Note from Randy: Something is seriously wrong when Christians crave cultural popularity and acceptance. That’s why I greatly appreciated the points made in this article by Brett McCracken, a senior editor and director of communications at The Gospel Coalition. May it remind us that God is the one we should seek to please and glorify. So by all means, let’s be motivated by seeking approval—not the acceptance of men or the approval of our culture—but the approval of God.
Beware the Corrosive Quest for Respectability
By Brett McCracken
Few things are worse for the individual Christian’s soul—and the broader Christian witness—than the quest for cultural acceptance. To consciously pursue credibility among the “cool” and applause from the cosmopolitan elite is, almost always, a step in the direction of theological compromise and spiritual atrophy.
Whatever culture a Christ follower happens to be in, the temptation is to be an insider rather than an outsider, acknowledged rather than dismissed, respected rather than ridiculed, a high-status power player rather than a powerless pawn.
Where This Plays Out
In contemporary Western culture, the temptation is especially pronounced in industries where the label “evangelical Christian” has long been maligned and associated with all manner of stigma (words like “ghetto,” “cheap,” “sentimentalized,” “subculture,” “bigoted,” “backward,” “outdated,” “anti-intellectual,” and so forth). I’ve observed it and I’ve experienced it myself, in these three spheres.
The arts, culture, and entertainment world is notoriously skeptical of evangelical artists, who have a reputation for poor quality and preachiness and tend to be low-status outsiders. Plus, this world is highly secular and morally transgressive; it tends to find Christian morality repugnant. As a result, Christians seeking success in this sphere have an uphill battle and are tempted to hide, downplay, or disown aspects of their faith that might prove obstacles to respectability.
I attended Wheaton College, an unofficial tagline of which is “The Harvard of Christian Schools.” That identifier is mostly an inside joke among students and alumni, in part because it speaks to an awkward aspirational reality. Christian colleges like Wheaton do seek to shed the reputation of the scandalously bad evangelical mind; they want to be seen as more like Harvard and less like a backwater “Bible college.”
Practical pressures play into this too: mainstream accreditation, NCAA requirements, fierce competition for a dwindling pool of applicants, and professors seeking research grants and peer approval in their respective disciplines. It often leads to institutional embarrassment about or disassociation from the culturally reviled tenets of Christian orthodoxy, which then sets the stage for institutional mission drift.
In the contemporary media landscape (including print, broadcast, web, and social media), fortune favors the biased, not the objective. The more you appeal to in-group talking points and always affirm (but never challenge) your audience’s particular bent, the more you’ll be rewarded with clicks, ratings, subscriptions, and high page rank. No one gains a boatload of social media followers by being nuanced and multidirectional in his or her criticism. No pundit becomes a star by consistently defying partisan categories.
Rather, profits and platform follow fan service: telling your audience what they want to hear. This is a form of respectability-seeking that plagues many of us in today’s social media. The dopamine hit from viral affirmation is often irresistible. Yet gaining an audience in today’s media environment often comes at the cost of integrity.
‘Not One of Those Evangelicals’
One of the telltale signs you’re a Christian with an unhealthy hunger for respectability is that you constantly bash those other Christians as a way to boost your credibility.
This is the Christian artist who describes her aesthetic vision as “very anti–Thomas Kinkade” or the Christian filmmaker who prefaces a pitch by underscoring how aware he is of the egregious quality of the “faith-based” genre.
This is the Christian college professor at a secular academic conference who feels she must apologize for and disown the “crazy Trump evangelicals” who give her school a bad name.
It’s the Christian podcaster, pundit, or TikTok influencer who spends less time talking about the beauty of Jesus than about the ugliness of so many of his followers—as if every potshot at the worst elements of our faith somehow makes our expression of Christianity palatable and respectable.
This approach is spiritually corrosive and will breed division within the church, seeding resentment in your heart for your fellow Christians. It’s also a futile strategy.
Whatever credibility your constant digs at “those other Christians” earns you in the eyes of cultural elites, it’ll all be lost the minute they find out you actually believe what the Bible says about sexuality or the exclusivity of Christ (among other things). That’s perhaps the greatest reason efforts at “respectability” are a fool’s errand. Even if you say and do all the right things, if you believe a few wrong things, respectability will be elusive and elite access will be denied.
How to Resist the Temptation of Respectability
How can Christians resist the temptation to pursue respectability? Here are four suggestions.
1. Strive for excellence, not respectability.
Christians need to recognize the important distinction between excellence and respectability. Excellence is within our control. Respectability isn’t. In whatever vocational sphere or cultural context we’re in, we should seek excellence—for God’s glory, not man’s approval.
