Contemplating Cool


Show me a grown man with a goatee and I’ll show you a major league baseball player. Show me a grown man with a goatee wearing sandals and I’ll show you a youth pastor.

When I was a kid, I remember that the youth pastor at our church was totally different than any other pastor I’d ever seen. He quoted rock bands and wore blue jeans to church. He was cool in a way that the other adults in my life were not. I was proud to invite my friends to church and see their negative stereotypes of Christians get blown up. The youth group thrived and “unchurched” kids were reached. The one thing that distinguished our group from others was that our pastor was cool.

As the youth pastors and youth of the 1990s become the head pastors and congregants of the 2000s, it seems like the phenomenon has only grown. It is now an unexamined assumption in many quarters: the best way to reach people is to be like them. In order to reach our culture, we must embody what the culture defines as acceptable and valuable. We must be as “cool” as we can possibly be while still retaining the gospel. That way, people will see us and not be turned off by us. Maybe they’ll even want to be us.

This shows up in both the private lives of pastors (you missional guys, I’m talking about you and your emo eyeglasses) and in the church’s corporate worship, where we seek to remove everything that might seem foreign to the unchurched visitor.

In some ways, I think being connected to the culture around us is helpful. But there are ways in which a commitment to being cool can ultimately conflict with the call of a pastor. As the resident cool guy on the 9Marks docket (which is roughly like being the ladies’ man at a Star Trek convention—damning with faint praise), here are a few thoughts:

1. Being connected to the culture is a double-edged sword.

In a sense, we all carry a set of unique interests, talents, characteristics, and strengths around with us. These can both serve the proclamation of the gospel and hinder it. So, for example, yesterday the copier repairman stopped by the church which I serve. He is a young guy who is into cage-fighting. We built a connection over that fact (one of the guys in our church also does MMA—mixed martial arts), and he was pleasantly surprised to find that a pastor could be heavily tattooed.* I shared Christ with him, and he asked for a Bible. Score one for enculturation.

But there are other ways that my appearance might be a hindrance to the gospel. I have been sharing Christ with a strict Muslim man that I see in the sauna at the gym once or twice a week. We have built a friendship and talked about spiritual matters quite often. I have little doubt that the fact that I have a large weasel tattooed on my bicep does not make him more attracted to the faith. Score one for not having tattoos. This is why I wear sleeves on Sunday mornings. In one situation my ink serves me well; in another it can make things more difficult.

2. We must always be on guard against pride.

How much of a pastor’s desire to be perceived as cool or connected to the culture is motivated by vanity or pride? Knowing the depth of our depravity and self-deception and pride, we must examine ourselves. Am I motivated to dress a certain way or listen to certain music for good reasons? Or does part of me at least want to avoid being the butt of Ned Flanders jokes? We must beware that our quest for cool doesn’t feed the vanity and pride which we need to be choking to death every day.

In fact, I fear (and here I am speaking from what I see in my own heart) that oftentimes we are at least partially motivated to reach people by pride. How much of our desire to be cool is a desire to reach people, not only for the gospel, but also for our own glory? Here’s a diagnostic question for everyone who is a pastor: if the Lord called you to shepherd sixty uncool saints until they were safely home, with no spectacular revival or ministry explosion, would you consider that beneath you? Would it seem unworthy of your gifts and a waste of your life? If so, you are being motivated by pride.

3. Much pastoral ministry is profoundly uncool.

Don’t sign up to be a pastor if you want to sound reasonable to most people or if you want to affect a cool detachment from people and ideas. The preaching of the cross is foolishness and a stumbling block to your average art community hipster. We must love the Savior more than we love the respect of others.

Also, the ironic detachment that cool requires finds little place in the work of a pastor. At times, you must be embarrassingly earnest and enthusiastic. You must love difficult and extremely mockable people with a real and true love that never seeks a laugh at their expense. You need to cry with people when they suffer unspeakable tragedy. Much of being a pastor is profoundly uncool.

4. We must never despise our brothers and sisters.

There is a real danger in becoming so puffed-up over our freedom in Christ to wear black t-shirts that we begin to look down on the Ned Flanders-style Christians who love the Lord and have served him faithfully for years. In fact, it may be that the Lord is more pleased with their humble walk (though not as sophisticated) than he is with yours. The fact is, love for other Christians is a hallmark of a true believer (1 John 2:10). Even more it must be the mark of a pastor. We have more in common with a believer in Myanmar and a believer in Duluth (even if they don’t know a pilsner from a stout or Operation Ivy from Crimpshine) than we do with the people we’re trying to reach for Christ.

The fact is, we can’t choose who will be in our flock, nor should we try. Should churches go after the “manly man” with gimmicks and mocking disdain for the average wussy church going guy? If I read Ephesians properly, the church should consist of all kinds of people: cool and square, macho and sensitive, punk rock and emo. Frankly, in my experience a sensitive guy who is not trying to be cool is about ten times more likely to fit the biblical profile of a man, even if he doesn’t ride a Harley and watch contact sports on television. Pastor your people, thank God for the diversity in the body, and love people who aren’t like you.

5. With a few exceptions, Christians who try to be cool are terrible at it.

When I was in middle school, a well meaning youth worker attempted to perform what came to be known infamously in Radnor Junior High School lore as “the Jesus rap.” These were the earlier days of hip-hop, and the genre was still trying to find its sound. Well, this youth worker, a slightly pudgy white guy of about 28 years, put the effort back ten years in five excruciating minutes. I later came to find that this well-meaning man hadn’t written this material himself (thank heavens!) but that it was later recorded as part of a song called “Addicted to Love” by a man named Carman.

The point is this: not many Christians can pull it off. A few can, but you probably can’t. Seriously, ask your wife. She’ll tell you the truth. Don’t try to be something that you’re not for the sake of impressing unbelievers. It’s bad theology and it will fool no one. It’s this kind of thinking that has gotten us Christian rock music. Please, stop it. No, really. Now. I insist.

6. Being like the culture can make it hard to see the gospel.

The more we understand the world (and its definition of what is compelling and cool), the less attractive we should find it. In fact, in a society that is increasingly morally and spiritually bankrupt, it may be our incongruity with the culture that serves to highlight the gospel. David Wells says this much better than I could in his book God in the Wasteland:

By this late date, evangelicals should be hungering for a genuine revival of the church, aching to see it once again become a place of seriousness where a vivid otherworldliness is cultivated because the world is understood in deeper and truer ways, where worship is stripped of everything extraneous, where God’s Word is heard afresh, where the desolate and broken can find sanctuary [emphasis mine].

Let’s pray that our churches recover that quality of vivid otherworldliness, even if it is not cool.

The conclusion of the matter is this: be who God made you to be. If you lean hipster, run with it. Be a hipster to the glory of God. If you lean in another direction, that’s great too. But Christ must be central to all who will pursue the calling of a pastor. That means putting to death our pride and scorn for others who are not like us. That means evangelizing across the boundaries of taste and preference. In the long run, it might even mean that we’re not cool.

* If a member of my church is reading this and just got a shock, sorry about that. But take comfort, the fact that I have tattoos is nowhere near the worst thing about me!

Mike McKinley

Mike is an author and the pastor of Sterling Park Baptist Church in Sterling, Virginia.

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