Are Conservative Churches Getting “Radical”?

What has been most encouraging about the phenomenon of David Platt’s Radical — it’s spent 55 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list for paperback advice, and the follow-up Radical Together recently hit bookshelves — is that its sales were driven largely by a theologically and morally conservative readership.

The significance of this point cannot be overstated. Young believers committed to radical discipleship and sacrificial service to the poor and the lost have too long felt – and too often experienced – that there is no place within conservative Christendom for them to live out their vision of what it means to be followers of Jesus.  It’s imperative to demonstrate that a strong commitment to the authority of scripture and the historical teachings of the church does not eclipse, but actually grounds and inspires, a profound devotion to Christ as well as a wholehearted commitment to serving Christ in the least of these.  If conservative churches come to be seen as the stagnant backwaters of a comfortable and compromised faith, while emerging or liberal churches are seen as the mobilizers of compassion and service, then conservative churches will damage their witness and lose many of the most fervent believers in the younger generations.

David Platt

The art of writing prophetically does not necessarily consist in saying something new.  I developed at an early age a love for reading back ad fontes in the history of Christian thought, from Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton to Barth and Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard, to the great pietists and mystics and monks, and ultimately back through Augustine to the Desert Fathers and the Early Church Fathers.  Anyone familiar with these figures and their works will not find new themes in Radical.  Yet the same could be said of nearly every doctrinally sound contemporary Christian book.  We are the inheritors of a rich and extensive tradition.

The art of writing prophetically consists in writing something true – and, even more so, conveying the right truth at the right time and in the right way.  In Radical, Platt applies the ancient themes of radical discipleship to the twenty-first-century western world of affluence and excess.  The enthusiastic reception that greeted the book shows that many believers, conservatives and otherwise, are rightly dissatisfied with a best-of-both-worlds Christianity, in which the faithful can enjoy both the lavish self-indulgence of the American dream in the present world and the crowns and mansions of the world to come.

The American dream has changed. Once the province of the poor and the persecuted, now it is the fantasy of a young woman who dreams of stardom or a young man who wants his own Gulfstream by the age of thirty. Where once the American dream was about making a living and being free from oppression, now it’s about making a killing and being free from the irritation of unsatisfied desire.

In an environment of brazen materialism and conspicuous consumption, the life of the disciple of Christ should stand out as radically counter-cultural.  Yet the temptations of the flesh are strong. Too often Christians have been accommodationists, negotiating the differences between God and the world: in exchange for Sundays (if we’re not too tired) and Wednesday-night Bible studies (if we’re not too busy) and the occasional effort to witness to a friend (if we’re comfortable with it), for ten percent of our income (if we have a comfortable amount put away) and the avoidance of the whopper sins like murder and theft and adultery, we tell ourselves that we can enjoy all of the rest the world has to offer and also enjoy the expectation of eternal reward.  In exchange for ten percent, we can use the rest however we please.  Meanwhile, 1.5 million children in the United States are homeless, the sex-slavery business is booming around the world, and hundreds of millions of people have never heard the good news of God’s gracious self-giving in Christ.

The great value of Radical, then, lies in the way it challenges our complacency, our selfishness, and our comfort with the American idols of wealth, fame and materialism. It sounds a clarion call to live lives more radically devoted to Christ and to others.

Radical Together seeks to spell out what this means for believing communities.  It’s a slim book, like the first one, and it’s centered on six principles for churches that are seeking to live out a radical faith together.  (1) One of the worst enemies of Christians can be good things in the church.  (2) The gospel that saves us from work saves us to work.  (3) The Word does the work.  (4) Building the right church depends on using all the wrong people.  (5) We are living – and longing – for the end of the world.  And (6) We are selfless followers of a self-centered God.

There are minor matters over which I would quibble (although I understand what he means, I think calling God “self-centered” will be mis-heard by many), but I want to address the central question.  Should churches strives to be “radical”?  And what does it mean to be radical in our commitment to Christ?  How has your church given itself radically to the work of the kingdom?

I’ll continue this series tomorrow with “Three Dangers of ‘Radical’ Christianity, and What We Can Learn From Them.”  In the meantime, for more information on Radical Together, please see our book club.

Note: Follow the links for the second and third parts in this series.

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  • Galen

    I must say that RADICAL had more impact on me than any other Christian book I’ve ready in 30 years. It is a message every Christian that lives in a fairly affluent society (and I include America at the top of that list) should read and take to heart. God has challenged me through David Platt’s writing. Don’t read it unless you are ready for some in-your-face gospel as he examines many of the hard sayings of Jesus about what it means to be a disciple.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I enjoyed the book, and am glad that people are confronting the issues it presents. It didn’t impact me in quite the same way it did you, I guess, because people like Kierkegaard, Barth, Bonhoeffer and even folks like Charles Finney make many of the same points (and more besides), and they do so with the power that has made them household names. But what David does that these folks don’t, of course, is apply it to the contemporary American setting and “the American dream” (although I think he’s really dealing with the distortion of the American dream that has developed in the last fifty or sixty years).

