My stomach turns when I see male pastors and band leaders who dye their hair. Likewise the tats, piercings, hipster costume – it’s all so tedious. Such strenuous “relevance”….
But before I launch into a critique of the church of cool, let me admit that “cool” churches might be winning more people to Christ than my church. Because the best cool churches are cool in the sense Paul means it when he says: I have become all things to all people so that by all means I might save some (1 Cor 9:22). In other words, they play dress-up because they care about reaching people in that culture. Sometimes these churches and their leaders are truly inspired and their critics are just jealous.
All churches have to create a culture. All churches must create sights, sounds, music, language, humor, and ways of relating that all their members “get”. So they may as well be intentional about it. Take post-war mainline churches for example. They definitely had a culture, and it brought in unchurched people because it was attractive to seekers of that era. In other words, those churches had their own form of “cool”. That’s why the “worship wars” of the late 1900’s were so intense: the culture that had made mainline churches successful was changing and they felt threatened. There’s more to it than that – those “traditionalists” were rightly alarmed by the moral disintegration of American culture and we can see now that they were right. But my point is that churches have to create culture. And if they care about attracting unbelievers, that culture has to feel – in some sense --“cool”.
But cool churches can also be truly sickening. They are so soaked in secular culture that they can’t call their people beyond it. Beyond the busy-ness, the stress, the hunger for “success”, the moral mediocrity, and the low intellectual and artistic life of pop America. They preach and worship according to trend. They attend to how they appear rather than to helping people encounter Christ’s heart and their own heart. Belonging becomes conforming to cool, and it dehumanizes people – just the way secular American culture does.
The difference between “good cool” and “bad cool” is like the difference between the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and Michael Jackson’s album Thriller (1982). Both were wildly successful in terms of sales. But whereas Sgt. Pepper transformed the culture of pop music,Thriller mostly just reflected an existing culture. When churches merely reflect pop culture they are unfaithful – even if they are attracting good numbers of people. They are only reinforcing worldly norms, which are usually sinful and destructive. Friendship with the world is enmity with God (James 4:4).
Our church needs to be deliberate about building a culture. We need to be cool in the best sense but deeply counter-cultural at the same time. Deeply human and deeply loyal to Jesus. Being both “good cool” and counter-cultural takes a brilliance I personally don’t have. Only the Spirit of God has that kind of brilliance.