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ALT-WORSHIP: Christian Cool and the New Generation Gap

The New York Times, USA
May 16, 2004
John Leland
www.nytimes.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Monday May 17, 2004

For evidence of generational upheaval these days, you might skip over the usual suspects – sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll – and consider instead the church.

Two decades after baby boomers invented the suburban megachurch, which removed intimidating crosses or stained-glass images of Jesus in favor of neutral environments, their children are now wearing “Jesus Is My Homeboy” T-shirts.

As mainline churches scramble to retain young people, these worshipers have gained attention by creating alternative churches in coffee bars and warehouses and publishing new magazines and Bibles that come on as anything but church.

But does a T-shirt really serve the faith? And if religion is our link to the timeless, what does it mean that young Christians replace their parents’ practices?

The movement “has a noble side,” said Michael Novak, the conservative theologian at the American Enterprise Institute. He himself remembers how much he enjoyed the Christian comic books of his youth. He compared the alt-evangelicals to missionaries, who “feel they’ve learned something valuable from their faith and want to share it” using the native language.

“But in boiling it down, trying to make it relevant, you leave out the hard edges and the complicated points,” he said. “You make the faith less than it is.”

Yet for many in this generation, the worship of their parents feels impersonal – not bigger than their daily, media-intensified lives, but smaller. Their search is for unfiltered religious experience.

“My generation is discontent with dead religion,” said Cameron Strang, 28, founder of Relevant Media, which produces Christian books, a Web site and Relevant magazine, a stylish 70,000-circulation bimonthly that addresses topics like body piercing, celibacy, extreme prayer, punk rock and God.

“We don’t want to show up on Sunday, sing two hymns, hear a sermon and go home,” Mr. Strang said. “The Bible says we’re supposed to die for this thing. If I’m going to do that, this has to be worth something. Our generation wants a tangible experience of God who is there.”

Mr. Strang, a graduate of Oral Roberts University, is in some ways a model alt-evangelical, with two earrings, a shaved head and beard. He left a megachurch, he said, because he felt no community at the slick services. Now he attends an alternative church in a school gym, with intimate small groups and basketball after services.

This stylistic shift is critical, said Lee Rabe, pastor at Threads, an alternative, or “emerging,” church in Kalamazoo, Mich. Where megachurches reached out to baby boomers turned off by church, the younger generation often has no experience with religion. They need to be beguiled, not assuaged, Mr. Rabe said.

“The deity-free ‘church lite’ of the megachurches – that’s the last thing these people want,” he said. ”They want to talk about God. It’s hard-core, not in a fire and brimstone way, but it has to be raw, real.”

The changes are often more stylistic than doctrinal. Many alt-evangelicals espouse conservative theology, but reject the censure of some churches. Mr. Strang sees this as a blueprint for an evangelical left.

“We’re all sinners,” he said. “Your sin isn’t any worse than my sin. We don’t say, ‘Stop the horrible gays.’ You want to reach them, you don’t want to protest them. If we looked like goody-two-shoes, clean cut, we couldn’t have a conversation with our lesbian friend at the coffee shop, because she couldn’t relate.”

Increasingly, this conversation borrows from pop culture, in the same way that hip secular culture borrows the cabala and the cross.

“Wired,” a new album by the band Third Day, which plays Southern rock with Christian lyrics, enters Billboard’s Top 200 this week at No. 12, just behind Evanescence, a hard-rock band that mixes Christian and secular songs. Two new Bibles in teen-magazine format, “Revolve” and “Refuel,” mix dating tips with a complete New Testament. For a sleeker alternative, there is the 2003 Bible “The Message // Remix,” which uses modern language (not dude-speak) and looks like a box set of techno-CD’s.

Critics say this engagement comes at a price. Timothy Williams, 48, a pastor at Sound Doctrine Ministries, a nondenominational church in Enumclaw, Wash., sees flirtation with pop culture as a capitulation to sin. “More and more, the church is seeking to be like the world around it,” said Mr. Williams, who has written a pamphlet denouncing Christian rock. “But the Bible says that anyone who becomes a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. If we’re going to be relevant or on the world’s level to draw people, we might as well give free beer in the parking lot.”

But evangelicals have long used pop culture and new technology to spread their gospel, said Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University.

Christian tracts handed out in the 19th century were one of the first mass media. In the 1930′s, the evangelist Charles Fuller used the new medium of radio to broadcast his sermons. Four decades later, the Jesus movement of the 1970′s adopted the vibe of the 1960′s counterculture.

The new gospel aligns less with the bland mainstream popular culture than with niche subcultures. The Christian Tattoo Association, founded in the mid-1990′s, now lists more than 100 member shops, and its members cross over with the Christian punk or Christian goth groups.

The actor Stephen Baldwin, a born-again Christian, has just directed a DVD called “Livin’ It,” pairing extreme sports with faith testimony, from which he hopes to spin skate Bibles, clothing, CD’s and Bible-study guides, all tied to a nonprofit youth ministry.

“This could be the first get-down rock ‘n’ roll, cool Christian brand,” he said. “I’ve been to conferences with youth pastors, and they all said, ‘Dude, we’ve been waiting for something that’s cool and edgy and Christian.’ ”

The underlying romance is familiar from any Nirvana video: the Christian as rebel or outsider, misunderstood, struggling against a world of conformity, commercialism and manufactured pleasures.

“It’s a countercultural thing,” said Tim Lucas, 33, pastor of an emerging ministry called Liquid in Basking Ridge, N.J. On a recent Sunday, Mr. Lucas wore a Hawaiian shirt and used images from the “Lord of the Rings” movies and a clip from “Amadeus” in a sermon about I Samuel.

“They identify with being an underground movement, which is what Christianity was in the beginning,” Mr. Lucas said of his congregation. “Living out a life with Christ at the center draws a lot of flak. Not a lot of people will celebrate that.”

The movement away from middle-of-the-road theology and worship mirrors a trend on college campuses, where growing numbers of students claim either no religion or strong religious affiliation, with the middle ground shrinking, said Alexander Astin, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A., which last year completed a national study of students’ beliefs.

In the survey, more than 70 percent of students said they prayed, discussed religion or spirituality with friends, found religion personally helpful and gained spiritual strength by trusting in a higher power.

This cohort may yet make its own demands. Mr. Lucas, the pastor at Liquid, speculated that hip, high-tech churches like his own might soon generate their own backlash. Already, he said, college students who wander in find the 45-minute sermon insufficiently interactive. “The church my daughter grows up in will be a critique of what we do at Liquid,” he said. “She’ll say, ‘Why all this multimedia? What happened to sanctuary? I come to church because I want to be still in the presence of God.’ I can see that coming very quickly.”

“Popular culture is a wonderful buffet to dine at,” he said. “But it’s easy to overeat.”

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