A very well written article in the Weekend Australian reports: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/features/jc-and-the-cool-gang/story-e6frg8h6-1226015838817
JC and the cool gang
Christine Jackman, From: The Australian, March 05, 2011 12:00AM
Christians Erica and Jim Bartle with the JC Epidemic motocross and BMX crew. “Extreme sports are an excellent way of capturing kids’ attention,” Jim says.
NOT so long ago, Erica Holburn’s life seemed like a chapter ripped straight from a chick-lit novel. For a start, she had the sort of ostensibly glamorous job enjoyed by the Bridget Jones posse.
Recently promoted from beauty editor to deputy editor of a glossy young women’s magazine, Holburn was actually being paid to stay abreast of fashion trends and celebrity gossip, and enjoyed such a ready supply of luxe freebies, she confesses now she had no idea what the over-the-counter price of shampoo was.
On Sunday mornings, she would take her place amid the beautiful people – blonde, honey-brown and rail-thin – scanning the social pages over coffee at a Bondi cafe. Many of the A-listers in the gossip columns were people she knew personally or had spied over her champagne glass at the same red-carpet events.
She was engaged, too. But while her fiancé, Jim Bartle – an appropriately chisel-jawed, piercing-eyed extreme-sports aficionado – lived interstate, she was free to pursue the hectic life of a Sydney career gal. There was just one fly in the La Mer. Holburn was falling in love with another man.
And while love gone wrong – or, at least, led astray – tends to be a key plot device in the best chick lit, the target of Holburn’s affections was not the type to be played by Hugh Grant or Matthew McConaughey when Hollywood buys the screen rights to the bestseller. You see, Erica Bartle (née Holburn) loves Jesus.
“I’ve had intense, passionate moments, feeling close to God,” she says. “It’s a wonderful fulfilment that surpasses any other relationship, even my relationship with Jim.” But unlike any modern-day Mr Darcy, Bartle doesn’t seem to mind playing co-star to the Messiah. Indeed, it was Jim, the son of a pastor, who encouraged the woman who was to become his wife to be born again.
Today, the almost impossibly beautiful 20-something couple live in Queensland’s Mt Tamborine, in the Gold Coast hinterland, and continue to pursue passions dripping with Gen Y cred and 21st century savvy – Jim promotes his troupe of motocross, skate, surf and BMX enthusiasts through a website replete with hard-rocking YouTube clips, and Erica writes Girl With A Satchel, a popular blog full of sharp observations about fashion, celebrity and the media – but they dedicate their actions and their words to Christ.
Not so long ago, the Bartles might have been dismissed as Jesus freaks; but freak implies something out of the ordinary, and these two are far from alone. Whether it is on burgeoning Facebook pages celebrating Jesus or in the moshpit at the Easterfest Music Festival, chasing waves at the Jesus ProAm or texting Australian Idol en masse to ensure a gospel singer wins, young Australians are expressing their faith in God across all realms of pop culture. Which prompts the question: some two millennia after a son of a carpenter inspired a counter-cultural movement, is Christianity finally becoming cool again?
Jesus comes with a large production crew these days. If you doubt it, simply Google churches like Planetshakers, in Melbourne, or Paradise Community Church (Adelaide), or the grand-daddy of them all, Hillsong, which now boasts a global reach to cities like London, New York and Cape Town from its base in Sydney’s Hills district. (And if you don’t know what Google is, good luck understanding this phenomenon; like most of their peers, hip young Christians frame much of their day and establish much of their identity via the internet). Lined up beside each other, it is hard to ignore the similarities between the churches’ websites. From their home pages, each promotes a funky, urban feel with sophisticated graphics, high-quality video clips, stadium-style rock and pop music, and an emphasis on connection not just through Sunday services but an array of smaller social groups and through blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
Harder still is any attempt to locate the churches’ denomination on the traditional spectrum, such as that used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. As it turns out, all of the churches named above belong to the Assemblies of God tradition, a Pentecostal group which renamed themselves the Australian Christian Churches in 2007. But if their websites are any indication, affiliation with an overarching denomination is far less important these days than cultivating your individual church identity – or brand
To old-school Christians – particularly those aged over about 40, who grew up in the dominant Christian traditions of the Anglican and Catholic Churches – worshipping this way might seem, at best, disconcertingly unfamiliar and, at worst, somewhat offensive; a bit like serving up cool Jesus with a side order of fries at a convenient and groovy drive-through.
But consider this. Between 1996 and 2006 (the date of the last census), the number of Australians formally identifying themselves as Christian continued to decline – in all denominations except those defined as “Pentecostal” and “other churches”. In other words, in a sea of secularism in Australia, the groups most often derided as “happy clappers” by more mainstream Christians are actually the only ones swimming successfully against the tide.
“The growth was very small but, compared to the others that went backwards, particularly the Anglican Church, it’s worth noting,” says Dr Andrew Singleton, a senior lecturer in sociology at Monash University. “And it mainly came [not from new converts] but from within existing churches. That is, you often had young people leaving the church they used to go to with their parents, and moving to the funky big church up the road.”
