Coffee, Christ, and the Cult of Authenticity

It had been a long day of travel. I’d already flown from Nashville to Denver to Spokane, it was barely 11am, and I still had to drive a snow-laden three hours to Missoula. Of course at this point, I was two [double-shot, single origin] espressos deep into the day, but to make it back to Montana I knew I needed another pick-me-up. So out came my iPhone, and Siri directed me to the closest third wave coffee shop.

A sigh of relief as I arrived: the scent of coffee beans, the sight of reclaimed and lacquered wooden tables, minimalist Edison lights suspended by copper wire. My turf. Yes, I am — no-holds-barred — a hipster.

As I took my seat, though, something began to gnaw at me. You see, as a priest-in-formation, the Incarnation of Christ means quite a lot to me. And if the Incarnation says anything about God, it says that He cares about the particular — cares enough, in fact, to become a particular man, of particular parents, in a particular country, at a particular time.

Jesus isn’t some androgynous blob of humanity comprised of the average features of every race, sex and region… He’s a Jewish man with His mother’s eyes, and that high jaw-line you could trace back to David of Bethlehem. At the Incarnation, the universal God became particular.

And here I sat in a café that was really identical to the same one I’d sat in at the Denver airport, which was identical to the one I’d sat in the day before in Nashville. For that matter, I’ve sat in the same coffee shop in Canada, England and Germany.

My sense of discomfort only grew as I drove back to the highway: not only was that coffee shop identical to others around the world, but it was totally out of place in that neighborhood. Nothing about that space reflected the character of its locale. In fact, that chic minimalism alienated the blue-collar simplicity of the neighborhood.

It struck me that this whole aesthetic has arisen out of millennials’ high esteem of ‘authenticity.’ I think many of us came out of the suburbs, out of cookie-cutter houses and families pressured to look ‘together’ and happy, and out of cookie-cutter careers. With all that pressure to fit into a mould, it’s no wonder we ache for authenticity. We look at the way suburbs bulldoze over all that makes a community particular to its locale and lays a one-size-fits-all linoleum façade over it all, and we fight back the gag reflex.

By now of course you see the irony. In our flight from the universal suburb, in our desperation to be authentic to our particularity, we’ve simply brought the suburbs into the city with assurances that this is really authentic. I could stand in the middle of a suburban subdivision and be in Montana, Georgia or Vancouver, and not know the difference, just as easily as I could stand in a third wave coffee shop in Portland, Tokyo or London and be none the wiser.

As a future church planter, the prospect of designing a worship space excites me. And I’ll be the first to confess that I’m a sucker for the hipster aesthetic of ‘authenticity,’ and that if I were planting in a vacuum, that’d be the aesthetic I’d shoot for. But that’s the problem: the minimalist, ‘authentic’ aesthetic is only authentic to a vacuum.

As Christians we’re called to be authentic, not to ourselves, but to the incarnate Christ (in Whom we truly find ourselves), the same Christ who humbles Himself to take on the particular. Whenever we as Christians design a space — our home, our workspace, and especially *our churches — we have a duty to reveal the presence of Christ in that *particular locale.

That means that we pay attention to whatever is most true, most good, and most beautiful about that place and that culture, and how it fits into the Kingdom of God that has drawn near to that particular place. By conforming both our selves and our spaces to the image of Christ, we reveal the God who dwells in the particular.

That might mean giving up the post-industrial warehouse vibe we love so much, but it could also mean revealing the heart of your neighborhood — and your neighbor.