By Ian McKerracher
As part of the dominant culture, the role of the Church was well-defined for everyone involved. It was a role that lasted, off and on, for the better part of one and a half millennia. The Church was to be the conscience of the culture and the arbiter of morality and ethics. This role was valid for most of the past centuries of the Western worldview, since the time of Constantine, who enabled the Christian Church to bear the task of formulating orthodoxy and orthopraxy. If you wanted to know what was right or wrong, you could go to the Church and get an answer to your questions.
When the Church wandered from that role and sought a voice or a part to play in the wider culture, she tended to do very poorly. Cast into the role of a military power, many times she spawned religious wars and power grabs. Cast into the role of Science Journal, many times she opposed the best science of her day.
Bear in mind that all this was accomplished with the Church as a significant player in the culture. In today’s climate, there is a renegotiation going on between the Church and that same wider culture: especially in North America, but also in Europe and whereever the touch of Western civilization has landed. This is what those in the Church who are looking back to the “glory days” are balking at. The renegotiation is trying to relegate the Church to a much-diminished role. They no longer want the Church to be the arbiter of their morality. They want to do their own thing without any outside interference. They want the Church to be confined to a limited subculture status.
The question is: Should the Church submit to that diminished role? Should we just accept that the culture around us is no longer listening to us, and so we should enter into a new phase by looking after our own interests just like all the other factions of society do? Do we just go quietly into that good night?
I want to say that there is another way: a third way between being a major player in the dominant culture (a role no longer available to us anyways) and being an inwardly focused subculture only concerned with the issues that the greater society allows us. This third way is being a counterculture. In the role of counterculture, the Church actually begins to revert to its original model provided by the pages of Scripture. It appears to me that the place for the Church is and always has been here. We were not designed to play the role of dominant culture, as evidenced by the great failures of the Church in the past. We also are not just one of many of the subcultures scattered throughout our world. The Church has a unique position in the culture—or should have.
For the Church to pursue this role, it is imperative that the Church start becoming the church! We should ask ourselves: if there was a group of people who have the Spirit of the Living God inside of them, what would they look like? How would they be different from the surrounding culture? What would their priorities be?
One sure-fire way to answer these highly charged questions would be to look at the culture outside and away from the Church, and begin to do the opposite things. I am not suggesting that the Church be “oppositional,” thinking that would make us more attractive. That idea certainly has not been very successful any time it has been attempted. Attitude is everything, and being a jerk is still being a jerk even when you have the Truth. Let’s just remember that those outside our congregations don’t have the overwhelming reality of the Living God inside of them, and so they would act in a way that shows they are not being informed by Him. If the dominant culture, including those in political power, in educational power, and in the power of the media, are not being influenced as freely by the Holy Spirit as Christians should be, then the way they conduct themselves and the pursuits they deem valuable should reflect that difference. We could just observe their attitudes and actions and assume that we should look different.
We have had many countercultural groups over the course of history, with whom we can make comparisons and be instructed. They appear and disappear like waves on the historical ocean, and sometimes leave us with the faint smell of salty fishiness in the background of our collective consciousness. The hippies of the last century were much more than a weird fashion show with great music. They were countercultural in the true sense of the word. They redefined, for themselves, the notions of success, relationships, and personal autonomy. At the time, the Vietnam War provided a focus point for them to counter. Conventions of hair length were turned on their heads, along with dreams of picket fences in the suburbs, paid for by a personal commitment to a corporation for life. Those same hippies had children, who are now the “Occupy” people trying to change the social contract, or the social justice warriors that stride through the Internet, cutting a vast swath of vitriol, fueled by a sense of the unassailable rightness of their causes. These are examples of negative countercultural movements, which have suffered (or will suffer) the ignobility of being dashed upon the rocks of reality as their ideas become mainstream.
The Church has a history of very positive countercultural actions over the course of her story. Though many of the chapters of that glorious story have have been besmirched in modern times by a media hostile to religion, there are episodes of Church history where she rose to the occasions of her greatness by being present and accounted for to bear the weight of serving the victims of the poor policies of the dominant culture. With a true and robust redemption to offer those victims, the Church shone like a beacon, cutting through the fogginess of the anti-intellectualism that founded (and still confounds) the collective insanity that characterizes a life outside of God’s good graces. Whether it is waiting in a boat below bridges where women cast their unwanted babies; gathering money and resources to help the poor at home and abroad; or providing care for disenfranchised, hospitalized, or incarcerated people, the Church was doing social justice long before it came in vogue to demand it from others. And she did all this with a clear-eyed vision to be an instrument in the Hand of the Master Builder of the Kingdom of God: to be involved in something infinitely larger than itself, a Kingdom where Love rules!
It doesn’t take long for anyone focusing on those kinds of questions and looking at the latest rendition of the Church to realize: we aren’t that, in whatever way we apply Scripture as a map to define what “that” is. Church-wide repentance is a great option! I heartily endorse it as a way to return to the original scriptural mandates set upon us by our Lord. As for the politics, bureaucrasies, and other power centres of our world: let the dead bury their dead. Let’s follow Jesus.