Much debate centers around this question and this is not the first time this topic has been discussed at SaltyBeliever.com. At the most basic level, the Bible teaches that the Christians of the First Century were believers of something and someone. The Greek word Christianos appears in the New Testament three times and in all three uses it seems to mean follower or disciple of Christ (Acts 11:26; Acts 26:28; and 1 Peter 4:16). And the Bible teaches that a disciple and follower of Jesus Christ believes some specific things about Jesus, dies to self by picking up his or her cross daily, and is measured by how he or she loves others as well as by a spiritual fruit present in the believer's life.
Yet if we travel to the Bible Belt, that is, some of the religious states in the southern portion of the US, we find lots of self-proclaimed 'Christians' who seem not to fit the definition of a disciple of Jesus. Often they attend a local church but are absent from the Body of Christ. There is a problem in what they believe and they often seem to turn to a moralistic-driven belief structure. Some see them as rather judgmental. Their religion is heavily tied to politics and one might think that their use of the title of 'Christian' is synonymous with a social club benefiting only themselves. Clearly there is a problem here.
For years, the Bible Belt has had an impact upon much of how the evangelical church in the US functions. The order of the worship service for example is typically three songs followed by announcements and an offering. Another song is sung and then a pastor gets up and gives a 3-point sermon, wearing a suit of course. Mission trips and youth programs look a specific way. Ladies wear big hats and overweight guys rotate through their three favorite ties. An entire Christian music and movie industry has spawned out of this 'Christian' subculture. Christian bookstores sell trinkets and gifts found nowhere else in the world. Coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets with out-of-context biblical passages are often discovered among this tribe. Politicians pander to this crowd for votes. And while most of these things are not entirely bad (although sometimes very odd), being a part of this subculture is by no means the definition of what it is to be a Christian. In fact, there are likely many non-believers among this subculture who are not a part of Christ's Kingdom, that is, they are not actually Christians but unaware imposters enjoying the culture for personal benefit and social gain.
Enter the post-modern, post-church 'Christian' community. This movement--often driven more out of a rejection of the Bible Belt subculture--is made up of mostly young artsy, but often jaded people. They're the hipsters, musicians, painters, and environmentalists who feel they've evolved beyond their parent's subculture. They love social justice and reject the Christian bookstore trinkets while they marry their commercial endeavors with popular charity causes. They seek community and authenticity in ways that look different than the communities of the Bible Belt Christian subculture. They seek a tribe that thinks alike but different than the tribe they grew up among. Rather than a moralistic-driven belief structure, they turn to a liberty-driven system. "Live and let live" is their motto. But is this really much different than the subculture they reject? Might there still be many among this tribe who use the term 'Christian' in ways that only really benefit themselves? Are there many unaware imposters among this different subculture wrongly using the title of 'Christian' for their own personal gain? It seems there is a problem here too.
Christians, through the power and calling of Jesus do indeed enter a new community, but it is a Kingdom and described like a body of all believers, a flock with Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and even as the very Bride of Christ. These definitions don't paint much of a picture of the subcultures we see among the variety of local churches but we do see a special kind of culture. This new culture is one of a multitude of diverse people all tied together with the thread of Jesus in their lives. It's certainly going to be the case that local churches will have their own subcultures within the larger community of Christ, but the culture itself is not Christianity--only a byproduct of it. And this should cause us to ask, what would our various tribes look like if they were shaped by Christ as true Christ followers rather than the subculture? Additionally, this should also cause us to have more grace for our differences. And finally, we must ask ourselves if we are Christians by title or by true transformation by the power of Jesus.
*Photo of Man Painted on a Brick Wall was taken by Richie Diesterheft and is licensed under a creative commons licenses and used by permission.