The Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn has launched an ad campaign in which Jesus is dubbed “The Original Hipster” and is depicted wearing Converse sneakers. Some Catholics, online and elsewhere, are praising the effort as reaching out to people “where they’re at,” others have criticized it for trivializing or pandering.
This is obviously an effort at culturally engaged evangelization. That’s a good thing, up to a point and depending on exactly how it’s done. It’s a tricky business. Sometimes when you do this sort of thing, you wind up unintentionally sending a counter-message. You can also be very effective, though, at sending the right message, if you’re careful and discerning.
I’m not crazy about a “Jesus-as-hipster” campaign. I’m not sure the cultural analogies work here. I’m not sure the ad does what it’s intended to do and that it avoids sending the wrong message. But in principle this sort of effort to get people to consider Jesus from an unusual angle can be very helpful, especially for young people.
As a 1970s convert to Christianity from South St Louis Unaffiliated, Unchurched Theism, I can say that I was reached by popular, culturally engaged Christian evangelizing efforts aimed at young people. Many people in the church didn’t understand or like these efforts but they were effective with lots of us—more effective than some of us who now find ourselves as “guardians of orthodoxy” might like to recall. These approaches combined creativity and unorthodox evangelistic outreach with doctrinally orthodox content—at least to the extent Evangelical Christianity can be considered by a Catholic as doctrinally orthodox. Many people were brought into a vital relationship with Christ through this outreach. We need analogous approaches today in Catholic evangelization.
At the same time, and especially nowadays, the goal of culturally engaged evangelization can put tremendous pressure on evangelizers to “water down” Jesus in order to avoid offending people or to get their attention on a certain point. If we aren’t careful, we can wind up winning people to a Jesus not worthy of proclaiming in the first place. Or we can “convert” people to a Christianity that is little more than a Jesus-coating of their present lives. A sort of “Jesus spray,” to adapt a recent image of Pope Francis’. So it is, as I say, tricky.