Reading Brett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity piqued my interest in how to refrain from making worship “cool.” It’s a temptation that we all fall into, as worship has suddenly become something that is commodified and has a market value. The fact that people may pay $30-40 to go worship with a cool worship band as opposed to a free worship band (e.g. the one at your church) has created a whole new value for worship. The worship of God, at least in the American church, now has a monetary and cultural value, and with value comes the “cool” factor. Worship has become branded with bands like people buy brand name clothes. I wanted to hear from Brett on this issue, so we sat down at our respective computers and had a chat about it.
Thomas: So, after reading your book it really got me thinking about hipster Christianity and worship, because for me as a creative person who coordinates some of the liturgy for the church I attend I have notions about how to frame worship, mostly from an ancient-future perspective. It made me wonder about the whole advent of CCM that came about because of the Jesus Movement, and how our worship is a cultural response, not just a spiritual response.
Brett: Yeah, totally.
Thomas: So, I guess my first question is, how do you see cool/hip influence worship in the church today?
Brett: Well, I think a lot of it has to do with what you just said about the “cultural response vs. spiritual response” shift that happened when “Christian music” became an industry that tried to compete with, or at least copy, the styles of the broader world. The emphasis on worship music in the church thus began a shift in the “seeker-sensitive” direction—away from hymns and songs full of complicated theology or difficult-to-sing harmonies, etc.—toward a more simple chords, simply lyrics, path-of-least resistance approach. It became this thing that could be used to attract people to the church, to get them in the door. Worship music in the church became something that was asked to “do” rather than just “be,” if that makes any sense.
In terms of cool/hip specifically, I think they influence the music greatly. When you get in this mindset of “what does the audience want to hear?” then you begin to select music that is “on trend” and reflective of what is cool at the moment. Basically, it makes the music much more disposable and quickly replaceable. It’s all about “what’s next.” Songs sung a few years ago like “God of Wonders” are hardly ever sung these days, because it’s passe to be singing something that was trendy 8 years ago.
Thomas: Yeah, worship seems to have this trickle down effect where worship music is on a delay. David Crowder listens to Sufjan Stevens, then covers a song, then it gets picked up by worship leaders, then people worship to it.
Thomas: Meanwhile Sufjan’s put out another album by then, and no one who worships to “O God Where Are You Now?” even knows who he is.
Brett: [Laughing] yeah. This is one of the problems with a “what is cool”-based methodology of worship music. It’s always behind trend. As long as you are actively trying to be with the trends, you’ll always be reactive and not proactive. So, a better route I think is to be trying to innovate and create new things, rather than reacting to or chasing after that which is deemed trendy or cool at the moment.
Thomas: So, culture making, in other words?
Thomas: What do you think people involved in the worship practice of a church need to learn or unlearn when it comes to how we let culture affect our worship?
Brett: I think we need to attempt to shift our focus away from a utilitarian view of music in worship that looks at music in this cause-effect model (some call it the “hammer approach”). The cause-effect model wants music to be this “performance” that somehow attracts outsiders. Rather, I think we should look at worship more as a “window into heaven” or just a reflection of what the saints are called to do: worship God. It should be less about what’s cool and more about “is this praising God?” I think we need to stop worrying so much about whether the congregation is liking it or enjoying it (though to some extent we must think of this) and more about whether it is turning us toward God and the cross.
Thomas: I think that’s a good way to put it. An example from my own church: there is an Armenian family at our church and one of their sons played the doumbek, and Armenian instrument in church one day. It was a bit out of place, a rock band and some Armenian percussion, but I look back on that and wonder why are we stuck in rock band mold? Should we begin to let the church community shape worship in unexpected ways?
Brett: Oh, definitely. I am always wondering to myself when I go to evangelical churches across the country: “Why am I only seeing this homogeneous, 5-piece U2-esque electric guitar sound?” Why are we only singing these soaring, emotional, me-centered Hillsong anthems? Can’t we do better than this, experiment with our own home-grown talents, explore the rich hymns of yesteryear in new and interesting ways?”
It’s strange to me that we’ve sort of landed on this very specific “rock band mold” as you put it. Why did we land here, and why is our conception of contemporary worship music so narrow?
Thomas: I think part of it is that copying is the destroyer of creativity. We go to conferences to copy successful churches, we listen to certain musicians to copy successful music, and we read certain books to copy successful theology. We don’t care about the local or genuine, we just care about the success. What ways do you see to bring creativity back into the church?
Brett: Well, one of the things I talk about in the book is the need for pastors and church leaders to come to a more honest understanding of what they like and why they like it. I think we need to evaluate and train our tastes, so that we can have a more mature, developed sense of appreciating art and culture rather than just “trying to like” what the populace says should be liked. So, instead of saying “the kids love such-and-such worship style; I want our band to try to play songs in that style,” I think a pastor or worship leader should say: “Hey band members, what music moves and inspires us as creative people? What do we like to create and perform?” I think we need to put more of an emphasis ourselves as artists rather than as hired hands meant to give the audience what it wants. Not that I think we should be narcissistic or anything, just that perhaps we should be more personal and honest about the whole process by emphasizing vision, innovation and creativity.
Some of the best church worship music I saw on my church research trips were the ones that really seemed to be organic and true to their own congregation’s tastes and talents. At Resurrection Presbyterian in Brookyln (the church pastored by The Welcome Wagon guy, Vito Aiuto), the music was of the same low-fi folk, hymns-on-banjo style of the whole Sufjan Brooklyn community. Another good example I would say is Mars Hill in Seattle. They have different bands play at their different campuses, and they are all just organic, self-made bands that have widely variant styles (math-rock, hard-rock, acoustic, etc..). They were sort of given free reign to create experimental worship music, often covering hymns in their own distinct styles.
Thomas: Music is so important to set the tone for a creative church, because a church can then embody the music instead of being spectators before a band. Pushing it further, how then do you see the worship music intersecting with the other elements of worship like preaching, prayer, and communion?
Brett: I think all of those elements are “worship,” and should (ideally) be integrated in some sort of cohesive way. The music we sing should interact with the preaching topic, the prayers being offered, etc. I’m a big fan of churches that are mindful of the church calendar, playing music and reading prayers that are specific to the church season (Lent, Advent, Easter, Pentecost, etc.). I think in general it’s just better to be more thoughtful in picking out music that reflects the other worship elements in a service, both in musical tone and lyrical content.
Thomas: Last question: in your book you implore Christians to be counter-cultural, but not necessarily “cool.” How can worship become counter-cultural?
Brett: Great question. I think being counter-cultural in worship just means being fiercely devoted to who God is and the fact that he is God and I am not. It means being passionately deferential and active in the constant, probing process of meditating on—and responding to through our own creative means—the attributes of God. It means caring little for whether or not we are “on trend” but caring instead that we are facilitating a culture that is honestly, creatively seeking God through its worship praxis. But also, and I think this is important to remember, it means that we rightly understand the broader universal church and seek unity and diversity through it whenever we can. This means that we find a balance between the local (our own individual culture of worship) and the global (the “common songs” and universal liturgies that bind us together as Christians). It means we have to fight against our western obsession with individualism and “what I want” and sometimes put the community above ourselves. We are Christians in community, and our worship should reflect collaboration and unity.
You can read my review of Brett’s new book Hipster Christianity here.
If you don’t know whether you’re a Christian hipster or not, you can take a quiz on the Hipster Christianity website.