Hipster Christians Are Here to Save Dalston
Meet East London's newest angels.
Approximately nine months after I turned 31, I got a birthday card from my friend. She told me that she'd been walking past a shop in Dalston when God told her to go in and buy me one card for every year she hadn't been to a birthday celebration of mine. She wrote inside: "Remember you are one of God's daughters."
Despite the clumsy (and ultimately unsuccessful) conversion attempt, I was amazed that someone I know who's into cool things like art house cinema and club music is an evangelical Christian. How had she managed to hide it from me all these years? I thought Christians were supposed to wear badly-fitted clothing and form human barricades at abortion clinics for fun. Was this kind of evangelism going on elsewhere in Dalston?
So I went along to the Sunday service at St Barnabas Church to challenge my preconceptions that all Christians are right-wingers who hate people enjoying themselves. The church was set up on Shacklewell Lane two years ago, with a declared mission to target Dalston's "creative community". It was begun by former members of the eight-year-old Grace Church, which is where most of the photographs in this article were taken. Grace Church was the original hipster place of worship in Shoreditch, but the Shacklewell Lane hipster Christians left because they felt it was getting too big. They decided they'd rather start something new and more exclusive.
Everyone at the service is in their late 20s or early 30s, and dresses like they're at a private view. In front of me, a woman wears a striped white and red long mac and horizontal rainbow stripe boots. On the other side, a girl with a Zooey Deschanel fringe and her hot boyfriend wear matching Barbour jackets. I’m disorientated by how cool everyone looks and momentarily feel like I’m at some grim-faced sonic arts gig surrounded by balding men with Dalston noise beards.
A man in his early 30s plays busking-standard guitar and everyone sings hymns. After the communion, the guitarist tells me this weekend is a low-key one for him, because he spent last weekend doing covers at a Guided by Voices convention and got "really drunk". He says: "I think writing an article about young Christians is a really good idea – we're actually counter-cultural. People get stupid ideas about us, because of what happened with the bus recently."
Scott, an assistant vicar from Grace Church, delivers a painfully long guest sermon. He’s in his late 20s, wears double denim and has a Morrissey quiff. He launches into an attack on the Guardian newspaper's "seething sarcasm" when it comes to Jesus. Most of all, he's pissed that some people think the Bible is just a story, rather than, y'know, just an extended morality metaphor that's not meant to be taken too literally.
He tells the congregation: "I don’t think any of us here tonight need convincing that we live in a culture for whom the idea of someone – ie Jesus – literally rising from the dead is laughably absurd. And in that regard, we live in a culture no different from any other – Ancient Pagan, 1st century Jewish or 21st century secular."
Scott later says to me, over coffee at Red Art Cafe Bar, that Dalston is a "natural" place to be if you're Christian and that’s why he lives there. He claims: "We need to commit ourselves to areas that are diverse and have problems. Jesus isn't asking you do anything easy or comfortable. He went to his death and we have to follow him there."
I'm not 100 percent sure that anyone in Dalston's gonna get crucified any time soon, but Scott is adamant that many of the young people who have joined the church feel there's a gap in their life. Some return after rejecting it as teenagers because they feel their lifestyle is "inconsistent" with Christianity. He ignores my question about what exactly a consistent lifestyle involves, but says, after thinking for ages: "In the gospel, Jesus calls on people to follow him as the central focus of their life. My lifestyle isn't about me and what I want – it's about following Jesus and what he wants."
He says Dalston is “broken”, which is basically a Christian hipster way of saying "full of sinners". He tells me the relationship between man and God became broken after "the fall" (when Adam and Eve got naked), which explains why there are so many problems in places like Hackney. He says he and his fellow churchgoers want Dalston to "become new again and return to the wholeness of Shalom". After that happens, he says "Jesus will return to the Earth”. He pauses, and adds, cheerily: "Whenever that might be!"
It's not just about luring in "young creatives" by playing guitars instead of a church organ, or co-opting slogans like "Believe in the Spraycan" (eesh), or holding talks on "The Theology of Tom Waits". Hackney's first food bank will open at St Barnabas in a few weeks, run by a Christian network called The Shoreditch Group. Its members also plan to work on improving housing, and tackling crime, specifically in Dalston.
But social justice isn't the main reason why young, white middle-class people in Hackney are interested in creating – or "planting", as they call it – new churches within walking distance of their homes. Sara, 31, who was one of the first members of Grace, admits: "Community relations are really important, and living as Christians in a big city you notice just how hard it is to meet people who are similar to you. I was attracted by the idea of a smaller church. Many people in Hackney don't speak English – not that I'm saying Christianity is about speaking English, and I think that, as Christians, we should teach English people to reach out. But people at the church don't always have the time to do that because they're busy with work and other things in their lives."
The vicar at St Barnabas says his congregation is becoming a bit more diverse. Giles, formerly an actor, tells me: "We now have one Nigerian family. And a couple of South Asian people." According to him, the young creatives in the area had felt alienated by the "exclusivity" of the churches with predominantly Nigerian and Arabian congregations.
The church members don't think they’re shutting people out. Rachel, 30, who recently switched to St Barnabas from Grace, claims what she likes about Shacklewell Lane is its proximity to the estates, where they can "reach out" to more people and make them "aware" of the church – even if those people aren’t especially welcome to join them for Sunday service.
Dalston's Hipster Christians definitely have wider ambitions to save us all – wherever we are. Everyone I speak to admits they can’t be totally upfront about their views, so they've adopted covert ways of being religious in the "brokenness". Rachel says: "People think you're using it as a crutch, or it's some form of mental illness, when you start talking about religion. There's an anti-Christian bias. I often pray when I'm out with my friends. We look as though we're just having a conversation, but we're actually praying aloud."
I ask her to tell me about the public places she's prayed. She says: "One time we walked around the city, praying for bankers. We prayed for them to experience God's justice and righteousness because people were so against them. We also went to Occupy at St Paul's and prayed for all the broken people there."
She concluded: "Obama started with a grassroots campaign. We don't want to take a top-down approach."