Reacquiring a Christian Counterculture pt. 1
Massive cultural changes came about in the 1960s in the United States. During this era, many Americans went away from standards of behavior that once characterized them, brought about by feminism, freedom of expression, environmentalism, recreational drug use, and civil disobedience. The Bible and prayer were taken out of the public school system and the nation began a very rapid alteration of its former life and character, leading to a point where several states today (2009) are legalizing homosexual marriage. Evangelicalism hasn’t slowed down this change. In many ways, evangelicalism contributed to the slide to where we’ve now arrived.
This social revolution that climaxed in the 60s in this country had started earlier with the advent of the industrial revolution from 1880 to 1920. Families and then communities conducted themselves based on traditions handed down from the past. The industrial revolution brought the onset of modernity in at least two ways. First, it transformed America from a rural to an urban culture because of manufacturing. People lived closer together. Dads worked away from home, spending less time with kids. The school system moved from small rural schools to larger urban ones. This packed together immature young people all day, every day, every week, spreading their influence one to another. Second, it brought the invention of new technological advances. The ones in transportation and communication especially made a huge difference in the lives of Americans. Of course, all of this combined spread false ideas and practices much more rapidly, introducing people to lifestyles with which they weren’t familiar, but gradually made them acceptable.
Often churches and preachers stood against these changes. This is the Christian counterculture. Christian counterculture differs from the world. The world bucks scriptural, God-ordained aspects of culture. Christianity is repulsed by what the world offers. This is very much like we read from Jesus in Matthew 6:32-33:
(For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
The Gentiles, the world, seek different things than what believers seek. Believers seek to submit to their King, Jesus Christ.
The pastors, the preachers, the men of God stood up against cultural changes. Some called this moralism, but it was preaching against sin and worldliness. All of evangelicalism did this as the United States modernized. They preached against entertainment, immodesty, and booze. Every step of the way, the godly stood up against the adverse changes in the culture—not as a means of salvation or as a replacement for the gospel, but because the gospel wasn’t compatible with this new conduct.
Churches Conforming to the World’s Culture
However, Christianity, churches, began making changes that conformed to the culture that had been created by the world system in the United States. Preachers took on characteristics of showmen to manipulate an audience. Evangelism became an event where a charismatic figure would hold the crowd’s attention with fiery rhetoric. This was preceded by a new kind of music that no longer centered on God and His worship, but to draw a crowd and to infuse the people with strong emotions and passions. It was the new evangelistic or gospel music that utilized the kind of composition that possessed characteristics familiar to what the audience, mainly lost, would hear in the world.
Of course, compared today all this that Christians and churches did between 1920 and 1950 was very tame. The preaching was scriptural and substantive compared to what one might hear today. At that time there was still a general respect for a preaching gathering and for things related to God. People would dress respectfully out of honor of the occasion, despite the sometimes sweltering heat.
A nation won’t preserve its traditions just because they are passed down from a previous generation. There must be more. There must be a scriptural basis for counter cultural behavior, for being different than the world. Still, the United States clung to much of its cherished ways of life, including those values related to marriage and child-rearing. However, young people will chafe under baseless traditions, and they did. They must be provided an authoritative foundation, a scriptural one, one that changes a person from the inside out, if a unique culture is to be preserved. For the most part, this doctrinal and practical basis was not nurtured in America’s young people. Instead, they became more enamored with what they heard and then saw on radio and television. Whatever their parents told them, they were hearing something different from the night time DJ, their music, and their friends at school.
Most of what was left of the former values was propped up by tradition itself, a false-front city with nothing behind. It looked right on the outside, but something vital was missing. Those walls collapsed in the 1960s in the United States, exacerbated as well by multiple circumstances, including the explosion of rock music, the assassination of the nation’s youthful president, growing dissatisfaction with the present civil arrangement, and a war beginning in Southeast Asia. Many young people began searching for something real, for answers, for what could really satisfy them. It was something akin to what happened in 18th century France, when the people there became angry with their current social structure. It was a bomb ready to go off.
During that time, society as a whole changed radically. Men with long hair. Women with pants and short, short skirts. Rebellion against authority. Refusal of military service. Music, art, and fashion took giant leaps away from where they once were. Many kinds of behavior became acceptable too. Divorces multiplied. Drugs. Fornication. How people talked changed too. A culture that at large had been held up by tradition had popped.
What did Christians do? With these massive changes in the culture, Christians would stick out more than ever as different. Men grew their hair long as part of the rebellion. Christians kept theirs short. I remember that time. I had teachers with long hair in a family where this was considered female or effeminate. I had a difficult time inside with respect for a man with long hair. Because of this sudden transition, it looked like Christians were simply trying to preserve an era—the 1950s—before things collapsed.
What Did Churches Do?
In many cases, churches kept a separate culture from the world. However, a faster cultural erosion was occurring in Christianity. Young people growing up in an increasingly different culture knew they weren’t fitting in. It didn’t feel comfortable. They didn’t like it. At the same time, whole movements of evangelical churches just capitulated to the culture. They would not impede the profanity all around. There became a growing contrast between evangelicals and fundamentalists. The fundamentalists kept a distinct culture and the evangelicals gave in.
