If you have been at an evangelical church for more than a few sermons, you have probably run into some variation of the “counter culture” church narrative. This is basically the idea that 10-20 years ago, the church was the center of American culture. However, either the media or the government or both have been plotting against the church to move America away from Christian values. That has resulted in a Church that is now counter-cultural, in the midst of a culture that has different values than those at the Church.
If you are lucky it ends there. If not, you also get to hear about how a great persecution is coming, how churches will be shut down, and how Christians are soon to be going to jail for simply having faith.
Witness, for example, these recent articles:
Christianity’s Five Most Counter-Cultural Virtues
Three Lies Culture Tells Us About Being Single
There are many others like them. The problem is, these articles and the narrative that inspired them gets our “culture” all wrong.
Take some of these “most counter-cultural” values from the first article: patience, humility, hope, etc. How exactly are these “radically counter-cultural,” as the author says? The problem is, they aren’t. Go to the various values pages of most schools or colleges or community groups, or look at the values objectives in most state educational standards, or look at what characteristics are most valued on most TV shows, and you will find humility, hope, patience, etc explicitly listed. I know these specific characteristics are written into many state level educational standards, because I have studied those standards and read them for myself. They are not counter-cultural at all. They are being ingrained in our culture.
The second article about “dating lies” is so weird I don’t even know where to start. Nothing on TV or in our culture teaches this. Not at least any I have seen.
Which leads to the main problem with the “counter-cultural” church. Which culture does that refer to? America is a diverse place, full of different cultures that have different cultural norms. We all belong to slightly different sociocultural groupings. You can’t throw all of that into one box and call it “American Culture.” Its not that simple.
Another problem is the historical roots of the “counter-cultural church” narrative. You might think I quoted the first two paragraphs from a recent church sermon. However, I didn’t. Those ideas are from a interview in 1971 with early Jesus Music pioneer Larry Norman. Yes, that narrative is at least 40 years old (except Norman himself actually got it from sources that had been using it for over 20 years). Yet my first paragraph exactly describes a sermon I heard two weeks ago.
So if this “counter cultural church” narrative is over 60 years old, how is it that “culture” has suddenly moved away 10-20 years ago? Where is this great persecution that – 60 years ago and even today – is right around the corner? If people in 2016 thinks our “culture” has moved away from the Church in the past 20 years, but people 40 years ago said the same thing, what’s the deal?
The deal is that this whole “counter cultural church” narrative is a false gospel. To some people, it is good news that the culture is rejecting them, because that means they get to be mean back to the culture.
However, the reality is that the moral decay of America is a church myth.
But if our culture is a diverse thing that is hard to put in a box, and many facets of it value the same things we value as a church, then what is the real problem in churches? Why does the church seem to be on the decline in so many people’s minds?
In general, when looking at Protestant churches (where you will usually find these ideas in sermons), attendance is only down among… white people. When you look at people of color, whether Black, Latino, Asian, etc., you see that attendance trends are increasing.
The truth is, the Protestant church is becoming less white.
Not necessarily declining, or losing ground to our culture, just shifting in ways that those that have enjoyed the position of power are probably uncomfortable with. Instead of acknowledging this trend, they decided to create the false gospel of the counter culture church.