The so-called “megachurches” that bring congregations of thousands together in high-tech auditoria are only part of the phenomenon. More recently, they have been joined on the Christian landscape by what are called “emerging churches” of much smaller groups of young Christians, meeting in cafes and bookshops, in bars and even online.
In 2007, Singleton published The Spirit of Generation Y: Young People’s Spirituality in a Changing Australia with the Australian Catholic University’s Michael Mason and Ruth Webber, after the trio of academics spent five years conducting in-depth interviews with young Australians about their beliefs, priorities and practices.
The project added some valuable background to the raw data routinely provided by the census, which does not have the capacity to examine religion beyond the “label” with which householders most readily identify – nor the ability to determine when a Gen Y-er has been recorded as a Catholic or Anglican simply because that’s what Mum ticked on the form.
If spiritual health is measured by belief in God, then the news was dire. Almost half of all Australian Gen Ys told the researchers they either did not believe (17 per cent) or were unsure about God’s existence (32 per cent). Less than half (46 per cent) called themselves Christian and only 17 per cent actually practised any active form of Christianity.
But again, evangelical Christian groups were chief among those proving the exception to the rule. “Gen Ys from conservative Protestant denominations manifest much higher levels of religious belief and practice than Catholics and Anglicans, and also higher levels than their ¬parents’ generation within the same denominations,” the report found. “Gen Ys from conservative Protestant denominations [also] show higher levels of social concern and involvement than members of more liberal denominations.”
Another striking finding was that a majority of all denominations agreed it was “OK to pick and choose your religious beliefs”. Among those Gen Yers who do identify as Christians, this openness about specific beliefs – what some critics would call moral relativism – might go some way to explaining the new fluidity around church attendance and the related reluctance to affiliate strictly with any particular church.
In the US, this trend has been tagged the “Love Jesus, Hate Church” syndrome; a disenchantment with old-style churches that lock followers into “us-versus-them” mentalities, both internally, in the form of ancient hierarchies dividing the clergy and laity, and externally, in sometimes bloody rifts with other Christian denominations. In Australia, it manifests among Christian Gen Y-ers as an overwhelming focus on one’s personal connection with Jesus Christ, with attendance at a bricks-and-mortar church seen as only one of many means of honouring that connection. Actual denominations are seen increasingly as irrelevant – if they are recognised at all.
“For me personally, I don’t believe you have to go to church to be a Christian,” says Abe Andrews, the Gold Coast zone coordinator for Christian Surfers, who serves as chaplain on the men’s professional world surfing tour. “But it is important to have a fellowship, whether you meet in church or with a group you might meet every day, to celebrate the Word and keep faith with. I go to church on Sunday, but not ritualistically – and I couldn’t tell you what denomination the church [Beachside Christian Church at Palm Beach] is.
“Christian life is about more than that. I run a Bible studies group on Wednesday, my wife Lize and I spend a lot of time talking about it… and Christian Surfers is almost an arm of the church [because] we just focus on getting out into the community every single day, volunteering, doing what needs to be done, glorifying God.
“Some of my best times with God are in the water,” says Andrews. “Surfing has given me some of my most spiritual experiences. It is a free feeling; it allows me to empty myself of the selfish, everyday-world things that clutter up your head, to separate myself from the flesh and connect with God and just enjoy His creation.”
Similarly, when I ask Erica Bartle to name some Christian churches around Brisbane that are popular with Generation Y-ers, she is eclectic with her denominations, nominating City Life, a Pentecostal church aligned to Australian Christian Churches, and Bridgeman Downs Baptist, where she says “the kids look cool but love Jesus”
“Christianity really has an image problem,” she adds. “Too shrouded in ‘religion’, too depleted by doctrine, too much focus on the Catholic Church and its reluctance to get with the times and atone for its crimes. I grew up in the Catholic Church and, while there are elements of Catholicism that have stayed with me and that I’m grateful for, looking back on it, there was more guilt than grace. I don’t think I ever knew who Jesus was. I don’t think I was encouraged to have an appreciation of who this extraordinary man was, even though He is why we call ourselves Christian… I feel that there’s a real getting-back-to-basics movement now based on the character of Christ and a personal relationship with God.”
Husband Jim does most of his own preaching about Jesus wearing motocross leathers in rural and regional showgrounds, parks and schools, after the riders and skaters of JC Epidemic attract a crowd with their stunts. “Extreme sports are an excellent way of capturing kids’ attention,” he says. “And ever since I became a Christian again [prompted by a near-death experience after a bike accident], I’ve had an overwhelming desire to tell other people that they were created for a purpose, and to encourage them to live life without excess…
“There’s a scepticism around that evangelical side of things. And I don’t like to call what we do a ministry or a church because I don’t want to be sitting over there in a club. We’re not there to hang out with Christians, we’re there to hang out with people… Jesus was not the guy hanging out in church, he was the guy down at the pub with the guys who were getting drunk, and with the marginalised.”
