Christian Subculture Is Dying. I Know Why. I Grew Up There.

For too many church-raised Millennials, Christianity became synonymous with Christian subculture.

By Liberty McArtor Published on February 25, 2017

The largest Christian bookstore chain in the nation announced Thursday that it will close its doors for good. The closing of the Family Christian Store’s 240 locations comes two years after the franchise declared bankruptcy.

Many factors have undoubtedly led to the chain’s demise — including the growing number of people buying books and music online, which is affecting bookstores everywhere. But I’m a Millennial, and I submit that at least part of the explanation for the shrinking number of Christian bookstores has to do with the fact that my generation is rejecting Christian subculture.

Straight Outta the Bubble

I was homeschooled, attended a non-denominational Evangelical church, and graduated from a private Christian college. So I have some street cred when it comes to talking about Christian subculture.

In fact, I was your poster girl. I listened to ZOEGirl and TobyMac (Pillar or Skillet when I was feeling crazy). I attended the Secret Keeper Girl conferences and rocked the “modest is hottest” t-shirt. I rarely missed a youth group meeting and went on short-term missions trips in high school. When I started applying to colleges, non-Christian universities weren’t even an option.

Thankfully, my parents also emphasized that God’s Word alone was the ultimate standard by which to judge everything else — even my favorite Chris Tomlin worship songs and cross-bedecked accessories.

But many of my friends were not that fortunate.

Churched-Raised Millennials

For too many church-raised Millennials, Christianity became, implicitly or even explicitly, synonymous with Christian subculture.

Songs that didn’t include overt and positive references to God were heard skeptically by parents, if not forbidden outright. Movies and books with a bit of language warranted warnings and disappointed criticisms (or cinematically embarrassing “Christian” movie-making endeavors). Churchgoers who didn’t abide by such subculture tenets were viewed with suspicion and probably judged harshly from the privacy of a minivan.

If Christian subculture is one’s understanding of the Christian lifestyle, it’s no wonder they begin to question and reject it as they enter the real world.

No wonder some people have questioned Christianity and rejected it when they got older and entered the real world. That’s exactly what I’ve seen among many of my friends.

Some embarked on wild rebellions. Some switched denominations. Some jumped political parties. Others abandoned Christianity altogether. Many, like me, spent a long time wrestling over what was actually true.

Crushing the Cookie Cutter

Surprisingly, it was at my ultra-Christian college that my sub-culture bubble came into question for me. I noticed that students who seemed to have it together were often plagued by hidden demons, while the students discarded as slackers or rebels displayed the most genuine examples of Christ-like friendship. Suffice it to say, people didn’t fit the Christian mold I’d formed in my mind.  

Before long, it dawned on me that I didn’t fit that mold either. The realization wasn’t easy. I was tormented with feelings of guilt for not being the perfect Christian girl I used to consider myself — the girl I thought I was supposed to be.

I got angry with the Church, people who exemplified the perfect Christian vibe I used to emulate and the Christian subculture in which I was raised.

I wasn’t that girl. I couldn’t be that girl. The result was, I got angry with the Church, people who emitted that “God’s princess” vibe I used to emulate and the Christian subculture in which I was raised.

I stopped listening to my contemporary Christian music playlists, and explored the world of pop culture I’d always sneered at. I threw decorum to the wind. I swore like a sailor when I was angry, just like I’d always wanted to do deep down. I went to church occasionally, reaching half-heartedly for the closeness with God that I used to feel but could no longer count on. Feeling stripped of the identity I’d built for myself, I questioned the truth of what I believed.

Thankfully, my close friends stuck by me — and introduced me to awesome music, by the way. My boyfriend (who became my husband) encouraged me, and the same parents who taught me to measure everything by God’s Word listened to my doubts and struggles without criticism.

The Tatted Pastor and Tough Questions

It was near the end of my college career  when I came to the conclusion that if I was going to continue being a Christian, I needed to discover for myself what the Bible really said — without the trendy trappings of Christian subculture. My faith was weak, but it was still there, and I set out to make it stronger by asking as many critical questions as possible.

He was relevant because he was unafraid of befriending sinners and sharing the gospel with them.

This process kicked off in an apologetics class I took during my senior year. Our teacher was a pastor covered in tattoos who recommended getting a beer with nonbelievers to talk about Jesus. He often spoke of a gay couple with which he was good friends. And he didn’t compromise one bit on biblical truth or what it meant to follow Jesus.

I loved that class — yes, partly because he defied all norms of the subculture I’d grown up in; but mostly because he knew how to handle the hard questions about right and wrong that I’d previously taken “by faith” (read: unquestioningly and for granted). In fact, he encouraged us to ask them.

