Tuesday, May 29, 2018


A few weeks ago, at a pastor's meeting, we discussed the notion of "cul-de-sac" groups - specifically boards or committees and congregations. The cul-de-sac was a concept developed to impress upon people the idea of safety, security, and privacy (which never really materialized, to be honest). He had a great quote: "a committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled."

It is human nature to insulate ourselves. We want a predictable, familiar community of people - and when we find it, we want it to remain the same forever. Too often we've built these insular communities and called them "churches," when that couldn't be farther from the original design. Intimate, connected, familial - for sure - but closed and private, certainly not. The whole purpose of the Church is to live out a specific lifestyle in the midst of the public square, to be an example of an alternative way of life.

This brought to mind a distinction I ran across months ago (so long ago I've now forgotten who to properly credit) that Christians, especially American evangelicals, intend to be counter-cultural, but have actually constructed a subculture, separate and distinct from the culture at large. This is the distinction between living differently in the world and living in a different world altogether.

Conservative Christians in the US - what's become commonly known as "the evangelicals" - have created their own little world and, instead of engaging culture, reject it and recreate it separately, expecting people to take notice. What's worse: so much of this subculture has very little to do with Christianity; it's largely a generic moralism that's vaguely related to carefully curated scripture passages - often entirely devoid of context.

In a subculture, your primary concern is checking the right behavioral boxes to live in a way that will qualify you for the subculture. The colloquial expression growing up was "don't drink, smoke, or chew, or go with girls who do." It was an out-of-touch joke even then, but it betrays a reality. It's not even that a distinctive set of practices (either done or avoided) is a bad thing - a common rule of life is a community-defining practice and often vitally important, even for a counter-cultural presence. The problem really arises when you start to look at "why" those things are done (or not done). If it's simply to bodily identify with a specific group or to check off the boxes for heaven, you're in real trouble. If it's to embody a different set of principles, foundational assumptions for life, then it makes a lot more sense.

One of the real benefits, though, of American evangelicalism becoming and ever more exclusive subculture is that it has less and less presence in the real world. Not having been in a traditional ministry setting the last few years has woken me up to the fact that most everyone, even many people very involved in Christian ministry, just have no clue this evangelical subculture even exists. I hear pastor friends lamenting some preacher/author/conference that's embarrassing themselves and Christ and I gladly don't know what they're talking about.

As a subculture prefects its isolation, it disappears. The only time evangelical leaders pop up in mainstream culture is when they're saying ridiculous, usually deplorable things. It's a strange novelty - a bit more offensive than the Amish or a hippy commune, but equally as irrelevant in everyday life. I suspect (and hope) that by the time my daughter's grown up, the average American will know as much about Franklin Graham as they do about snakehandlers.

True counter-culture makes it's present felt simply by existing. Subcultures fade from consciousness as they reach their goals. Counter-culture is generally painful for the mainstream, but largely by asking difficult questions about relevant issues. Subcultures are annoying to the mainstream, because they feign relevancy by making a scene (almost literally the original definition of geek).

The gospel of Jesus Christ is wildly relevant to this (and every other) time and place. It is a counter-cultural message of suffering, unconditional love. It does not always provide the safety, security, or privacy of a cul-de-sac - but those very well may be illusions anyway.
There is no question of whether Christianity will survive the current upheaval of culture and human understanding, but whether the organizations and institutions we now associate with Christianity survive the change is entirely dependent on them rejecting the human desire for subculture and embracing a truly revolutionary counter-cultural presence.

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