At the very beginning, Jesus’ followers expected to be leaders in the Kingdom of God. How could they lose with a miracle-worker like Him in charge? Jesus was certainly a popular guy, at one point a crowd of people appeared and tried to make Him their king, but He slipped away. At any rate, people came from far and wide to hear what he had to say. People would just follow him, and many did join in as disciples along the way. But when it became clear that their expectations weren’t going to be fulfilled, they stopped following him. At that point it was just Jesus and his disciples. Jesus’ message was a radical one, even for his day. When the Jewish people were anxiously looking for their messiah to appear, raise an army, drive out the Romans, and set up a kingdom like King David’s – they missed out on the humble servant that preached a message like: “Love God and love your neighbor.”
By the time Paul had a change of heart, there were many Christian churches set up in various communities throughout the Roman empire. There was a tension in the teaching that they ought to obey their authorities. Many Christians drew the line when it come to the yearly sacrifices to the image of the emperor or to local gods because of their belief in Jesus and his teachings. This usually cost them their lives.
In terms of culture, they were not instructed to fight against it or conform into it, but to live in peace with others as much as it depended upon them to do so. Modern Christians seem to have missed this message. If we’re not protesting about something we don’t like in culture, if we’re not trying to change culture to match what we believe it ought to be, or if we are not making our beliefs crystal clear on the subject of culture, then somehow we’re letting God down. Sometimes the teaching goes like this: “God said not to be conformed to the culture of the world, so we will live counter-cultural. So whatever the world approves of, we will disapprove of it.”
Historically, Christianity has been hit or miss on that point. Christians were counter-cultural when the Romans disapproved of Christianity, but when the Romans approved of Christianity, believers realized that being counter-cultural against Christianity was impeding the gospel message. Christianity worked side-by-side with various kings and queen in the Middle Ages and did not concern itself with countering Christian cultures, but only those that were not. Americans have seen this too; in that for the longest time we weren’t counter-cultural when Christianity was dominant, but when it’s influence waned, we decided that being counter-cultural was the way to go.
At the moment, Christian influence is pretty low. Having expended much of our social capital on Republican politics in the last few decades, there’s just not very much of it left to go around or to make a difference in a good way. This means that Christian counter-cultural-ism will be at an all-time high. There’s no shortage of things to be counter-cultural about. The church can counter feminism with a ‘muscular’ Christianity that’s decidedly pro-male. The church can counter same sex marriage with a ‘biblical manhood and womanhood’ Christianity that’s decidedly for traditional gender roles. The church can counter abortion with pro-birth policies that do little to ensure that babies are born into good circumstances and healthy environments because having babies is more important that raising children well.
When Christianity is in charge, it writes the narrative and controls the script. It sets rules and policies and the moral tone of the people who recognize it. It tends to last for centuries and millennia. But now Christianity is losing it’s grip. So you should expect to see famous pastors delivering sermons emphasizing being counter-cultural until they get some semblance of power back. But you should always think back to what Jesus said. He said that we ought to love our enemies, even when what they stand for is in opposition to what we personally believe. He said that we ought to love our neighbors, even when they do not believe as we do. He never told his followers to take up arms and drive out the worldly people in our midst. He never told us to fight against culture and he never instructed us to conform into culture. The only side we are supposed to be on is that of love.