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Hipsters Flock to Ikon Christian Community

 
Technology, liberal social views draw young worshipers to start-up church

Aaron Monts, pastor of Ikon Christian Community in San Francisco, stood before his flock on a recent Sunday, resplendent in his version of churchly garb: a tan hoodie, plaid shirt and sneakers.

Monts spoke about the Occupy Wall Street protests, making a comparison to the Gospel of Luke and Jesus’s devotion to the poor. “If we lived out what Jesus preached,” he said, “there would be a revolution.”

Heads in the congregation nodded: young men in untucked T-shirts and jeans and insouciant 20-something women, a crowd that otherwise might be seen pedaling fixies in the Mission or sipping brewed-by-the-cup coffee at a trendy cafe.

At Ikon, hipsters — the city’s latest bohemian generation — have found religion.

“You’re not the first one to say that,” Monts, 32, said in an interview, laughing at the observation. “Fifty percent would consider themselves to be hipsters, but, of course, the first rule of being a hipster is not calling yourself a hipster.”

What they do call themselves is Christian. And beyond the hipster appeal, Ikon also embraces another San Francisco trend: it is a start-up.

Founded just over two years ago, it has grown from a handful of worshipers meeting in a private home to 120 members meeting at The Hub, a work space for fledgling tech ventures in The San Francisco Chronicle building in SoMa. Two services are held every Sunday.

Ikon Church San Francisco

Ikon has what Monts called “angel investors” — 22 similar churches from across the nation, including ones in New York and Miami, that have contributed to the church’s initial financing.

Reunion Christian Church in Boston, itself just five years old, gave money to start Ikon, according to its pastor, Hank Wilson. He described the donation as “modest,” and said it was part of his congregation’s mission to help new “church plants,” its term for these start-ups.

“We go to places where we’re needed,” Wilson said, referring to San Francisco.

Indeed, the city has one of the nation’s lowest rates of church attendance. In the 1950s half of the city’s population identified as Roman Catholic; today it has dropped to 20 percent, according to the local archdiocese.

Ted F. Peters, a professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, said that new churches were rare not just in San Francisco, but in most of the country. “Over the last decade it’s been very difficult,” he said.

Since 2006, Dr. Peters said, there has been an “explosion” of atheism nationwide, perhaps, he added, in reaction to the Roman Catholic Church sexual abuse scandals and extremist right-wing positions taken by some Protestant churches.

Successfully attracting young adults to a church is unusual. “Most mainline denominations have really lost that group,” Dr. Peters said, adding that a church would need to have “liberal social ethics.”

Ikon has its liturgical roots in the Restoration Movement, a nondenominational, nonhierarchical faith started in the United States in the early 19th century.

But little of it seems traditional: Sunday readings were from an iPhone, contemporary songs replaced hymns, a video screen showed a popular YouTube clip during the sermon and techno music thumped for the recessional. Ikon uses Twitter, Facebook, sleek Web sites and advertising campaigns in transit stations to promote its message.

The church’s tenets include a devotion to the arts, openness (gay men and lesbians are welcome), environmental causes, and addressing tough social issues, like outreach to the city’s sex workers.

Monts said the church was trying “to tackle some of the injustices in the city.”

“Christians have a bad rap, especially in a city like this,” said Luke Spray, 22, a San Francisco State University student and church member. Spray noted the sidewalk preachers nearby on Market Street who shout and hold signs telling passers-by that hell soon awaits. “I think that’s terrible,” he said.

Instead, Ikon focused on “caring about the earth — caring about each other,” Spray said, and added, “Maybe that doesn’t look the same as the Bible Belt.”

Another member, Mabi Knittle, 34, put Ikon’s message more succinctly. “Love saves people,” he said. “Love rescues people.”

Whether it is that idea, Monts’s enthusiasm or Ikon’s packaging and presentation, the church clearly attracts youth — mine was the only gray hair present at four Sunday services.

Monts said his goal was to grow a more multigenerational membership, but he acknowledged the church’s appeal to younger adults, including hipsters, who are searching for greater meaning in their lives.

“They’re expecting to be part of a community,” he said, “but also to be part of something larger than themselves.”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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