It is an interesting time, and in many places a dangerous time, to be a follower of Christ. The church in North America is generally in decline, the culture is increasingly at odds with what are sometimes thought of as "traditional Christian values," and Christians increasingly face a genuine threat of violence and persecution both at home and abroad. In the midst of all the chaos, a question (among many questions) that is beginning to percolate is whether Christianity has become counter-cultural.
When I think of "counter-culture," I think of the 60's and early 70's. I think of an idealistic generation that thought that "love" -- or maybe just sex, drugs and rock and roll -- could change the world. I think of the iconic Beatles song "All You Need Is Love." And I think of Jackson Browne's lament in the song "The Pretender" -- "I want to know what became of the changes we waited for love to bring." I think of all the idealists who ultimately became lawyers and doctors, truck drivers and tattoo artists, soldiers and politicians -- people who by and large ended up trading in their idealism, their hopes and dreams, for a slice of the American pie.
Interestingly, the culture that the "Love Generation" ran counter to was largely a culture of Americanized Christianity. It was a culture that more or less adopted Christian moral values and claimed a Christian heritage, but promoted rugged individualism, individual achievement and pursuit of the American Dream. Consequently, like most generations, it was a culture that produced for the most part a Christian community in which Christians were mostly indistinguishable from their neighbors. We wanted the same things as everyone else. It produced Christians who (at least outwardly) were on board with Christian morality and ethics but who were far more interested in achieving individual success than in advancing the kingdom of God.
I guess it should have come as no surprise that sooner or later a generation would come along that would see, and react, to the obvious disconnect between the American Church and what a community of followers of Christ is supposed to look like. In their groundbreaking work titled UnChristian published in 2009, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons surveyed the attitudes of young people across America ages 16 to 29. The result was disappointing, though by no means surprising. According to this survey, this age group's predominate view of Christians was captured by words like "judgmental," "hypocritical," "anti-homosexual" and "too political."
My guess is that as the generation surveyed by Kinnaman and Lyons continues to age the church will continue to shrink. Among other things, I don't think the church has equipped that generation to deal with a Christianity that is truly counter-cultural. As a consequence, many will simply opt out.
For those who remain, as with past generations, I suspect that the church will largely adapt to the changing culture, rather than vice-versa. Just as the generation of the 50's created a Christianity that seamlessly meshed with capitalism and individual achievement, I think the church of today will find a way to mesh with the new American culture -- whatever that turns out to be. The result will be a church that remains, as it has nearly from the beginning, composed of people who are mostly indistinguishable from their neighbors -- people who fit in. It will remain a church that is anything but counter-cultural.
Perhaps lost in all of this is the reality that the majority of the church (at least post-Constantine) has never really been counter-cultural, while those small few who have earnestly sought to be disciples of Christ have always been counter-cultural. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed in The Cost of Discipleship, "[t]he disciples are few in number, and will always be few."
By counter-cultural I do not mean people who are outspoken opponents of the culture around them. Far from it. Rather, I mean people who follow Jesus in practice no matter how at odds that may be with the culture around them. In a world seemingly obsessed with individual significance and self, the disciples are concerned about bringing glory to God in all they do (instead of to themselves). They are concerned about showing others the infinite love of Jesus, which they do in part by living lives of extravagant generosity. They are concerned that as many people as possible have a chance to know Jesus -- no matter the personal cost.
The disciples remember that Jesus is on the throne. They contemplate His majesty ... and His sovereignty.
“To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenceless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way. To see the weakness and wrong in others, and at the same time refrain from judging them; to deliver the gospel message without casting pearls before swine, is indeed a narrow way. The way is unutterably hard, and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it. If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command, if we are afraid of ourselves all the time, it is indeed an impossible way. But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before step by step, we shall not go astray.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship