Christopher Kerzich is preparing to permanently embrace a truly retro, timeless look. The basics -- black jacket, black pants and black shirt -- will be stark and radical, providing a kind of "this is who I am" vibe. Black fedoras, scarves and long overcoats are optional. For accessories, he'll have a silver cross and a white collar.
In other words, Kerzich is a seminarian at the North American College in Rome, preparing for his 2014 ordination as Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Although this wardrobe will stand out in almost any crowd, the last thing Kerzich expects to be is "hip." If anything, he hopes people his age and younger will see him as the antithesis of hip, which he believes will help him relate to the masses of fashionable young people known as "hipsters."
"If you are going to try to reach out to hipsters, the main thing you have to be is authentic. You have to be real. You have to be rooted in your faith," said the 28-year-old seminarian, during a recent home visit. "The one thing you cannot try to be is hip. You can't try to be something you're not. That would be a fatal mistake."
Defining the term "hipster" is a task that has baffled researchers -- from advertising executives to the college administrators. Kerzich finds it interesting that whenever he types a word like "hipsterdom" into his computer, the software underlines the term with the red, squiggly line that suggests this is not a real word.
The problem is that the hipsters do exist and their culture is real and it's growing. If religious leaders want to understand what is happening, he said, they must realize that there is more to the hipster ethos than Rat Pack hats, '50s dresses, plaid blazers, skinny ties, skinny jeans, rumpled hair, flashy accessories and occasional flashes of androgyny.
In his book, "Hipster Christianity," the evangelical writer Brett McCracken noted: "The only real requisite to being a hipster is a commitment to total freedom from labels, norms and imposed constraints of any kind. And this attitude must be very public, which is why hipsters are fairly easy to spot. ... The hardest part of the whole endeavor is also the most crucial: they must look like they don't care how they look."
There is more to this stance than mere appearances, he stressed. While there is no hipster creed, there are common attitudes.
"Chief among them is the instinct to be better than anyone else," noted McCracken. "Hipsters view any sort of prescribed system or hierarchy as absurd. ... They project themselves as being totally independent of any controlling influence, and masters over their own life and meaning."
The result is a brand of fierce individualism "verging on or leading to apathy," said Kerzich. At the same time, however, many hipsters see themselves as true originals, seekers and deep thinkers who want to escape the shallow, mundane, ordinary world of mass culture. For some, the radical demands of an ancient faith may actually seem countercultural -- not boring.
Thus, in an online essay on evangelizing hipsters, he urged pastors and youth workers to start frequenting places that hipsters tend to congregate, such as coffee shops, pubs and bookstores. Yes, a minister wearing a clerical collar is sure to be greeted with skepticism in such a setting. However, before long some of the locals will start asking tough, honest questions -- if the minister is truly accessible.
Also, more religious leaders are going to have to dive into social media, said Kerzich. It is no longer optional for faith groups to have a presence on YouTube or for bishops and other leaders to dialogue with critics, seekers and the faithful through Twitter and Facebook.
Once again, being "hip" is not the goal. The goal is to be available.
"No one likes someone who tries to belong to a group unnaturally," wrote Kerzich. Those attempting to reach "hipsters do not need to act like a member of their subculture. This movement focuses on being 'original' and 'different.' Thus, one should communicate how the message of Christianity is different than the messages emanating from society.
"For priests and seminarians remember your ministry is different, so confidently accept this reality. … One key to evangelizing this group is to become accepted by them without trying to become one of them."