Leaders of the church in any era have the responsibility of identifying the idols of our time and confronting them with the gospel. David Platt has done this with the idol of the American Dream and it’s materialism, for instance. We have a variety of idols in our time, from rampant sensuality, to prolonged adolescence (especially in young men) to the new atheism, and the historically ubiquitous idol of worshiping self. But there is another idol that has slowly crept into our lives and into the very culture of our churches. We joke about it, and can see it around us. But I am not convinced we see it as the threat to genuine Christianity that it has become.
I refer to the Christian subculture, or the Christian “bubble.” The Christian subculture is not what we see in the Acts, where gospel communities with their own Christ-centered focus grew like dandelions after a spring shower as the gospel spread across the Roman Empire. No, I am referring to a subculture that creates distinctively “Christian” trappings, but has lost the soul of the gospel.
Walk into a Christian bookstore and look at the T shirt racks. Google “dumb church signs” or “dumb Christian tee shirts” and see what you find. Take a moment and think about all the “Christian” stuff you can see: Christian music, Christian yellow pages, Christian art, Christian fiction. Most of what you find in the Christian bubble ironically is a rip off from something in the world but done more badly than the original. Got bad breath? Buy some TestaMINTS (they should taste like cheese). Want to get a great toy for your child? Buy a Jesus action figure.
No, please don’t. Don’t do that to your child, and don’t do that to my Jesus. You can spot something in the Christian subculture because it looks like something you would find elsewhere, costs more, and doesn’t work as well.
I believe the rise of the Christian subculture is more than annoying. It has made Jesus trivial to many, and made the gospel remarkably unattractive to unbelievers. I have been in conversations with friends in recent months who do not know Christ, and have seen how the Christian subculture has been more effective in turning people off to Jesus than it has been in demonstrating originality.
The other day I finally got around to reading Dan Kimball’s book with the intriguing title They Like Jesus But Not the Church. While in some ways I would have dealt differently with certain topics he covered later in the book, I found the early section to be spot on in his description both of the problem of the Christian bubble and the need for the church to become missional. At one point he identified a progression, or more accurately a declension, many believers go through to wind up in the bubble. I like what he writes and give him credit for sparking my thought on this. But what I have observed involves even more than what he noted. So, with a nod to Kimball, take a look at what happens to so many of us who do love Jesus but who also grew up in the Christian subculture.
1. We need Christ. We all start here, dead in sin, desperately in need of Christ.
2. We become a disciple. Christ changes our lives by His power through the cross. We have newfound joy, a hunger to grow, and begin to see our lives changing. At the same time we have a deep burden for those who do not know Jesus. We pray for them, talk to them, and a good part of our thoughts each week have to do with those whom we know and those we don’t who need Jesus.
3. We become a church goer. Before long we learn the drill, that what seems to be valued more than just about anything is church attendance. We begin to see Christianity less as a movement of people daily in the culture and more as a building to attend consistently. We still care about those who do not know Christ but are more like to invite them to an event than to pray for them as we had before or speak to them directly about Jesus.
4. We become part of the Christian subculture/bubble. “We get more excited about going overseas to the mission field…than about the mission field we live in every day.” (Kimball, 44) We get our little fish symbols for our car, buy those cheesy t shirts, and set our radios to Christian stations. We go to “Christian” day at the theme park, take our kids out of public school (okay, some times that is the best course of action, but we should ask ourselves if such decisions are driven by the gospel or by our allegiance to the bubble). We start speaking Christianese, which makes us increasingly incapable of talking to people not like us.
The Christian subculture manifests itself in many ways. There is an academic version, an artistic form, and abundant ministerial examples (student ministry has a version as does children’s ministry, etc). Just find a pastor who spends most of his time in his study and virtually no time among the unchurched and you have found not a “senior” pastor, but a bubble pastor. This leads to:
5. We become awkward around unbelievers. We go to movies and play golf or go fishing with other bubble believers, but never even think about doing such things with the unchurched. When we rarely do find ourselves talking to the unchurched, we find ourselves uncomfortable with their language or perspective on politics or other issues. Rather than seeing conversations as an opportunity to share Christ, they make us long for fellowship with people who share our worldview. We do not find ourselves praying for others like we once did, but we do find ourselves pitying people not like us.
6. We become like Jonah. After years in the bubble we relate to the culture around us mostly by complaining about it. “Like Jonah…who ran away when God told him to go to the wicked city of Ninevah (Jonah 1:3), we don’t want anything to do with those who aren’t following God.” (Kimball, 45) The church becomes a place to protect us from that evil world rather than a sending base for the mission of God. We fill our calendars with activities that keep us at the safe church building, which has become more monastery than mission center. We don’t think about the lostness of those who are apart from Christ, at least not as much as we think about how awful they are to be like they are.
In other words, we become pathetic. As a result we spend far more time nit-picking little disagreements over nonsense, while all around us people are perishing. I have been here too many times, and it is a sorry way to live.
This is not a little issue. This is idolatry, the exchanging of the Great Commission for the Great Disconnection. We are not to be like the world. But our subculture is definitely not making us more like Jesus. It may make us more like the Pharisees who condemned Jesus. What happens next?
7. We need Christ. Not for salvation. We are secure in Christ. But for our sanctification. We realize the gospel is for us as believers, the Great Commission is not the Great Suggestion, and that God saves us to send us into the culture to spread His love as His ambassadors.
Here is the problem: far too many in the subculture never get here. Some walk away, becoming dechurched and often antagonistic to what they perceive as Christianity. Some become disillusioned and seek spiritual solace in other ideologies from cults to covens. But many become quite comfortable in the subculture, confusing it with authentic Christianity. Like the frog in the kettle who does not realize when the water becomes so hot it can kill, we do not even see our faith being corrupted into something other than gospel-driven vitality.
But for some, thankfully, through repentance and fresh spiritual eyes, we change:
8. We become disciples. Rescued for service by the same gospel that rescued us from sin, we see the Christian subculture as just one more idol and focus instead on Christ and His mission.
I confess, I have walked down this road. I am a recovering bubbleholic. And God has used friends who do not know Christ to help me see my declension. But God be praised for giving new eyes to see.