Social Gospel, the Emerging Church, and Christian Hipsters

Elise Amyx has written an interesting article about the Christian hipster movement and the similarities with the Social Gospel:

Anarchist punks are out and the socially-aware hipsters are in (even though they don’t want to say they’re “in”). A little over a decade ago, the hipster scene made its biggest comeback since the 1940s. Though they come in all shapes and sizes, many contemporary hipsters can be found riding their fixed-gear bikes to the farmers’ market or at a bar in skinny jeans drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon.

An interesting sub-category has emerged: Christian hipsters. According to Brett McCracken in an article titled Hipster Faith in Christianity Today, Christian hipsters are rebelling against the over-spiritualized Christian culture they were raised in. Some of them say they have been scarred by contemporary Christian music, door-to-door evangelism and the non-denominational megachurches of their childhood. McCracken, also the author of Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, says Christian hipsters are rebelling against

…the stereotypical evangelical church of the 80s – 90s: The Republican, middle class, abortion-clinic-picketing, anti-gay, anti-welfare, legalistic, not-so-interested-in-art-or-books WASP evangelical.

McCracken says the Christian hipster culture is small, but influential. Christian hipsters are returning to a more intellectual, traditional and back-to-basics Christianity. They are Protestants who may secretly wish they were Orthodox or Catholic in some respects. Chances are they read books by C.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and probably prefer traditional hymns and Sufjan Stevens to Hillsong. Christian hipsters might like shopping at thrift stores, studying abroad, reading philosophy, drinking organic coffee, smoking cigars and serving beer or scotch at bible study.

Christian hipsters also express themselves theologically:

…through preaching that often emphasizes covenantal and ‘new creation’ ideas and attempts to construct a more ecclesiological or community-centric view of salvation. Things like soul-winning and going to heaven are downplayed in favor of the notion that heaven will come down to earth and renew the broken creation. Thus, the world matters. It’s not a piece of rotting kindling that we will abandon for heaven one day. It’s the site of a renewed kingdom. All of this informs hipster Christianity’s attention to things like social justice, environmentalism, and the arts, because if God is building his kingdom on earth, then it all matters.

As mentioned in McCracken’s book, the theological beliefs of the typical Christian hipster can be linked with the Emerging Church, which is associated with authors and pastors like Donald Miller, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell. According to an article in Christianity Today titled Five Streams of the Emerging Church by Scot McKnight, the doctrine of the Emerging Church is hard to define because systematic theology is viewed suspiciously. Since living out the Gospel is more emphasized than doctrinal beliefs, Christian hipsters who associate themselves with the Emerging Church are generally more focused on helping the poor rather than evangelism.

So what are the economic implications of the Emerging Church? They have been criticized for placing a heavier focus on the material world rather than the spiritual world, which is somewhat reminiscent of the Social Gospel movement in America led by Walter Rauschenbusch in the late 19th and early 20th century, according to McKnight:

Sometimes, however, when I look at emerging politics, I see Walter Rauschenbusch, the architect of the Social Gospel. Without trying to deny the spiritual Gospel, he led his followers into the Social Gospel. The results were devastating for mainline Christianity’s ability to summon sinners to personal conversion. The results were also devastating for evangelical Christianity, which has itself struggled to maintain a proper balance.

The Social Gospel promotes the postmillennial view that Christ will not return until social evils are rid by human effort. Rauschenbusch was very critical towards capitalism and viewed socialism as the means to achieve justice on earth. It is too soon to tell if Christian hipsters and the Emerging Church will reflect the Social Gospel movement as strong as the past, but certain figures in the movement certainly echo a similar economic theme.

In his controversial book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, McLaren’s theological views have been criticized for twisting the Gospel and suggesting social and economic issues are more important than spiritual issues. On page 210 of his book, McLaren says:

Genesis provides a genealogy for all the pain and evil in the whole social structure of humans on planet Earth: it can be traced back to a problem of consumption beyond limits.

Some claim McLaren has replaced biblical themes with political and economic themes of consumption and class warfare (reminds me of someone named Karl Marx).

I do not fault McLaren’s desire to live in a better world. We all desire a better world because we were made for something far greater. Nevertheless, if McLaren believes human efforts can bring The Kingdom of God to earth, his beliefs are not biblical. In the words of Christ:

My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were, My servants would fight for Me. But now My Kingdom is from elsewhere. (John 18:36)

Though the Christian hipster culture might not have a definitive doctrinal theology or a sound economic philosophy, they do have a deep passion for the poor and the desire to live out the Gospel. As Christians, the question is not if we should care for the poor, but how to care for the poor. We cannot properly care for the needy if we over-spiritualize or over-materialize the world because the church is called to address both spiritual and physical needs. Effectively caring for the physical needs of the poor requires a solid economic philosophy that fosters competition, innovation and wealth creation.

