A few months back I had a conversation with my friend (and the senior pastor of The Chapel), Scott Chapman. During the conversation he said something that really stuck with me:
Christianity is used to thinking of itself as a subculture of the United States. For years that was true. Now we have to adjust our thinking and realize we are no longer a subculture - we are now a counterculture.
This statement stuck itself in my mind and I've been carrying it around ever since, churning it over and working out the ramifications. I think he's probably right, and I think this shift is quite a significant one.
What is a Counterculture?
Let's begin by being specific about what we mean by these two different terms. In some brief online exploration, I found this website to be helpful with it's definitions and distinctions:
A subculture is a small cultural group within a larger cultural group. Normally, small communities are more homogeneous, while large communities in big cities tend to favor the creation of numerous forms of subculture. These are usually developed around people with shared interests in music, films, trends and anything that can inspire a lifestyle change. People belonging to these groups will usually make visible changes and adapt their image to make their belonging to the group obvious.
In contrast, a counterculture is the ideology of the people going against the mainstream culture. They do not share the same values, and they are actively protesting and trying to change them. Being part of a counterculture means having a different set of rules, a different type of behavior and an intentional wish to separate from the unaccepted mainstream values. It implies an active protest against them.
The critical distinction is how a member of the subculture/counterculture perceives themselves in relation to the predominant culture: a subculture sees themselves as part of the group, identifying with a subsection of it. A counterculture sees themselves outside the prevailing culture, and their plan is to march to a different beat, often with the aim of changing the predominant perspective.
The Subculture Approach vs. the Counterculture Approach
For many years, Christianity has operated as a subculture in the United States. Christianity has been the predominant faith and even spun off subcultures of media: Christian books, Christian music, Christian movies. Reading a few of the 15 signs you were raised in the Christian subculture made me chuckle:
- You had more than one Bible, at least one of them written specifically for “teens.” (Bonus points if the cover sported fluorescent colors and/or spiral shapes. Double bonus points if you ever wrapped one of said Bibles in duct tape to be “alternative.”
- You ever participated in a “sword drill,” that intense competition to find a specific Bible verse faster than your Sunday school cohorts. You still find yourself stressed when asked by a pastor to locate the book of Hosea.
- You can sing all the words to both dc Talk’s “Jesus Freak” and the Newsboys’ “Shine” and, if you were talented enough, could probably do them as a mash-up.
- You ever wrote the following line in the front of your Bible: “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”
But these subculture years are drawing to a close - if they're not already wrapped up. Like it or not, we are less and less an established and welcomed part of the main thrust of our society and increasingly viewed as an anachronistic, judgmental, and dangerous force in American society. What does it mean to wrestle with this reality and make our peace with it?
First, we have to figure out how to accept this reality. For most of us, this is an uncomfortable feeling turn of events. It can feel threatening, perhaps even trigger a sense of rejection. It may be difficult, but it does us no good to pretend this isn't our situation. If we need to mourn or grieve, do it, but then we have to move past that to acceptance, because it is only when we accept this that we can move forwards effectively. I see many believers (even Christian leaders) who seem to want to deny this reality, as if refusing to accept it changes the situation. It does not; all it does is position us in a state of irrelevance - trying to reach a culture that no longer exists. We are on the outside now, often viewed as a hostile threat.
Second, this means we have to be willing to change our strategy. The way a subculture and the way a counterculture interact with mainstream culture are very different. In a subculture, a sensible approach is to close the gap between the subculture and main thrust of the culture as small as possible, so adoption comes at a low cost. Make the church look and feel like the majority of the culture and it becomes a comfortable place to go and hang around long enough to meet Jesus. It's a strategy that worked effectively during the 90s and early 2000s.
Once the culture swings against Christianity and Christianity becomes a counterculture instead of a subculture, this strategy ceases to be as effective - the adoption cost goes up and appealing the mainstream becomes less and less effective. At some point, this strategy even begins to backfire: to maintain a small distance between the center of the culture may even require compromise with core Christian beliefs. Once this becomes the case, the strategy inverts - and what is most ideal is to position ourselves as standing out, rather than trying to fit in.
This is what we often see in the Scriptures - Esther and Daniel, two main figures in the period of exile, have their pinnacle moments precisely when they're not trying to fit in. Daniel decides to pray even though it has been outlawed, and in the end he survives the lion's den as well. Esther risks an uninvited request of the king and saves the Israelite nation. These heroes of the faith didn't try and fit in - they embraced standing out, and as a result God used them powerfully.
What if this is the direction we should be going? What if the Church in the US needs to stop trying to feel safe and needs to start feeling radical? Maybe we embrace that we are on the outside and get used to it. Jesus was persecuted and crucified outside the camp - and he blessed us when we are on the outside.
We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Hebrews 13:10–14
Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Luke 6:22
It seems to me the lie is that the culture has anything to offer us in the first place. Who says we should try and feel similar to the culture? We should want to be relevant, but that doesn't mean we should be similar. We are a counterculture - let's just own it and allow ourselves to be the Jesus-kind of different.