Christian Subculture Is Dying. I Know Why. I Grew Up There.
For too many church-raised Millennials, Christianity became synonymous with Christian subculture.
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.
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.