Why I Stopped Trying To Be Countercultural

Countercultural is not an end. It’s a characteristic. Also, when you counter one culture you participate in another.

In my 20’s I yearned for a countercultural church. I insisted that everything the church did must plant a flag in opposition to the culture. The question guiding everything was, “How is this different from everything else in the culture?”

That question demanded clear distinctions. When the church served the poor it needed to be somehow distinct from how a nonprofit did the same. When the church hosted neighbors for community-building it needed to show somehow that it was not like the YMCA or, worse, a coffee shop.

My countercultural zeal has waned for two reasons. First, trying to be different is posturing. It’s not authentic. “Vigorous organisms think not about their processes but their aims,” said Chesterton, and focusing obsessively on making the church distinctive in the culture is all about processes, or, at least, it’s a weak aim. Focus on worship. Focus on telling the good news and serving those in need and struggling for justice. If you find that others, who are not the church, are doing the same, be glad. Don’t take it as a challenge to do it differently.

Second, there’s more than one culture. In countering this one you ape that one. Which is totally fine. Church should have a distinct culture in the sense that people ought to know when they’re there what and who matters, and it is inevitable that in shaping that culture some elements will be borrowed from other cultures. Church will never be completely countercultural.

The important work, I think, is to counter particular elements of specific cultures in order to minister more effectively. Counter individualism to build beloved community. Counter violence to spread peace. Counter nationalism in worship of the God of all nations.

Don’t try to be countercultural. Try to do good work.

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