Christianity as counterculture

This past Thursday marked the 18th anniversary of the Columbine massacre, which I'm old enough to remember pretty vividly. Not just the hysteria that followed the shooting, but the eagerness of an aging and more conservative generation to place the blame on virtually everything that defined popular culture for generation x and older millennials—rock music, violent video games and movies, board games that allegedly promoted witchcraft and satanism, provocative clothing, whatever. I even remember Marilyn Manson eloquently defending himself to ultradouche Bill O'Reilly.

By the time the Columbine shooting happened, I had already deconverted from Christianity. But I nonetheless grew up thick in the 90s youth-group culture, complete with huge youth rallies like Acquire The Fire put on by Teen Mania, DC Talk's hit "Jesus Freak", the early Left Behind books, and oh so much more. Vox reported on the fetishization of martyrdom that intensified following Columbine, and it's a fantastic report that definitely hits home on its exploration of 90s evangelical youth culture with phrases like being "sold out for Jesus."

Christianity as counterculture

One of the predominant narratives we were sold as youth group kids is that being a devout Christian was a radical thing to do. Vox reports:
If you were a Christian teenager during the period of time following the era of the grunge-and-flannel dropout Gen-Xers, following your faith was preached to you as a radical act. “Extreme” and “radical” and “fully sold out” were common terms in Sunday school curriculums, at youth rallies, and in teen-focused devotionals and study Bibles. Teens were supposed to be “sold out for Jesus.” Anything less and you were a bad Christian.
This hits it on the nose—we viewed ourselves as rebellious outsiders in an increasingly hostile and secular world. We would watch videos about the coming End Times in which Christians would be rounded up like Jews during the Holocaust. Other kids in school were experimenting with marijuana (the horror!), being promiscuous, and listening to darkly themed music like Nine Inch Nails that seemed to revel in their depravity. Walking the "straight and narrow" was, in our minds, a way of resisting these dark forces that would lead us down a miserable life and, eventually, an eternity in Hell.

I vividly recall the early days of my church's hell house called "Nightmare" that ran every October—and still does! I haven't walked through it in around twenty-something years, but it was essentially a montage of the consequences of sin—family feuds that ended in violence, a young girl who commits suicide after she feels guilty for having an abortion, a bloody car wreck that left heathen teens facing Judgement Day without time to repent, etc. Toward the end you'd go "down" in a rickety elevator to Hell before walking into a room in which an extra-bloodied Jesus quivered on a cross to remind you that God loves you. Wait! Don't stop and think about how nonsensical any of this shit is! Just keep walking outside, where prayer warriors are waiting to talk to you about all your mistakes in life, recite a prayer of repentance with you, and invite you to attend the church.

It probably backfired

The Vox article notes that despite the well-funded push to market religion as counterculture—a push that continues today with trashy exploitation films like God's Not Dead—millennials are one of the least religious generations in America ever. Everyone has their reasons for distancing themselves from the church, but I'm willing to bet that the rampant hypocrisy has a played a big role. Problem is that despite the holier-than-thou moralizing preached to 90s teens, both church leaders and the teens themselves weren't really any different than anyone else. We might have showed our devotion by tossing out all our non-Christian music, but we probably bought it back eventually. We had pre-marital sex. Kids were born out of wedlock, in no small part due to the rejection of comprehensive sex ed. Chastity vows and purity rings didn't stand the test of time. We enjoyed the same mass-produced movies and video games as everyone else and got tired of making ourselves feel guilty about it, especially when the alternative Christian films were so ubiquitously awful. We learned that the scapegoats of our generation, as we saw in Manson's interview with O'Reilly, painted a more nuanced picture than our pastors had. We grew up and found that our relationships were fraught with the same problems as everyone else's, and watched many young marriages end in divorce (marriage, of course, was romanticized too since premarital sex was strictly forbidden). 

In short, the aggressive youth ministry efforts of the 90s and early 00s backfired because eventually people started to see through the facade. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time. The counterculture message is a powerful one, especially to impressionable young people who could be taught to see even other non-evangelical Christians as outsiders. But those young people wised up.

But why?

The 90s also saw the rise of perhaps the single most disruptive technology in human history: the internet. It used to be relatively easy to isolate oneself in one's own religious community, insulated from contrarian ideas. Indeed a central part of the narrative in the youth-group culture was that secular influences were dangerous. Don't consume media that isn't Christian. Don't date non-Christians, and be careful about how closely you develop friendships with non-Christians, too (your goal should always be to bring them into the church). The problem is that with the rise of the internet, it became much more difficult for church leaders to foster this insular culture. Contrarian views were just a few clicks away, and the world started to seem a whole lot smaller. 

At least, this is my speculation; it's rooted in some preliminary research, however. Churches like the ones I grew up in thrive on the control of information. Anything that loosens that grip is going to hurt the church, and there's no single more powerful tool than the internet. Of course I also think that much of it is simply a product of the church's own self-righteous idealism, which must sooner or later clash with reality. Speaking anecdotally, I've seen many people leave the church simply because they were disillusioned. 

In many respects though, the evangelical community is still thriving—especially here in the Midwest. The internet is now well-segregated even within individual websites like Facebook and Reddit, making it a bit easier for people to remain somewhat insulated. But the trend of religious defection shows no signs of slowing, and I'm confident that the church's habit of shooting itself in the foot and the ease of access to contrarian ideas will prevent another pop-culture renaissance of youth evangelicism from recurring anytime soon. 


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