Uncool is the new “cool”

Last week I read a post that I have been thinking about a lot. It resounded with me and was a great encouragement to me and my wife. The article is “Is Your Church Too Cool?” by Rachel Held Evans.

She had me in the opening paragraphs:

How a pursuit of relevance can undermine authentic community.

People sometimes assume that because I’m a progressive 30-year-old who enjoys Mumford and Sons and has no children, I must want a super-hip church—you know, the kind that’s called “Thrive” or “Be,” and which boasts “an awesome worship experience,” a fair-trade coffee bar, its own iPhone app and a pastor who looks like a Jonas brother.

While none of these features are inherently wrong (and can of course be used by good people to do good things), these days I find myself longing for a church with a cool factor of about 0.

That’s right.

I want a church that includes fussy kids, old liturgy, bad sound, weird congregants and—brace yourself—painfully amateur “special music” now and then.

Wow! This is huge! This is from Relevant Magazine and starts with the opening header “How a pursuit of relevance can undermine authentic community.” It seems a little onxymoric that Relevant Magazine would write against the pursuit of relevance.

However, the relevance that is called in the article for is reality. I believe that Rachel is calling for a movement that is the counterculture of “perceived” relevance. Instead of polished, produced, and professional worship services, she is calling for real people with real problems and quirks, non-professional singing voices, and crying babies. She notes that we are all “uncool”. This is very different from the artificial culture that we have tried to create to “reach” this very same demographic.

This relevance has lead us to a performance-based worship mentality. The demands for technical excellence of those of broadcast media are thrust upon our weekend tech crew. Our soloists are held to a standard of only the best American Idol singers. Those that fall short of a certain level of perfection are no longer able to contribute to the body.

She also noted the story of a large church that had asked a disabled child to be removed from a service because of their desire for a “distraction free” service. I worship at a church where we have a special needs individual sits on the front row every week, and often times is distracting. I am thrilled that no one thinks anything about it.

The millennial generation is one that is striving for authenticity. Even marketers have blogged about “Being Real” when marketing to millennials. They(like Rachel) know when people are trying to sell them something.

I believe that our current church culture has been driven by relevance in many ways: from our music, to the way we dress, to our performance expectations. We have added technology, flashing lights, edgy countdowns, and even secular music in many cases to appeal to the culture. Travis Cottrell had a great quote at our Worship 4:24 conference “Real worship always trumps slick technology”. Let’s be worshipers who are not dependent on technology or the latest music (sacred or secular), but people who really worship in spirit and truth (John 4:24).

20 comments to Uncool is the new “cool”

  • Thanks for the good article, I was researching for details like this, going to check out the other articles.

  • Joe Brosious

    So nice to know I may be cool again someday!
    One of the questions I have been asking myself is how do we bring in the wonderful and inviting aspects of modern worship while still staying true to the history and traditions of our worship. Thanks for getting the gears turning!

    • Roger

      Joe, agreed!

      I think that knowing the history and traditions are really important, and knowing the history can certainly inform our “modern” worship. Many churches are rediscovering things from the past that are still relevant today.

  • Wes Morgan

    I agree with her. I find it distracting that all of this focus is put on “producing” a meaningful worship time so that we can attract people to come to our church. Here’s just a few thought on it:
    -Aren’t we supposed to attract people to come to church outside of church?
    -What will a visitor think when they see that our worship time is just like a rock concert?
    -What needs to change in our worship so that when a visitor comes they will see the power of Christ in our worship?

  • Roger

    Wes, good questions. I think there should be balance in all things, but we have gotten some things out of balance. And yes, it should all be about Christ, not our version of relevancy.

  • Sam DeLoye

    I believe that many churches sacrifice authentic worship on the alter of relevance. The article in relevant magazine was so true. Church will always be church. There should be crying babies and occasional mediocre specials. These aspects of our worship help us remember that we are human. We make mistakes. When our worship is always perfect, it is easy to focus only on the music. When there are occasional mistakes and miscues, they take our focus off of ourselves and remind us of God’s perfection. Church is not meant to be perfect and relevant; it is mean to be real and worshipful. When the worship music is not up to par, I am challenged to turn my attention to my creator. When the music is spectacular, it is easy to allow the music to create an emotional reaction, making me think that I am worshiping.
    Don’t get me wrong, I think that excellence in worship should be actively pursued, but as a worship leader, I must remember that worship will not always be perfection. But even in our imperfection, God makes himself known to His children.

