On Being #Christlike
WORDS BY KAYLEE TORNAY
When I first moved to Southern Oregon, a valley lush with natural beauty, adventure opportunities, and churches, I often spent the nights driving around to become familiar with my territory. On one drive, I passed a coffee shop near my apartment. I read its name, got a look at the sign and decor and instantly said (out loud, because apparently, I do that), “This is where the hipster Christians take their photos for Instagram!” The online supporting evidence was easy to find, in part because it’s intended to be. But aside from just being cheap, there is another reason I hesitate to spend time in coffee shops like these ones: a familiar pressure I have encountered in similar spaces to look a certain way and say certain things.
This same pressure can sometimes extend to Sunday mornings. I can recall times in fellowship in particular communities where the aesthetics of the place played a key role in the identity of the church and the people that attended. And I remember times when those communities, despite how good they looked, felt cold and my priorities would shift from a desire to worship, to a desire to belong.
Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve experienced hipster church culture for years ― this increasing parallelism between many Christians my age and an identifiable aesthetic. It could be called minimalist, although its price tag rarely agrees. It almost always incorporates some combination of trees, unvarnished woodwork, mountains, beanies, flannel, and coffee. Socality Barbie's Instagram can testify to the depth and breadth of these dynamics.
Liking the things listed above isn’t wrong, of course, and can certainly look beautiful online and off. But there’s something uneasy about a Christian community or culture that is almost uniformly cool. Because coolness, whatever it looks like, is indicative of a few things: it suggests not only control of image but also social capital, it is exclusive because it hangs on uniqueness and originality, and it requires deliberate awareness of the cultural or social paradigms of an intended audience.
Embracing beauty or being aware of what’s changing in the world in terms of styles in clothing, music, or slang is by no means an innately bad thing for a church. In fact, it’s vital to a large degree ― I’ve grown up wrestling with discomfort with churches that, conversely, felt as though they wouldn't yield to changing social climates. But focusing specifically on less traditional and often younger churches here, the question I find myself asking, both collectively and individually, is: How do we avoid lifting the aspiration of being cool and current above our aspiration to be like Christ?
One thing that makes me question our intentions is that cool Christianity can start to look pretty darn similar to the world. I’ll stress again that appreciating natural beauty or certain styles of clothing or behavior are not bad in and of themselves; the questions arise when churches’ dominant public images truly start to look and sound the same as the rest of the world.
More and more traditional churches are frantically and confusingly trying to adopt aspects of this. While perusing local church websites, I noticed almost every one of them incorporated photo backgrounds of tree-covered mountains ― sometimes not even Oregon ones, but just unexplained stock photos of forests and lakes. Again, I simply wonder what the heart of identifying the church with these things? Is it intentional? It might be. Or is it the simple appeal of the popular aesthetic?
Here’s why I think these questions matter: popular aesthetics will at times have to die for Jesus’ ministry, which was full of messy and uncomfortable moments that were not “early A.D. Jewish cool.” Jesus used saliva to make mud to heal blindness, he stood up in a crowd to yell about being the giver of living water and he carefully washed a dozen men’s dirty feet one by one, to their initial embarrassment. He embraced society’s rejects and its rejection in complete humility.
His example leads us, as his followers, to consider carefully the heart behind our strategies to appeal to young believers or young nonbelievers. If coolness itself (which, although it may begin unintentionally, is rarely maintained unintentionally) takes undue precedence in church, we’ll wander away from a Christlike and welcoming heart and toward rejecting newcomers or even our own members who don’t fit in with the dominant culture (the same warning applies, of course, to church bodies where tradition or legalism are threats ― none of us are doing this perfectly!)
A tool to check our hearts against the pursuit of cool is found in 1 Corinthians 1, where, as usual, the Father’s heart is measured against the heart of people. The whole chapter covers this theme, but verses 27-29 are particularly succinct:
“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things ― and the things that are not ― to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”
Foolish, weak, lowly and despised won’t get us the most likes or followers ― but that’s what legitimate #authenticity includes. As individuals composing a body that’s ever growing, we ought to remember the humble heart of our King in considering who we are and aren't making feel welcome. After all, His welcoming heart is why we even get to be part of his body, the church.
Aside from this reminder, the Word also provides countless examples of who we can and should exalt as cool, and why. 2 Kings 6:8-23, Exodus 14, John 11:38-44 or 1 Kings 18:16-46, to name a few.
It’s important to note: in all of these stories, human roles are minimal. The people may be faithful in prayer or obedient. In Lazarus's case, his only role was being dead. But cool? Not so much. The Word aligns our hearts to honor and exalt God as the cool, or ourselves.
As usual, our goal is in the delicate and righteous balance that only God perfectly sustains; we will all fall short. We do good things by creating beautiful spaces ― and we must also create space for the unbeautiful parts of a walk with Jesus. We ought to be woke and current ― and we must also examine our hearts’ intentions in doing so.
When we stray, 1 Corinthians provides the roadmap back. We can always start by listening: to the foolish, the weak, the lowly, the despised and the ones who the world says “are not” by exclusion and isolation. We can invite them to be, just as they are, with us. In doing so, we’ll also be blessed to remember when the filters, color palettes, and hashtags are stripped away, coolness itself will never lend us an advantage, anyway. And that’s where we’ll begin again to truly see Jesus as the most beautiful of all.