By by Alec Hill, president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA

Only Dead Fish Swim with the Current

At age 89, John Stott penned his final book. Entitled The Radical Disciple (InterVarsity Press, 2010), “Uncle John” described nine characteristics of a serious disciple. His very first trait and highest priority — “nonconformity” — caught me by surprise.

Why would John Stott and Malcolm Muggeridge, quoted above, regard non-conformity as being so important? Why would they encourage believers to swim against prevailing cultural currents?

Historically, InterVarsity has always leaned into cultural engagement. We are not by temperament Christ against culture* kind of people. Rather, we seek cultural transformation under the lordship of Jesus. Hence the second part of our Vision Statement reads “to see campuses renewed.”

However, we must never lose sight of the fact that Christian discipleship also involves non-conformity. This is particularly true in two pivotal areas – truth and holiness.

As followers of Jesus, we believe in truth with a capital “T” — truth that is objective and absolute. Suffice to say, this is not a popular position on campus today. To the contrary, the academic world prizes a “define-your-own-reality” approach to metaphysics and ethics.

A friend once called me “arrogant” because I believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and life. His words stung deeply, biting my soul. After all, who enjoys being thought of as rigid, judgmental and exclusive?

Sadly, anything-goes tolerance, not Truth, is today’s cultural norm. As believers, we find ourselves holding a minority position. This is difficult for us because, too often, we have subconsciously bought the erroneous notion that following Jesus leads to happiness and popularity.

As Jesus’ disciples, we are called to lead lives of moral purity. While holiness is one of Scripture’s most glorious concepts — mirroring the character of God himself — it is generally disdained by our culture today.

Why? To many, the very idea that humans should pursue — and be held accountable to – a divine standard is simply absurd. Instead, our culture seeks personal freedom as its highest value. A deep conflict revolves around the question of lordship. Who’s really in charge of my life — God or me?

A few years ago, I was pained to the core when someone labeled me a “bigot” because of my views on sexual purity. I’ve been called lots of things in my life, but that was a new personal low. I suspect that many InterVarsity staff have received similar epithets.

We ought not be surprised that our pursuit of holy lives sets us apart. Both the Old and New Testaments are replete with commands to “come out” from the prevailing culture, to live counter-culturally.

On the surface, Jesus’ followers appear to be losers in interactions with culture. After all, who wants to be regarded as arrogant and narrow-minded?

However, while we may suffer a degree of ostracism for non-conformity, the benefits of following Jesus are so much greater than the costs. By pursuing Truth, we are touched by the very hand of God and our lives are framed by a worldview that actually works. By pursuing holy lives, we avoid many of the painful, life-destroying pits that our non-believing friends fall into.

Reflecting on Discipleship
The Fellowship is currently in a season of sharpening our definition of discipleship. As our newest Strategic Initiative, we are asking lots of questions. What does it mean to be a winsome non-conformist? How should Truth and holiness be pursued within the context of being missional on campus? What are the implications of Jesus’ lordship over our lives and the lives of others?

Over the next several months, I plan to share more thoughts about discipleship in this column.

* Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, Harper and Row, 1951.