Years ago, I noticed that quite a few younger evangelicals strive mightily to practice what I’ve come to call Weird Christianity. It’s equal parts oneupsmanship, Original Christianity, and yearning for something genuine and real in their religion full of false claims. So Weird Christianity scratches all kinds of itches in that crowd. Recently, a Millennial hipster and evangelical pastor has put forth a solution for Christianity’s decline that draws upon his love of Weird Christianity. Let’s check out what it is, and then see how successful his suggestion could actually be.
(This post went live on Patreon on 3/7/2023. Its ‘cast lives there too! Both should be publicly available by the time you see this <3.)
Everyone, meet Justin Cox, who loves him some Weird Christianity
The writer of today’s OP is Justin Cox. His photo reveals him to be a hipster: He wears a silly trilby hat! He has a huge lumberjack beard, long ginger hair, and a bushy moustache! Sometimes, he even looks greasy and unkempt (but always properly pious)! OMG, this dude even sports a few tattoos!
Y’all, I’m having flashbacks to the “Contemporvant” video from the 2010s:
(Incidentally, someone in the comments, Herta Neufeld, says that this video wasn’t really a parody. A pastor had it made to use as an illustration in a sermon of his about not getting into a “ritualistic rut.” Somehow, it got into the wild, shorn of context, and became a popular parody after all.)
Cox thinks of himself as a rebel for Jesus. His personal website is called “Black Sheep Baptist.” Yes, despite being firmly evangelical, working as an evangelical pastor, and educated in full-frontal evangelicalism, Cox calls himself “an outsider” in his end of the religion. Part of his feeling of alienation might derive from his rejection of the anti-LGBTQ+ culture wars and his possible support of women pastors.
But he’s not a member of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). There, he’d really have good reason to feel like an outsider—if its brass hats didn’t first kick him and his church out on their ears for their political views.
This guy is not a black sheep at all
Instead, Cox belongs to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). This loose-knit denomination began as a reaction to the SBC’s takeover by hyper-politicized ultraconservatives in the 1990s, a protracted battle which is now known as the Conservative Resurgence. In the wake of that schism, almost 2000 SBC member churches broke away to form the CBF. As a result, members of the CBF tend to be way more moderate on social issues than the SBC would ever tolerate. And within the CBF, Cox is about as far from being an outsider as it is possible to be without publicly donating to Planned Parenthood.
Overall, he doesn’t seem like a bad sort. He likes the same kind of cooking I like—and even the same brands I do. (Nobody can be that bad if they understand the inherent superiority of Duke’s mayonnaise, White Lily biscuit flour, and King Arthur’s products.) And I really liked his January essay about food shaming. In it, he claps back at Bad Christians™ in church pews:
Christians are some of the best heavy hitters at dishing out the one-two punch of shaming and judging. Shaming individuals for not conforming, requiring them to leave their thoughts and questions at the door. Or judging them as inferior by morality and understanding.
It’s just that he is not an outsider to evangelicalism. From what I’ve seen of surveys of the overall crowd, he swims in a veritable sea of exactly like-minded Christians.
And his recent idea about how to revive Christianity, particularly evangelicalism, is, similarly, not in the least new or groundbreaking.
Justin Cox’s solution to Christianity’s decline
In his essay on March 7, Cox begins by describing a recent online meeting he attended for his alma mater, Wake Forest University School of Divinity. The school’s administrators are clearly having a tough time in today’s pandemic/post-pandemic world. They offered up all kinds of marketing buzzwords, all of which left Cox cold:
As the meeting progressed, words and phrases flowed forth from transitional leadership, bumping into and skipping over one another, reminding me of the Sony Discman I had velcroed to the dashboard of my first car: “Challenges” — skip — “Cultivate” — skip — “Sustainable” — “Community” — “Opportunities.”
Slowly, he began to feel that something important was missing from this meeting. It began to remind him of sermons he’d preached at his church that he’d had to pad and fill with empty sentiments and jargon.
But don’t worry! He figured it out:
What was it that was missing here? What has been missing from my own sermons when congregants’ eyes glaze over?