The evangelicals had “reasons.” For hair length it was “how long is long.” “You don’t want to change people on the outside, when we know that God looks on the heart.” “The emphasis on the outside is just legalism.” “These people that dress so different and want us to do that are just Pharisees and legalists; they love the 1950s.” And so on. They never preached against cultural issues. Cultural issues became non-moral and preferential. Worship itself became a matter of men’s taste.
The Jesus Movement
On the West Coast, especially in California, a new movement was growing. The Jesus movement. I remember them as “the Jesus freaks.” In California, you had the most protesting, drug use, and hippies in the United States. In California especially, you had massive break up of the family and kids who grew up empty and searching. At that time, the Jesus movement was there to fill that vacuum. The Jesus movement was not counter-cultural at all. Their music was the same. Their appearance was the same. They looked like everyone else except they had this relationship with Jesus that had them so happy. Their methods were also very much with the spirit of the age. They sat down cross-legged in the grass like the hippies. They played some Beatles-like rock music on their guitars, sung like Joan Baez and other folk-rock singers, except with Christian words, and they just talked about Jesus and what He could do for their hearts. They made a point of not being different.
Part of the explosive growth of the Jesus movement was the drastic needs of West Coast youth with a hopelessness and despair, and that was met by an approach that was entirely non-judgmental. The leaders just talked to you in a kind of non-authoritative way. They had on their casual clothes, just like you. They played the same kind of music as you. There was a tremendous amount of good feeling and companionship and family that was missing at home. Guys and girls hung out together and played on their guitars and talked about Jesus. Certain things dropped out—-drugs, fornication, and hate for authority—but the cultural aspects remained entirely the same. When you got baptized, you headed down to the beach to do it. You spent time around a camp fire, singing folk-like rock tunes with Christian words, and then you along with dozens of others were put under the surf.
The churches that came out of these efforts were the same. The services were very emotional with the Christian rock and folk singing. You came as you were. Except for the Budweiser t-shirt, you looked no different than the world. The men had long hair and beards like the hippies. The woman appeared in the native peace-protester garb. The promotion was done in the psychedelic sixties font with the big pastel flower petals. There was the swaying and hand raising and hand holding something like you’d find at the sixties rock concert, minus the drugs.
A lot of large evangelical churches started and expanded during this time with this kind of cultural compatibility. The culture moved against a clean-cut image with the long beards, sideburns, and facial hair. Much of it was for the purpose of making the lost feel more comfortable, to contextualize the church to their cultural sensibilities. This methodology spread to evangelical churches all over the country. Those churches were growing and others imitated what they were doing.
Where Did This Go?
Evangelical churches did not practice personal and ecclesiastical separation. That was not only not emphasized, but it was repudiated in most cases. The goal was a non-judgmental environment, especially on cultural issues, making people feel comfortable that were in the world. A particular theology of grace came right along with it. Churches would not give themselves denominational names, because in so doing it would offer doctrinal distinctions that could cause disunity. Their idea of love, which was very tolerant, surpassed all values.
Evangelical churches have continued like that for the decades since the 1960s, leading up to today. They have moved right with the world on these cultural issues. Some fundamentalist churches have grown their ranks, desirous to see the same type of numerical growth they have. The world’s culture has continued its slide, very much not being impeded by this type of Christianity that uses grace as an occasion of the flesh. However, not only has the world veered further away culturally, but so have the churches. The kind of contextualization accepted by these evangelicals has been taken one step further by today’s emerging/ent churches with their grunge look and music, modern art, piercings, tattoos, and street appearance.
Recently, one way that fundamentalists have sought to move along with these culturally compatible evangelicals is by accepting a snapshot of fundamentalism that they believe existed before these cultural issues became an issue in fundamentalism. They wish for fundamentalism to be a coalition of evangelicals who will separate over a false gospel. Other factors would not be considered as a basis of fellowship, would even be viewed as a problematic cause of disunity, even heretics. As a part of this, gone would be the issues of dress, music, and in many cases, alcoholic beverages. Churches would be fundamental that would simply agree on a very minimal doctrinal statement that was especially clear on the minimal doctrinal aspects of the gospel. Social issues could be left out.
On the other hand, some evangelicals think now that many evangelicals have slid too far on cultural issues and contextualization. Those who have moved past their comfort level are now worldly. Even certain evangelical speech has crossed the line in its casualness, entering the realm of the profane, dishonoring to God, even not worthy of the gospel. Some are now saying that the gospel must be adorned with certain type of behavior that isn’t specifically laid out in scripture. In other words, things have gotten even too worldly for them. When the hippies in the sixties were coming with their rock music and their rebellious dress, they didn’t say anything. Of course, then they were benefiting from that influx of new people, and that was then. What we’re seeing, of course, is the complete deterioration of our culture with the contribution of these evangelicals and now fundamentalists who have capitulated to it for the sake of numerical success, false love, and fake unity.
I will be continuing this next week, Lord-willing. I want to talk about the way that the scriptural understanding of holiness was forsaken for pragmatic purposes. I will get into the point of reclaiming a Christian culture.