Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Problem of Subculture and Missional Living

Rich Tatum wrote, as a comment to his own piece on the Robert Duvall movie, The Apostle,
After watching The Apostle I walked out of the theater amazed that Duvall, an admitted outsider, had worked so hard to get our culture right–and he very nearly succeeded.
This comment made me begin thinking about the problem of subculture. Like it or not, American Christians live in a subculture that is getting increasingly marginalized. (I can't speak for believers elsewhere in the world. Sorry, this post is going to be rather USA-centric.) When we address this topic at all, it is either with dismissive contempt--the speaker imagines that he is not a part of this subculture, and is usually referring to a branch of the church that appears to him to be exasperatingly "out of touch" with the surrounding culture--or with a sort of righteous indignation--the speaker views the surrounding culture as increasingly hostile, and retreat into one's own cultural norms is defended as "taking a stand" for moral uprightness. Both views are oversimplifications of a problematic issue.

Subcultures are merely homogeneous groups that exist within a larger culture and share various cultural norms that can include specialized knowledge, terminology, dress, rituals, customs, and expectations. They exist throughout society, among ethnic groups, professional vocations, aficionados of various sports or types of entertainment, as well as other groupings. Get a group of engineers or doctors or political junkies or comic book fans or football fans together, and the commonalities will come out pretty quickly. Someone may think it ridiculous to go to a convention wearing fake pointy ears, but perfectly normal to go shirtless with a painted chest to a football game. Subcultures are a necessary component of any larger culture that isn't monolithic. It's rather pointless to argue that a Christian subculture shouldn't exist; that would be equivalent to arguing that people with common experiences and interests should pretend as though they didn't have anything in common. It defies human nature.

In some ways, the Christian subculture is a remnant of what the larger American culture used to be. I once read a comparison of Franklin Roosevelt's and Ronald Reagan's first inaugural addresses; it's astonishing how much more biblical quotations and allusions were in the "liberal" Roosevelt's address as compared with Reagan's. Despite the fact that Reagan was the darling of the religious right, American culture had shifted dramatically in forty-eight years, and the shared biblical frame of reference that had existed in the larger culture was virtually gone. I am not here subscribing to the notion of a golden age of "Christian America." When would that have existed--during the days of slavery? I am simply acknowledging that there was once a shared cultural heritage that included a great deal more biblical knowledge than is common today. Whether people believed in them or not, or lived according to biblical tenets or not, Bible stories provided much of the content for an American shared cultural heritage. In large measure, the modern Christian subculture is merely a holdover of that earlier heritage; and so there is truth in the charge that the Christian subculture is merely a response to a larger culture that is by turns indifferent and hostile.

Nonetheless, it's hardly a positive response to huddle together in defensive fashion. Scripture calls us to remain in the world, even as we resist the temptation to become a part of it. Light in the darkness; salt on a tasteless meal: Jesus' metaphors for who we are imply that we are supposed to make a difference in the world around us, which implies both that we are engaged in that world and yet form a perceptible contrast to it. Be involved, but be different. That's our mandate.

Unfortunately, this is part of the problem: even if we have a shared vocabulary, social expectations, and rituals, we are tending not to be very different from the surrounding culture in ways that really matter--the behaviors that are supposed to mark Christian faith. We get divorced at about the same rate as non-Christians; we are influenced to almost the same degree by mass media; and practice of such spiritual disciplines as prayer and Bible study are embarrassingly modest. Often, we've got it exactly backwards. We know how to dress, talk, and behave when we gather together as Christians or happen to meet one another, but our lives too often don't witness to the power of a transforming relationship with the infinite and holy creator of the universe. We're the same as everybody else, except for the secret handshake. That's an overstatement--but by how much?

One of the emphases of the emerging church movement is something called "missional living." I'll be honest: I know about this much more from reading about it than from experiencing it firsthand. But the concept is based on what missionaries have long understood: that to reach a people group different from yourself, you have to adopt as much as possible the customs and behavior of the group you're trying to reach, for the purpose of securing a hearing for the gospel. People who attempt to live missionally specifically try to avoid the look and manner of "church people"--the things that tend to separate us from the world at large--while actively engaging unbelievers and offering a genuine difference.

I don't know how much of this is real, how much is wishful thinking, and how much is simply motivated by a desire to get out from under traditional taboos within evangelicalism. I've known too many people spouting anti-legalistic jargon who, at bottom, simply wanted to live more worldly. And yet something in my soul longs for this. The prophetic voice of the Church has collapsed into the "culture wars," which themselves have largely become little more than a mandate to vote Republican. I can't help but feel that we were supposed to be... something else.

What do you think about missional living? Anyone have personal experience in this area? Is it something only single twentysomethings can glom onto, or can we middle-aged people also do it (in a way that wouldn't be ridiculous)? Any thoughts?

If you like this post, you may be interested in my book, What's Wrong with Outreach?

What's Wrong with Outreach?


  1. Check out a post about this over at Blind Beggar Some really good stuff there.

  2. Hi, Jerry--

    Thanks for the tip. For everyone else, I think the post he's referring to is this one: and the whole blog seems to be good stuff too.

    And to his credit, Jerry wasn't promoting himself, but he's got good stuff as well at this blog:

    Once again, thanks Jerry!

  3. Seems to me there's a big difference between being in a sub-culture and trying to be a sub-culture. Most sub-cultures exist simply because of affinity. The sub-cultures that are based on being iconoclastic (Goths, for example) are more successful at driving people away than they are at building their community. I think when we as Christians define ourselves primarily on what we're against, we drive people away rather than attract people to Christ. Not very missional.