Are Christians called to be countercultural?

The way the word gets thrown around these days, it would seem as though some Christians believe that being countercultural is inherently virtuous. “Culture is bad,” they say, and therefore anything “culture” promotes must be bad, and Christians must “counter” it. But is that true?

Short answer: no.

Christians are not called to be countercultural, Christians are called to be Christlike. Now, at times, being Christlike does mean being countercultural. When cultural values are at odds with kingdom values, we are called to pursue kingdom values and in doing so, we become countercultural as a result. But even then, pursuing kingdom is the goal, being countercultural is simply a byproduct. This is important for a couple of reasons.

First, “culture” isn’t monolithic, and not every aspect of “culture” is bad. Sometimes cultural values align with and even reflect kingdom values. In such cases, being countercultural is actually unChristian. For example, in many ways the some segments of “culture” actually outpace some segments of the church when it comes to matters of justice and equality.

Second, this confusion may point to a deeper misunderstanding in regard to our mission and identity as Christians. It has become cliche to say, but the truth remains that too often us Christians are known for what we are against rather than what we are for. The reason for that, I suspect, is that too often our own sense of identity and purpose are shaped more negative visions of the world than by positive visions of the kingdom of God. This is, in a sense, an anti-mission and anti-identity that leaves us perpetually reacting “culture” instead of proactively pursuing kingdom values.

To remedy this I believe we must develop a positive vision for Christian identity, discipleship, and mission. In other words, we must become clear about the kinds of things that God is for. Once we have a clear picture of what God wants, a “kingdom vision” if you will, we must be willing to look for, to witness to, and to work for those things.

We must look for them because we believe that God does go and has gone before us and that God is and has been at work in the world. The mission, after all, belongs to God and although God has graciously invited the church to participate in it, God is by no means limited to the church to accomplish God’s own purposes. Christians have always believed that all truth is God’s truth. This means that truth ought to be celebrated wherever it may be found, even in “culture.”

But looking is not enough. We must also witness to and work for the things of the kingdom because God, in God’s sovereignty, has commissioned the church to be the champions of God’s mission. This will, perhaps even more often than not, make us counter-cultural by default, at least for a time. We should not be surprised, however, if “culture” itself begins to respond to and be transformed by the church’s witness. This has happened over and over again in history. Ideas and values that once belonged primarily to the church eventually worked their way into the very fabric of “culture” itself. This is, on the whole, a thing to be celebrated.

In review, Christians are called to be Christlike, not merely countercultural. We must root our identity and purpose in a positive vision of the kingdom of God, not merely in a negative opposition to “culture.” We must be on the lookout for the ways in which God is at already at work in the world and celebrate God’s truth wherever it may be found. We must witness to and work for the kingdom of God both when doing so makes us countercultural and when it does not.

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