4 thoughts on “Social Gospel, the Emerging Church, and Christian Hipsters

  1. Eileen says:

    Christian hipsterism is a manifestation of adolescent and childish thinking where the child/adolescent assumes a negative identity–he/she is *not* like the parent. The adolescent will assume this negative identity even if it is self-defeating and without any consideration for why the parent might be the way the parent is. Such thinking precludes wisdom in accepting what is true and discarding what is false. If I was raised in a fundamentalist/evangelical/conservative Christian/whatever home (as I perceive it), then I will be against fundamentalism/evangelicalism/Christian conservatism/whateverism and I will be for the things those are against (as I perceive them.) Hipsterism is reactive. It is not a return to “authentic” Jesusianity or cruci-centrism or however it is described. Irony lost on the generation of irony.

    Christian hipsterism itself is a luxury good. It doesn’t make a lot of sense outside an affluent western environment. People who are really poor and are really trying to feed their children are not overly concerned with the merits of cultural products–what constitutes good music or art or a good microbrew or a good cigar. They would like to have the good structures of capitalism–good government and property rights which would enable them to secure a better life for their families. This is the fundamental point made in the last paragraph but which is deprecated by hipster culture. Irony lost on the generation of irony.

    Christian hipsterism is the current generation’s version of pragmatism and what lies behind it is the desire to remain relevant and cool (and adolescent.) Christian pragmatism of every generation is just consumerist “meism” that has been baptized. For this generation, SUVs are bad. Disposable electronic gadgetry is good. Irony lost on the generation of irony.

    Christian hipsterism strives to be relevant. But only to their cultural market segment. They strive for community. As long as the community members share their culture. Irony lost on the generation of irony.

    The real Jesus of Nazareth was not cool. He was not hip. He really was an outsider. He really was radical. He healed a lot of people and fed a lot of people because He cared about them. His followers should do so. But He did not feed everyone and did not heal everyone and did not overthrow a despotic empire, thereby achieving social justice for countless numbers of His own people groaning under Roman oppression. The Zealots, who had a strong Kingdom theology, threw palm branches before Him because they thought He would do so. Hours later they were enraged and cried out for His crucifixion because it became apparent that He did not come to do those things. Yet. It was not the mission of the God-Man to heal the planet, bring in the era of social justice and restore creation. Yet. Irony lost on the generation of irony.

    The King will create and restore His Kingdom when it pleases Him to do so and in the manner and form which pleases Him. He is not waiting on any of us for any help we might offer.


  2. sedgegrass says:

    It might be important to ask whether there are elements within a general pendulum swing that are not only reasonable to consider, but may actually be healthy. The same sort of observations were made about the young 60’s culture – an immature, self-centered, oppositional-defiant, modern generation that seemed to turn their backs on their parents’ religion. Yet, within that movement, there was an honest and healthy desire by some, for ‘real’ answers to spiritual questions. With the slide from the late 1920’s into neo-orthodoxy and away from Biblical inerrancy, it wasn’t surprising that young members of these mainline denominations began to wonder why the Bible was any more of an authority than exotic,eastern mystic writings.

    There was a hunger for ‘true spirituality’ and thankfully, there were a few theologians, such as Francis Schaeffer, who understood that these behaviors were indicative of some pretty important questions and longings.

    The megachurches have succeeded in mirroring the world’s activities- weight loss programs, rock bands, coffee shops, craft classes- anything attractive that could be ‘Christianized’. In many, the song content has often been vapid and the services like entertainment venues. I’ve heard these ‘hipsters’ talk about their desire for something deeper, more meaningful- hymns with great theology, a connection with history and the deeper theological discussions which gave birth to the creeds, and a faith that lives and breathes in actual community rather than in frantic activity within the walls of a 24 hour a day megachurch. Perhaps it’s a similar pull to ‘get back to the earth’ and away from a nebulous, happy-clappy spirituality.

    I just hope that there will be other Schaeffers who will hear those longing questions and patiently point the way to a deeper and biblically informed faith.


  3. Eileen says:

    Sedgegrass, you make a good point. One of the advantages of having a church which is diverse generationally and culturally is that it doesn’t ossify into what is comfortable for those who are older or in the cultural majority. But it also doesn’t fly off into orbit around the latest cultural or generational fad either.

    The advantage of being older (assuming one has paid attention) is the ability to see patterns and identify them. Of course, the disadvantage is that preferred patterns can become ruts which make course correction difficult when the need for correction is pointed out by those who are not so accustomed to those particular ways. The advantage of being young is that one is not necessarily so pre-conditioned to and comfortable in those ways and so can, perhaps, see more clearly where a path has deviated from the way of truth. The disadvantage to being young is that one cannot know that certain paths which seem attractive might be dead-ends or worse, and older folks may be able to recognize that fact simply due to having lived awhile and observed a few generations.

    I think there are older and wiser folks who are listening to the valid and biblical concerns of some of the younger folks, just as Schaeffer did. And I think that there are some younger folks who are listening to the wisdom of the older folks who have been there, seen (and possibly done) that already.

    That is why I think that the hipster movement is ironic and self-defeating just as I believe the seeker-sensitive movement was self-defeating. Both movements may have diagnosed some of the problems correctly, but their treatment is/was inadequate and counter-productive because they were culturally and generationally bound. And that doesn’t even take into account the doctrinal problems…


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