Punk rock was always an attitude of questioning and challenging. Joey Ramone flatly called punk “an attitude.” It was about challenging the status quo and raising issue with the way things were done. In that regard Punk has a fair amount in common with the likes of Martin Luther, the first Christian punk rocker. The church still needs such punks. Punks provide a prophetic voice of warning and criticism that the broader church would do well to hear.
If Punk is the attitude of questioning and challenging then the category itself can be broadened beyond what we typically think of as punk rockers. The guy with the giant spiked mohawk certainly can fit the bill, but so can the thoughtful stay-at-home mom, and the aging hippie. The category, for the purposes of our consideration, is a reference to those who see weaknesses and challenges in the dominant church culture and are bold enough to call for reform.
If the Protestant Reformers had challenged the church to be “always reforming” according to Scripture, the truth is that many of us reform a little and then get comfortable. We stop moving forward, we stop evaluating ourselves and our practices, we stop considering how to do things better. We become settled and complacent, using phrases like “that’s the way we’ve always done it” as a sort of justification for stagnation. In addition, because those voices that disagree with the status quo are often pushed to the periphery or ushered out, we remain blind to our lack of Scriptural conformity. Churches need a prophetic punk voice who will sharply challenge the way things are done.
It’s not, of course, that everything a punk does and says is to be commended. They, like all of us, need their own spiritual growth, maturation, and discipleship. They have their own sins and weaknesses. Often the way that they raise issues is so abrasive that the truth of the criticism is lost in the presentation. Punks are people and so churches that, in turn, simply cater to them will be no more healthy than those that completely ignore them.
Yet, even with all these caveats necessarily said, we need punks. We need their sharp criticism, their confrontations, their urgings and even their attitudes. If Paul tells us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), many of us have settled for our own self-assured standing. The punks among us challenge us to keep raising questions, keep investigating, keep wrestling. Perhaps a few specific examples might help.
Punk ideologies are often as a vast as the punks who make up the subculture, but there are some common core themes that emerge. Punk emerged early on with a strong anti-authoritarian attitude, originating from a strong sense of angst among the working class culture of England. The resistant to heavy-handed leadership was a common theme among bands like the Sex Pistols (England) and the Ramones (New York). In that regard punks can be a good challenge to the church. Evangelicalism in particular has a major problem with bullies in ministry. Paul warned that an “overseer” or pastor should not be prone to anger and arrogance. He wrote to young Titus saying:
For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain (Titus 1:7)
We have seen in recent years, however, a number of high-profile celebrity pastors removed from leadership because of issues of dictatorial oversight, heavy-handed governance, and much pride and arrogance. We have a serious issue with proud and authoritarian leaders in the Evangelical church. Young punks are a challenge to their existence among us. Any pastors who refuse to listen to criticism, who insist on consolidating power, who control and micromanage the church are not qualified leaders. Punks among us can help to question the practices of those in leadership. While they are not always right, they should be heard and regarded.
Punk ideology also developed a strong sense of care for the weaker in society. Arising out the working classes, punk rockers were highly resistant to mass-production and mass-consumerism. They were often anti-mainstream capitalism and technocracy. Punks became strong advocates for gender equality, racial equality, and animal rights. They were anti-war and anti-nationalist. Within the church their voices can lead us to consider the needs and hurts of the “least” among us. As minority members in themselves, punks have the prophetic voices to call the church as a whole to remember those among us who are not part of the dominant culture. Listening to the call of punks can help us to remember that not everyone in our church is the same. Not everyone is middle-class, whites, married with children. Among us we have single women, divorcees, those struggling with same-sex attraction, different ethnicities, different socio-economic classes, and widows. We have many among us who need sensitivity and compassion and inclusion. We have many among us who are not part of the dominant culture. Punks tend to be more conscious of these members and their prophetic voices can challenge us all to remember them. And not just remember those among us, but remember those outside our walls who need the church’s help too.
Finally, one of the big sins in punk subculture was “selling-out.” The term applied to those who gave into the temptation to be popular and wealthy, and as a result changed their style, sound, or values in order to gain greater acceptance in mainstream culture. In many ways the church has sold out to the popular culture. Within many churches today you will hear little of what makes Christianity truly different and distinct. You will hear little of sin, of God’s holiness, of the call to live differently in the world. You will see little of the radical love of Christ, or the self-sacrifice of His early followers. Instead you will see a church that is attempting imitate the world, both in their corporate worship and in their lifestyles. Christian families are as consumed by worldly pursuits as non-Christian families. Pastors look more like CEOs than shepherds. Churches look more like shopping malls than spiritual communities. Punks among us are a welcome challenge to these trends. Their distaste for corporate culture can be a prophetic voice breaking into the echo chamber of our own walls. Their challenge to such practices is much-needed. We need to hear them, as harsh as it may sound, calling us “sell-outs,” and we need to heed their warnings.
The church needs misfit members among us because otherwise we will remain blind to our own sins, assumptions, and faulty practices. Punks can be like the prophetic voices of the Old Testament calling us back to God, His Word, and His ways. They are not, of course, divinely inspired and so punks need to speak with some humility (which is their struggle to develop), but they should speak. They should speak and the church should hear them. We need punks among us because they can challenge us in many important ways today.