The Local Church as a Counterculture
Friedrich Nietzsche was perhaps the most towering figure among 19th century philosophers and thinkers, those whom Richard Lints has called “secular prophets.” Alongside people like Marx, Hegel, Feuerbach, and Freud, Neitzsche leveled new critiques against religion and positioned Christianity as a sort of idolatry—a made-in-man’s-own-image mythology to cope with the challenges of existence.
Nietzsche was the most bold and colorful of these “prophets.” He called Christianity the “religion of pity”—or, worse, the “religion of comfortableness.”
In Nietzsche’s worldview, growth required humans to confront their weaknesses and face the meaninglessness of life head on, recognizing that the suffering and brutality of life is simply part of becoming stronger. To avoid or minimize pain, or to delude yourself by valorizing weakness, was to limit your capacity for happiness.
In Nietzsche’s view, Christianity was for weak people; it was a narcotic that stilted one’s capacity to address their own shortcomings and numbed their capacity to experience joy.
Alain de Botton summarizes Nietzsche’s view of Christianity:
Christianity had, in Nietzsche’s account, emerged from the minds of timid slaves in the Roman Empire who had lacked the stomach to climb to the tops of mountains, and so had built themselves a philosophy claiming that their bases were delightful… They had fashioned a hypocritical creed denouncing what they wanted but were too weak to fight for while praising what they did not want but happened to have. Powerlessness became “goodness,” baseness “humility,” submission to people one hated “obedience,” and, in Nietzsche’s phrase, “not-being-able-to-take-revenge” turned into “forgiveness.” Every feeling of weakness was overlaid with a sanctifying name, and made to seem “a voluntary achievement, something wanted, chosen a deed, an accomplishment.” Addicted to “the religion of comfortableness,” Christians, in their value system, had given precedence to what was easy, not what was desirable, and so had drained life of its potential. (The Consolations of Philosophy, 237–38)
WAS NIETZSCHE RIGHT?
So, was Nietzsche right to call Christianity “the religion of comfortableness”? Was he correct to see Christianity as an uncourageous, convenient system to escape the difficulties of life and the cruelties of nature?
Certainly we must admit that in many times and places in history—like in his own 19th century European context—Christianity has been rather comfortable, uncourageous, and unwilling to truly embrace the costly call of Jesus Christ. And for many in the American church today, Christianity is indeed a religion of escape and comfort, a faith that doesn’t ask much and doesn’t cost anything. It’s a religion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. So in that sense, perhaps Nietzsche’s critique is right.
But Nietzsche is wrong to suggest there’s something inherently comfortable about Christianity, that it in its very essence Christianity is a convenient, disingenuous system of consolation for the weak people of the world.
That’s patently untrue. In my recent book, Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community, I go into great detail describing all the ways Christianity is actually inherently uncomfortable, both in what it asserts and calls us to believe, and perhaps especially in how it calls us to live and function together as the local church.
The local church was never meant to be a cultural, comfortable, bourgeois social club that affirms people in their idolatry and helps them along on a journey to their “best life now.” On the contrary, it was meant to be a counterculture, a set-apart community embodying a radically different vision for human flourishing.
EMBRACING THE CHURCH’S COUNTERCULTURAL IDENTITY
What would it mean for local churches to embrace their countercultural identity?
There’s much that could be said about this, but perhaps at the most basic level we must start by retiring our pragmatic obsession with the word “relevant.” The ironic thing about relevance is that when you self-consciously strive for it, it’s often the fastest track to irrelevance. When you have to draw attention to all the ways you are relevant, your lack of it becomes awkwardly obvious.
True relevance for the church will come insofar as we pay less attention to our seeming irrelevance in the world, and more attention to our reverence before God and faithfulness to our mission.We must come to terms with the fact that, as John Stott once put it, “It is not possible to be faithful and popular simultaneously.”
Or, as Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18).
We need to be OK with being unpopular, with being on the outside of the inner-ring. To be sure, we shouldn’t go out of our way to incite the world’s hatred and we should be careful that our unpopularity stems from faithfulness, not hypocrisy. We should also be careful to avoid wearing our fringe status as a badge of honor. But we do need to come to terms with it.
FOUR REMINDERS OF THE CHURCH’S COUNTERCULTURAL IDENTITY
We don’t need to look far, or strain our imaginations, to see clearly how Christianity is countercultural. But sometimes we do need to see with fresh eyes.
Where Christianity is well-established and culturally ingrained, it’s easier to lose sight of just how revolutionary the church should be. After all, church can feel painfully normal, even boring. This often leads to a lack of confidence and a sinking sense of irrelevance that leads some Christians down the dangerous, heresy-prone path of seeking “relevance” by reinventing the wheel.
But the wheel needs no reinvention. It simply needs to be recognized, owned, embraced, and compellingly lived out as the radical and beautiful thing it is.
Here are four aspects of the church’s countercultural identity that we would do well to remember:
1. Countercultural Presence
The church has always been a physical, embodied gathering in which God’s people pray and sing and break bread together. We take this for granted and forget just how radical this is. What else in the world today brings different people together with such regularity?
This is especially jarring in today’s world, where the trajectory is away from incarnational presence and toward disembodied experiences. We increasingly live our lives via screens, apps, and phones. Our relationships are largely digital. This both amplifies our preexisting Gnostic tendencies toward a cerebral rather than embodied faith, and subtly deemphasizes the crucial physicality of the church as the “body of Christ” in the material not just theoretical sense.
