Millenials and Their “Radical” Faith

Over the last few months, I’ve been half-following this conversation in the Christian blogosphere about what it means to be “radical,” whether faith can be radical in the suburbs, and whether calls to radical faith are helpful or harmful for those trying to follow Jesus.  Last week Anthony Bradley, a professor at King’s College in New York City, wrote a piece that’s been bothering me.  After a long conversation with an undergraduate wrestling with the idea of vocation, Dr. Bradley wrote:

I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and young adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not be doing something unique and special. Today’s Millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential. The sad result is that many young adults feel ashamed if they “settle” into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thess 4:11 says, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.” For too many Millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.

I am 32, so I was born with one foot (and my soul) in Generation X and the other foot (and my technological little hands) in the Millennial Generation, but I know what Dr. Bradley is talking about.  We are also the Passion generation, marked by John Piper’s stories of elderly women flying into eternity off a cliff in Africa, marked by youth leaders who asked us to bow our heads and raise our hands to promise that we’d give at least a year to foreign missions, marked by an unprecedented awareness of global needs and growing wealth disparity.  And now that we’re growing up, we’re struggling with what it means to change the world while we’re busy changing diapers.

While I think Dr. Bradley is right in naming this struggle, and in encouraging young people to take 1 Thessalonians 4:11 to heart, I do take issue with his description of us as simply afraid of  ”being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.” Millennial Christians are not wrestling with the idea of vocation because we want to be spectacular; we wrestle with vocation because we want Christ to be magnified, and because we want to be faithful to the very real, very radical call of Christ in our lives. My friends who have chosen to live with the poor didn’t do it because they thought it would be more “awesome” than living in the suburbs; they did it out of obedience to God. I realize that Dr. Bradley means to criticize leaders, not millennials, in this piece, but in doing so he paints us as passive consumers of a message, driven by fear rather than by love, and I don’t think that’s accurate.

To be honest, though, I have grown weary of this conversation. I want to say that it’s simpler, and more personal than all this. I want to say that it is radical, because — go read the New Testament.  It just is.  But I also want to say that some of the most radical words you’ll find from Jesus are these: Love one another as I have loved you.  To be clear, that might be a radical call to move to Africa, but it also might be a radical call to move in with your aging grandmother in the city.  It might mean taking a vow of simplicity and living on the margins, or it might mean getting a medical degree to provide the best possible care for the sick and dying in a small town that needs a doctor.  It might mean working in an orphanage in East Asia, or it might mean raising your own babies in the suburbs.  Love can mean any of these sacrificial tasks.

What following Jesus most certainly does not mean, however,  is finding a spiritual way to justify American values like power, fame, wealth, safety, security, and consumerism  – which is what I sometimes fear these critiques (and my own critiques) of “radical” faith secretly want to do. I’m suspicious of any call to stop struggling with how to to follow Christ.

Ultimately, though I take issue with the way he gets there, I do agree with Bradley’s conclusion that a strong understanding of how vocation contributes to human flourishing is essential.  If Dr. Bradley’s undergraduate came to me, I’d probably tell him this.  I’d say: Keep struggling with the Scripture. Lean into the heart of God for the poor and marginalized. Don’t neglect the challenge of loving your neighbor, of forsaking all for the kingdom, and of living at peace with all men.  Recognize that following Christ has less to do with whether you live in city, suburbs, or countryside, and more to do with what you value.  It has less to do with what kind of work you do and more to do with how you do that work.  Following the call of Christ means allowing your heart to be shaped and your values transformed by the Holy Spirit.  It will likely mean giving up all your dreams and it will likely mean realizing the desires of your heart. Whatever it is, wherever it is, it will be hard and rarely glamorous, but as your heart is transformed, your face will shine with the glory of God.

And that’s radical.

About Amy Lepine Peterson

Amy Lepine Peterson teaches ESL Writing and American Pop Culture at Taylor University, but spends most of her time making a home in the cornfields for her best-friend-husband and two (frankly adorable) children. Look for her with a french press of coffee and a book or a screen, plus a little one on her lap, thinking about education, mothering, theology, tv, movies, music, and sustainable habits of living.

  • wagonum

    What following Jesus most certainly does not mean, however, is finding a spiritual way to justify American values like power, fame, wealth, safety, security, and consumerism – which is what I sometimes fear these critiques (and my own critiques) of “radical” faith secretly want to do. I’m suspicious of any call to stop struggling with how to to follow Christ.