  • My concerns with this approach, now dating well into the early 90’s, is that it is not timely and represents a different cultural situation than the highly “narrative-competitive” (let me pit my ideology/worldview against yours and may the best one win) situation in the media and xenophobic social situation today, in 2011. For more of my comments on this, see this post on my blog Otherwise Thinking:

  • Adrianne Hanson

    I attend one of those “liberal” churches that preaches “social justice”–which is basically the kind of “living out of one’s faith” that Platt suggests. Yet, the conservative community ridicules the very term “social justice,” viewing it as a code word for a liberal social and political agenda that advocates welfare programs and multiculturalism at the expense of the taxpayer. I find a certain schizophrenia in that. Interesting article, Tim.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Yeah, this is a delicate issue. For one thing, many Mainline Churches are just as complacent, and speak a great deal of caring for the poor but make few sacrifices. There are many MLP churches that are *not* that way, but I just don’t want to set up a dichotomy of genuinely compassionate liberal churches and uncompassionate conservative churches.

      Then, if ‘social justice’ merely means to care for the poor and seek just forms of social organization, then everyone should be on board with it. Well, some will say it’s not within the church’s mandate qua church, but they will not have qualms when individuals pursue it. But if ‘social justice’ means (as it often has) specifically adopting the liberal approaches to dealing with poverty, then those who believe that conservative approaches better serve the poor will have a problem with it and will feel that the language of ‘social justice’ is already politicized.

      That’s my best attempt in a nutshell, at least, to explain what looks to many on the left like schizophrenia.

      • Adrianne Hanson

        I agree! Thanks, Tim! A politically conservative friend of mine stated once that she wouldn’t attend X church, because the minister preached social justice from the pulpit. I argued that, as a good conservative, she should view church as the one place where social justice *should* take place (as opposed to being enacted politically through the welfare state). 🙂

      • Its worth noting that the term has had political connotations for as long as it has been in common parlance. The Methodist church, for example, codifies social justice as support for government health care and the right to unionize.

        So the “it’s justice! It’s social! How can you oppose that?” Line misses the mark.

    • John

      the thrust of Scripture, not exclusively but primarily, seems to be toward helping the poor among God’s people – Israel in OT and the brothers in NT. Just to add to the social justice discussion for fun!

  • Are you saying that conservative evangelical churches didn’t start reaching out to the least of these until “Radical” came out? Our church has been doing it for decades, as we’re pretty conservative in teaching.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      No, James, in fact I believe many theologically conservative churches have been doing great work for a long time. Conservative churches give more of their time and treasure, and it was largely conservative churches that launched ventures like World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse and etc. But I do think there is a renewed enthusiasm today – I don’t think this is particularly controversial – to be ‘missional’, especially amongst churches that may have been more inwardly focused in the past.

  • Chris Davidson

    Tim – Good article. I enjoyed your summation. I read Radical several months ago and greatly appreciated the fact that it holds up a brutally honest and gospel-centered mirror to the readers face. This is something that anyone who calls themselves a follower of Christ (including me) needs in their lives. The book has definitely caused me to look at my life and my stewardship of time, money, and ministry in a way that the Scriptures should have been all along. That is not a knock on the Scriptures, it is a knock on me to be sure.

    To add to what the previous posts have said in previous posts, I will take some issue with the labels “emerging or liberal churches” vs “conservative churches” as a means of identifying churches that are very missions and service oriented vs churches that have become complacent and more or less fat and happy in their affluent “holy huddles”. In my opinion, terms such as conservative, liberal, and emerging should only be used as descriptors of a church’s brand of doctrine and not the general fervency of the church’s congregation. I (and many others) associate liberal and emerging with churches that are preaching a doctrine that has departed from, in part or whole, the gospel of Jesus Christ as described in the Holy Bible. That is to say that they do not preach any Gospel-centered doctrine at all (i.e. Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, etc.).

    I attend a fairly large church in Mississippi that most would probably label as conservative in doctrinal style because our pastoral staff adheres to the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. However, in our congregation we have people that, in terms of their passion for living like Christ cover the entire spectrum, from complacent to on fire.

    Our churches are to some extent (and always have been) a reflection of the sinful and broken people that darken the doorways each day. It is only by God’s grace and power that we are able to come together and function as the Body of Christ and minister in His name.

