Two hipsters in skinny jeans walk out of Invision Church’s downtown Portland satellite campus evening worship gathering, sipping their lattes and arguing about who really liked that band/style/artist before they became popular.* They head over to a friend’s house, guzzle some PBR, and talk about empire, deconstructionism, and current internet memes. Through these activities they find a camaraderie in their similarities and develop a strong community commitment to one another. It is both the best and the worst of what the church can be.
As humans we are wonderful adept at dividing ourselves up into groups. Nationalities, races, wealth, geography, and a plethora of other criteria help us in alienating ourselves from each other. This isn’t entirely evil; it can be argued that this instinct causes us to bond deeply with a finite number of persons thus allowing for culturally unique identities and limiting what would be an overwhelming task of trying to have complex relationships with every person we meet. However, we must also recognize that these boundary lines can be deeply destructve by causing an “us vs. them” community mentality and can work appropriate against diversity in the Christian church.
It would be deeply dishonest to claim that this is somehow merely an issue of the church focusing on young adults. The reality is that this is the primary manner in which evangelicalism is finding its feet in an increasingly multi-genre nation: an unending sea of separate niches. Each church seeking to finding a different demographic in which to serve gathers people together who think the same way about the same topics and call it a church. The reason that this has been such a standard part of the evangelical movement is because it works. In most church planting preparation guides the steps of identifying a demographic and then developing a strategy to reach that demographic are considered foundational in the accepted formula of success. The big problem with this formula is that instead of following the wall shattering mission of Jesus it tends to opt for the tribal nature of human relationships.
Once a church has established its niche (be it hipster, republican, traditional, contemporary, punk, etc.)the birth of more niche churches begins. Although the niche church will welcome visitors and won’t require that they join the church genre, a zeitgeist is a powerful thing and will likely either pull the visitor in or push them out. The result is the eventual niche planting/transition of another church to fill the needs of the ones who didn’t fit in the other niche churches around them.
Looking back at Invision Church we can see that this community has developed under a sub-genre category in attempt to reach a group of people who may have been “unreached” previously or who were less than happy with the cultural dynamic of the churches they were in. Regrettably one tragic result of this attempt may be the adding of fuel to the exponential niche sprawl. The churches which some of Invision’s members used to belong have only two options: strengthen their niche or slowly bleed members into the growing number of other niches.
Some of the consequences of this movement have been obvious (increasing celebrity pastors, normalization of church shopping, et.). However, I believe two issues stand above the rest.
1. A lack of diversity in the church
There will always be some theological differences which divide churches from each other. However, the issue here is a lack of cultural and age diversity within churches which have no significant theological conflicts. The zeal of youth and the wisdom of seniors are separated causing both to lose something important. The artistic passion of one group misses the theological devotion of another. The beauty of cultural distinctions are kept from being celebrated by those who may never see them. The development of true community that transcends these chasms is held at bay due to a difference of styles in music, aesthetics, preaching, entertainment, and a variety of other factors. This hurts not only our ability to grow and serve in a healthy manner but also our ability to witness effectively because our churches look no different than the rest of the world; full of people unwilling or unable to live with those who are different than them.
2. The growth of the niche-Jesus
This is the most troubling aspect of all. I have only been witness to this in a few churches but I am convinced it is more prominent than we are likely seeing. The more developed a group becomes in its differences to others, the more it seems to form Jesus in a similar image. Jesus is seen as one who lifts up the values of that community above the rest; a cheerleader of sorts. He becomes cool to the cool church and traditional to the traditional church. He stops offering a prophetic voice that says, “It’s not just about you and your niche. It’s about something bigger than that. It’s about the kingdom.”
Jesus doesn’t’ call us to become contemporary, traditional, loud, quiet, completive, or even hipster. He calls us to join his kingdom and join with others who will do the same; regardless of their cultural differences. If Jesus’ kingdom is full of people who are so different from each other then shouldn’t our churches be as well?
I like hipsters. I like Bocce ball, gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, and independent music. I don’t like Pabst Blue Ribbon but I can look past that. I just want to be able to do church with an old guy on my left who gets the hymns he so loves and a hipster on my right who gets the spoken word he digs. That seems like a glimpse of the kingdom to me.
*Invision Church is a fictional community not designed to reflect any real church. If that happens to be your church’s real name then congratulations, you just got some free publicity.