Let’s keep Christianity weird.” So said the Southern Baptists’ official face to the nation, Russell Moore, as he closed an address on “prophetic minorities” before a thousand pastors, artists, social entrepreneurs, and assorted others at latest edition of Q. “What is Q?” you might ask like a local woman did to me as I snapped a picture of the ten-foot-tall reclaimed wood logo that stood outside a historic hall in the shadow of the Tennessee capitol building. Telling her dryly that it was a gathering of hipster Christians only seemed to add to her confusion. (I overheard someone else try to explain it as a bit like TED for evangelicals, which apparently left his native inquisitor as perplexed as mine.) Even the basics can be cloudyevery participant I asked assumed the “Q” stood for “question” but no one really knew for sure, and Q’s website holds no direct answer.
Q seems enigmatic by design. Where else in the evangelical world can you start the day worshiping to beautiful guitar- and cello-led versions of “Be Thou My Vision” or “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and end it with an after-party where the hard liquor is flowing freely? The topics are purposely eclectic, as are many of the participants. Fedora topped females who host Hollywood salons hobnob with tattooed urban church planters and discuss presentations that range from manners to masculinity to marionettes.
Here’s what we do know. Gabe Lyons, a graduate of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, founded Q Ideas in 2007 after cutting his teeth on the Catalyst conference. That same year, the book unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters, coauthored by Lyons, was released based on Barna Group polling that his fledgling organization funded. It sold well, and the Q conferences have successfully hopped between cultural hubs where initials alone suffice (D.C., N.Y.C., L.A.) and on-the-rise “it” cities like Austin, Portland, and now Nashville.
The tall, telegenic, thirty-something Lyons usually plays ringmaster in tight pants“skinny jeans” are so ubiquitous at Q that they run the risk of being unhipwith his trademark blond hair falling down to his eyes in sheep dog fashion. “We’re trying to stir you up,” Lyons tells a crowd which receives no detailed schedule prior to arriving, “The talk you need to hear most is probably not the one you think.”
Yet, eclecticism meets modern efficiency and today’s short attention spans. The consistently well credentialed and talented speakers such as Christianity Today’s Andy Crouch, neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, Sports Illustrated writer Thomas Lakeand in years past, the likes of David Brooks and Os Guinnessare reigned in by a large clock visible to all that counts down their eighteen, nine, or three minute presentations. The intellectual food is often quite tasty, but variety trumps depth: Q is a tapas bar, not a steakhouse.
This annual conference has emerged as a favorite watering hole for youngish evangelicals dealing with mixed emotions about the culture wars fought by their theological parents and the parallel subculture in which they were raised. These are folks who do not necessarily want to abandon orthodox Christianity but are driven by the gut feel that orthodoxy itself has a menu that includes more than just Bill Bright’s “Four Spiritual Laws” and the Religious Right’s politics. They aren’t fighting to hold on to the vestiges of a “Christian America” but instead are looking for the best ways to be faithful exiles in a post-religious world, a mindset evidenced by Q’s consistent use of mainstream venues in the heart of the host cities instead of suburban megachurch bunkers.
Q revels in being different but generally avoids direct confrontations. A standard Q tactic is to pair apparent opposites together and have them talk about something on which they can agree. Two years ago in Washington, Moore’s predecessor, the conservative Richard Land, was seated next to the left leaning Jim Wallis of Sojourners to tag-team immigration reform. The odd couples this year included the state’s Republican Governor Bill Haslam and Nashville’s Democrat Mayor Karl Dean who traded compliments and discussed public education. A Jewish Israeli mother who had lost a son and a Muslim Palestinian father who had lost a daughter shared the emotional stories that brought them together to work for peace. Theologians Matthew Levering and Timothy George summarized the unity achieved through twenty years of work by Evangelicals and Catholics Together, an effort begun by Gabe Lyons’s mentor Chuck Colson and First Things’s own Richard John Neuhaus.
Bridges are favored over lines in the sand. Low church evangelicals warmly welcomed a nun in full habit. Author Christena Cleveland warned of the dangers of us/them tribalism. Donna Frietas, whose book The End of Sex details college hook-up culture, shared that many students felt unhappily trapped in this casual sex system. Just yelling “abstinence” would not work she said, but they would welcome mentoring relationship that provided a glide path out of this joyless lifestyle. Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center chronicled his successful work bettering the media’s coverage of religion through education, friendship, and a few days at the beach.
Civility in disagreement is preached without actually being given much of a chance to be practiced. There were speakers on stage who probably disagreed. They were just never on the stage together. For example, the aforementioned Moore noted that, yes, Christian sexual ethics might increasingly be seen as strange, but that cultural dissonance would present an opportunity to winsomely affirm that we believe things, like the Resurrection and the Second Coming, “that are even stranger than that.” A day later, blogger Rachel Held Evans offhandedly declared that millenials did not want see to gays and lesbians “treated as second class citizens.” That was about as close as things came to a debate in Nashvillebut this is called Q, not A.
Eventually, Q will need to address the culture’s unavoidable fault lines as well as its own complicated (and sometimes contradictory) relationships with consumerism and relativism. Are we as Christians called to simplicity or the cutting edge? Is the “buy one give one” model of major Q sponsor TOMS really making the world a better place or just giving us license to make our closets a fuller place? When does expressing kindness towards homosexuals and others who feel marginalized by the church slide into the sanctioning of sin? Does serving the common good ever require taking stands that, in a warped culture, are no longer commonly seen as good? “We’re not all like that!” only goes so far as a rallying cry.
To their credit, the Q crowd is rightly focused on the goal of being restorers, not just the rescued. As Brian Fikkert, coauthor of When Helping Hurts, put it, we are called to worship and serve “Colossians 1 Jesus” who is reconciling all things, not a “Star Trek Jesus” just waiting to beam us out of this broken world. That is a good place from which to start and the still young Q movement should be given the grace to find its way as it deals with those sometimes devilish details. For now, though, a generation put off by the faithful certainty of their fathers seems excited to just have the opportunity to ask some good questions.
After two and half days drinking from Q’s hip firehose, John Murdock has returned to a quiet Texas farmhouse where he is writing a book on conservative creation stewardship. He occasionally blogs at republicantreehugger.blogspot.com.