Words are really funny things.
If we misuse them long enough, our familiarity can begin to fool us and we gradually go a bit blind. Over time, we can come to think (with great confidence) that we’re using them correctly; that we’re speaking pure, unbiased truth whenever we brandish them, simply because they sound right to our now-adjusted ears.
Christians aren’t exempt from this phenomenon.
If you spend time with us religious folk, you’ll inevitably stumble upon one of our all-time favorite buzzwords: Culture. It’s everywhere we are.
On any given day you can find endless social media chatter among Evangelical Christians debating “culture” and the “culture wars” and lots and lots of talk of us “fighting the culture”. There’s recently been a great deal of similar discussion surrounding the promotional push for a new book by popular pastor David Platt, whose forthcoming Counter Culture, seeks to once again position Christianity (as represented by The Church) as the sole solution to our numerous societal ills. I’ve really enjoyed Platt’s past books, and have found inspiration and wisdom in them.
The premise of Platt’s latest is a fine one, and it echoes the ministry and message of so many of those sharing his overall theological perspective; that Jesus was always counter-cultural, and so the Christian Church is called to be that as well.
I couldn’t agree more. The Church is often supposed to counter the culture.
However, a great number of believers have made a critical error, one that sits like a heavy anvil upon their otherwise inspired endeavors:
They’ve mistaken their Christian Culture, for Jesus’ Counter Culture.
So many American evangelicals have existed for so long in a materialistic, affluent, largely white, male-dominated religious bubble, they mistakenly believe they are by default, living out the radical, upside-down mission of Jesus in the face of the dangerous, unbelieving outside world. In reality though, they’ve simply created a third player in the culture game; something not fully mainstream and Godless, yet something not as much like Christ as they believe, either—but the conflicted, ironic love child of Christianity and Culture.
They’ve labored under the false assumption, that just because we call something Christian, it must necessarily resemble Jesus in some meaningful way.
Church leaders have taken for granted that the Evangelical Church today, is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he preached so often about the Kingdom of God, when in reality it probably looks as much like the Kingdom of Wealthy, White, American Dudes.
Honestly, I’m not at all sure Jesus would be any more comfortable in the opulent, massive, manicured megachurches that so many of these leaders and their people spend their weekends in, than in the filthy streets with the prostitutes and the addicts, (those places we so often find him in the scriptures, by the way). I don’t think the bloated leadership conferences and high ticket festivals where so many Christian leaders travel and the connected circles they tend to run in, really let the earthy heart of the Gospel come through much anymore.
I’d never assume that these believers claiming spiritual high ground in the culture war are sinister by any means, mind you. I just think they have been conditioned to be morally farsighted; always perceiving and promoting some clear, threatening evil in the distance and unable or unwilling to see their own personal mess and dirty hands.
It’s not really their fault, either.
Most modern Evangelical leaders haven’t intended to misappropriate the original message of the Gospels. They’ve simply been playing the hand they’ve been dealt. They’ve inherited a cumbersome religious system, that unfortunately jumped the shark 1700 years ago, and they’ve been trying to retool it ever since.
Between the time Jesus walked the earth, and when Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 300s, the Church was in the sweet spot of its calling. It was a grass-roots, communal, underground, subversive presence; one whose growth happened as the Pagan world around it was infected and affected, by a community of believers living in a way that perpetuated Jesus’ life and ministry. People pooled their belongings, outcasts were welcomed in, diversity was embraced, the vulnerable found protection, the needy found provision. Repentance happened as individuals personally turned toward God, and responded to God; not to a person or a program.
For a couple hundred years or so, they were The Church; passionate, faithful, and yes; decidedly counter-cultural.
Then all too quickly, they weren’t the latter—and the Faith in many ways has never quite recovered, despite the sometimes deceptive historical box scores and megachurch membership rolls, and here’s why:
When Rome commandeered Christianity, it affixed to the faith something it was never meant to be marked by: Power.
That power, and the privilege, and ease, and comfort, and influence that came with it, at once became synonymous with the Christian faith. A movement that began as the very antidote to status, position, might, and social inequality; suddenly became the establishment, it became the norm, it became the very culture that Jesus pushed so hard against.
I contend that in many ways, it still is.
Modern Evangelical Christianity, especially in America, is up against a true identity crisis.
It wants desperately to personally and publicly claim ownership of the mission and message of Jesus, but its own lofty perch and long-held position of entitlement, make truly identifying with the underdog spirit of the Christ of the Gospels so very difficult; almost as difficult “as a camel going through the eye of a needle”.
So while many Christians want to shape a narrative that makes the Church the crystal clear voice of Jesus in the world, the reality is a bit cloudier right now.
The political sway, the financial storehouses, the abuses of power, the gender disparities, the gentrification, and the bullying dominance of the marginalized, which so often characterize the Church today; these all embody a huge part of the culture that Jesus was running counter to.
So we’re absolutely right in the Church, to preach a troublemaking Christ, but we’re wrong to assume that he wouldn’t be making the most trouble for us. Just ask the Pharisees.
And that’s the problem I believe Platt, the Evangelical community, and all of us who profess Christ have to seriously wrestle with. Christianity wasn’t ever supposed to be the power structure and it wasn’t supposed to police the world’s behavior either. Jesus’ mission statement, echoing the prophet Isaiah, wasn’t a systemized, top-down, moral street sweep. It was a yeast-like, ground floor outbreak of justice for the poor and oppressed. It was a bold revolution rooted in compassion and equality—not in politics and platform.
When we read and refer to Jesus predicting the future of the Church, or the Apostle Paul eloquently defending it, it’s safe to assume that both were describing a very different animal than what we’re dealing with today. I’m not certain either of them would even recognize it as the Church.
The upstart religion, birthed from the mouth of a homeless, peasant street preacher; the building-less, budget-less, book-less social movement first embraced by the tax collectors and the sinners, is hard pressed to still be that, while being run from 10,000 seat amphitheaters with multimillion dollar budgets, by cloistered celebrities with blockbuster book deals.
It’s a philosophical disconnect and we can’t ignore that.
American Christians can’t have our manna and eat it too. We can’t endlessly invoke the name of Jesus, and yet so consistently produce a religious system that seems to have veered so far from where it began, or rather—from whom it began.
Until the Christian culture itself is remade into the image of Christ, it will continue to be as damaging and dangerous and cultural, as any popular hot button issue it claims to combat.
As David Platt and so many passionate, smart, faithful Evangelical leaders engage in ministry and in public faith conversations, I hope they’ll be very careful with their words and agendas. As they craft lists of the dangerous symptoms of “the culture”, all of which they’re daily fighting in Jesus’ name, I pray they will remember to regularly look inward. If they do, they might discover that they have some very tough, much closer stuff to contend with.
Christian, what you’ve heard is the gospel truth: Jesus was and is indeed quite counter-culture.
Sometimes though, the very culture that He is asking you to counter most boldly, in order to bring healing to people and people to Christ, is your own.