Evangelical churches in the twenty-first century seem to be enamored with fitting easily into secular society. Current social and cultural trends are invited into many churches with numeric growth seen as the primary goal and perceived as being dependent on attracting unchurched people in a manner that will make them feel as comfortable as possible. Long observed characteristics of church have been completely left behind and, in many instances, what happens in a church today is almost unrecognizable from a traditional perspective. To some degree this must be expected, as the church will of course reflect the social and economic setting in which it exists. Times change, society changes, and this will of necessity be reflected in churches. It is not to be expected that a twenty-first century church in the inner city will have the same look and feel as a church in an American rural area a century earlier.
Unfortunately, this has brought about a tendency for many evangelical churches to become completely focused on being culturally acceptable. Relevance has been emphasized and misunderstood to mean that the church must be contemporary and completely affirming and accepting toward anyone in its target audience. Entertainment, consistent with current secular entertainment, has taken center stage as the preferred method to reach unchurched people. When the Bible is referenced in a sermon, it will likely be used as a backdrop for some sort of affirming motivational talk that the speaker presents rather than as an authoritative basis for the sermon. In a blog on the “Grace to You” website dated August 22, 2018, pastor and author John MacArthur wrote, “For decades the popular notion has been that if the church was going to reach the culture it first needed to connect with the style and methods of secular pop culture or academic fads. To that end, the church surrendered its historic forms of worship. In many cases, everything that once constituted a traditional worship service disappeared altogether, giving way to rock-concert formats and everything else the church could borrow from the entertainment industry. Craving acceptance in the broader culture, the church carelessly copied the world’s style preferences and fleeting fads.”
One wonders, however, if churches wouldn’t be better served by the idea that they should be counter-cultural. Historically, the church has been counter-cultural in most societies. In the early centuries of Christianity, the church existed and enjoyed rapid growth completely outside of social acceptance and often under intense persecution. A countercultural church will have characteristics that will make it unpopular from a postmodern twenty-first century perspective just as was the case with the early church.
A key issue will be authority. American pastor and theologian Francis Schaeffer wrote in his “The Great Evangelical Disaster,” published in 1984, “Notice though what the primary problem was, and is: infiltration by a form of the world view which surrounds us, rather than the Bible being an unmovable base for judging the ever-shifting fallen culture. As evangelicals, we need to stand at the point of the call not to be infiltrated by this ever-shifting fallen culture which surrounds us, but rather judging that culture upon the basis of the Bible.” Postmodern thought rejects the very idea of authority. Right and wrong, the binary/non-binary concept, has been replaced with personal choice and relativism. A church with a focus on incorporating current societal ideas will do little to challenge this perception of personal autonomy, focusing on how to affirm, aid, and motivate the hearers. The church operating from the more traditional and biblical perspective, on the other hand, will boldly challenge personal autonomy and declare the absolute authority of God and of the Bible. People will be reminded that they were made by God for His pleasure and will flourish under His authority. Authority in a countercultural church will clearly and obviously be presented as coming from scripture. “The Bible Says” as a concept will be embraced, and the Bible will be affirmed as the Word of God. Right and wrong, thesis/antithesis, will be presented, affirmed, and taught by a countercultural Christianity.
A countercultural church will challenge current social thinking concerning gender, sexual ethics and morality, and egalitarianism. To reach people with the message of Christ, there must be a proper emphasis on loving sinners as Jesus did, and churches must present a winsome attitude toward anyone who will come. Believers must live out the gospel and express love toward all. The difficult life circumstances of people that may have taken them into sinful behavior, addictions, or relationships will be recognized and confronted in a loving manner. But there can be no attempt to hide or soften the teaching of scripture. Biblical marriage must be upheld and cannot be defined as anything other than one man and one woman for life. Christian homes and marriages that demonstrate submission to the authority of scripture should be the norm among believers, and churches must be dedicated to teaching scripture so that people are instructed and enabled to live out their faith. The countercultural church will proclaim the teaching of both the Old and New Testament that sexual sin is wrong and will clearly define what constitutes sexual sin according to scripture. Further, biblical roles for men and women in the home and in the church will be clearly taught and demonstrated. Male leadership in the home and in the church will be upheld according to biblical teaching. Relativism in these areas will be challenged, with an appeal to the standards of right and wrong from Scripture.
Social justice issues are ever a focus of media but cannot become confused with the mission of the church. Speaking out on issues of race and perceived economic issues might be popular, and scripture does give instruction on these issues. Materialism should be condemned. It is right and necessary that the church should teach honesty, charity, and benevolence, both corporately and individually. A church cannot display racism and should teach from scripture that racism is wrong. But social justice is not the primary mission of the church, and scripture nowhere teaches socialism or wealth redistribution. The mission of a countercultural church will be tightly defined and tied to the declaration and communication of the gospel. Further, the nature of the gospel will be clearly defined according to the teaching of scripture.
It is not enough, however, just to make statements. Churches must reflect and demonstrate biblical authority and teaching. The weekly gathering of the church that centers on contemporary entertainment and low-content sermons does not accomplish this. Nor do small groups that focus on social interaction to the exclusion of serious consideration of scripture and Christian teaching. The weekly gathering of a countercultural church will include a sermon from scripture that is true, substantial, and, well, scriptural. Music will focus on more than just entertainment or “Jesus as my good luck charm.” Music in church gatherings will sing back to God His attributes and nature, His grace and the great acts of the atonement in Christ, as an act of corporate worship. Sermons, lessons, and small groups will proclaim the gospel from scripture and all of its ramifications for life. Believers will be equipped to live in this world, even as they continually focus on the next world. Salvation through repentant faith with an eternal focus will be taught, to the exclusion of merely an emphasis on popular themes like prosperity, success, and self-affirmation. A countercultural church will thus tend to be reflective of a more traditional model than of more contemporary ideas of church.
Francis Schaeffer wrote in “The Great Evangelical Disaster” that “If the truth of the Christian faith is in fact truth, then it stands in antithesis to the ideas and immorality of our age, and it must be practiced both in teaching and practical action. Truth demands confrontation. It must be loving confrontation, but there must be confrontation nonetheless.” That confrontation will often be uncomfortable. The countercultural church, indeed the countercultural Christian, is likely to experience a degree of rejection, ridicule, and even persecution.
In his 1970 work “The Mark of the Christian,“ Francis Schaeffer wrote, “The Christian really has a double task. He has to practice both God’s holiness and God’s love. The Christian is to exhibit that God exists as the infinite-personal God; and then he is to exhibit simultaneously God’s character of holiness and love. Not his holiness without his love: that is only harshness. Not his love without his holiness: that is only compromise. Anything that an individual Christian or Christian group does that fails to show the simultaneous balance of the holiness of God and the love of God presents to the watching world not a demonstration of the God who exists but a caricature of the God who exists.” Sadly, the contemporary church, and the contemporary Christian, too often are thoroughly wed to current culture and thus demonstrate a bad caricature of God. The church will not be effective in communicating the gospel if it is not to a great degree countercultural.