The Meaning of Counter-Cultural

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Meaning of Counter-Cultural

As a professor of mine once opined during my graduate school years, culture is the world in which we are born and the world that is born in us. Or, put another way, the world in which we live and the world that lives in us; which means we are talking about everything. Culture is the comprehensive, penetrating context that encompasses our life and thought, art and speech, entertainment and sensibility, values and faith. It cannot be reduced to that which is simply economic or political, demographic or technological. Going further, the essence of culture, in regard to its most profound challenge, is that it is a spirit; a perspective on the world. It doesn’t simply give a context for our values, it shapes our values because it has values in and of itself. It doesn’t just provide the atmosphere for something such as communication, it forms what communication is and how it is achieved. Culture alters not only what is said, but what is heard – and how. 

Sociologist Clifford Geertz has written some of the most penetrating and insightful definitions related to culture, and he has concluded that culture is “thick”, meaning that it cannot be reduced to any one thing, but instead, that it is an entire way of life. And, he adds, it is largely self-created. Culture is something we invent, create and fashion. Geertz, borrowing from fellow sociologist Max Weber, notes that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” Geertz then adds, “I take culture to be those webs.” 

So what does it mean to be counter-cultural?

As part of a project funded by the Hewlett Foundation, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner interviewed a wide range of evangelical authors, academics, college presidents, and non-profit leaders about the post-Christian cultural shift. “Without exception, the leaders we consulted believe evangelicals are at a pivot point in their relationship to American culture.” Those who once had power and influence but have seen it slip away feel fear and frustration. Usually, this is the older guard, many of whom were (or are) part of the Religious Right. Younger evangelicals have often met the change by retreating into an “apolitical Christian subculture.” The idea is that simply living a life following Jesus will affect cultural change. Some have coined this the “Benedict Option,” named after Benedict of Nursia who inspired and organized a monastic alternative to the sins of ancient Rome. As Rod Dreher writes, the only answer is for Christians to “build resilient communities within our condition of internal exile.”

Gerson and Wehner are right when they take both approaches somewhat to task. “Instead of raging at the loss of influence or making grudging concessions to modernity,” they write, “we might take this moment to display the essential character of Christianity – one that appeals and persuades outside the faith.” They take note of the work of Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion, who has repeatedly detailed how the Jesus movement in the 2nd and 3rd centuries became the dominant faith of Western civilization (indeed, the world’s largest religion). Stark points to the “communal compassion” and social networks of the early Christians, as well as “their care for the sick, widows, and orphans; their welcoming of strangers and care for outsiders; their respect for women (who were considered second-class citizens); and their connection to non-Christians.”  

I believe the so called “Benedict Option” is not as far from this as Gerson and Wehner might think, however. As Dreher himself has written, “Given this post-Christian new ‘dark age,’ we... Christians must pioneer new ways to bind ourselves to Scripture, to our traditions, and to each other – not for mere survival, but so that the church can be the authentic light of Christ to a world lost in darkness.” If I might be so bold as to translate, our hope is for the church to be the church.

But this does not mean a retreat into the church, establishing an insular subculture akin to early American fundamentalism that was, without a doubt, a reaction to modernity. 

Remembering this history, so as not to repeat it, is critical.

To be truly counter-cultural means to be truly Christ-like. We cannot convey anything related to the truth of Christ apart from reflecting Christ Himself. As Ghandi once said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” We often marvel at the growth of the early church, the explosion of faith in Christ in such numbers and speed that in only a blink of history, the Roman Empire had officially turned from paganism to Christianity. We look for formulas and programs, services and processes. The simple truth is that they were very much like Jesus, so much so that the name “Christian” (meaning “little Christ”) came into existence (Acts 11). Yes, as Michael Green has noted, they shared the gospel like it was gossip over the backyard fence. But what did people find when they responded to the evangelical call? As Tertullian noted, the awed pagan reaction to the Christian communal life was, “See how they love one another.”   

I recently read a line that caught my attention. One person said of another, “God looks good on you.” The context made it clear that it wasn’t meant to say that God looked on them in a favorable way, as in God’s attitude or spirit toward them, but that when people looked on their life, it made God look good. God should look good on us to others. God looked good on Jesus. I’ve always marveled at how Jesus could proclaim absolute truth without compromise to those far from God, and then have those very people invite Him to their parties. 

Yet many of those outside of the Christian faith think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind – that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be. We’re seen as hyper-political, out of touch, pushy in our beliefs and arrogant. And the biggest perceptions of all are that we are homophobic, hypocritical and judgmental. Simply put, in the minds of many, modern day Christianity no longer seems Christian.

And much of that image has been earned. We’ve acted in ways, talked in ways, lived in ways, that have stolen from God’s reputation. So while we used to have a culture saying, “God, yes; Church, no,” it’s now saying, “God, perhaps; Christianity and Christians, no.” 

Yet the church remains the hope of the world. The problem is the church is not being the church, much less a counter-cultural one. 

If we were, then God would begin to look good on us again.

James Emery White


James Emery White, Meet Generation Z (Baker).

Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.”

Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, “The Power of Our Weakness,” Christianity Today, November 2015.

Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion.

Rod Dreher, in response to Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, “The Power of Our Weakness,” Christianity Today, November 2015.

Gandhi, as quoted by William Rees-Mogg in The Times [London] (4 April 2005).  See

Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church.

The Apology of Tertullian, AD 197.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

The Meaning of Counter-Cultural