Are our churches counter-cultural? Is that even something we should aspire to be? And, if so, how do we know if we’re doing it right?
These are some of the questions I’ve been pondering over the past few months and I think I’m just about ready to articulate my thoughts.
You’re reading the first of three articles on counter-cultural Christianity…
- Dare To Be Different (Part 1)
- Countering Your Local Culture (Part 2)
- Countering Your Church Culture (Part 3)
This short introduction will set the scene. We’ll get into the specifics in parts two and three.
Christianity is (usually) counter-cultural
But what does that even mean?
A counterculture is a culture whose values and norms of behaviour differ substantially from those of mainstream society.
Of course, it’s possible to be counter-cultural purely for the sake of it. You could walk around in shorts and flip flops when everyone else is wrapping themselves up in coats and scarves. You could insist on being contacted via pager instead of by mobile phone or email.
The church isn’t meant to be counter-cultural like that. We don’t start by looking at whatever everyone else is doing and then simply do the opposite.
No, we start with Jesus.
The church belongs to Jesus, which means that He gets to determine its “values and norms of behaviour”. And as followers of Jesus, we want to obey Him. We want to live His way.
And (usually) Jesus’ way will be pretty different from the way of the culture at large. Not in all things and at all times. But in most things and at most times.
If we’re following Jesus, our “values and norms of behaviour” are going to be pretty counter-cultural.
Dare To Be Different
I’m assuming this isn’t a new idea to you. You’ve probably got a copy of Vaughan Roberts’ book ‘Distinctives’ on your bookshelf somewhere. I’ve got two!
“The Lord Jesus expects his forgiven people to be different from others. The demands of God’s kingdom are radically different from the norms of our culture. Too often we let ourselves be moulded by others, but Christ longs to use us to change them. Paul urged the Christians at Rome: ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ Will we take up the challenge? Will we dare to be different?”Vaughan Roberts (Distinctives)
In my experience, evangelical Christians (and evangelical churches) are fully on board with the call to be different from the world around us. We know that Jesus expects us to be different. We want to be different.
But different from what, exactly? Different from whom?
This is where it gets a bit more tricky.
We live in a multicultural world. And by that, I don’t just mean that we live in towns made up of people from different ethnic groups and nationalities. Let me explain…
The “culture” of Tunbridge Wells will be quite different from the “culture” of Brighton. The same is true even of local areas within Tunbridge Wells. Less than a mile apart!
The demographics will be different. The clothes will be different. The language will be different. The aspirations will be different. The struggles will be different. The politics will be different. The beliefs and worldviews will be different.
My point is this… There is more than one “culture”.
The “culture” is not this one thing, out there, that we need to try and stop ourselves from assimilating into.
Our local area has its own culture that we are fully immersed in – whether we realise it or not. Even our individual churches have their own cultures!
Low Hanging Fruit
- It’s easy to be distinctive from a culture we don’t belong to.
If I was to travel to a village in the middle of mainland China, I would be extremely distinctive. The same is true if I was to move into an inner-city housing estate/scheme in Scotland.
- It’s easy to spot the spiritual errors and moral failings of a culture we don’t belong to.
When you look at something from the outside, you’re a fresh pair of eyes, so to speak. Mistakes and misunderstandings appear glaringly obvious.
But as Christians, it’s not good enough for us to only be distinctive from cultures we don’t belong to. Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
And it’s not good enough for us to only push back against the spiritual errors and moral failings of cultures we don’t belong to. Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
That’s not to say we shouldn’t counter cultures we don’t belong to, but merely to point out that that’s very much the “low hanging fruit” – and the Lord Jesus expects so much more from us than that!
Countering Our Culture
As Christians, we should be distinctive from the cultures we belong to. Even from people who, on the surface, appear virtually identical to us. That’s the difference that following Jesus should make.
Even if I was to bump into a 31-year-old, table tennis playing, gym-loving, online businessman, who lives in Tunbridge Wells, and follows exactly the same accounts on Twitter as I do, but who doesn’t follow Jesus…
…the things I think, and say, and do, should still be radically different from him!
If not, if our lives are fairly indistinguishable, then I’m clearly not living Jesus’ way. I’m living Joe Rogan’s way. Or Gary Vaynerchuk’s way. Or Jordan Peterson’s way. Or some combination of whoever it is that people like us, within our culture, look up to.
The temptation for me (and every Christian) is to live whichever way we choose, imitating the influencers and gurus we in our particular culture follow, but tricking ourselves into thinking we’re actually living Jesus’ way.
It’s easy, we just point out all of the coincidentally godly attributes within our particular culture and ignore all of their ungodly counterparts.
And if we want to feel particularly self-righteous, we can even pick a different culture (one we don’t belong to) and point out all of the ungodly attributes of that culture. We can think to ourselves, “Thank goodness I haven’t sold out and gone along with the world, like the Christians in that culture!”
The only problem is that the Christians in that culture are looking at us and thinking exactly the same thing.
That’s why some Christians view thinkers like Jordan Peterson and Douglas Murray as counter-cultural role models, “fighting the good fight”, “swimming against the tide”, and standing up for truth. Whilst other Christians consider them to be extremely dangerous and representative of everything that’s wrong with our current culture.
But that’s all for part one
I hope it’s whet your appetite.
In parts two and three, I’ll introduce to you two imaginary churches (St Stephen’s Tunbridge Wells and St Stephen’s Brighton) and we’ll look in much more detail at how they can actively counter the cultures they belong to.
First, we’ll discuss their local cultures and then, in part three, we’ll focus even closer to home as we think about countering their church cultures.