The GQ piece on the ultra-hip, Hollywood-ish Hillsong NYC Church struck any number of – to me at least – important topics, one of which is this concept of relevance. The truth is, I don’t think Hillsong nor pretty much any megachurch (nor most churches in general) is relevant despite their hipness.
There are a few ways of understanding relevance, I know. As a linguist and a post-modern, I’m aware that there is no ‘pure’ or central definition for such a term. But I want to propose a popular definition of relevance as substantial in opposition to a shallow hipness.
First, as a post-evangelical, there is an ever-rising Hipness Christianity. This is a demonstration of Christianity that keeps up with the times. It’s hipster. It’s vogue. It wears skinny jeans and beards. Of Relevant Magazine. To paraphrase Christian rap-pop group DC Talk, it “doesn’t change but it rolls with time.” This is what Taffy Brodesser-Anker refers to as: “Christianity’s whole jam [as] remaining Christian” in her terrific but terrifying profile of Hillsong Church in NYC. But that says nothing to me about my life and, unless fashion is all you have, I’m guessing it says little to you about yours either.
If it speaks to us merely because it imitates us, is it relevant? Maybe. But this is what I think of in terms of substantial relevance.
I think of the fact that we tell children that they need to go to school to learn to read and write and do math and recite Shakespeare and solve quadratic equations because it will help them later in life. And that may be true for a number of children. It wasn’t for me and it isn’t for any number of kids who do not see a future where calculus is of any use for them. That’s what teachers will often tell their students because it’s an easy answer. But it’s not, for one of the primary purposes of schools in poor communities of color – and poor White areas as well – is of containment. Not much in the field of education for poor children has changed since the late 19th century – students are still being trained to work in factories, with a rigid, top-down hierarchical approach, rows and columns of students/proletariat facing the front toward the teacher, uniforms, and busy-work presently in the form of standardized tests.
This isn’t to say that good education doesn’t arise from public schooling (and the charter and private schools that adhere to this method with apocalyptic zeal), but that in a very real sense, school for poor children is systemically broken. We tell kids to do something that may not hold interest to them and when they ask why – which is what kids do because they are children – we tell them it’s for their future benefit somewhere down the line. That somewhere-down-the-line may as well be imaginary for kids and youth. Why do we believe that children and teens (who are by now tired to death of hearing the same lines and seeing few results) who live in the present will attempt their best for a future decades down the line, let alone one that may never arise?
What if, instead, students learned skills that were not only useful for some future, undisclosed and blurry time but now? What if reading, writing, math, and social studies could be used to organize for better living conditions currently? Or analytical skills were sharpened to wake minds?
This is what I think of when I think of relevance. Something useful, not just hep. Something substantial. The Hip Classroom will use computers and hip hop to teach about dead white men. The Relevant Classroom will consider the edifice of hip hop and the structure of the internet.
The Hip Church will feature Justin Bieber-like music, cool clothes and a unique hat. It will be attractive, but not sexy. It may tell gay and lesbian people they are welcome to worship there. But they will not be welcome as functionally sexual beings. It will have an ethnically diverse congregation (and maybe even non-Whites in leadership), but teach an Anglo-White theology that centers individualism. It may tell you that God loves you as you are, but punishes you for gender and sexual transgressions as they understand it.
This is Hillsong. A church that fires worship leaders for “practicing” homosexuality.
Hillsong Australia, via wiki
It will teach a disembodied heaven and the long way to get there but with cool dressing. It’s a literal flash in the pan.
Hipness is inherently shallow. A hip education or ecclesiology will have you turn from yourself, leave behind your home language and reject your family and friends and body and sexuality, for a pie-in-the-sky notion that may or may not pan out decades later. But it can do so because its sheen veneer tricks you into thinking that it works for the present.
The Relevant Church (in this understanding) may or may not be cool, but it will speak to your soul and refashion your vision to think from the present to the future. It will remodel Christianity to its core, which is not rescuing from the world and the self but loving the world and the self within it.