Recently GQ published a well written article titled “What Would Cool Jesus Do?” The article chronicled Taffy Brodesser-Akner as she shadowed Justin Bieber and Carl Lentz (pastor).
The moment of conversion I found endearing and authentic. My critique of the themes in this article are not with “Did Justin Bieber get saved?”, “Are people at Hillsong type churches Christian’s?”. This is a realm I don’t want to tread on, as I’ve seen God’s spirit show up in the stodgiest of places and the most progressive of places. I’m no judge of what happened in the heart of young Bieber.
The logical knee-jerk argument often tossed about whenever one critiques a church like Hillsong is “but God is using them”. I’m not interested in the ‘ends justify the means’ type of conversation. We too often emphasize the most obvious, pragmatic cultural signs of success. Albert Einstein said, “That which counts is often the most difficult to count.” I’ve found this to be true. Our location in a post-industrial, Western, efficiency-economy has influenced our framework for ministry.
We are conditioned to think in terms of verifiable stock-market type results, seeing churches like machines.
We tweak this program and adjust that presentation, add some marketing, throw in a great personality, crunch the numbers; an “if you do this, you get that” mentality. I’d rather confront our contemporary assumptions about what it means to be the church.
The grief that welled up for me as I moved through the article has to do with the larger landscape this story situates in. I don’t question the sincerity of Pastor Lentz and crew. I’m not tossing suspicion that behind closed doors the leaders of Hillsong NYC are monsters or money mongers. As one who has been employed in settings similar to Hillsong, often leaders in these environments are passionate, sincere, and are fueled by faith convictions.
The grief I feel is the larger phenomenon that erodes the nervous system of the Church and its ensuing consequences on fan boys and fan girls.
I’ve attended two Hillsong worship gatherings now. I’ll tell you what, it’s hard not to feel something. The sheer sensory overload is inescapable. The crowds, the wall of sound, the precise communication and the ridiculously good looking people gracing the stage… gosh I felt cooler just being there.
Attending Hillsong tells you something about what is unconsciously drawing thousands of people to these events every week.
I believe the fear of the ordinary is what is rallying young adults into the vortex of hipster versions of this uber cool church construction. Many of us have a nervous anxiety about our personal impact on the world, experiencing an inner apocalypse around what it means to matter in our social stratosphere. This anxiety disfigures how we personally measure our footprint and I contend that Hillsong’s presentation-culture mirrors this paranoia. Hillsong’s self-exaltation is what “the people want” because it’s what they crave in their own personal lives.
In my humble opinion, Hillsong merely mimics the terrorized ego that causes us to be utterly afraid of being ordinary.
Hillsong is anything but ordinary and it’s attendees want to be anything but ordinary. No matter what is said from the stage the packaging screams extra-ordinary to the world. Hillsong is designed as a spectator event. Everyone expects the people on stage to perform while they watch the spotlighted musicians deliver their well-rehearsed presentations. The gravitational pull, the attractive force, the sensational veneer is what makes its mark, let’s be honest, without it there is no Hillsong, its what keeps people addicted to event-culture. The people in the pews know they pale in comparison to the dynamic personalities holding the microphones. The medium is louder than the message.
The medium is “the experience” which establishes a consumer oriented relationship.
The product is so good, so sexy, so moving, so refined that this covertly becomes the magnet. Consumerism tricks us into believing that we will find deeper meaning by imbibing something that makes us feel, feel something, feel profoundly. Through consumption, we search for meaning.
On the surface what we consume appears to move us deeply but it has very little transformational qualities, let alone discipleship qualities. In the long run it mitigates discipleship because on a weekly basis we’re already receiving the sensational return we’re looking for.
We must rebel against being mesmerized by what is sensational. The Apostle Paul shares his own resistance to being sensational when he says to the church in Corinth “You’ll remember, friends, that when I first came to you to declare the testimony of God’s work, I did not try to impress you with polished speeches and eloquence. I deliberately kept it plain: who Jesus is and what he did—Jesus crucified. I came to you in weakness, feeling inadequate; if you want the truth of it I was unimpressive…” (1 Cor 1:1–4 msg)
A church like Hillsong might in theory agree with that passage but in practice not so much. We are panic stricken by the prospect of being boring and unimpressive. We are clawing, reaching for any quantifiable sensation that something special is happening.
We are frightened of being ordinary, even claustrophobic by the mundane.
Yet it’s in the mundane that God’s Kingdom is most present, beckoning us to listen and look beyond the most obvious noise. Hillsong is not a collision with the messy, raw, minimalistic, clumsy people of God portrayed in the letters of the Apostle Paul.
What is profound when it comes to the vitality of the 1st Century church is its minimalism; it’s stripped down quality, leaning on the ordinary essentials. At places like Hillsong I’m not sure they’re acutely aware to how buildings, budgets, bands and big personalities can easily crowd out the DNA of the 1st Century Church.
As a whole, commitment to an ordinary community of Jesus-followers, committed to the genuine discipleship path of Jesus is traded for commitment to a sensational faith brand.
A Hillsong worship service is an escape into an out-of-this-world polished experience, convenient for consumption that offers a scrumptious emotional surge.
The Desert Father’s called this the demon of Acedia – that raging desire to escape from the ordinary. Acedia was described as a state of listlessness, leading to a state of being unable to place value on what is embarrassingly ordinary. The demon of Acedia holds an important place in early monastic psychology. The Desert Father John Cassian observed this heart sickness that would come over monks who lived dwelling on an “ideal” all day. It made them have increasing disdain and reduced commitment to the everyday discipleship with their brethren. I’ll say it again…we’re frightened of ordinariness.
I felt the tragedy of young Bieber’s career; caught in a world of vanity, perfection, personality branding and constant performance while the ecclesiology (the structure of being the church) he inhabits unintentionally baptizes many of the same values.
Alan Wolfe, political science professor at Boston College, describes this cool church movement best when he writes, “American faith has met American culture—and American culture has triumphed.”
Pop-culture places the anxious “self” at the center of existence.
Our cultural language focuses on the self. How can I feel better about me? How can my career advance? How do I appear to others? I’ve listened to a few Hillsong messages, so it might not be an exhaustive sample but even though “Jesus” is preached, preoccupation with the self is still cozy at the center, driving the subconscious environment. Many are squirming under the weight of apprehending and self-generating a preferred image.
The Prosperity Gospel marketed to Millennials is not cars and money, it’s the fulfillment of personal aspirations.
Evangelicals have a deeply neurotic relationship with popular culture and the celebrity world. We’ve elevated these cultures so much that we can’t imagine the church making an impact without leveraging them.
What does sensational packaging do to the substance of belief, and what does embracing celebrity culture do to the product of discipleship?