  • Grant McCurdy

    In many of our class discussions and countless mealtime conversations my friends and I have debated the issues relevance and authenticity. I am passionate about the subject, yet undecided on my opinion. On one hand I agree that an overproduced show is repulsive as a worship service, however I don’t believe the levitical priesthood that we read about in the hold testament has “mediocre music.” In fact it seems biblical to guess they would have leaned toward a formal performance for Gods glory. Still, church should be an authentic place of sanctuary, not an environment where we feel the need to produce a perfect facade. So there obviously must be a balance somewhere here.

    Perhaps I am simply being swept into a hip contemporary trend, but I must say I feel like house church community based churches are achieving this balance very well. As an example, I have been very impressed with Apex’s focus on the authenticity of small group community- where everything is relaxed. Facades are thrown away and replaced by genuine accountability and laid back interactions. However on Sunday mornings, Apex runs a very professional (though not over indulgent) service. They use videos for announcements and testimonies, which could come across as impersonal, however it really communicates efficiently and helps the service to flow well. Their music is performed very well, and I have never heard a mediocre special. However, at house church I do feel the authenticity that the writer of this article desires.

    All this being said, I suppose my point is that finding a balance doesn’t necessarily mean settling for sub-par Sunday services. However, I certainly am opposed to a church where the emphasis is higher on consumer oriented performances than discipleship and community.

    • Alex Grodkiewicz

      I agree with most of what you say, but I don’t think the writer of the article is necessarily going for that kind of cool, in fact (in my opinion obviously) she seems to be looking not for cool, but gospel centrality, whether she knows it or not. The sad fact is that a lot of modern churches which are “cool” are totally lacking in the Gospel (the big picture Gospel, not the specific Gospel story) Apex is doing a fantastic balance, like you mentioned, but the difference of Apex is that it’s not focused around the cool; it comes across as cool because it uses it’s people in a way that is glorifying to God. Got videographers? Have them make videos to use there gifts for God and the church. Got graphic designers? same thing. Apex isn’t concerned about cool it just happens. If suddenly what was “cool” changed and they weren’t doing it I don’t think they would change much. A lot of churches have it backwards though the idea is that “if we’re cool enough, then we can glorify God better” which, obviously, is totally not true…Paul was pretty much the opposite of cool yet he was concerned about living out the Gospel.

      bottom line: If you’re concerned about the Gospel first and foremost and “coolness” either happens or is incorporated that’s great, but If you’re concerned about the “coolness” before the gospel then there’s a problem.

      gotta’ say too: sooner or later it’s not going to be “cool” to be a Christian no matter what you do, and sooner or later all we’re going to have is the gospel to hang on to.

  • Jordan Redfield

    Since I agree with a lot of what’s already been said, I’ll attempt to not just repeat ideas that have already been given, I’ll share a couple a slightly different thought.
    I think the worshiper’s elements, culture, and resources are all important factors that can be considered here. I think it’s possible that this issue of having “cool” worship services is really only an issue in modern, wealthy churches, particularly in America (though not exclusively). While I do think it’s important to offer our very best in worship to God, I think that is only relevant to the extent of our reasonable capabilities, considering our assets. If anyone wants to tell me that God is more pleased with a smoothly run, professional, “crying baby-free”, worship service than he is with one around a campfire of passionate children with an out of tune guitar, they are free to do so. But I won’t believe them.
    The early church wasn’t (and any persecuted body isn’t) worried about disabled children interrupting their worship services, they were worried about soldiers coming with permission to kill or arrest them. But they were still there, because gathering as a body to worship was THAT important to them. That is true worship, and that’s what we need to seek after.

  • Jacob Tudor

    When it comes to the issues of relevance and authenticity, I believe I would have to agree with Grant when I say that I am undecided on my opinion. It’s clear that in Biblical cultures, music was both amateur and professional.

