One of my favorite movie scenes is from the cinematic masterpiece Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. It’s when Pee Wee goes into a biker bar to make a phone call on a payphone (remember those!?) The bar is too noisy causing the uptight, gray-suit-clad Pee Wee to shout over all the bar noise in his nasal-driven voice, “I’m trying to use the phone!” You can watch the clip here, but hasn’t it been long enough since you watched the whole movie? A true cult classic.
The whole episode leads to the famous scene of Pee Wee dancing across the bar to the song “Tequila.” The comedic element of the scene works because Pee Wee is so out of place. The bikers are dressed in leather, sporting tattoos all over their bodies, and capped with do-rags on their heads. Pee Wee is in his token, gray suit wearing a red bowtie with short, slicked hair. The bikers are rough and gruff while Pee Wee is . . . well, Pee Wee. It’s one of those great scenes where the music stops, everyone stops what they are doing, and looks up to take notice of the intruder.
I think this scene serves as a helpful illustration for what I see taking place in church culture over the past several years. While I’m not sure that the church has begun to look and act like Pee Wee Herman, I do think that there is a certain “hipster” culture (for lack of a better descriptor) emerging among church leaders – and subsequently, churches. A few weeks ago I attended a local pastor’s gathering where several leaders of recently-planted churches were in attendance, and what struck me was how incredibly similar they all looked. They were all white, all dressed like they had just stepped out of Old Navy commercials, and they all even kind of talked like each other.
It made me start thinking about the blogs I follow, the books I read, the church leaders I pay attention to, and a trend I’ve been witnessing within my own tradition, the Churches of Christ. I realized that they all kind of reminded me of the pastors from that recent gathering I had attended. They all kind of look alike. They all read a lot. They all listen to U2 and Mumford and Sons. They all like to talk about unwinding at night with a glass of wine. And they all seem to either have some kind of trendy eyeglasses or facial hair. The really cools ones have both. I thought about this, and it made me think about Pee Wee Herman.
It also made me think about home. Now, I didn’t grow up in a biker bar, but I did grow up in a beer-drinking family. Like a lot of small towns littered across the good ole United States of America, beer was a cultural staple of my little Northwest Ohio town. Even though I grew up in a little, ultraconservative church, beer was such a staple of our community that I’m pretty sure most people who attended our church drank it – they just never talked about it on Sundays and put the orange juice in front of their 12-packs in the fridge when they had church company over.
Sometimes I think that if one of these hipster Christians walked into a gathering of my hometown with their bottle of merlot, skinny jeans, and U2 tee shirt it would look a lot like that scene of Pee Wee walking into the biker bar.
This might seem to be a strange way to begin an article about church leadership, but I wouldn’t be the first minister driven to alcohol by his church. This article isn’t really about alcohol, though. It’s about people. It’s about beer-drinking people. Some guy named Thomas Rhett even has a song called “If I Could Have a Beer with Jesus.” I’m not much of a country music fan, but I appreciate his sentiment. Moreover, the sentiment of this song actually has me thinking a lot about drinking beer and the kinds of people who drink beer.
Don’t get me wrong, a lot of these hipster Christians drink beer too, but I’ve never seen one of them take a selfie while kicking back a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The truth is, you can tell a lot about a person by the kind of beer they drink, and when the hipster Christians aren’t sipping a dry, red cabernet, they tend to be kicking back on some trendy microbrew’s craft beer.
All of this is, of course, a completely unfair over-generalization of the contemporary American church. However, I also think that this caricature helps illustrate some important trends that are taking place that should force the church to do some critical self-evaluation. Now, to be clear, I am white, just finished my doctorate of ministry degree, enjoy red wine while listening to Mumford and Sons, and therefore confess, up front, to being part of the problem here. However, as I have spent the past few years analyzing a church culture that I feel more and more alienated from, I have begun to wonder if there hasn’t been a fair bit of elitism slowly creeping into churches and church leadership circles.
I have composed three subsequent articles that address what, in my opinion, are some of the most disconcerting trends emerging within the church, particularly the group I am most familiar with – the Churches of Christ. The first article proposes that a byproduct of the church’s focus on learning and education, particularly through formal education, is contributing to a cultural divide between academically-inclined church leaders (the Pee Wees) and blue collar, high school educated individuals (biker bar folks). Many churches are (mostly unwittingly) contributing to a resurrection of a pre-Reformation climate where the chasm between the clergy and laity is ever-expanding. While Jesus taught using every day, agrarian parables, church leaders seem to be having difficulty translating their high brow theology into everyday life.
The second article suggests that the softer a pastor’s hands are, the more difficulty he or she has in relating to working-class folks. A more technical description of this article is: how has the professionalization of ministry affected church culture? Like many pastors, I enjoy reading scores of books each year. However, I have come to realize how much more often I read than the vast majority of the people in my church. This doesn’t have to be a negative trait, but how often do we consider how this impacts our perspective and our ability to minister to others? I read often and count myself regularly blessed to be able to do so, but I have begun to wonder at what cost all this time reading has had. Certainly, there is a need for pastors to be able to connect with the professionals of our communities and reading is an essential part of keeping the well full, but we must not forget the non-professionals. This emphasis seems, to me, to be almost completely absent in the church circles I described above.
The third article highlights how the suburban context has come to dominate the landscape of church leadership conversations. Next time you see a convention or national gathering, notice how many of the speakers pastor in suburban communities. Again, I speak as part of the problem here, as my church sits in the heart of Midwestern suburbia (Columbus, OH), but I have noticed how vastly ignored urban and rural ministry have become. This is, no doubt, a byproduct of the hipster Christian movement that has seemed to dominate church leadership discussions in recent years. I’ve noticed that many of these hipsters give much lip service to urban ministries and social justice, but (perhaps it is my cynicism talking here) I rarely see that emphasis put into any kind of tenable action. The fact of the matter is the suburbs possess the financial resources to be able to support professional ministers like myself, and thus provide broader influence through platform like conferences and books – all the while neglecting other significant demographics.
The point of this series is not to be unduly critical or to be reduced to bleak cynicism. I’m convinced that there is much good happening in the Lord’s church and that God’s hand is alive in all corners of our world. I speak, instead, to a subculture that I love and care about, but often do not feel a part of. I speak with a heart of the pastor of a small church that is not in the Bible Belt. I write as a nonconformist who has always struggled to go with the flow, and I believe that while swimming upstream, several of the characteristics I see on display in the stream must be addressed. Hopefully, these articles can prove to be a prophetic reminder of some of our most neglected blind spots and can spark discussions about how they might be addressed.