Church as Counter-Culture
By: Rubel Shelly

One of the reasons Old Church failed is its generation-to-generation immersion in culture. Whatever the larger culture adopts, the church accepts – and tries to go it one better on its own terms.

You’d think we would have learned our lesson by now! Church is counter-cultural. The people of God must be skeptical of trying to do heaven’s work by this world’s means. Do you think Romans 12:2 could be a warning on this very point: “Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you” (MSG)? The church must avoid pandering to people and politics and postures that impress the world for the sake of preserving its integrity. Might 1 Corinthians 1:27-28 be a clue to that truth: “Isn't it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these ‘nobodies’ to expose the hollow pretensions of the ‘somebodies’?” (MSG).

In the fourth century, you see a clear and disastrous reversal of this pattern. When Constantine decided to adopt his if-I-can’t-destroy-it-I’ll-exploit-it strategy with the Christian church, it must have been a heady time for some preachers and church leaders. All of a sudden, they went from being targets of abuse to celebrity status. They weren’t criminals and enemies of the state any longer but “clergy” and “persons necessary to the preservation of our noble Roman way of life.” And it must have felt good, for they accepted their new position and seemed to enjoy it. What they apparently didn’t realize is what we see so clearly in hindsight: Churches, preachers, and theologians became pawns to the politicians. They enjoyed the attention. They profited from the state’s interest in them. And they were soon as self-serving, political, and powerful as any political party of their time. In the name of “advancing the kingdom of God,” the church played politics – and lost its identity as the Body of Christ. It became too fond of power, wealth, and influence to be counter-cultural. It was enmeshed in culture, playing the games of its culture, and being “converted” into a this-worldly culture that began practicing the same sort of oppression against non-conformists it has once experienced!

Here is the fuller statement of Paul about how things were in his day with the church:

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world's eyes, or powerful, or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God deliberately chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose those who are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important, so that no one can ever boast in the presence of God.

God alone made it possible for you to be in Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made Christ to be wisdom itself. He is the one who made us acceptable to God. He made us pure and holy, and he gave himself to purchase our freedom. As the Scriptures say,

"The person who wishes to boast
should boast only of what the Lord has done" (1 Cor. 1:26-31).
Now let me ask you what stands to be an embarrassing question to most of us: If you move into New City, would you want to be a member of that church? Would you go looking for it? Or would you feel more “comfortable” in a church where well-educated, well-connected, and well-heeled people are in charge and on display?