    We read in the Bible that music of the Temple was formal and organized-professional. “Singers who should play loudly on musical instruments, on harps and lyres and cymbals, to raise sounds of joy”-1 Chronicles 15:16, control of the music was based on talent-1 Chronicles 15:22, and the number of professional musicians used by David was 288-1 Chronicles 25:7.

    In addition, music references are also seen by the early Church in the New Testament. However, music is no longer professional, but congregassional and amateur.

    When it comes to worship in my Church, there is a great variety of professionals and non-professionals leading the congregation in worship. There are those who have studied music for many years, those who have not studied music but have been greatly gifted nonetheless, those who may not be the most talented musicians, but use their passion to glorify God anyways, etc. Although the use of technology may come across as adding to a performance, I don’t believe it to be one at all, and it’s obvious: I know that the hearts of the the people engaging the congregation are in the right place, and the response of the congregation shows true authenticity and God at work in the hearts of the people. In addition-thee are many ways people become personally and intimately connected in the Church Family. Through many, many ministries in the Church and the community, and also through countless small groups (basically the same idea as “house churches” at Apex).

    But with this all said, I know that anything offered up to God can become and act of worship. All in all, the debate between the issue of relevance and authenticity is an on-going one that I think ultimately rests in the heart of those leading worship. Leading worship isn’t something that is done because you are the most talented musician or even the worst! it is done because you are called. Whether the person called is greatly gifted in music or not is not the issue- what is important is that that person responds to this calling. And with this I believe authenticity will be found in worship.

  • MIchael Pettus

    A lot of the Churches today have completely switched their focus from the congregation to the show on stage. Services are becoming more of an observation than a call to join with ordinary people in praising our unordinary Savior. I believe that when we add more and more theatrical components to the stage we take away the personal atmosphere of united worship. For what it’s worth, I am in no way against the use of “dramatic lighting” and sorts. But when it comes to the point that people’s responses and feeling of involvement in the service are dwindling, then that is when we have gone to far. When people no longer sing in the congregation because all of the singers on stage are just too perfect and too rehearsed then that is when it becomes a show. Worship was NEVER meant to be a show (that’s a concert). Worship is meant to be a personal reflection of Christ. When only “perfect” congregational members are selected to be on stage or have key roles in the Church’s management, then we have completely lost touch with the call of the role of the members of the Church. In the beginning of His ministry Jesus didn’t select the perfect, well respected, good looking Jewish men to be His disciples. He chose common, everyday people who could relate with the people that He ministered to. In our churches we need to manage to stay current with the generation of lights and sound, without compromising the sole purpose of worship and Church ministry.

  • Roger

    Great comments guys!

    @Sam – so right, God speaks to us even with our imperfections.

    @Grant – totally agree – balance is key!

    @Jordan – you are right culture and resources to play a part in what we consider relevant, but those really don’t matter to God

    @Jacob – agree! it is all about response and the heart, not the talent

    @Michael – right on, it is so easy to communicate “show” when that is so not the point.

  • Caleb Gordon

    I think that we often forget why we worship in the first place. This article definitely hits some of the ideas that its not about how great we are, but how great God is. Like many said before in the above comments, its about the heart behind the worship, about the obedience that is in worship. I have seen, and many have talked about, the idea of authentic worship. Our generation is obsessed with truth and authenticity so much so that every part of our lives have to be “authentic”.
    Our time of worship, both together and separately, is a time of pouring our hearts our to God. If that means amazing music ability and vocals, or even if it is out of tune no music background what so ever. True worship is worshiping the one true God with our whole heart, in spirit and in truth. (John 4:23-24)

  • Jonathan Holman

    I think she is right, but we can’t assume that because a church is “too Cool” that it is not doing what it needs to be doing. I have seen many churches place a lot of focus on being trendy and hip and a lot of them are extremely good at impacting their communities. I have also seen many churches that pride themselves in the fact that they are not cool, and have a very poor ministry. I think the thing to take from this is that the church’s focus cannot be anything other than spreading the name of Jesus. If the churches main focus is on being cool, or being uncool, the church is failing in it’s calling. However if a church is “cool” or “uncool” because it is fitting the role it needs to, It is doing its part.