I looked around my desk, grabbed a pencil with the eraser bitten off and scribbled in a notebook: “Nothing about this seems dangerous, so does any of it matter?”
A message for theology schools and churches alike. Where’s the gamble? Where’s the danger?
Yes. The Big Problem Here is, apparently, that seminaries don’t contain enough danger.
What kind of danger did he mean, though?
Injecting danger into religious education
Again, don’t worry. He tells us more about what he means:
There needs to be an element of danger to religious education if it’s to be deemed worth a damn. A type of danger capable of inflicting change, challenging established ideas and perceptions. Could we offer enough scrappiness to make the principalities and powers take notice and feel threatened? Is this what’s missing from seminaries and churches alike?
Yes, we can be comfy and nonabrasive, like a morning drive with coffee and K-Love pumping on the radio, but this makes any talk of resurrection suspect. [. . .]
Woe to institutions and churches alike for attempting to play it safe when dangerous spaces are what the world needs. Bless your heart for producing professionals and satisfied saints when radical prophets are needed.
So the “danger” he wants involves challenging established Christian leaders and well-accepted Christian ideas and doctrinal stances, not necessarily becoming masked, caped superheroes battling evil by night.
And in addition to accusing seminaries of not focusing on this kind of danger, he blames churches for hiring completely safe pastors who won’t ever make waves in their congregations.
He firmly—if implicitly—lays the blame for the growing irrelevance of his religion at the feet of evangelical leaders, seminaries, and hiring committees for being frightened of wave-makers. Once they stop playing it safe, he thinks, the decline will reverse.
Again, he’s not a bad-sounding guy. We heathens likely agree on more topics with him than disagree. This isn’t an absolutely terrible idea, for that matter. So I don’t want to sound like I’m dogging on him or anything. His suggestion isn’t at all the first of its kind, even—just the most recent.
Yearning for Weird Christianity
That said, Cox’s win condition is strangely vague and difficult to pin down:
What do I hope for my alma mater? The same thing I hope for the church: A recognition of the fragility of it all. This would show trust, vulnerability, and the realization we all need a whisper of audaciousness in the face of avarice — something to cause the suits in the establishment to furrow their brows in worry.
“The fragility of it all?” WTF does that even mean? Y’all, I’m not sure that even Cox himself understands exactly what he wants to see happen.
However, I can certainly envision the style of Jesus-ing that has so hooked his heart. He wants waves of holy, righteous, wild-eyed prophets to fan out from seminaries and into churches across America. There, he wants them to shake up the comfortable SSDD routines of evangelicals everywhere—to make them question their rote beliefs and emotional ruts, and get them moving forward again. There’s a palpable sense of loss and grief in his writing that conveys a sense of having done something right originally, but not now—of having had the right kind of zeal once, but long ago.
A great many young evangelicals have nursed that same gauzy vision in their own hearts. They want something real, something earth-shattering, something that shakes up all established ideas and puts crooked paths straight once again. They’re positive that once they figure out what that means in terms of their devotions and beliefs, everything will become great again.
In short, they want Weird Christianity.
And I don’t mean TRUE CHRISTIANITY™, though some overlaps obviously exist between the ideas. No, Cox wants something kinda punk, kinda rebellious to established norms, kinda radicalized but in a wholesome way, and entirely alien to even the most entrenched TRUE CHRISTIAN™ styles of Jesus-ing. It’s TRUE, yes, but it’s also weird.
When in doubt, Christians glom onto Weird Christianity
Weird Christianity ain’t anything new. Back when I was Christian myself, I felt the allure of the mindset. In fact, the exact flavor I ended up in for most of that time, Pentecostalism, is little else than the weirdest flavor of Christianity most people can envision. Those devoted to Weird Christianity tend to ache for intense emotions and ecstatic demonstrations of piety, which Pentecostalism certainly delivers for most adherents.
Like restrictive dietary fads, however, there is always someone weirder in Christianity. No Christian will ever find the one true real-n-honest weirdest flavor of all. But that doesn’t stop any of them from trying. Once they find something they think is weird enough, they mistakenly think that their chosen flavor of Christianity is the truest, most intense, most ecstatic one of all.