    I wholeheartedly agree. Both sides of this “debate” (and I question whether this is even really a controversy outside the computer screen; it’s substantially harder to lob grenades at people you see multiple times a week, break bread with, and share life with) are guilty of not being charitable toward the other side. For every “conservative” Christian ready to turn cultural values into Biblical norms, there is a “radical” counterpart that is really less concerned with following Christ than with being hip and trendy. Both sides are equally capable and guilty of elevating their own desires/preferences/tastes/comforts to the level of commands, and both sides also have members who are earnestly pursuing Christ as the Bible commands. Bradley may be painting with too broad a brush, but, in my humble opinion, many of the authors on this website frequently do the same thing, albeit with different targets.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.hawthorne.90 John Hawthorne

    “It has less to do with what kind of work you do and more to do with how you do that work. Following the call of Christ means allowing your heart to be shaped and your values transformed by the Holy Spirit”.

    Exactly what I see in my students (up the road at Spring Arbor). The search for meaning and authenticity is not a warmed over “be true to yourself” nor a desire for grand adventure (although they are more likely to just take off for India for the summer than my generation ever was). For millenials, it stems from being intentional about how they live out the Gospel wherever they find themselves.

  • J. Dean

    And if that is your call to live among the poor like that, more power to you. The problem comes when you (not you personally, but those in the radical movement) take their personal calling and broad-brush everybody else who is not involved with the same calling as not being as good a Christian (or in some cases, presuming that others are not saved).

    As an example, here is a review of Francis Chan’s “Crazy Love” which nails this point well: http://www.drcone.com/2012/04/11/can-i-be-spiritual-if-i-still-have-my-own-teeth-a-review-of-francis-chans-crazy-love/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=660308637 John D Blase

    Good thoughts, Amy. Thank you. It gets muddy for me because I do believe the thrill of doing something ‘spectacular’ is there. Its not the only thing there, but its one of the factors at play. I don’t find that wrong or less-than-godly in any way. The desire to be seen doing something that matters is common to us all, and not just when we’re young. I say ‘name it’ and let it inform the struggle. To dismiss that in your 20s means it may come back around in your 50s or 60s and demand to be noticed.

    Yes, I do realize my thoughts may be pure bologna.

  • http://twitter.com/K__Mayfield kmayfield

    There’s a lot of content in that article, but what stood out to me was when the author asks, rhetorically: “So, what if the church took up this first mantle and was successful in alleviating the suffering of the world? What Biblical mandate would we be following?” [as though there is none]

    I think the answer would be Jesus, right?

    “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

  • J. Dean

    Yes, but that verse you quoted is referring to Jesus Himself in his earthly ministry, not us (see Luke 4:17-21). It’s a very dangerous thing to take verses which apply to Jesus Christ Himself-fully God and fully human with a specific calling unlike anybody else’s-and attempt to apply them arbitrarily to all Christians.

    Again: you cannot take your particular calling and say that everybody else is bound to do the exact same thing you’re doing. If your call is to work in the inner city, then more power to you. But that doesn’t mean everybody else needs to be doing what you’re doing. There are things I support as a Christian that I don’t expect other Christians to support, and ministries in which I have partaken which I do not expect other believers to partake in, simply because that is not necessarily their calling. This is one of the things meant by Paul when he refers to the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12): not all believers are called to the same things, and to assume so is to violate Scripture.
    Finally, there is one other thing to note about meeting the needs of the poor: when you read about this in the New Testament, and in particular the book of Acts, the charity works are ALWAYS in reference to other believers who are disadvantaged, not in reference to the poor populace as a whole. The charity was directed toward Christians who had little or no food or necessary supplies. Nowhere in the New Testament do you see this applied to the unbelieving portion of any population. While certainly there is virtue in helping unbelievers with charitable acts (Gal 6:10), let’s remember why charity in the church was set up to begin with.

  • Matt Davis

    I’m struggling to understand the point of your last paragraph. Is it purely a statement of fact as to what the Bible says, or your opinion based on your interpretation? Do you think that Christians should only help poor and disadvantaged Christians, and people of other faiths and none don’t matter (let them starve)? Please clarify this for me.


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