If Paul was a Hebrew of Hebrews, then I was an evangelical of evangelicals during my teenage years. I got Focus on the Family’s Brio magazine in the mail each month, the Christian girl’s substitute for Seventeen; I went on four summer mission trips with Teen Missions International to far-flung countries where we did work projects and evangelism; I listened almost exclusively to CCM (Contemporary Christian Music); and I wore a WWJD necklace for a brief season. Though my material relationship to my faith has changed since then, unlike Paul, I do not count these things as rubbish (Phil. 3:4-8). They were important reminders of my evangelical mindset that faith should be woven into every aspect of life. Material objects are an important marker of culture, ones that define us as part of certain groups, and remind us of our commitments, our highest priorities, and our sense of identity.
I noted with interest, therefore, David Campbell’s analysis of the different rates of decline between the mainline and evangelical churches highlighted in the 2014 Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study. He attributes these differences to the presence or absence of subculture within a denomination:
Evangelicalism can hold on to its adherents because it is as much a subculture as a religion. While evangelicals are typically defined by more than the church they attend on Sunday, they are also bound by mutually reinforcing expressions of culture — the schools their children attend, the movies they watch, the websites they visit, the music they listen to. The deeper someone’s immersion into such a subculture, the more their religion is an integral part of their identity, and thus hard to leave …. In contrast, mainline Protestantism is much less likely to be all-encompassing, largely because over most of American history, the national culture had a mainline Protestant accent. Thus, there was no need for mainline Protestants to develop the sort of subculture found among evangelicals.
Campbell points out an important difference between the mainline and evangelical churches that I’ve experienced firsthand, but I had never quite put my finger on the difference. When I have been part of a robust Christian subculture in a church or at my Christian college, it always involved three key things: it gave me a strong sense of personal identity, of communal belonging, and of purpose. While I have found new material objects to represent my more liturgical and traditional relationship to my faith — I now wear a Jerusalem cross necklace, listen to Taizé music, and read The Living Church — I have not found within the Episcopal Church a subculture that runs as deeply as the subculture that thrived in the churches and schools in which I grew up. Generally speaking, mainliners do not have as strong a sense of their Christian identity personally and as a group that is distinct from the wider culture in which they live. They have not had to identify themselves over and against the wider culture, because they have been part of the mainstream, as their name suggests.
If Campbell is right, and subculture is necessary for a church to grow and endure across time, then we in the Episcopal Church need to get serious about creating culture — about forming people with a strong sense of their identity as Anglican Christians living in our world today. I see signs of this happening wherever churches are fostering intentional communities of formation. We must draw in those who want to engage with their faith in a serious way and find ways to live it out, personally and corporately; we must develop rhythms of prayer so that faith is woven throughout our day and throughout the spaces in which we live; and we need look no farther than our sacramental and liturgical tradition for the resources to do these things well.
Subculture is no silver bullet; it does come with risks — the possibility of insularity, of legalism, and of hypocrisy, to name a few. Subculture does not guarantee the transmission of faith; I know many young adults who were immersed in evangelical subculture as teenagers, but who no longer identify as Christian. What the research tells us, however, is that if you don’t have a robust subculture, the train hasn’t even left the station. In our increasingly post-Christian culture, without subculture the church is sunk.
My interest in robust Christian culture has taken on a new dimension now that I have a child. My son Hays is now 13 months old, and my husband and I take seriously the promises we made at his baptism to ensure that he is “brought up in the Christian faith and life.” That vow involves two things — both teaching him about the Christian faith and inculcating a Christian way of life. Within the Episcopal Church, we need a greater focus on the second half of that promise — to see our faith as a way of life that encompasses and informs all that we do.