You can spot Christians seeking Weird Christianity quite easily. They’re usually in their 20s and early 30s. They plug into social media and follow fads and trends in fashion, behavior, and music. They also love their deepities—sayings they think are pithy, wise, and earth-shattering, but which are actually only barely correct on the surface and glaringly incorrect when examined more deeply. (“Love is just a word” is a good example of a deepity. About ten years ago, Jefferson Bethke went viral with all of his evangelical deepities.)
Other than that, Weird Christians can be found in almost every major branch of the religion—from Catholicism to Mormonism to fundamentalism to everything in between.
Weird Christianity can go in a bunch of different directions, but one common path leads toward increased focus on ritualistic devotions called liturgy—church services, just done in a more intense and traditional way. Another popular path led to the Jesus Revolution that we talked about here recently.
This time, Weird Christianity means ignoring that churches and seminaries are businesses
Unfortunately for the Justin Coxes of the evangelical world, Weird Christianity doesn’t tend to play well with church and seminary business. And they are businesses, for all that they may claim nonprofit status or get licensed as recognized charities.
Ultimately, every seminary and church in the world needs to make enough money to support itself. They accomplish that feat by offering a product that their hoped-for customers will purchase and keep purchasing: active membership in their particular group.
It might sound great to Weird Christians for a seminary to turn out wild-eyed prophets who upset the status quo all the time. Hooray Team Jesus!
Alas for them, the church committees doing the hiring do not tend to want prophets who will up-end their little fiefdoms. Rather, they want to hire a country club manager who’ll lead them to renewed prosperity—and, of course, bring in tons of new, 10%+ tithing members who reliably volunteer upon request—and, even more so, a powerful ally who will lend power to their own faction as they squabble and bicker with their enemy faction(s).
I know a number of evangelical pastors who tried their best to do what Cox recommends in his OP. One in particular tried hard to get his congregation to improve their behavior toward the poor and marginalized in their community. To be more loving. To be more, well, Christlike (in the way that evangelicals imagine Jesus was, the ultimate good guy).
When their churches demanded they stop rocking the boat and making unpleasant, huge demands, most of these prophet-pastors folded.
Some didn’t. And they became ex-pastors soon enough.
Why Weird Christianity can’t fix Christianity’s decline
A pastor’s power only extends as far as the congregation allows it. Pastors may lead, but only if the congregation wishes to follow.
Some pastors achieve the dream of ultimate authoritarian power over their flocks. These pastors absolutely do not fit Cox’s ideal of wild-eyed prophets. No, they are slick moneymakers, high-rollers, wheeler-dealers, authoritarian lawgivers, and schmoozers. Those are the pastors with big, growing, thriving megachurches.
Wild-eyed prophets might have extreme amounts of charisma, but—as we recently saw in the sad story of Lonnie Frisbee—often these Christians struggle hard to maintain employment in churches and good relations with other leaders in their communities. They are bright flashes of light, not slow, steady community-builders.
Frisbee himself alienated many of his fellow leaders. They didn’t like his personal habits, especially his drug use, or his homosexuality. He still managed to infect a number of evangelical teens and young adults with his vision of Weird Christianity, and he’s become an indelible part of the Jesus Revolution of the 1970s. Still, he died alone and largely forgotten—and then his legacy was completely trashed by leaders who preferred more controllable and predictable flocks.
So Weird Christianity can’t fix Christianity’s decline because ultimately, Christians themselves wouldn’t want to be part of it for very long, if at all.
But this ideology’s problem goes a lot deeper than that.
Weird Christianity is a non-solution in search of a problem
What Justin Cox wants is for evangelicals to please become something they have never been, all for the promise that it will completely fix their religion’s slide into irrelevance.
And okay. I know, I know. Quite a few Christians have this very hazy understanding of their religion’s earliest decades. Many of them are completely convinced that Christianity grew explosively quickly because it offered believers something that no other religion could possibly give them: something real and intense, all-consuming and genuinely supernatural.
