Counter-Culture Community

The longer I do it, the more I see ministry as art. The choices we make, the people we love, the work we do, and the fruit we bear all coalesce into something that can be appraised and appreciated. If we have done it well, it can be beautiful. This inclination has drawn me to the biographies of the world’s great artists. So many of them have tragic stories full of anguish and struggle. Taken individually you feel sympathy, but when considered together you begin to see a pattern. The artists who are remembered are usually iconoclasts, challenging the establishment with what has to be called an obsession for their work.

Painters like Vincent Van Gogh didn’t just obsess over their art, but their vision for life itself. Van Gogh in particular—who was a Christian—was driven by a vision for a community of artists that would be reminiscent of the friendship and focus of the twelve disciples. His vision for the “Yellow House” was not just about artists in collaboration, it was about their lives being an extension of their art, all giving testimony to the glory and beauty of God in the world. Sadly, he is remembered for his mental instability, as his vision for Christian community never materialized and he spent his last days institutionalized and eventually took his own life. The difference between Van Gogh and the Parisian Impressionists was the idea of community which materialized for the latter and not the former. What Van Gogh never seemed able to create, iconoclastic artists like Manet, Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Pisarro were able to find with each other. Other impressionists (and the surrealists that would follow) all stood outside the establishment, and with staggering dedication spent all their time, money, and potential on their vision—but they persevered because they had each other. The real tragedy of Van Gogh is that he didn’t live long enough to see his vision for life and art find a home in the hearts of others. He sold only one painting before his death (and now his works are almost priceless).

True prophets—people like Noah, John the Baptist, Francis of Assisi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin King—come along once in a generation. They stand seemingly alone against a raging current of cultural expectation. Most of us don’t have that kind of fortitude. We need another strategy if we hope to be counter-cultural. For us, that current is middle-class Christianity, ever insisting on safety, comfort, and security; it takes almost Herculean effort to resist it for long. The most radical believers I know either acquiesce over time or become a little crazy. So how then can we maintain a fully surrendered, radical, biblical Christianity in the midst of a cultural current of mediocrity and moderation? Unless you are a one-in-a-generation prophet you will need to take a page from these artists. If we can create a community where total surrender is normal, then we don’t have to feel crazy.

Perhaps the only way to be truly different from the world is to find a group of people that are the same as you. It is simply not sustainable to be different from everyone. This is why creating counter-cultural communities is such an important part of living sacrificially and for the kingdom. It is hard to relocate into the poorest part of your city when everyone you know is telling you that you are a fool for doing it. It is hard to give away your money when all your peers are hoarding it.

There is certainly beauty in the ordinary, but the kind of beauty that turns the heads of a lost and longing world must carry with it an extraordinary quality. For us to produce the kind of ministry that is ardent and artful—to do something great—we will need to find the right people and do it together.

Brian Sanders