That class motivated me to dig into God’s Word more than I had at any summer camp, youth conference or missions trip. To use a popular subculture term, the class was relevant. Relevant because we were taught not to fear the hard questions and uncomfortable issues. Relevant because the teacher acted like a normal person (one who happened to like tattoos and beer) whose relationship with God led him to an uncompromising dedication to truth. Relevant because he was unafraid of befriending sinners and sharing the gospel with them.

Christianity Isn’t a Cool Club

When I was in high school, the apparel brand “Not of This World” rose to popularity. Looking back, I think the hoodies and bumper stickers proudly touting “NOTW” represented a tendency to become defensive against secular culture, rather than learning to effectively engage it, like that teacher did.

It made Christianity itself a sort of cool club where youth could be “shielded” from the evils of the world, and protected from embarrassment about their beliefs.

It’s an attractive approach but it doesn’t produce young adults with faith that can weather the outside world. It does produce young adults discouraged by failed attempts to hide their own sin with layers of Jesus-wear.

What Millennials (Humans) Want

Millennials are rejecting Christian subculture because they don’t want censored reality and exclusively happy endings. They don’t want a club where being a Christian is “cool.” They don’t even want an immediately easy, trite answer to every hard question.

Millennials want the same thing humanity has always wanted — truth and closeness with God.

Since the Bible is the story of our sin and reconciliation to God through Jesus, and since humanity is sinful and will always be in need of that reconciliation, Christianity will always be relevant.

But if we as the Church put all our efforts into building our own subculture where our lifestyle is popular and it’s “safe” to reside, we’ll end up letting that subculture define Christianity, and people will only turn away.

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  • Gary

    I am a baby boomer. I have no tattoos. I have no piercings. I have no “gay friends”. I never listen to “contemporary Christian music”. I disdain anything with the label “contemporary Christian”. I would NEVER listen to a “pastor” who has or is anything I have just mentioned. I am as out of sync with that stuff as it is possible to be. I don’t like what passes today for “Christianity”. To me, its false religion pretending to be Christianity.

    • Billy Chickens

      While I agree with you on most of what you said, because I too seclude myself from the crowd preferring to read books I know are good and otherwise occupy my time with family and only a few friends who are not liberals, I do go to Mass. I am not a fan of this pope, but the teachings of Christ have not and never will change, so I continue to go to Church. You do not? Just asking…just wondering. Not meaning to pry.

      • Kevin Quillen

        we are the church(believers), I do not need to “go” to church, I just need to “be” the church.

        • Autrey Windle

          I so agree with ‘we’ are the church. I am free to go to services and I often do or I watch a teacher via media and I am addicted to the music; old school and new generation. Religion was very unfriendly to me in childhood but some of my Sunday school teachers were quite wonderful and again, the music brought me back. I attended lots of different churches and had to be re-baptised in each one which was very confusing to the child I was but Oh,well! better baptized more times than not at all! I finally left church altogether but my dog and a broken leg brought me home to God. I couldn’t be more grateful to God,Sadie-dog and ending up laying in the desert at 5 am with my foot on backward. God must love me extra because He is willing to wait so long for me to come home. I say to anyone who doesn’t know God, God knows you and loves you where you are.

      • Charles

        “but the teachings of Christ have not and never will change” And, that tells me you really have no idea what the bible says. Sadly, we go on mimicking what other have told us. You do know that Christ is not Jesus last name. He is THE Christ. Though the Jews would say otherwise.

      • Gary

        I attend a Baptist Church.

    • BigBaldSavage

      I follow you. I have found that there is some honestly good worship sprinkled into today’s CCM.

    • Kevin Quillen

      Gary; I too am a boomer who about 30 years ago met Jesus and was soon confused by the many teachings of Christian Pastors, who contradicted each other in many ways. So, I decided to study to if what I believed was true or just accepted because some one I respected said so. I am now a happy heretic, according to mainstream churches, but have found freedom in Christ. It is truly amazing what is taught and believed today. My short teaching on Christianity……Ecc 12:12-14 and James 1:27.

  • Enid Neel

    I was a teen in the beginning of this new christian culture. I didn’t like the pop christian music in the 90’s, but I was raised in a christian home. I was raised to believe in right and wrong, according to the Bible. God’s word is the final authority on all things. But that doesn’t mean that all the by laws and rules that people must be followed. Authentic fellowship with God is different than adherence to a bunch of rules.

    • Kevin Quillen

      Here are the “rules” you need to follow……Ecc 12:12-14 and James 1:27 The rest(rules) is “religion” made by man.

    • Autrey Windle

      Enid, you reminded me of my Mom’s rules which were much more strict than my friends in the sex-revolution 60’s. More than a dozen times I used my Mom’s threat to punish to avoid doing things with my pals that I really didn’t want to do because I knew they were actually wrong. It’s kind of like that with any rules that are given to help us be our best. Just something I think you might understand…Go with God.

