A Cool Church?

Yesterday I had the chance to meet with a local pastor in my community. He leads a PCA church plant in what is arguably one of the “hipper” parts of what is, I think, a fairly “hip” city, Nashville. We drank coffee, we chatted sophisticatedly in the coffee house in the heart of this hip neighborhood whilst all around us other “hip” looking people surfed the internet and drank decaf mocha’s.

His church is “hip.” They are an eclectic bunch, and meet on Sunday afternoon rather than Sunday night, all the better for those “hip” types who sleep in. They have community groups (not cell groups) and are doing their level best to be a part of the diverse, economic mish-mash, and culturally relevant place that is East Nashville. I told him that I grew up in East Nashville, long before it was considered a “hip” place to be and that even now I live in the “pre-trendy” part, i.e. the part where there are no corner cafes or cool looking White people with black rimmed glasses ordering scones while surfing the internet on their Mac. People in my part of East Nashville are more likely to be running from police than out for a morning jog.

We talked about the pros and cons of gentrification, that delightfully complex process whereby a community goes from being a “hood” to actually having a name and a Starbucks.

He informed me that he doesn’t want his church to be “cool” and that that is not the point of church or ministry anyway.

I agree.

As much as I admire and appreciate the way folks are trying to present the gospel in a relevant way, I can’t help but notice that many of the folks paying attention, like the clientèle at my pastor friend’s church, are “hip.” I don’t mean to suggest that they aren’t sincere, or that they don’t need the gospel or anything else detrimental. It’s just that, well… I’m not sure what I mean. It just seems to me that we put a lot of effort into being relevant, and in practice it turns out that we’re just trying to be “cool.” And if you didn’t know, Blessed are the Uncool (great book by the way; the author is a personal friend).

I just don’t know if the church is supposed to be relevant in that sense of the word. Are we really supposed to be cool, hip, or trendy?

As a missionary on the front lines of “cool” i.e. the college campus, I find that most non-believers really aren’t drawn to or repelled by Christianity on the basis of the “cool factor” of our groups. To be honest, many of our groups are thoroughly “un-cool.” We play cheesy games, go to cheesy conferences, and do all kinds of things that aren’t especially appealing to those aspiring to “hipness.” Ironically, the couple of weeks we showed cool videos to talk about the gospel (including a Nooma video) the non Christians complained about it. What draws people to our groups is the same things that always have: the power of the Spirit.

Of course we should speak with intelligibility and relevance to the culture around us. I cannot but be in favor of contextualization and relevance in the articulation of the gospel. People still need to hear, “in (their) own language” the “declaration of the wondrous works of God.”

But I think we also should remember that the church is really not meant to relevant. Church is, to me, like a big slightly dysfunctional family. And families aren’t relevant; they are decidedly “un-cool.” In fact, families are somewhat embarrassing, and all the more so when you invite friends over. There are the relatives that say too much, or are too critical; the nosy aunt, the overbearing uncle. There are kids who always wait until company comes to act out, and then embarrass their parents and everyone else by having to be punished. There’s just the general weirdness that each family has that you don’t really know how to explain to an outsider, but you want to anyway, lest they think you’re too strange.

But what makes family “family” is just that strangeness. It isn’t cool, it isn’t hip and it isn’t relevant. Its home: the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in. I suspect that people are looking for a relief from being “cool.” They want a place where they can come from behind the trendy eye wear, disaffection and cynicism; a place where laughter is untainted with sarcasm, and emotions don’t have to be explored, but can simply be felt.

Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but let us spur one another on to love and good deeds. Let us not give up being the church in exchange for being cool.

Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

It has been more than a year since I began regularly attending a Korean Presbyterian Church. I sing on the praise team and play drums, participate in cell group leader training, and occasionally preach. Starting in January I will probably join the paid staff of the church.

All this time I’ve been waiting. I’ve observed some of the challenging dynamics of an intergenerational immigrant congregation. I’ve even commented on some of them here on this blog. I’ve gone on retreat, worked through the terrifyingly effective yet opaque bureaucracy of a Presbyterian church while learning the difference between elders, deacons and ordained deacons. I still don’t know who is who within the church administration. I’ve wondered over and again and prayed as to whether or not this is the place to which God has called me, since it is so far out of my previous experience, and offers little in the way of marriage opportunity (which if we would be honest, is a singularly important consideration for those of us who are not yet married).

And still I wait.

For what am I waiting? I am waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m waiting for the inevitable crash and burn, horrific dysfunctional evil Korean church drama that I’ve been warned about, read blogs about and have come to expect. I’m waiting for the church split, the dictatorial leadership, the… well, you know; all the things that are supposed to happen.

So far… nothing. Perhaps I am naïve and it is my ignorance of the language or the relative inscrutable nature of the leadership or any number of things that have blinded me to what is right before my eyes. Perhaps I have a really good pastor, or maybe I’ve never been in a church situation that is especially good, so this one doesn’t seem so bad, although I don’t think that is true.

Please, don’t get me wrong. My church has issues; plenty of them. And I am certain to run into more as I get more involved in the life of the church. And it could well be that more is coming, or that my outside insider status protects me from some of the more egregious dysfunctionalities that may lurk just below the surface.

What is different for me though, than for many of my peers and even co-parishioners is that I am indeed an outsider. As such, there are few if any expectations placed upon me by folks in the KM. In this way I can be conveniently forgiven for not adhering to all the cultural and family expectations that others in the EM experience. Likewise, I do not carry with me the burden of expectation for them. I have no family history with them and am not encumbered with the challenges of having my parents at church, with all the joy and challenge that bring.

My experience so far has not too terribly different that what I’ve encountered in other churches. There are of course, some things that are problematic that really are unique to the church and the cultural nuances therein represented. Many of the people in the EM are quite immature spiritually and otherwise. I wonder about some of the piety of the elders, and other leaders. There are some things that bug me about the church. All in all though, its been good. And I will enjoy it while it lasts. I’ve been in much worse church situations.