    I think that maybe we should just put Christian churches (or people) in one of two categories: (1) those that are wholeheartedly (albeit imperfectly) seeking to be disciples of Christ and (2) those that are not.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Chris, I actually agree, and when I referred to liberal and conservative in that sentence, I was referring to their doctrine. The impression is that theologically conservative churches are not activist, while liberal churches are. That’s a caricature, as I need to make clear. However, what I found particularly encouraging about Radical was that it inspired theologically conservative churches who *were* relatively stagnant and complacent to rethink their priorities.

      I enjoyed your comments.

  • Karen Spears Zacharias

    What you said about the prophetic doesn’t have to say anything new — it just has to say what is true?
    That’s prophetic.

  • TB

    I’m not persuaded that this generation is going to pour themselves out for the poor anymore than other generations of Christians have or have not. My take “so far” is that the “compassion to the poor” narrative is more socially acceptable with the younger generation (both Christians and non-Christians and thus makes for a less risky and more comfortable social existence between the two) than addressing abortion and homosexuality like their parents have been doing for the past 30+ years (and all the connections to the Republican party, blah, blah, blah…)

    Just one person’s observation… I’ve never been so heavily criticized by so called “compassionate people” as I have been from this generation of Christians who supposedly are so much more mercy oriented and compassionate than previous generations. Self-righteousness comes in many different forms.

    Point: Difficult topic to discuss and apply in the West than one may initially think. Best selling books don’t easily translate into godliness and humility.

  • tonsure

    We don’t have time to read books, we have a master that requires radical abandonment of the American Dream!

  • Well i ordered the book and I am very excited to read it as i have faith questions I hope will be answered, but i already think I want to do what the Lord wants and not what I want. How to please him is more important to me then what i want to be. I am beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
    I have gone into two churches in my life and herd the pastor say”If you want to eat you need to work, you will get no food from this church” These young people came for help and were turned away because they did not have a job or descent housing. Another church was the same and totally refused to help anyone who did not contribute to them or the community. I could name these churches but i rather not. I just know i would never refuse food or clothing to anyone, most of my work is charitable and has been for many years.In my town there is more food for people then in the grocery stores and it is all free from the farmers and other sources.We help each other and share with each other no one i know of can say they starve in this town.All people weather they work or not get help because allot of working people still can’t get the help they need they fall through the cracks because of a few dollars in their income.

  • R.C.

    The problem with the term “social justice” is that it was long ago co-opted by the political left, where it is functionally defined as: “If anyone is needy, even through their own unwisdom or profligacy, use government to compel others to give them money, and enumerated powers and moral hazards be damned.”

    The theological left is comfortable in this view, because it mirrors their own view in certain ways, that view being: “If anyone complains of being criticized or reproved, no matter how mildly, even for immorality or heresy, condemn those doing the criticizing and reproving, and truth-telling be damned.”

    So there is a sort of alliance, or at least a natural collegiality, between those who say “to hell with the legal and philosophical norms of constitutional governance” and “to hell with the moral and theological norms of the Christian faith.”

    The balance which is missing in this discussion is a sheer, frank acknowledgment of the simple (statistically demonstrable) fact that the political conservatives are nearly always more generous (in voluntary giving and volunteerism) to the needy than their left-progressive neighbors, and likewise, the theological conservatives are nearly always more willing to be gracious and forgiving of admitted personal sin or theological error than their left-liberal co-religionists.

    The sole exception is that the former will not go the extra step of subsidizing prodigality or immorally compelling others to do so, and the latter will not go the extra step of failing to call sin sin, or heresy acceptable.

    My upbringing was among political conservatives who never failed to give 10% or more of their pre-tax income to the church and 5-10% more to charities, and who were famous for sending missionaries overseas with various kinds of assistance for the needy in other countries. They happened to also be theological conservatives who stuck to their denominational traditions as faithfully as they could, at the risk of being called narrow-minded, but never turned away or said anything unmerciful to a (repentant) fornicator (yes, including homosexuals) or tax-cheat or liar.

    The kids in the youth group in this church wore off-brand Polo shirt knockoffs with the shirt-tails tucked in to their jeans. The Goth contingent was relatively absent, so you could say that these conservatively-dressed kids were all uptight and unwilling to mix with folk unlike them.

    Except that they weren’t, as demonstrated when they went into inner cities to serve in soup kitchens and visit with elderly folk who often didn’t look the least bit like them.

    The gist of my note, then, can be summed up as follows:

    I think the accusation that conservative persons (theologically, politically) are not caring to the needy or intolerant of those different from them is either ignorant or slanderous. They are caring; they are welcoming. All the time.

    I think, rather, it is those who are put off by conservatism — who think that a smiling suburban Bible-toting kid in vaguely preppy attire is ipso facto racist, homophobic, shallow, and materialistic — who are intolerant of the conservatives. And it is their subjective feelings of animosity towards conservatives which are the basis for the accusation.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Great comment, R.C. Thanks!