Empire of Oprah
But can anyone this cool really be the Messiah? If Jesus returned to Earth today, he might blitz the finals of Australian Idol – indeed, there is already a burgeoning international Christian movement aligned around the catchcry “Make Jesus Famous” – but would his popularity last longer than a few ratings seasons?
The pull towards celebrating Jesus the man, while rejecting other traditional Christian rituals, is not a new one. Sociologist Singleton points out hippies calling themselves “Jesus people” were part of a broader counter-cultural movement in the late 1960s and early ’70s, about the same time as the Catholic Church was grappling with its own attempt to respond to the changing times, through Vatican II. But the 21st century obsession with celebrity imbues this new rejuvenation of Jesus with an added potency – and, according to some, greater pitfalls.
“The danger begins when we begin repositioning Jesus,” says Mark Sayers, a 37-year-old minister with a so-called ‘emerging church’ in Melbourne (Red, in Box Hill), who also works as a pop culture commentator with a specifically Christian perspective. His book, The Trouble with Paris: Following Jesus in a World of Plastic Promises examines how churches are struggling to exist in a “hyperconsumerist” world.
“When, in their quest to remain relevant to young people, churches begin to turn him into a cool Australian, latte-loving guy who hangs out with his surfboard and is cool with everything we do… kids will come [to church] because they are attracted to that. But then they discover they’re not going to be turned into a superstar and they read the Bible and they discover Jesus dies at the end.”
Along with a consumerist ideology in which ‘cool’ is the motivating force, Sayers says another dominant culture factor troubling the church is the triumph of the self-help movement, which preaches a message that life should be about self-fulfilment, not suffering.
“So the quest for salvation has been replaced by the quest for wellbeing. And the danger is Christianity will end up looking like the empire of Oprah, in which God is a sort of cosmic butler who delivers things for us… We need to return to a biblical world view that grapples with suffering, rather than avoids or denies it, and that recognises that man is not the focus. God is. And that God is not going to transform you into this buff entrepreneur with a beautiful wife. There is a much deeper reality than that.”
Singleton agrees: “A lot of these new churches are presenting a highly individualised form of religion, with a God who is intensely interested in the minute details of you and your life: your sex life, your finances, your aspirations… It’s a bit of a Pentecostal sleight of hand. The traditional, mainstream churches are stuffy and old-style, whereas they’re giving their [followers] a Jesus who fits with their lifestyle preferences. One’s life is enhanced by this new, personal relationship with someone who is totally focused on you.”
But can such a one-sided and self-serving relationship last? Singleton says there has been little concrete research done on the turnover of the Australian megachurches, while the “emerging churches” are, by definition, even harder to quantify. “But we do know one of the difficulties facing the megachurches is there is a fairly large back door. The population does change quite substantially over time.”
Power of the passion
Still, at a time when most parents are worrying about what drugs their children are taking and who they are “sexting” in the middle of the night, it might seem a little churlish to criticise the faith of a group of young people simply because they look too good, or because their hymns sound more like Lady GaGa than Ave Maria, or because they love Jesus, well, just a little too effusively.
“There are some incredibly positive things coming out of the emerging church scene particularly,” minister Sayers says. “It might be hard to pin these new Christians down in terms of some of their theology, but there’s a large passion about social justice, things like refugees, and living the message by taking it out to [impoverished] suburbs.”
And it’s not like they are pretending they are perfect. “I wanted to have sex on the beach with her,” Jim Bartle says without hesitation when asked about the day he met his future wife, when she approached him at Burleigh Heads to ask for a surfing lesson. “But being a Christian, I wasn’t able to do that. I wanted to do it the way God has told us to.” He pauses to consider the magnitude of that mission. “But still, all I wanted to do is jump this girl.” Little wonder hard-bitten outback kids who have never even seen a Bible still stop to hear this preacher talk about the Holy Spirit.
Erica’s audience may be trickier – they already have a bible, and its name is Vogue – particularly when she admits her fairytale romance with Jim was jolted back to a grimmer reality soon after she posted their wedding snaps, worthy of a fashion spread, to her blog. If there is one thing Bridget Jones and her ilk demand, it is a happy ending – and developing a near-fatal eating disorder after becoming a minister’s wife, as Erica did, is not really in the script. “I did feel some real despair for a great period of time about leaving Sydney and my career behind,” she says. “I was a Sydney girl, over-invested in my career, very self-focused, worshiping at the altars of celebrity and Westfield. So I struggled with the physical isolation of that new way of life and with my identity within the circle, desperately wanting to be a good wife and a good Christian, but also wanting to maintain a career.
“And I’m still trying to work out what success means, still trying to find a balance between business sense and God sense – but I do believe it is honouring God to use your gifts, provided we do so with the right motivation.”