How are Christians set apart or distinct from the unbelieving world? When push comes to shove, would any observer be able to pick today’s edgy/authentic/real/raw/not-your-grandmother’s Christian out of the proverbial crowd? In what ways are we embodying the call to be salt and light, a city on a hill (Matt. 5:13–16), and a “royal priesthood” called out of darkness and into light (1 Peter 2:9)?
These questions have nagged at me for a number of years, as I’ve witnessed younger evangelical Christians (myself included) more often blending in with the dark than advancing the light. When I go to parties with Christian friends, and then parties with non-Christian friends, I often lament that they are observably indistinguishable.
We are the same in how we talk: the petty subjects of conversation, the toxic cynicism lacing our speech, the obscene language, the general negativity ... same.
We are the same in the way we dress, the way we drink, the way we smoke, the movies and TV we watch, the music we listen to, the pop culture we consume, and the way we cordon off “spirituality” in a manner that keeps it from interfering with our pursuits of pleasure.
We are the same (maybe worse) in the way we shred each other to pieces in the blogosphere, caddily gossip about each others’ social media posts, and jump to complaining before we think about complementing.
It’s all the same... And we wonder why so few bother with Christianity anymore. By the looks of many Christians, it offers nothing radically different or new.
Of course it’s easy to understand how it came to this. Many of my generation grew up in an evangelicalism that was perhaps too excited about its different-ness; it separated from “the world” and created its own media empires, with churches that tended to pull in and hunker down while the rest of the world went to hell in a handbasket. All of this left an understandably bad taste in many of our mouths for the concept of being “set apart” vis-a-vis the world. If all our difference amounts to is cheaper, sanitized versions of the same consumer culture pervading everything else, it just feels a bit phony.
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because previous generations have gone about Christian “difference” in perhaps less than ideal ways, it doesn’t change the fact that the call remains: to be set apart; to “be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 2:16). Swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction to the extent that holiness is altogether absent is not a helpful solution.
The thing about holiness, though, is that the point of it is not to steer clear of all that is unholy; it’s not about retreating from “the world” and existing in some perfect space untainted by temptations and immoral sights and sounds. This only leads to legalism and a neutered, irrelevant witness.
Rather, the point of holiness is positive: to live in the world, reflecting Christ and his holiness outward in the way that we live our lives. Holiness is more complicated than just abstaining from a checklist of vices. Does holiness require us to avoid certain activities? Certainly. But fleeing from potential hazards is only part of the story.
Should there be a noticeable difference between Christians and “the world”? Yes. Christians are called to be holy, set apart, sojourners and exiles in this world, bearing witness to the gospel through the way that they live. But the difference between the church and culture is not a “hard” difference, notes Miroslav Volf in his analysis of 1 Peter (a key text on the nature of Christian difference).
For Christians, the distance from society that comes from the new birth in Christ is not meant to isolate from society, notes Volf, but rather serves the mission: “Without distance, churches can only give speeches that others have written for them and only go places where others lead them. To make a difference, one must be different.”
Volf goes on to describe this “missionary distance” in 1 Peter as “soft difference,” which is not to say weak difference:
It is strong, but it is not hard. Fear for oneself and one’s identity creates hardness. ... In the mission to the world, hard difference operates with open or hidden pressures, manipulation, and threats. A decision for soft difference, on the other hand, presupposes a fearlessness which 1 Peter repeatedly encourages his readers to assume (3:14; 3:6). People who are secure in themselves — more accurately, who are secure in their God — are able to live the soft difference without fear. They have no need either to subordinate or damn others, but can allow others space to be themselves. For people who live the soft difference, mission fundamentally takes the form of witness and invitation. They seek to win others without pressure or manipulation, sometimes even “without a word” (3:1).
Rather than an embattled, separatist, or hard-line “holiness vs. worldiness” approach to culture, I think Christians would do well to adopt Volf’s “soft difference” mindset. Again, this is not to say the church should deny any difference from the world, or that it should be tepid or weak in its different-ness; it’s just to say that we shouldn’t wield our difference as a weapon in a culture war, attacking the world for its worldliness and positioning ourselves arrogantly and with an oppositional attitude. Rather, our differentness should be positive, attractive, desirable. It should be conversational, relational. It’s about witness. We should keep our conduct “honorable” for a missional purpose: so the world would “glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12).
For the sake of Christ-like holiness, it may very well be the honorable thing for a Christian to abstain from some cultural activities or media choices that may be “permissible” but perhaps not beneficial. But those choices should be lived out as a positive affirmation of one’s convictions rather than a negative chastisement of others, as if anyone who does partake in such things is evil and dangerous.
Insofar as Christian identity is different from that of the surrounding culture (and it should be), it is a difference that is, according to theologian Darian Lockett, “constructed along the lines of its own internal vision of wholeness before God, and not through a negative process of rejecting outsiders.”
We are a people chosen by God, set apart for kingdom purposes, charged with a task of being light in the darkness. The salt of the earth. But is our light shining? Is our salt losing its saltiness? That question should haunt us. Because it’s not just about us. It’s about our credibility and effectiveness on mission for Christ.
We Christians need to stop overcompensating for the wrongheaded approaches to culture that our forebears might have had. Getting drunk proves nothing other than the fact that we can lift a glass of alcohol. Smoking and cussing doesn’t prove we are “more accessible” or “authentic” Christians; it proves we can suck in tobacco fumes and use our lips to utter four letter words. Oh, and it also might prove that we’d rather look like everyone else than be identifiably “set apart,” which probably also communicates that following Christ is in fact as superficial as some skeptics assert.
Friends: let’s stop deluding ourselves in thinking that by shirking holiness we’re advancing the cause of Christ by “breaking stereotypes” people might have of Christians. All we’re actually doing is demeaning the name of Christ by cheapening the cost of discipleship. We can do better than that.
Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based journalist. He is the author of Hipster Christianity (2010) and Gray Matters (2013), and has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, CNN.com, the Princeton Theological Review, Mediascape, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Relevant, IMAGE Journal, Q Ideas, and Conversantlife.com. A graduate of Wheaton College and UCLA, Brett currently works as managing editor for Biola Magazine and teaches at Biola University. Follow him on Twitter @brettmccracken.