What is church? In the social sciences, church is ordinarily conceptualized as a physical gathering place where religious people go for worship and fellowship. Church is sacred; it is not secular. With this idea of church in mind, sociologists find that U.S. Christian youth (particularly young white men) are dropping out of church. Some are dropping out because they have lost faith in God. Others, however, are leaving church because they feel alienated from organized religion, not because they stopped being Christians. This rise in “unchurched believers” raises a question: how are Christian youth creating and expressing church beyond the confines of a religious institution?
In an effort to understand how Christians are doing church outside of established church walls, I turn to music. Protestant evangelical Christians believe that music is a powerful resource for making congregants feel God in the presence of others and for actualizing spiritual membership across difference. Yet despite the important role music plays in evangelical congregations and communities, few studies consider music as church. The studies that do, primarily examine the function of music in spaces that are explicitly religious, such as worship concerts or Christian rock festivals. What gets missed is how young people are enacting church through music in settings that are also secular.
I study how some evangelical youth are enacting church in an antagonistic music scene that takes a stand against religion and religious authority. My case: U.S. Christian Hardcore, a heavy metal-influenced form of punk rock comprised of Christian bands, show promoters, and subcultural ministry teams who mesh evangelical beliefs about sin and salvation with a music culture that values social nonconformity. In step with the hardcore idea that religious people are hypocrites, Hardcore Christians criticize the “mainstream church” for being insincere about the evangelical mission to reach out and bring society’s outcasts to Christ (i.e. other young white men involved in hardcore and metalcore music).
Church is not a place to go; church is a state of being that Christians can collectively express and mobilize in a range of social settings.
In an effort distance themselves from this religious mainstream, Hardcore Christians modify the popular phrase “spiritual but not religious,” calling themselves “Christian but not religious.” As one interviewee explained it, they are Christian but not religious because, “We follow Christ but we don’t act like Sunday Christians.” By not acting like Sunday Christians, these youths become, as the chart-topping Christian metalcore band For Today puts it, “Fearless” in their faith.
Christian Hardcore offers unique insights into how youths are using music to collectively reimagine church against mainstream Christian congregations and in spaces and practices that are also secular. Christian Hardcore youth are being church in ways that purposefully bring religious and nonreligious communities together. The Christian Hardcore act of being church takes shape in and through playing and moshing to hardcore music, making a Christian presence at hardcore shows, and getting to know non-Christians through music and tattoos. Through their music and at live shows, these youth underscore evangelical beliefs about personal salvation and evangelical witness to propose a new way to think about church: church is not a place to go; church is a state of being that Christians can collectively express and mobilize in a range of social settings.
By making these kinds of claims, Hardcore Christians accomplish what Gerardo Marti terms “religious institutional entrepreneurialism”—they work within the field of subcultural Christian ministries to carve out and legitimize a new understanding of church that is not confined to explicitly religious spaces. If music is church in religious institutions than music can also be church in social settings that are also secular.
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