Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” -G.K. Chesterton
For the past few weeks I’ve been writing a series on the problematic relationship that I think Christianity has with our desire to be seen as cool. And today I’d like to lay my cards on the table for my biggest problem with why I care about this, and why it concerns me.
It’s because the Church that called me to Jesus was anything but cool.
Chances are if you’ve read this blog for long, or have ever heard me preach, you’ve heard me talk about this little 10 person church before. It was for me a slice of Heaven on earth, it’s what I picture everything I hear the word church, and who I think of when I write every sermon.
Our worship leader had down syndrome, our preacher was mentally unstable, and our record attendance was 36 people. As much as I loved these people, I was still your average teenager prone to lots of insecurity and whenever we had guests I was often embarrassed by belonging to this group of people.
Every Age Has a Spirit
Often I would go to my other friends churches, and they didn’t look anything like the one I belonged to. They had people who were actually paid to preach or lead worship, they had gone to the trouble of printing bulletins and graphics for their the new sermon series and they had youth ministries, heck at my church, I was the youth ministry! And sometimes at these youth groups that I would hear the people talking about following Jesus in a way that was dismissive of the way their grandparents did.
They might talk about how Jesus was the original rebel and he certainly didn’t care about all that old crusty doctrine the way their Aunt Betty did (which ironically enough was a doctrine itself).
I learned that Jesus loved D.C Talk concerts and when true-love waited or when Christians kissed dating goodbye, He loved lock-ins and Christian athletes and could cause touchdowns for those who were confident that they could do all things through Him who gives them strength.
I know I’m being pretty sarcastic here, but I’m wanting to make a point. The great temptation of every age is to assume a level of superiority, a chronological snobbery that we’ve somehow been able to evolve past all the sin of previous generations. But today go to any church with a youth group and you’re likely to hear the very things I just mentioned as examples of how wrong we used to be in the very same dismissive spirit that people used in the generation before them.
But the problem I had then is the one I still have today. I couldn’t write off the older generations because I was sharing life with them, I saw them wrestle with how to be faithful disciples in the world while trying to hold onto the tradition that they had passed on from the generations before them.
And this is my biggest problem with Cool Christianity…in order to exist, cool has to rebel against something, and the main way Cool Christianity thrives today is by rebelling against the Christianity of the previous generation.
In an article for the New York Times a few years ago called, “Ideas & Trends: Alt-Worship; Christian Cool and the New Generation Gap,” John Leland talked about how the the younger generations of Christians are rapidly reinventing church to be something far from what their parents’ and grandparents’ generations experienced. Leland ends his article by posing this question:
“If religion is our link to the timeless, what does it mean that young Christians replace their parents practices?”
I think that’s a great question. How does a historic faith (a faith based in things that we believe happened in history) rebel against the faith that we inherited without changing the very nature of what that faith is? Cool is rooted in the moment, the way of Jesus is rooted in a tradition passed down from generation to generation.
Think about how many times early church planters like Paul tells the churches to organize themselves in a way that helps widows and senior saints pass on their way of life to younger Jesus-followers. Paul will go from these super theological statements about the God who gives grace to all people and who has loved us from the beginning of time to saying things like, “Make sure the older women are teaching the younger women how to love their families and live holy lives.”
Paul has this idea that church, like Jewish synagogues before would be a place where younger people and older people would be sharing life and offering generous critiques and wisdom for how to follow Jesus well.
In every healthy church I’ve seen that’s still the case, and those churches are rarely cool.
I like the way that the pastor Jonathan Martin talked about this when he was planting his church a few years ago. He said from the beginning that the church they wanted to plant wasn’t trying to be cool, it was trying to be faithful. Here’s his words:
“We are your grandmother’s church. And your great-grandmother’s church. And your great-great-grandmother’s church. I had grown weary of the clichéd church advertising that said, ‘We aren’t your grandmother’s church.’ I understand what they mean by that. It’s a way of saying that our church has electric guitars rather than pipe organs. I didn’t grow up in churches with pipe organs, so I have no reason to be defensive about them now. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but be annoyed with the careless language. The desire to cut ourselves off from those who came before us is no virtue. Even when we are flatly, and perhaps rightly, embarrassed by the behavior or the history of our churches on some level, we still exist in continuity with them. We are forever tethered to our grandmother’s church, and this is as it should be. Our grandmother’s church has given us many good gifts. But even when it has been very wrong, it still belongs to us.