  • John

    Thanks for sharing this article, Liberty! I am a boomer 68 years of age. I have always loved all kinds of Christian worship music. I love the contemporary Christian music of today as my favorite. Jesus is so wonderful and merciful to me and my family I can no longer picture any other way to worship Him than as a charismatic with hands raised high to heaven. I reject traditional “church as usual”. My old “church as usual” denomination taught salvation by intellectual understanding of God’s word. Everyone who comes forward and says a specific prayer is counted and told they are “saved”. They still are all about teaching. They stopped praying at Wednesday night meeting and turned it into just another lecture by the pastor. The Holy Spirit is just another doctrine to be taught, not a person of the Trinity to be listened to and obeyed.

    Thanks again, I thought it was just me!

    • Kevin Quillen

      John;
      “church as usual” is man made religion. We are the church(believers). My theology…….Ecc 12:12-14 and James 1:27. I will face the Father some day alone. My denominational affiliation will not help me. I am a boomer too. Peace to you and God Bless.

      • Heygeno1

        Boomer here too….AKA “Jesus Freak” when it was a ( slur ).
        The “subculture” has left out the most important thing when it comes to BEING REAL….. they think it’s cool to go to bars, curse, you know….act like the world.
        THE WHOLE Bible tells us how to live. Millennials do not understand what it means to live a holy life. Cant blame hippy parents/Jesus Freaks….. They (dont read) the same Bible that their parents (dont) read.

  • azsxdcf1

    Shalom Liberty!

    Thank you for sharing your past. Mine was different. I came to Christ after 10 years in recovery of AA and NA by studying the embryonic beginnings of those groups by reading books by DickB… following decades of a prodigal life. Many, many in those groups still do not know Jesus – because they (groups) have become a religion/cult onto themselves.

    My ministry is to change that fact, and in so doing, I must follow Jesus Christ – the Anointed One of God – who came into this blasphemous, sin-filled world and took my sin to The Cross so I could become His Righteousness!

    The “subculture of Christianity” you speak of was laughable to sinners like me for years… but now we BOTH realize that we must worship Our Lord and Savior every day who was sent by God who LOVED the world (yes, even beer-drinking, tattooed hippies) SO – that He did what ONLY He could have done (ie. REDEEM US ALL)! Praise Jesus!

    • Kevin Quillen

      1 Cor 15:22! Praise God!

  • Arkansas Toothpick

    You know what? It is just plain hard to know how to follow Christ. That’s ok, though, because the harder the struggle, the more real faith becomes. I agree that Christian subculture always seemed too cliched, too cliquish, too clannish, and too clean to be real. I want to be real before the Lord and the world, wiling to accept the due rewards for following Jesus without compromise. Father, let me be faithful in every way. Amen.

    • Kevin Quillen

      It should not be hard. Ecc 12:12-14 and James 1:27. That is it. Do not follow Pastors, teachers or prophets. Only believe what YOU dug out with prayer and serious study.

  • Autrey Windle

    It seems to be harder to rear children to want to follow Christ than when I was young. Still, your parents seem to have done a very good job of it. You are indeed blessed. My much older sister suffers from religiosity and while a faithful churchgoer, bible college grad and former missionary, she made it clear to me that I was a heathen headed for hell. She has finally changed her mind, but I had to turn 60 before she decided I wouldn’t corrupt her grown children if I had a private conversation with them. I am the definition of the prodigal. My point is, we can come from a strong foundation in Christ or a sketchy, weak acquaintance with the Father and still serve as honorably as anyone if we but remember where our loaves and fishes come from. “Higher”or “The Old Rugged Cross”; The Pope or Joseph Prince; Church on Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday morning noon or midnight. All accoutrements are comfort to the individual seeker. The important culture of Christianity is that “we are all God’s children/ if one of us ain’t none of us are” something I heard in a gathering in the 80’s and “Your life is God’s gift to you/what you do with it is your gift to God” from a coffee cup in a card shop window in the 70’s. Sometimes church is just where God finds you! Good work, Liberty! Keep making the Father proud!

    • Kevin Quillen

      “we are all God’s children/ if one of us ain’t none of us are”
      I love that! Thank you!
      God Bless you. 1Cor 15:22

  • joe_biden

    Before I had children, I had seen the phenomenon of preachers kids and wanted to avoid that for my children. I am not a preacher, but my wife and I are strong Christians and we knew our children could experience the same type of phenomenon. We wanted to give them a good strong solid Christian background , but we did not want to remove them from the world. We homeschool them early, but later allow them to be mainstreamed into non-Christian schools. They all went to college, and that environment definitely challenged their faith. However, we have encouraged them in their faith, while allowing them to explore their differences and their doubts.