In such a world, the church’s physical gathering in a common space for a few hours on a Sunday is a revolutionary act.
We need to recognize what a countercultural gift this is. Churches today should emphasize the physicality of worship and liturgy, the practice of the Lord’s Supper, passing the peace, bodily movement in worship, shaking hands and hugging each other—anything to remind their congregations that we are here, together, in the presence of God.
One of the greatest gifts of the 21st-century church will be to re-sensitize people to the incarnational reality of what it means to be human.
2. Countercultural Family
Another gift the church can offer the 21st century is to remind people that they are created as relational beings meant to flourish in community.
Christianity isn’t just a solo affair, as much as we’ve made it that in our individualistic, “I’ll just listen to the podcast” culture. Christianity isn’t compatible with a “just you and Jesus” spirituality. Christianity is plural, and the church is a family. Across generations, cultures, races, and genders, we are united in Christ as brothers and sisters. I can’t underscore enough how important this is, nor should we neglect the urgency of striving to embody it.
At a time of great division in our culture, the church’s naturally diverse makeup—if we’re intentionally fostering it in our communities—can offer something different and hopeful to the world. The vision we get of heaven in Revelation is that every nation, every tribe, every people, and every language will be worshiping God together. In other words, our differences won’t be eradicated in heaven. They’ll still be there—but we’ll all be worshiping God together.
Embodied unity amid diversity is one big way the church can embrace its nature as an eschatological community—a glimpse “now” of what is to come in the “not yet.”
3. Countercultural Change
The Christian church should be a place where transformation happens. Christianity doesn’t just say “you’re OK as you are.” It’s a faith that meets us where we are and doesn’t let us stay there. It’s a faith with a realistic, sober understanding of sin and injustice in our world, but it’s not resigned to fatefully accept them as unchangeable.
The local church is the primary place where transformation can happen. In a context of accountability, church members will strive together, as a community of broken sinners, to move in the direction of holiness. We speak truth in love to one another so that we can grow and change.
This is extremely countercultural in a world that insists, “You are just fine as you are. No one has the right to say you should change.” Even within many Christian churches, the pursuit of holiness is often less compelling to us than the pursuit of “authenticity.” Sadly, we often follow the world in being more interested to talk about our brokenness than we are to pursue wholeness.
But distinctly Christian community isn’t primarily about solidarity in brokenness. It’s about solidarity in seeking Christ-likeness, in growing in holiness together.
When we downplay the importance of holiness and change, our churches end up looking, talking, and living exactly like anyone else in the world. Over time, we lose any sense of being different. But it’s our difference as salt and light in a dark world that makes the church attractive.
As Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “The glory of the gospel is that when the church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it.” A commitment to pursuing holiness—only made possible through the blood of Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit—is a critical mark of the countercultural church.
4. Countercultural Mission
Forgetfulness about our mission in the world is often where the apathy, boredom, and inferiority complex of Christians begins.
We must always remember—and keep front-and-center—the church’s radical and countercultural mission. In short, this mission isn’t not about us. It’s not a self-help mission. It is about our growth and change, but it isn’t for our own sake. It’s about our lives bearing witness to the gospel and the glory of Jesus Christ.
Christians actually believe our best life is still to come, and this conviction allows us to endure pain and suffering and “count it all joy.” For us, the “best life” we could have now comes by pouring it out for others and by sacrificing our comfort for a greater purpose.
What a radical proposition in today’s consumerist society, which frames everything in terms of self. Bettering yourself. Self-actualization. Self-promotion. Self-preservation. Selfhood. Selfies.
Which brings us back to Nietzsche, because this was exactly what he was about. For Nietzsche, the individual self mattered most—the will to power. He was an early adopter of the whole the now popular “best life now,” “carpe diem” mentality that dominates the covers of books and magazines—from suburban grocery stores to airport bookstores. For Nietzsche, and for so many in today’s world, the self is the only thing to live for.
But living only for yourself leads to death.
The subversive suggestion of Christianity is that life comes when we look outside of ourselves and instead find our identity in Jesus, the true image of God. Rather than flourishing by “finding yourself,” and then demanding the world recognize the glory of your individuality, Christianity tells you to deny yourself (Matt. 16:24), to lose your life in order to find it (Matt. 10:39).
This sounds harsh but it’s ultimately freeing, as it lifts from us the heavy burden of narcissism and autonomy. Furthermore, by calling us into a community—as “living stones” who are “being built up as a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5)—Christianity invites us to be part of a structure that’s bigger and stronger and infinitely more glorious than we could ever be on our own.
A couple years ago, I received an email from a reader who described himself as a “lapsed, lazy, backsliding, and confused” Christian. He wrote:
I don’t want church to be a mirror image of my life, in all its uncertainty and weakness. I want church to be church, to be challenged, to disagree (not be cozily affirmed), to be my refuge and my rock. I may be someone who cusses from time to time myself, who gets drunk, who has done lots of things I shouldn’t have done (and still do), but that doesn’t mean I want to be seeing those things where I (very occasionally) worship. The point of church and faith is that they are sanctuaries from ourselves, they are places where we can lay it all down and know that God hears us, that he forgives us, and that we are only saved by his grace.
The church’s appeal comes insofar as it offers something different—a reprieve from the world, a sanctuary from ourselves. The church that will change the world is one that provides a refreshing alternative to, rather than an uncritical affirmation of, the way things already are.
The church of Jesus Christ should see its countercultural identity not as a liability, but as an asset. We should embrace our abnormal, alien status—not for the sake of being weird, but for the sake of the world.