Evangelical (anti)Culture

Last year I bought a new roof. Once they were finished the roofer told me, “that’ll still be good when we’re all dead,” which floored me.

I don’t think I’d ever knowingly bought a new thing that would outlast me. Our home is the second house we’ve bought, so I imagine its true for both of them, but I’d never framed it like that.

How often do we build things with the explicit intent that they will outlast us?

I recently read Carl Trueman’s wonderful book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, which was widely lauded when it was published last year. In it Trueman describes the trends and philosophies that have affected the ‘social imaginary’ in the modern West, trying to answer a genealogical question, ‘how did we get here’?

To put it in the language I tend to use here at nuakh, he’s trying to describe how and why our stories have changed.

It’s a good book if you’re bewildered about the pace of change. Though he doesn’t offer much by way of answers, knowing where and why we are is an important step in figuring out what to do next. It would be a worthy study for church leaders if you haven’t got to it yet.

Trueman analyses our cultural moment through the lens of Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre, who may be familiar figures if you’ve read many Christian cultural critiques in recent years. He uses a third figure who would be new to many, Philip Rieff, who you might have encountered through Mark Sayers’ podcasts and his book Disappearing Church. Truemen uses Rieff to argue that we aren’t in a culture but an anticulture.


Rieff argued that cultures exist to maintain ‘sacred order’ and to pass on to the next generation the beliefs and practices of their forbears. Anticulture does the opposite, it shatters past values and constantly revolutionises beliefs and behaviours. One culture can succeed another, introducing new values, but anticultures don’t pass them on, they just keep tearing. It’s axes all the way down, and once all the trees are felled the lumberjacks turn them on one another.

Trueman moves on to apply this to our wider society, but this is where we’ll leave his work because the question that really caught me was this:

Don’t evangelical churches do the same thing?

My fear is that we, mostly unintentionally, are captive to the same disastrous tendencies. We build anticultures. I’m speaking from my own situation in conservative(ish) charismatic evangelicalism, but I think it applies wider than that. Here are two ways that we can see this:

We have no History

Anticultures hate history, because it is reminiscent of a previous order, and tear it down wherever they can be found. We do exactly the same thing:

We don’t position ourselves in church history but instead as the final standard-bearers for the true church. We don’t need history if we have the Bible and the Spirit. That’s nonsense. Many of our more egregious errors, I’m coming to realise, grow from having forgotten that people worked on this before us.

Our memories are short. I’ve been in a church context where we didn’t seem to be able to remember doctrinal commitments we had made three years previously. Reminding people that we had taken time to decide the opposite in the past made them look at me like I had three heads. It’s not necessarily wrong to change our minds, but we forget the battles we fought hard and won, even in our own lives, let alone those of the more distant past.

We constantly reinvent ourselves. Have you noticed that? We’re always redefining who we are and forming new organic things and doing the next new thing. It’s actually one of the things I love about my circles, we’re unattached to what we’ve done before and are happy to do something new in a new situation in response to the call of God. I love that. On the other hand, we forget that there is a value in legacy, a value in tradition, and a value in building something that lasts.

We don’t build anything, as though saving souls was the only thing we are for. We do occasionally manage to engage in political activism, primarily to relieve poverty, but even then we rarely build anything. Some of this is living at the ebb of Christendom where what we build has melted into air, as Marx would put it. Some of this is living in an anticulture that doesn’t build anything but only tears down institutions, it’s very difficult to build when everyone else is throwing your bricks away.

It’s a good thing Nehemiah is in the Bible.

We have no Art

Anticultures hate art: the good, the true, and the beautiful; and they don’t produce any. Neither do we.

Our aesthetics are thin. Mostly what we produce looks decidedly naff, but some of us are pretty cool. The problem is that I doubt it will look that good in ten years’ time, we’ll rebrand again sure, but our aesthetics are tied up in the value judgements of our age. I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

When we do make art it’s instrumentalised: we do it because it might lead people to Jesus. That isn’t always wrong; as Andrew Peterson argues, when God made trees, he made some for fruit and some for looking at (Genesis 1). Art is the same, all of it is beautiful, some of it is to grow fruit too.

This does have implications for our buildings when we’re blessed with them, but since most small churches (less than 200 or so) will be meeting in rented accommodation we are more limited in what we can do. More broadly though, do we sponsor painters and potters, and writers and poets, and musicians (who don’t write worship music)?

The first question that springs to my mind is that we can’t afford to do so, which I think is a bad thing. There’s lots of ways to sponsor that don’t involve financial contribution, and we should explore them. We should also seriously consider giving finance towards them in one fashion or another, especially if ‘giving’ doesn’t just mean the money collected from gifts to the church that is then given out again. We won’t build the thick community we need to thrive in an anticulture if we don’t structure a culture.

So what?

Now this could look like a conservative screed, but I think it does matter. We need to do things that outlast us. Where are the schools and Universities and training colleges? And not just for preaching (though that, too)? Where are the collectives of writers and poets, the art galleries and restaurants?

We can’t get there overnight, but if we don’t inspire our people that these are not only worthy goals but important for us building the church where we find ourselves then we never will. We could also do more of it now than we think if we wanted to.

Or even on a personal note, do you build things that will outlast you? One of the reasons I buy physical books rather than ebooks, and hardbacks when I can, is so my library can be carefully curated over my lifetime into something worth gifting someone else.

I often reflect on this question: could we build a cathedral now? Or, more realistically as they took hundreds of years, could my church given a hundred years build a cathedral?

I really wonder if we could, I don’t think we would if we could, and I think that’s worth lamenting over. Then we need to get up off the floor, wipe our tears on our shirtsleeves, and get our hands in the dust to build some bricks.

Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash