I'm never sure what to think when I hear people criticize what they perceive to be a Christian subculture. The criticism tends to focus on the subculture as being closed off to the broader world or not being strategically engaged with the wider culture.
These are no doubt drawbacks when a group of Christians gathers around a set of shared beliefs, passions, approaches and interests and shuns the world outside of its restricted boundaries.
The history of a U.S. Christian subculture, however, has a long and oftentimes complex trajectory.
In the mid-1920s, conservative Christianity became the subject of national scorn during and after the famous Scopes Trial, where attorney Clarence Darrow was pitted against three-time presidential candidate Williams Jennings Bryan. The trial was covered not only locally and regionally, but also nationally on radio and through newspapers.
The trial resulted in a serious blow to conservative Christians and their beliefs—mostly centered upon evolution.
The next 20 years witnessed a pullback by conservative Christians in their approach to culture. Many saw encounters with the "outside" world as detrimental, and so slowly—but steadily—these believers began to construct their own culture. Schools, universities, radio stations, magazines, newspapers and a host of other endeavors began to grow.
The emergence of American evangelicalism in the 1940s—with its more friendly approach to the broader culture—didn't do much, however, to reign in the growth of this subculture. Even while it displayed a more welcoming attitude to American culture, the Christian subculture continued to grow and develop for the next several decades.
However, in the early 1970s, several forces combined to initiate what we know as the Christian resurgence in culture, mainly demonstrated through politics. The Religious Right got its start during this time and grew to become one of the most influential political movements of the 20th century.
While conservative Christians gained traction and influence in politics, this crossed over to other areas of culture: arts, literature, science, business, music and a host of others.
Nevertheless, during this period of influence gaining, the Christian subculture was still growing. Even today, Christian private schools continue to expand, and Christian radio stations and other media outlets have found an effective and long-term niche in the market. The Christian music industry alone is worth hundreds of millions of dollars—if not billions.
Combining all this together, the issue of an American Christian subculture is a more complex and multi-faceted issue than some would imagine.
Recently, I asked several Christian leaders their views on the Christian subculture, and one of the main responses I received was the danger of this subculture becoming closed off to the wider world—thus not impacting it for Christ. That certainly should be a concern for all believers. Christ called us to demonstrate His love to all people in our broken world. By withdrawing into our own subculture—with people who are like us in many ways—we are not able to fulfill Christ's vision for His creation.
However, I wonder if we need to do a better job of defining exactly what the Christian subculture constitutes. Does it mean we listen mainly to Christian music and read mainly Christian-themed books and view art that mainly doesn't upset our Christian sensibilities?
Or does it mean we adopt a bunker mentality and close off the world around us and only associate with other believers—those who overwhelmingly share our beliefs?
If it's the latter idea of a Christian subculture, then I believe we've adopted the wrong approach. However, if it's the former viewpoint, then I think we're on the right track as long as we keep a few things in mind.
First, I believe Christ called us to model His love in the world but that doesn't exclude adopting a lifestyle that lifts Him up through the music we listen to, the books we read and the art we view. Adopting a consumer lifestyle of holiness is not antithetical to the Gospel; it's actually encouraged by it.
Second, our focus as believers must remain on verbally telling and nonverbally demonstrating Christ's redeeming love and sacrifice. If we are submerged in a subculture where we never encounter unbelievers and never have the opportunity to demonstrate His love in the broader culture, then we are failing to live up to how Christ has called us to live.
Finally, as our culture continues to fall away from its Christian influence, it will be more critical for believers to develop new and effective ways to impact it. This is not the 1920s, the 1950s or even the 1980s. Our challenge is perhaps even more demanding than ever.
But Christ is a timeless Savior; His love and sacrifice are just as relevant now as ever.
Scott Noble is the editor for the Christian Examiner's Minnesota and Washington regions.
Published, July 2011