How to Renew Our Witness and Make Christianity Counter-Cultural Again: Part 1

By Tom Gilson Published on May 11, 2018

The Church in America has lost its distinctiveness. And it’s killing our witness.

We try to fit in, to be relevant, to be attractive. We can be relevant and attractive, no doubt, but it’s got to be through becoming counter-cultural once again.

For there have been times when Christianity has stood out. The early church is a great example. When plague struck the Roman Empire, the great and famous physician Galen ran for the hills; Christians stayed with the victims, even at the risk of their own lives. Greek and Roman parents abandoned infants right and left — especially girls — but Christians rescued and raised them. Despite modern prejudices to the contrary, Christians elevated the status of both slaves and women.

Christians’ care and compassion were completely out of the ordinary back then. Today? Not so much. It’s all so very common now.

Not Standing Out Here

Care for the poor? Atheists do that. Humanitarian aid? Ever hear of Doctors Without Borders? Education? Literacy? That used to be a Christian specialty. But who would think so now? Sex trafficking intervention? Everyone’s behind that.

Marriage and divorce rates? The truth is, thoroughly committed Christians do a lot better than non-Christians in these relationships. The perception, however, is that there’s no difference.

Abortion and same-sex marriage? Hey, everyone’s got their cause; our causes are just a bit eccentric and behind the times, from the world’s point of view — and “harmful to women and LGBT people” to boot.

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Victims of Our Own Success

When social scientists take a close look, they find that Christians really do differ from the rest of the world in most of these things. Merely to “differ” isn’t enough, though. Christianity used to stand out. We don’t anymore. We don’t have that unique witness and presence.

The story isn’t all bad, of course. One reason Christians don’t stand out is because Christ’s influence has saturated Western culture for so long. What was once uniquely Christian is now taken for granted. Everyone knows “all people are created equal,” right?

Wrong. Plato and Aristotle saw slaves as being right where they belonged. Aristotle saw women as defective. The reason “everyone knows” human equality now is because everyone, whether they know it or not, has been deeply influenced by Christian ethics.

So when it comes to standing out from the world, we are, in a way, victims of our own success.

But the World Is Still Very Secular

But let’s not celebrate that too much. Need I remind you? The world around us is still very secular. Some of it is severely hostile toward Christ and His people. That attitude is particularly common among the elites, the culture-makers.

Which means that for the sake of our integrity in Christ and our witness before the world, we’ve got to stand out again. We’ve got to become counter-cultural in ways we’ve never been before. But how?

The answer, I’m convinced, is so counter-cultural, even the Church isn’t seeing it.

In an increasingly secularized society, if we don’t stand out we must be doing something wrong.

Standing Out Need Not Mean “Looking Better”

Not that being counter-cultural is an end in itself, as if we need to be different just to be different. It’s more of a marker, a signal. In an increasingly secularized society, if we don’t stand out we must be doing something wrong.

But it’s easy to get this drastically wrong: To think that in order to stand out as Christian in the world, we must stand out as noticeably better than the world. That’s true enough if we take biblical ethics as our standard for what’s “better.” But the world is going to judge our goodness by its own standards, not by God’s. And if the world doesn’t like God’s standards, it won’t see us as better but as worse. That’s okay: We follow God’s standards anyway.

History agrees. Back in the first centuries of the church — when Christianity was spreading fast everywhere, like the smoke from my neighbor’s burning brush pile just now — the Church had a surprisingly rotten reputation. Yes, believers were known as caring and compassionate, as I’ve already said. At the same time, though, they were also “poor citizens” for refusing to worship the gods that supposedly kept the cities safe and well supplied. They were a “secret sect.” They even “practiced cannibalism” — a mistaken view that came from misunderstanding the Lord’s Supper.

Authentic, But Not Necessarily Popular, Equals Counter-Cultural

So the world — especially the elites — saw a lot that was bad in early Christianity. Christ’s people were living lives that were authentic, faithful, and fully committed to Christ and His word. So they stood out. And the Church grew. People trapped in paganism saw the gospel was good news.

And this tells us something crucial: That in our authenticity we should be noticeably different from our secular world, but we don’t have to be popular in their eyes.

That, in one word, means being counter-cultural. So how can we do that? How can we have a unique presence, a unique witness?

My answer to that will follow in part two. Hang on, because  as I’ve said, it’s so counter-cultural even the Church doesn’t see it — even though it’s based on the most frequently repeated theme in the entire New Testament.

More on this to come.

Update: Read part two here.


Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream and the author of Critical Conversations: A Christian Parents’ Guide to Discussing Homosexuality with Teens (Kregel Publications, 2016). Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.

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  • Grasshopper

    Hebrews 10:12-13 .”..Then he sat down in the place of honor at God’s right hand.There he waits until his enemies are humbled and made a footstool under his feet.” Not in some penultimate battle, but everyday, in every CHRISTIAN HOME the culture can be defeated. One conversation, one relationship, one opportunity at a time. And our churches are only as strong as our GODLY HOMES.

    We cannot control what happens in our communities, our schools, our churches, but we do control what happens in OUR HOMES.

    And if every professing Christian won the battle in their home then we would see the difference in our communities, our schools and our churches.

    Thanks Tom. Keep calling us out.

    ROMANS 16:20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. May the grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.

  • Bojaws Dubois

    I appreciate that he makes clear that he’s addressing the church in America, probably meaning North America not central or south because the churches in those regions are rampaging

    • Right. The Church in the global south and east is growing very, very quickly. The weakness appears mostly in the Western world.

  • Philmonomer

    When social scientists take a close look, they find that Christians
    really do differ from the rest of the world in most of these things.

    I was wondering what this is referring to. That is, it isn’t immediately clear to me what this is talking about. What social science research are you referring to?

    • See Arthur Brooks, “Who Really Cares,” for one. There’s a lot on religion there, not just political leanings. Also Rodney Stark, on “America’s Blessings” and “What Americans Really Believe.” Those are for starters.

      • Philmonomer


  • heuristic

    I have to ask, what Bible was the early church using when so many souls were saved? Hint, not any of the modern versions. Our country, the USA, has lost it’s morals because the new translations.
    (2 Corinthians 11:3-4) But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. (4) For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.

    • Ken Abbott

      The Scriptures of the early church? Mostly they used the Greek Septuagint.

    • Bryan

      As Ken says below it was most likely the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Something to note, though, this was a relatively recent translation at the time. In fact, it was probably no older of a translation than your KJV is compared to today. I don’t recall my historical timelines as well as I should.
      One other note: It wasn’t the KJV that the first century Christians used either.
      I agree that the country has lost the morals of it’s founding. However, it is not primarily because of “the new translations”.

    • Then I guess we’ll all have to revert to the original Greek. They weren’t using any translation at all, for the NT, that is.

    • James Blazsik

      The Greek translation of the Old Testament which is the Septuagint. Then the Latin Vulgate by St. Jerome.

  • James Blazsik

    G.K. Chesterton said that a saint is the person who stands in contradiction to his age,

  • JP

    J Warner Wallace has said that Christians are not being trained. Jesus not only taught His disciples but trained them. The church needs to follow this example. Just hearing a sermon of Sunday is not enough.

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