The concept is rooted in being “in this world but not of this world” and other biblical references to separation.
Yet that call takes on different forms in different Christian traditions, such as physical withdrawal from worldly ways to dressing and behaving in patterns that go against societal trends. For some, being “contaminated by worldliness” is that which must be battled at all cost.
Even among those with less-extreme approaches to separation, there are discernable differences. In fact, it is striking how various American Christians — even those bearing the same denominational descriptors — understand the countercultural calling of Christ so differently.
Such differences are tied to various understandings of what is right and just — along with what one finds threatening.
To some, being a countercultural follower of Jesus means rejecting society’s self-serving ways that clash with the life and teachings of Christ — such as unbridled greed, dishonest achievement, advancement at the expense of others, prejudice, discrimination, choosing revenge over justice and mercy, violence as the response to violence, and religious arrogance.
Therefore, work is done to compassionately address the ways in which the weak, the abused and the suffering are systemically mistreated or ignored. Society’s dominant ways are countered by empowering and giving voice to those who lack influence and self-worth.
These Christians seek to live in contrast with the societal bent toward looking out for one’s own interest. Jesus is regarded as the model and the message.
However, sociological shifts in American culture give rise to a significantly different understanding of the call to be different. This was expressed clearly in a seminary convocation address earlier this year that called for an “insurgency.”
“It will be to Christ’s glory that his church is understood to be so radically different than the world,” President Albert Mohler told students at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, according to Baptist Press.
This urgency for “building a different civilization” is the result of ministers losing their social capital in American society, he said. Mohler recalled a time when his Baptist seminary simply sought to “provide gentlemen ministers for a gentlemanly culture.”
The cultural revolution of more recent times has resulted in this “great displacement” for those committed to biblical authority, he surmised. He called for “building a different civilization.”
This concept of being countercultural strikes many Christians as odd. It is rooted in a romanticized notion that once-devout America has left its Christian commitments for worldly ways.
However, even the slightest fair reading of history reveals that it is simply impossible to point to a time when the way of Christ widely prevailed in this still-young nation.
From the violation of Native Americans to African slavery to Jim Crow laws to gender discrimination — and on and on — many who claimed to be followers of Christ engaged fully in such evil rather than choosing the costly, countercultural marks of the Christian faith. And the few who did, often suffered mightily.
Through various sociological shifts, fundamentalist Christianity in particular has had an issue with timing when it comes to engaging culture. That is, it is consistently late to embrace basic issues of human equality — always using biblical fidelity as a defense.
Such countercultural insurgency is rooted deeply in fear: fearful recognition of the loss of cultural dominance in which particular religious beliefs and practices are imposed by a majority power bloc with little or no regard for minority freedom.
Today, such calls are driven by the fearful disappointment that a particular Christian definition of marriage is not being enforced as the only valid societal expression.
Such countercultural responses seem less radical, in the Jesus sense, and more defensive — trying to hold on to fleeting ways that retain power in a few and keep others in their rightful places of submission.
There is wide agreement among Christians that those called to follow Jesus are to be different from the world (culture) in which they live. But there are vast differences in what it means to be different.
To a large degree those differences are tied to what one fears: whether a loss of corporate power and feeling personally persecuted — or seeing injustice and equality going unaddressed by a me-first society.
So it is helpful to know — though surely confusing to those seeking to understand American Christianity — that Christian countercultural understandings and reactions often counter each other.
All of which raises, and complicates, another good question: Just how should Christians make a difference in the world? NFJ