But it never did. Weird Christianity did not make a strange Jewish cult infused with Greek paganism and a jigger of mystery religion into a world power for many centuries. The religion actually struggled quite a bit while its followers fought among themselves over doctrines. We see hints of its struggles even in the epistles. There, too, we see even more hints that the earliest Christians were very far from radicalized prophets seeking to change the world.
You know what actually made Christianity dominant for so long? Religious and political leaders treating Christianity as a vehicle for temporal power did. A long succession of those leaders using Christianity as a bludgeon to force people to comply with Christian leaders’ demands did. There is no room in such vehicles and weapons for wild-eyed prophets demanding radical holiness and personal growth from the flocks.
It was only when Christian leaders lost their coercive power (about 50 years ago) that people could freely reject its recruiters. In growing numbers, they did exactly that. They still do. Weird Christianity cannot and will never address the problem of coercion, nor replace its necessity.
The other problem: Handing Weird Christians power can be hazardous to their followers’ health
Any Christian movement that pushes hard on intensity and authentic supernatural experiences is going to have some serious problems without some strict accountability measures in place. But those very measures are often at serious odds with the image these movements’ leaders cultivate of themselves. They portray themselves as sitting at Jesus’ feet, getting their marching orders and instructions straight from what Mel Gibson once evocatively called “the chair.” It’s not like there’s any way to verify anything such a leader claims, so the sky’s the limit there. They can call themselves prophets, apostles, and whatever else they like; nobody in the Christ-o-sphere will ever successfully gainsay them.
I’m not exactly sure why it works out that way, but it certainly does more often than not. Evangelicals tend to be rather authoritarian in outlook, even the nicer ones. Perhaps such leaders like the extra power that this image grants them. Who dares question someone who is that close to Jesus, someone who sees visions and has experiences that they can’t even imagine?
I’m not accusing Justin Cox of craving such power. Far from it. I think he’s a decent person, and thus is unable to conceive of his ideal wild-eyed prophet craving it. The problem is simple here, though: Putting meaningful safeguards around such a person would, of necessity, hem and fence them in. It’d bring them to heel. And the very nature of these prophets is that they are not supposed to be possible to tame and hem and fence. They up-end Christianity; they are not contained by it.
Left to their own devices, Weird Christian leaders tend to explode like long-tailed comets over the Christ-o-sphere, then collapse in on themselves like neutron stars, gather communities to themselves, then head off into the hinterlands. Then, years later, we find out just what scandals these communities hid.
All these calls for intense Jesus-ing miss a very important point
In a non-coercive environment, churches’ leaders cannot count on customers to purchase their product (which, again, is active membership in their group) at exorbitant prices, then to stick around for repeat purchases forever no matter how substandard the business’ practices and leadership might be.
Instead, churches in such an environment find themselves in a very unfamiliar and uncomfortable new place: A religious marketplace. There, any one church’s product enjoys no artificial advantages over any other church’s—or for that matter any other religion’s—product. Consumers may examine each product on the shelves at their convenience, or they might even decide not to purchase any product at all. And there is absolutely nothing that any church congregation or leader can do about those decisions.
In that environment, churches must offer a product that consumers wish to buy at a price they feel is fair—or they won’t buy it. They’ll go elsewhere to make a purchase, or they won’t purchase anything and do something else with their Sunday mornings and money. (The growing number of churchless believers speaks to the truth of that assertion.)
Weird Christianity won’t be the solution, either
Intense Jesus-ing, as we see so often in Weird Christianity, is hard to maintain for the long haul. Long long ago, it reflected believers’ conviction that the world was ending any day now. After all, why work at a job, or marry, or have children, or make any long-term plans, when everything would be set on fire any day now?
Over time, though, such intensity and ferocity burns people out at both ends. It can’t last long.
As much as I like Justin Cox, then, I have to disagree with his OP. In a lot of ways, Christians are their own worst problem. They got so used to dominance that they never had to learn how to be welcoming, compassionate communities building meaningful things together. The truth of evangelicalism, that it never knew how to do that and has no desire whatsoever to learn how to do it now, certainly doesn’t draw in new recruits and make them want to stay.
Only regaining those former powers of coercion could do that in the numbers evangelicals need. And that seems unlikely to happen ever again.
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