    It remains to be seen how well this will actually work out. To date, all of them still attend church and profess a belief in Christ as their Savior. There are definitely challenges, and they do accept things that I don’t. But I do believe that as they remain faithful to Christ, these adult children will grow in maturity and understanding.

    • Kevin Quillen

      you did your job. They may go “prodigal” but will return. God will bless your efforts.

  • disqus_khlfhDKHR9

    Every generation must seek God afresh. Christianity is always one generation from being extinct. That’s a scary thing when your a parent. The battle is first a battle of ideas and beliefs. Some of the most important distinctions gets lots in the “i” of this generation, iPhone, iPod, i… that is until life comes crashing in. One of the toughest places to grow up is in a Christian home. The dark side of human nature is often hidden from sight in such homes.

    • Autrey Windle

      You are so right that the dark side is often hidden in a Christian home..the other side that perhaps you could think about is that the dark side in a non-Christian home is ALWAYS hidden and if outed lashes out further at the victims of it’s mayhem with no moral compass to consult for solution to light being shed on the sin. Just something to consider…

      • disqus_khlfhDKHR9

        It depend on the non-Christian home. But what I am talking about is a home that has good parents, they know how to have a great marriage, they teach their kids how to have great relationships, etc… in that kind of a home the kids do not really understand how dark the dark side is of the human nature. Now its good that they do not have personal contact with such darkness but that also can lead to the kids have liberal views.

        • Autrey Windle

          I see what you mean…I had some nieces and a nephew who were shielded in a bit over-protective Christian home with all the censorships and shelter of strict parenting. The kids did go a bit wild for the most part when they first left home for the real world, but all but one has returned to the good sense of the Lord’s rules and protections except the one and we have high hopes for the last prodigal. Keep faith and trust God. God’s rules make so much more sense than the heretic,lying devil’s temptations and hog-wild radical liberal kids can come home…I finally did.

    • Well said. Your first sentence was exactly what I was thinking.

  • BigBaldSavage

    I understand that it is not a sin to have a beer and that you think that having a beer with unbelievers might be a way to say “Look, we aren’t that bad!”, but what of the unbeliever who struggles with demons of alcohol addiction and abuse? What happens when they start to feel a justification for their sin because they see Christians hanging out and drinking? Where do you draw the line? What if said unbeliever wants to have several drinks? At what point to you rein it in and declare what is too much?

    1 Corinthians 8:9–13
    9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating 3 in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged,4 if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers 5 and grounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

    You are treading a VERY slippery slope. Why does the message of Christ need to be relevant? Why isn’t a perfect God who sent His Son to pay the price for our sins enough? There is no hiding of our sin, we are all foul and broken beings who are NEEDING of a Savior. Jesus didn’t go to the gamblers and say “Let’s gamble a bit and then I’ll tell you a story”. He didn’t go to the drunkards and say “Let’s have a beer to ease the tension.”.

    I FULLY understand that the “rah rah, we are awesome and holy!” bits are very self-serving, but we serve a God who is perfect, just and righteous. We are not called to be relevant. We are not even called to be accepted.

  • Charles

    You left out one point in this rant. Matthew 7:7.
    Seek and ye shall find. You see, specially in these modern times. We
    can ask the question. Where did the bible come from? WITHOUT having to
    go the the theologian down the street for our answers, or having to go
    to a university to study biblical archeology. What we have found is, the bible does not make sense.
    You can cherry pick wonderful quotes of inspiration. But the book itself
    is man made. Centuries of wishful thinking from an antiquated culture.
    Then you add social conditioning and, well, you can BELIEVE what you
    want. Which is all you have.

    • Patrick Hill

      Truly Charles you do not believe that this is the end? We all are born live, and die with what we BELIEVE is what is? Ok, but my BELIEF is wider, deeper, and overflowing and available to all.

      • Charles

        It’s not a belief, that this is the end. It’s a fact, or should I say, it is what the evidence points to. Just because you do not like the answer, does not make it untrue. Like I said, you can believe what you wish to. I would like to believe there is a million dollars in my bank account. The evidence points otherwise. Maybe, if I have a wider, deeper, and more overflowing perspective. The bank manager might see differently and cut me a check. 😉

        • Patrick Hill

          I’m sorry Charles but I neither liked or disliked what you commented. If you thought or BELIEVED I disliked your comment, then I am sorry. I did not and you are right, my liking your comment or not, has no correlation to truth. Here’s a fact or truth I hope you’ll consider. The width, depth and possibilities that our lives have crossed in the comment section of a Facebook post. To me, that is truly, amazing!

  • imamazed

    Thank you Liberty. I personally have a lot of doubts about “religion” and many self-proclaimed Christians who have an air of “holier than thou”……but I LOVE and can not live without Jesus in my life! God bless you all.

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