Christians should be better artists because excellent art glorifies God. We should be top-notch scholars and scientists because excellent scholarship and science glorify God. If such excellence results in accolades and a rise in cultural status, that’s fine. But it should be a byproduct, not an incentive.
Make no mistake: cultural approval always ebbs and flows. If you’re in favor one day, you’ll be out the next. Christians in every industry must come to terms with this and pursue excellence anyway. Christians laboring in anonymity for decades, frustrated that their perseverance hasn’t resulted in the respect they think they deserve, should strive for excellence nonetheless.
Respectability is an unsustainable carrot for those exhausted by the grueling rigors and requirements of excellence. God’s glory, on the other hand, is a motivation that can fuel us through the ups and downs of work and life.
2. Pursue truth, not talking points.
College and university campuses used to be the most trustworthy bastions of truth telling in the world. That’s no longer the case, in part because the pursuit of truth among academics has become a lesser priority than the pursuit of tenure and scholarly respectability.
On many campuses, knowledge of speech codes (what’s OK to say and what’s not) has replaced free thinking and open debate, resulting in a culture where discourse and research have become more about signaling in-group bona fides than blazing trails in pursuit of truth.
Christians must resist this temptation to value saying the “right” things over the true things. The former might lead to lucrative opportunities and elite invitations, but the latter is your calling.
For Christians in politics especially, the pragmatism of seeking in-group credibility (saying what I need to say to gain status in the halls of power or among these voters) is prevalent, tragic, and toxic. Whatever is gained in respectability and status by always toeing the party line, much more is lost when Christians in politics refuse to speak biblical truth that’s inconvenient or costly.
3. Be disrespected for the right reasons.
None of the above is an excuse for Christians to be rude or combative. Nor is it an excuse for Christians to mischaracterize the arguments of opposing views or engage in any of the other bad-faith rhetorical tactics so pervasive in online discourse. We should still speak respectfully even if we’re not aiming for respectability.
Sadly, many Christians are disrespected in today’s world not because we’re faithful Jesus followers but because we’re jerks. It’s one thing to peacefully accept that cultural respectability will be elusive for us. It’s another to go out of our way to provoke nonbelievers and give them more reasons to disrespect us. We may be cultural exiles, but we should still live honorably among the pagans—not because we want to get invited to pagan parties but because God’s Word commands us (1 Pet. 2:12).
4. Cultivate love for fellow Christians.
Almost every quest for respectability requires a virtue-signaling disassociation from those other, cringeworthy Christians (whichever types of Christians mar our reputation). To fight this tendency, we need to actively cultivate love in our hearts for our brethren in Christ—especially the ones we resent because they “give us a bad name.”
This is hard. I struggle with this. And judging by the constant, venomous infighting among Christians on social media, most other believers struggle with it too. But Christians need to train our hearts to love what Christ loves. And he loves his people. If Jesus isn’t ashamed of his blood-bought people (Heb. 2:11–12), should we be ashamed of them? If Jesus isn’t embarrassed to own them “in the midst of the congregation,” should we be?
When Jesus tells his disciples to not be surprised by the world’s hatred (John 15:18–19), it’s interesting that what immediately precedes this is his command for them to “love one another” (vv. 12, 17). Jesus knows that love and unity among Christians shore up resilient faith in the face of cultural disrespect.
Better than Respectability
You might protest: Without respectability, how will Christians ever rise in the ranks of important cultural spheres? Don’t we need Christians to achieve influence at the highest levels of government, art, and media? And if that ascent requires some short-term compromises, isn’t the long-term gain worth it?
No. The end goal for every Christian—in every place and time and vocational situation—is to glorify God, to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18), and to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1).
When we walk in this manner, it may mean our influence in the worldly sense is limited. But what influence we do have will be more potent, flavored as it is with the transcendent aroma of Christ rather than with the fleeting perfumes of this world.
We’ll incur many losses as we live in this faithful way, with our integrity intact: loss of power, respectability, influence, fame, and fortune, to name a few. But as Paul reminds us, anything lost is mere “rubbish” compared to the immeasurable gain of knowing Christ and being found in him (Phil. 3:8–9).
Worldly respectability is a fragile, fickle, fleeting thing. It’s rubbish. Our Savior’s love is steadfast and everlasting. An infinitely better reward.
This article was originally posted on The Gospel Coalition, and is used with the author’s permission.
Brett McCracken is a senior editor and director of communications at The Gospel Coalition. He is the author of The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World, Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty, and Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide.
Republished with permission from Blogs.crossmap.com, featuring inspiring Bible verses about Few Things Are More Dangerous Than the Quest for Cultural Acceptance – Blog – Eternal Perspective Ministries.