  • Emma Patterson

    Wow! This is so refreshing to read! I didn’t realize that other people had come to the same mindset as I had. I too was faced with the challenge of finding a new home church while I am away at college. I would go with my friends to try out very ‘contemporary’ churches with 500-1000 members. I’m not going to lie- the bands would really rock. They had a great sound system with more than capable musicians to pull off the really hip new Hillsong United song that just came out. After a few weeks of this, however, I felt like I was missing something. I realized what I was missing most was the fellowship among worshippers. In a large church like that, even if you have been attending for a few months, if you didn’t show up one Sunday, no one would notice. I started attending a really small church-less than 100 people attending. The music was often awkward, and the fussy children could be distracting. But the pastor is authentic, and the fellowship and accountability I receive there is irreplaceable. God can work at a large church, but I think may of us, myself included, need a smaller and more personable church to be able to serve and be served within the body of Christ.

  • Jared Mittelo

    This is honestly a subject I have been wrestling with for quite some time. I, like many others in this conversation haven’t really come to a firm stance on the matter. It is such a difficult balance between having a service where things are smooth, “distraction free”, and professional and yet real. It is problem I think a lot of church struggle with and I have witnessed a lot of churches that handle it really well and a lot of churches that deal with it very poorly-almost as if they dont care what message they convey. It is hard to find churches that don’t fall to one extreme or another.

    I am very passionate about doing everything to the best of your ability. I think it is very biblical to offer God our very best. I think it would be dishonoring to God not to practice, rehearse, and pay attention to the details. If I saw service where everything seemed made up on the spot, without any element of production, I may question if the people in charge really care about worship or if it is just something that they threw together last minute or decided to “wing”.

    Again, theres a flip side to the abover problem where things in a worship service just feel over the top and too produced. It seems that sometimes we leave no room for the Spirit to move because we have planned a service down to the minutes and seconds. If we planned a service this way, would we be bothered or upset of the Holy Spirit decided to take us off the “game plan”? Would we be willing to follow Him?

    Many years ago I was at a small church plant and we had a service where everything seemed to go wrong. We had very little technical aspects to the service as it met in a rec center with minimal technical needs. So it would seem there couldnt be much to go wrong, but non the less we had a very rough and unpolished sunday service. Afterwards the pastor was very down and was talking about it with one of the sophomores in the youth group. The young guy said something that really resonated with me. He told our pastor. “what makes you think anyone wants to come in here and expereince a “perfect” service with a bunch of “perfect” people?”.

    People are definitely looking for authenticity from the church. They want to know that the people on stage are just as messed up and lost without God as they are.

  • Isaac Murrell

    To be perfectly honest, I think it is healthy to experience both sides of this. I truly think that there is beauty in “rawness” -this is the only word that comes to mind, but i think you understand- I don’t think God is impressed with our latest bells and whistles. Sure, they are sweet and aren’t inherently bad at all; I actually like them and believe that lights, great sound, and talented musicians help create an amazing environment for worship. But, when this starts to become the main thing and everyone loses focus on God and we begin to act like our crap doesn’t stink, I believe God is disappointed. Again, I don’t think that having a hip and happenin’ Church is wrong by any means. I think that having a coffee shop, excellent music, and a contemporary atmosphere can really help bring many lost people in. Basically, balance is everything. I honestly can’t choose a side on this issue, but I know that we need to get rid of the “Jesus and…” mindset. Lastly, I do firmly believe that being real and honest in worship service, in church, and in life is needed. we don’t need to focus on relevance or being perfect. “keep the main things, the main things”

  • Jason Carnegis

    I completely agree with what she says in the article because sometimes, if the church is cool, people will be attending for the wrong reasons. I also think that it is more likely for a church like the one described to not be as authentic. Sure, perfection is strived for when it comes to the music and the technology of a church, but sometimes it’s those things like “fussy kids” or “amateur special music” that can make the church feel more like a home to someone visiting. If a guest came to a church that was ‘too cool’ they probably wouldn’t feel too welcome and would probably try to find a church where they think they can fit in nicely at. A ‘cool’ church wouldn’t be able to grow for the right reasons and could be even labeled as fake.

  • This is a great conversation Roger, thanks for hosting it. I would add to the other comments that the striving to be “cool” or “relevant” can come at the very high cost of rejecting people who are not cool enough. That would not present the values of the gospel well, imo.