KB Interview: Pastor Gage Jung of Hipster Church
Pastor Gage Jung isn’t your typical Korean American pastor: yes, he wears skinny jeans and caps, and yes, he has tattoos. But he isn’t a “self-proclaimed” hipster—and to him, that really doesn’t matter. He’s the pastor of Hipster Church (motto: “This ain’t your mama’s church.”), currently meeting in the heart of Flushing, Queens at the Sheraton Hotel.
After reading about his church’s unconventional practices—congregants read from an iPhone Bible app, and participants mingle “over donuts and candy” while listening to indie bands like MGMT and Arcade Fire—we were curious to find out more about him and his vision for a new type of church. So, on a particularly rainy Friday evening in Flushing, we met with Pastor Gage and he filled us in on what Hipster Church is all about.
Tell us a little bit about your background. Did you attend a Korean church when you were younger? If yes, what motivated you to branch out and away from it?
Yes, when I was growing up I served at Yong Nak church in LA, which is a Presbyterian church. Most of my experiences were in leading youth groups or English ministries (EM) which consist of college students and above. When I came [to New York], I was taking care of high school and college groups, and then I graduated up to adults. My father is a pastor at United Generations Church in Brooklyn and when my mom got sick from cancer—stage 4 with a seven-inch tumor in her spine, she didn’t have that much time to live. My dad needed to retire to spend some time with her and help her get better. That’s when I took over pastoring at UGC—not everybody liked it when I took over, but I led the church for a couple of years. After my mom recovered—she’s been cancer-free for a year now—my dad came out of retirement and went back to being a pastor. It was then that I felt like I needed to do something new, so he gave me the blessing to plant a church. And that’s how Hipster Church happened.
What is a typical Sunday service like at Hipster Church?
Well, first our band performs an opening song, and then for about 5-10 minutes, we give everyone a chance to mingle and get to know one another—sort of like an icebreaker. Then I give my message to the congregants, followed by the alter call if people choose to take part in it. We also observe Communion, and then the last 30 minutes or so are devoted to praise and worship, during which we present our case on why giving offerings is important. One of the things I’ve implemented is explaining to everyone how much we’ve collected that day, how much we’ve spent as a group, and the amount that’s left over. We do that because a lot of churches want you to blindly give money, but we want to demystify that as a church and let everyone know exactly where it’s going to go.
By calling it ‘Hipster Church,’ doesn’t it give the impression that only hipsters are welcome? Is the name permanent?
People started formulating the idea that it’s only about cool people, but it’s not. We wanted to create a church that’s cool in the sense that we’re forward-thinking, that we’re not stuck in the past. What would you call a church that is pursuing coolness as in their identity being something that will set trends or set this generation on fire so that it can come towards God?
A lot of kids would come wearing skinny jeans and Ray-Ban glasses, and started joking around, saying, ‘Since you’re the pastor of this church, is it a hipster church?’ We’re not trying to target hipsters—we want everyone to come. I think that’s what the normal person would think—that we only accept hipsters, but when they come and I tell them about the vision that we’re trying to be the dopest church on the planet, they like it and they get it; they think it’s pretty clever. And of course I’d agree with changing the name of the church if that situation came up—I mean, come on, the name of the church doesn’t make the church, it’s the people.
There have been ongoing conversations about re-branding Christianity. Does Christianity need to be considered ‘cool’ to gain younger followers?
That’s such a good question! Trying to be a cool church just to attract young people is lame; re-vamping the old stuff to make it cooler doesn’t work. It’s like dressing up a 50 year old man in skinny jeans—not cool. People like genuine things; all you have to be is legitimate and genuine. And whoever likes that and is drawn to that will come. I’m not trying to be cool by the way we dress–we’re just who we are and that’s defined by what we do. For instance, we helped two people get out of homelessness: one person contacted us and said, ‘I’m homeless, can you help me?’ We did what we could. We got her to a halfway house and we paid for her to rent an apartment there. She was able to get a job in two weeks! I called her to see how she was doing and she said since she got a job, to please give the money to someone who really needed it. Our biggest draw is that this spirituality has some action and agenda to it and people like that; there’s no trying to make it cool to reach people. We’re not worried about it, and it’s why we have 80 some odd followers. Someone will probably approach us later when the church gets bigger to ask us what the secret is, but I’ll tell you right now, there’s no secret. Churches shouldn’t try to do church ‘cool,’ that’s not going to work.
What led you to settle in Flushing, Queens, where it seems like there are Korean churches on almost every block? Why not choose Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is also known as the ‘hipster mecca’?
A million people have asked us why Flushing? We did research on Williamsburg, on Astoria and Union Square, but Hillsong NYC (a Pentecostal megachurch) came into Union Square and I saw that they were filled with very capable people doing certain things—why go and step on other people’s toes, you know? One guy e-mailed us to ask why we were coming to Flushing? He was like, ‘I need a church in Flushing like I need a hole in my head.’ (laughs) We didn’t care though, God’s doing something new here and I’m sure the churches here are doing amazing things but what God’s calling us to do is something special—it’s different. Last time I checked there were homeless people here. I saw this Korean man sleeping in a bank and he couldn’t get up so we went in there, helped him up, and got him some food. We want to do something to make our community better, so if this community is fully healthy, then there would be no need for a church to come but I see tons of need here. We came to Flushing with a sincere heart to help people.
Finally, what are your views on organized religion, and more specifically—”Korean-style Christianity“? Korean churches have been publicly criticized as politically and culturally regressive—do you believe this to be true?
I appreciate Korean churches, they’re a part my heritage and it’s where I’m from. But there’s no such thing as a perfect church. I’m influenced by Korean-style Christianity, but I have my own identity. I know that they’re good churches, but I’m not the same as them and I’m not trying to be exactly like them. I don’t think people want the same thing either because it’s not relevant to this time and age. I’m trying to change the whole concept of church: to be a type of Christianity that’s not so concerned with rules and regulations, but be more concerned about having a relationship with Jesus so that people can experience God for themselves. That’s why it’s a church plant, not an extension because many Korean churches are hierarchical which makes it difficult to do anything without their approval.
Hipster Church is holding their next service in August in Flushing Meadow Park.
[Photo: Hipster Church]