The Real Counter-Culture

I think there’s a general sense in the American evangelical church that Christians are supposed to be counter-cultural. I think this is correct. What else could holiness entail? We are to be set apart from what is around us, just as the Israelites were to be set apart from the pagans that surrounded them.

Where I disagree with a lot of evangelicals is on what being counter-cultural entails. I had breakfast with a friend this morning, and he mentioned a book he was reading, called Reset. The book is by this guy, Nick Hall, who founded an organization called Pulse. It’s a student-led evangelistic organization that mostly operates on college campuses. Another campus ministry. These campus ministries seem to be breeding grounds for a view of Christian living that I view as well-intentioned, but mostly wrong in addition to being a clear reflection of the current culture in middle-class America.

There seems to be a dichotomy for people involved in these ministries between ordinary and extraordinary living. Ordinary living is comfortable, or normal, perhaps. Extraordinary living requires taking big steps of faith, doing things that are too big for you to do without God’s help. For example, you could start a campus ministry and hope that it spreads across the country. Or you could become a missionary and go to some unreached country and spread the gospel. You know, the big stuff, the exciting stuff, the radical stuff.

Funnily enough, though, this way of thinking is basically the same as the way non-Christian young people think. Everybody is all about building movements and changing the world (even if we can’t keep our rooms clean). We’re entrepreneurial. We don’t want desk jobs at huge corporations. We want to start businesses and non-profits, to take risks that might end in failure, but also might not. We want to share our stories in order to influence minds and hearts for whatever gospel it is we’re purveying at any given time (whether it’s feminism, basic income, or fair-trade coffee). We like big ideas and big achievements.

Big Christian ideas and big Christian achievements aren’t really all that different from their secular counterparts. There’s nothing wrong with starting a campus ministry, nor is there anything wrong with starting a business, but neither of these things is essential to a good life, Christian or otherwise. The idea that you need to shoot for these fancy accomplishments is what Anthony Bradley, one of my former professors, calls “the New Legalism.”

I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and young adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not be doing something unique and special. Today’s Millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential. The sad result is that many young adults feel ashamed if they “settle” into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thess 4:11 says, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.” For too many Millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.

I share in his amazement. Because if you pay attention, it becomes pretty obvious that this is the new normal for non-Christians as well as Christians. Avoid anything that might be perceived as stagnation at all costs. That’s the goal of today’s young people. Keep moving, don’t get married, don’t have kids, do cool stuff for your career, and have a killer Instagram account.

Wouldn’t it be far more counter-cultural if young Christians chose to get married and settle in “ordinary” communities? If we chose to invest in what is most immediate to us for rewards that may never be recognized by outsiders, wouldn’t that fly in the face of the narcissistic spirit of the age? And doesn’t it require just as much faith to maintain a marriage and raise children as it does to start a national campus ministry? People kind of suck at staying married, and they also suck at raising kids. If Christians could do both of those things well, that would be pretty revolutionary.

There is so much pride wrapped up in this evangelical obsession with doing remarkable things, and that’s why it isn’t truly counter-cultural. Christians, first and foremost, need to learn humility before God. We need to recognize that, in the scheme of things, we are dust. And we need to be okay with that. Our lives are a gift from God, and we are to humbly receive them from him as a gift, even if we don’t view them as particularly exciting compared with those of our more “radical” counterparts. We need to be more open to seeing the grace of God manifested in things we consider dull or boring. Because it is there, and you’re not rejecting the grace of God by choosing to live an “ordinary” life.

Why are we so short-sighted? We have adopted the surrounding culture’s standard of a good life and we don’t even know it! My hope is that God opens our eyes to what we’re actually doing, that we see how we are often pursuing our own glory with vain projects, trying to find a kind of fulfillment apart from God himself. How easily this preoccupation with living the “extraordinary” life becomes a form of idolatry!

It is certainly possible that God wants to use you in “huge” ways. He might want to use you to reach thousands of people with the gospel, or he might want to use you to provide aid to those who are needy around the globe. It’s very possible, however, that he has something much less glamorous in store for you, like child-rearing, a 9-to-5 job, a modest suburban community, a modest house, a modest car. But this is still God’s grace. Do what you can with what God gives you and praise him for choosing to give you anything at all. Humbly accept the burdens God has placed upon you and bear them. Submit to his yoke. God has decided to make you a part of his grand plan, and that is pretty amazing, no matter how “small” your role may appear to you right now.

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