Counter-Culture and the Kingdom

The other day I flew into Raleigh, NC. It was a sunny day and a very smooth flight. I am sure most of you have flown and have noticed how, from the air, all the neighborhoods look the same. The streets are laid out the same, the houses look the same, and all the yards are the same size. It’s all neat and orderly and plain and dull. As I was flying over these neighborhoods I could not help but sing to myself:

Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes made of ticky tacky,

Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes all the same.

There’s a green one and a pink one

And a blue one and a yellow one,

And they’re all made out of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses

All went to the university,

Where they were put in boxes

And they came out all the same,

And there’s doctors and lawyers,

And business executives,

And they’re all made out of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course

And drink their martinis dry,

And they all have pretty children

And the children go to school,

And the children go to summer camp

And then to the university,

Where they are put in boxes

And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business

And marry and raise a family

In boxes made of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same.

 (Malvina Reynolds; copyright 1962 Schroder Music Company, renewed 1990)

If you live in one of those neighborhoods then you know if someone came along and built something totally different, or counter-cultural, there would be all kinds of fussin’ and fumin’ and probably more than a few lawsuits…or a crucifixion.

In all those houses that all look the same among all the doctors and all the lawyers and businessmen and children I am sure there are Christians and non-Christians and Jews and Muslims and “nones.” And the only ones who really look and act and dress different from the rest would be the followers of Islam…or maybe a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Hasidic Jew. But those who claim to follow Jesus would all look the same…and their churches would look like businesses…and their colleges and universities would look like…well…colleges and universities.

As a result, Christianity in the United States looks neat and orderly and plain and dull and ticky tacky.

Why?

Because a generation or so ago, Christians in the United States decided they needed to be “culturally-relevant.” I know this to be true because I was caught up in, and believed in, that idea. In order to reach our world, we were told, we needed to be…

…seeker sensitive

…purpose driven

…culturally aware

…linguistically neutral

…hip

…hop

…cool

…likeable

…relevant

Our motives were pure and our methods were revolutionary, or so we thought. As a result, in our attempt to be culturally relevant we have become essentially neutered with little power or desire or ability to reproduce.

Consider the numbers

  • While Christianity is growing around the world it is shrinking in the United States
  • In 1990, 86% of the U.S. population considered themselves to be Christian. By 2008 it had dropped to 76%
  • During that same time period, the number of U.S. citizens who claimed no religious affiliation doubled
  • On any given weekend, less than 20% of the population in the U.S. are actually attending a worship service; only 9% are actually attending an evangelical church.
  • Obviously, since Christianity is shrinking, it is not keeping up with the population growth in the U.S.
  • At the present rate of decline, it has been estimated that by 2050 the number of individuals attending church services on any given weekend in the United States will be half of what it is today. In other words, only 10% and maybe 4% attending an evangelical church.

Consider the wave of social issues in which we have had very little influence:

  • Poverty is at an all-time high with between 46-48 million U.S. citizens living in poverty
  • The income gap and the wealth gap between the rich and the poor in our country continues to increase
  • Abortions
  • Drug & alcohol abuse
  • Violence
  • Divorce Rate
  • Same-Sex Marriage
  • Immigration
  • Education

In our attempt to be culturally relevant we have lost our ability to speak authoritatively on the moral issues drowning our society.

And we keep arguing the wrong points and looking to the wrong place for answers.

Jesus did not come proclaiming…

…the institution of God (religion)

…the university of God (academics, philosophy)

…the political party of God (politics, governmental)

…the bank of God (economics)

…the music, movies, and pop-culture of God (media)

…the privacy of God (individualism)

Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God, and that meant something.

Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes made of ticky tacky,

Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes all the same.

Jesus did not come to establish a gated suburb with manicured lawns. He came to establish a new Kingdom, a new way of living life. Jesus calls us to build this Kingdom and to confront the old kingdoms. Christianity is most effective, most powerful, and most transformational when it is counter-cultural, not culturally relevant.

Consider these revolutionary words of Jesus:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:3-12)

“So the last will be first and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:17).

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:34-37).

Consider these teachings of Paul:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:14-21).

Consider the impact of the first Christians: They did not live in a democracy. They had no right to vote and were left completely out of the political process. Yet they changed the political landscape. Without special interest groups and large buildings and programs and budgets, they transformed society. And they did it by living contrary to the culture, not appeasing the culture.

Jesus always meant for His followers to live counter-cultural lives.

Your purpose in life is not to change the world, or to change an individual. Your purpose isn’t even to change yourself. Your purpose in life is to be an ambassador of God’s Kingdom, an architect of a new way of living. Your purpose is to live in such a way that His glory shines through you as you go against the flow and run counter to the culture in which you live.

You weren’t called to be relevant.

You were called to be revolutionary.

You were called to rebel.

And they’re all made out of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same.

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3 thoughts on “Counter-Culture and the Kingdom

  1. Kevin,
    I agree in principle with your analysis of the cultural relativism that plagues our country and lament it as you do. Thanks for reminding us that Jesus’, in bringing in the kingdom, demands that we be counter-cultural. However, I don’t know that being “relevant” and speaking authoritatively into the culture have to be mutually exclusive. I think we can be both. In missiology we call it “contextualization, and that’s not a bad thing, if we can fit in and be radically different at the same time, speaking truth in love to those around us.

    • Hey Steve,

      It may be splitting hairs but I see a difference in relatavism and contextualization. It’s kind of like the ole’ saying, “A ship’s place is in the ocean (contextualization) but God help the ship if the ocean gets in to it (relativism).”

      I think in our attempt to be relative we have compomised what it means to be radical.

  2. You may well be right, both about the difference between relativism and contextualization, and the application of the old saying about the ship and the ocean. Still, my contention is that being “relevant” in the right way is not a bad thing, per se.

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