at 6:28 pm

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Matt. 16:1

Scene 1: I am on staff at a Presbyterian church that follows a formal Presbyterian liturgy. I am taking a respite from the service this week to help out another very traditional church where I will preach from behind a pulpit in a full robe and stole. It is a church that sings hymns accompanied by no more than a piano. It is a church that recites creeds and written prayers. And it is a church that has lost their former pastor because of his moral failures. I believe in the value of such liturgically strong churches , but they are not free of sin.  
Scene 2: Several years ago my wife and I planted a church in a bar. I preached in a hoodie and flip-flops and the music was so loud I couldn’t hear my own voice. There was no liturgy, no reciting of creeds and no traditional symbols of Christianity. Our sound guy was an alcoholic and one of my worship leaders abandoned the church after a few months and headed back to the streets as a male prostitute. I believe in the value of such missionally driven churches, but they are not free from sin.   
I share these two stories by way of introduction to a discussion I have been eager to have for some time now. Recently there has been an influx of people who are zealous to diagnose the perceived sickness of the American church where attendance is dropping at noticeable rates. Their articles, blogs, Facebook posts and tweets have become, by and large, predictable. Hereis just one example that exploded on Facebook earlier this week. In these articles there are almost always references to researchers like Christian Smith and David Kinnamon, these stats or this poll, and nearly the same list of usual suspects to blame for the crisis.  
These include (with some variation) laments over the fact that sanctuaries today look more like concerts and dance clubs than holy temples. That worship is more passive, and less participatory. That churches are more focused on entertainment than education or spiritual formation. That youth groups are soft-pedaling the cost of discipleship in order to boost numbers and create a “fun,” “relevant,” or…(pick your condescending word) atmosphere that mimics our culture of consumerism and materialism.  There are other problems too, but these are the constants that show up routinely.
Here are several of the problems I have with all of these laments:
First, they are so centered on the Western church that they ignore the larger story of God’s redemptive purposes. The truth it that while the Western church might be in decline numerically, God’s global church is exploding at unprecedented rates around the world, particularly in the Southern hemisphere among the poor. For far too long now Americans (and sadly, much of the world) has equated Christianity with the United States. For this reason, when the church begins to crumble under U.S. soil there is a subtle suggestion made by some that is proof-positive that God’s plan is failing and the world is coming to an end. Not so.
Second, there is an insidious, systemic issue in the evangelical church that tends to emphasize a pragmatic and utilitarian approach to spiritual formation. The way this comes through most often is that the solution to a declining church is almost always to change the program. It is a constant focus on the external. Get rid of smoke machines and add the liturgy. Stand, or sit, at certain times, have communion (or the Lords supper or Eucharist) more often, or less often. Wear, or don’t wear certain clothes, robes, costumes or suites. You must use, or don’t use, certain translations and sing, or don’t sing, certain songs accompanied, or not accompanied, but certain styles of music. If colored lights and skinny jeans are honestly killing peoples souls, we are all absolutely screwed. 
Let’s be honest, historically it has been mainline denominations, whose services are much more High-Church than Low, who were first to cast aside biblical authority, sexual purity and the exclusiveness of Christ. I attend a highly confessional and liturgical church myself, but even I can see that any arguments that center on High vs. Low only devolve into more and more attempts to reshuffle the deck chairs. Like my anecdotes in the introduction illustrate, sin destroys churches, programs don’t. The scriptures remind us that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers of darkness who do not seem to be particularly partial to loud music. They feel equally at home around a church that uses confessions, creeds and celebrates the Eucharist every week. The outer form of our worship does not, will not, and cannot protect the church from sin, apathy, selfishness, arrogance, worldliness or pride. Only Jesus can.
Might I suggest instead that what is wrong with the church in America is that our country has created a space in which nominal Christianity can thrive like bacteria in a petri dish, and the petri dish is starting to crack. What I mean is that our religious freedom has enabled those on the fence about following Jesus to live fairly undetected in our communities. If there is no cost, why not agree to follow Jesus? On the other hand in places where your family will, quite literally, be the same people who will have you arrested, imprisoned, beaten or bludgeon to death for becoming a Christian, the act of following Jesus takes on a whole new level of commitment.
I believe that we are beginning to witness the very beginning of such an age to come in America. Already, it is becoming less and less confortable for people to call themselves Christians. Increasingly, anyone who takes the Bible remotely seriously runs the risk of being viewed by many as close-minded, judgmental, ignorant, homophobic, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, racist, bigots who are out of touch with reality and only vote republican. Honestly, I think it is causing many people to reconsider whether or not to join the movement. I think less people want to be seen at church on Sunday. And I really don’t think they would find it any more attractive even if pastors were wearing a robe. 
It has been said repeatedly that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. That has certainly been the case on the global stage in the last century. Wherever following Christ has proven to be most costly, the church thrives. Where it has cost the least, largely in the West, it has suffered great collapse.
Into such difficult times I am constantly held afloat by God’s declaration that nothing will be able to stop his Bride. No amount of darkness can extinguish her light. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe the futurists and prognosticators have gotten it right this time. Notwithstanding God’s promise to the contrary, maybe the church really has finally met its match. Despite having stood against the very gates of Hell, perhaps we are now forced to watch its demise at the hand of hipsters.