The heart of the matter, says Brett McCracken, is "whether or not Christianity can be, or should be, or is, in fact, cool."
Author of Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, McCracken is a self-proclaimed "Christian hipster." In a book and website, he explores the "complex, vast, chameleonic nature of hipsters" and how this classification of person — embodying a very particular cultural identity — can interact with the Christian faith.
Living a hip lifestyle can be really cool, he says in our interview, "but what is more cool is the message of Jesus Christ. That's really cool."
But What Is It?
Hipster Christianity has been touted in a variety of places — from the Wall Street Journal to Details magazine. As a student of comparative religion — and an intern at NPR — I have been intrigued by the intersection of society and faith. So I set out to explore the question: What exactly is hipster Christianity?
"I think we all know what hipsters are," McCracken says. "In the last decade, the word and phenomenon of hipsterdom has taken a hold on the culture. Hipster Christianity is the Christian manifestation of that — people with esoteric interests going against the grain."
One of the hallmarks of hipster Christianity, he says, is a conscious separation from the connotations of traditional fundamentalism and evangelical Christianity. "You often see these hipster churches have a deliberate distancing," McCracken says. "The music that is played is not your grandmother's hymn; it's like indie rock or whatever. It's not hard to find a hipster worship that sounds more like Arcade Fire than a hymn."
And there is a "renewed emphasis on aesthetics and beauty and culture," he says. "As Christians, we should be advocating for the best fashion and the best art. If it's good for everyone, we have to embrace it. There's an integration of that into church and worship."
Hillsong Church NYC
Perhaps the epicenter of what McCracken terms hipster Christianity is Hillsong Church NYC in downtown New York City. Services are held every Sunday in a rock 'n' roll concert hall, often with queues of hundreds tucked around several blocks. One of the church's "bouncers" told me that sometimes they don't have enough space to accommodate everyone for worship.
At the two services I attended recently, the crowd was racially diverse, tattooed, pierced and looking as if they belonged in an art gallery or punk-rock band.
One of the main pastors at Hillsong NYC is Carl Lentz, a 35-year-old former college athlete who sports leather jackets and tattoos and is known to be close to several celebrities, including Justin Bieber.
When asked about McCracken's terminology, Lentz bristles a little. "Can you help me know what a hipster is?" Lentz asks. "I can more accurately answer if I knew — I don't think I am a hipster, and I don't think my church is a hipster church."
He adds, "If by hipster you mean young, funky, artist-y people, then, sure, that's there. ... Our church is an example of a new way of articulating something in a way that people can understand."
For one thing, the dress code is casual. For another, the church looks a lot like a night club — because it is one. "It's a rock 'n' roll venue," Lentz says, "so the look of the church is natural. It's a mixture of being a celebration and an encounter. And most people in New York feel most comfortable in a nightclub anyway, so why not?"
On occasion, the church promotes "beer summits" to bring believers together. "We have connect groups that meet anywhere," Lentz says, "maybe a bar, at someone's house, there's different ways — a church is a way for people to go out, not just come in."
Christmas In New York
And the holidays are treated a little differently at Hillsong NYC. "Our carols are way cooler than you've experienced," Lentz says. A visitor is "more likely to hear Mariah Carey ... than carols by candlelight."
For Lentz, the seasonal message is this: "Everything we do during Christmas, it shouldn't just be at Christmas. Go to where the hurting people are, go to the suffering, and help them. We do give-away. We cook dinner and eat with families. We have coat drives, soup kitchen, a lot of outreaches. I pray our church isn't that different at Christmas than any other time."
Churchgoer Dionne Dilks says she likes the way Hillsong has turned the idea of Christmas giving into "giving back to our community."
She points to the toy drives and prison ministry. "Hillsong, I really do feel, is about helping and growing the community in a positive and continued growth — in spreading the word, love and support."
Hipster Or Not
Maybe, in the end, it doesn't really matter if Hillsong's brand of Christianity is hipster or not.
"I'm never quite sure what people mean when they refer to Hillsong as a 'hipster' church," says Rebecca Wong, 23, who does public relations for an airbrush makeup company and serves as a youth ministry leader at Hillsong. "I suppose fashionwise it makes sense, because everyone comes as they are. Some just happen to be the type who feel good in tight pants and long beards."
But more important, Wong says, people probably use the "hipster" term "because they need a word to grasp the freedom that they see in the members."
There is at Hillsong "a heightened level of acceptance," Wong says, "that's foreign to so many people — especially in New York, where we rarely take the time to learn someone's name unless they're a potential business connection."
She adds, "If the term 'hipster' is supposed to describe the cool factor associated with Hillsong, then I definitely don't think it does it justice. The real cool factor is grace. That's something everyone there is striving to understand. Grace is undeserved favor — a gift we've all been given freely."