My father has served for decades as an elder and pastor in non-denominational evangelical churches. He devoted extraordinary amounts of time to caring for the people in the congregations: visiting the ill, comforting the dying, counseling couples in crisis, encouraging those who wrestled with depression or mental illness or the loss of a loved one, discipling younger men, and the like. Many were the nights in which my father was not home because he was helping other people hold their lives and their faith together. He’s also done work outside the congregations he’s pastored, visiting convalescent homes, working at food kitchens, supporting a crisis pregnancy center, even bringing people in need into our home until they could get back on their feet.
In recent years, however, he had the opportunity to serve in post-Katrina New Orleans, and then on a medical mission in Haiti. These were transformative experiences, even after a lifetime of following Christ and leading others to do the same. David Platt’s Radical helped him to understand those experiences and to hear the call of Christ anew. In response to yesterday’s post, my father wrote that Radical “had more impact on me than any other Christian book I’ve read in 30 years.” Through the book, he says, “God has challenged me,” and he has had to reexamine and recommit to “what it means to be a disciple.”
This is what I find worth celebrating in the Radical phenomenon. And as Platt’s second effort, Radical Together: Unleashing the People of God for the Purposes of God, hits the bookshelves, I thought it worth examining what it means for a congregation to live out radical discipleship. As I wrote yesterday, what I find particularly encouraging is Platt’s reception amongst theologically conservative churches. Platt pastors The Church at Brook Hills, a 4000-member Southern Baptist congregation in Birmingham. The book and the reception it received — along with a recent annual gathering of the SBC that Ed Stetzer told me was more like a “missions festival” than the disputatious meetings of old — are signs that some theologically conservative churches that have grown complacent and comfortable in our affluent culture are reawakening to the radicality of Christian discipleship.
Lest I be misunderstood: I do not mean to say that theologically conservative churches as a general rule are complacent and self-indulgent. In fact, that’s a caricature I despise. There are activist and complacent churches on both sides of the theological spectrum, and many theologically conservative churches have done extraordinary work not only in supporting missions agencies but also in supporting Christian service organizations such as World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse and Compassion International, not to mention Goodwill and the Salvation Army. Nonetheless, there are many conservative churches (just as there are many liberal ones) that need reawakening — and I find it encouraging that Radical has challenged so many theologically conservative believers, pastors and churches to reexamine their priorities and recommit to a radically self-abandoned discipleship. That is indeed worth celebrating.
Tomorrow I’ll write with more positive suggestions for living out a “radical” faith, but today I want to warn of the dangers of the “radical” language. I strongly doubt that Platt would disagree with these points (see his discussion with Kevin DeYoung, for example), so I do not exactly mean these as criticisms. They are more like warnings, or pitfalls that might help us — if we avoid them — to find the right path forward.
FIRST, in the pursuit of a “radical” faith-life there is a strong danger of self-righteousness and judgmentalism. I know this because I experienced it. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the Danish Christian writer Søren Kierkegaard, largely because I felt that the extensive criticisms he leveled against the bourgeois Lutheranism of nineteenth-century Denmark are extremely relevant to the complacent Christianity one finds in many American churches today (of all stripes). While Kierkegaard went to great lengths to avoid these temptations, I found arising within my own heart a sense of condemnation against the believers who “just don’t get it” and, implicitly, a kind of self-congratulation that I had recovered a more pristine, original, and (yes) radical vision of following Christ. I imagined writing a book applying Kierkegaard’s critique to the American context — and I still might.
It’s important to speak prophetically when the church is turning away from its first love and beginning to honor the idols in the culture. Yet one should do so with abundant love for the church. Platt does this. Other authors (without naming names) do not; one gets the sense that they have marinated in their contempt for years, and so they traffic in caricatures and soundbites that do more to cut the church down than to build it up. Their criticisms do not inspire new life within the church; they become causes for division, justifications for the disaffected to leave the church, or fodder for skeptics who find their own caricature of Christians vindicated.
To give an example: even when we believe it’s correct to criticize a church for spending so lavishly on new facilities, it’s important to give a fair account of why this specific church believes that this expenditure is justified, and a nuanced vision of how churches make use of their facilities to work transformation in individuals and communities. Christians should make sure that they have deeply understood one another and charitably represented one another before they criticize one another in public fora.
SECOND, being “radical” is not the point. The word “radical” is a sign that we are called to something extraordinary and extreme. But we should not mistake the sign for the destination to which it points.
Imagine a young Christian, full of zeal. He stretches out upon his bed and dreams of doing something “radical” for Jesus — converting a jungle tribe, dying in the mission fields, even becoming a sort of prophet to the American church who brings it to repentance and revival. It’s possible to yearn for these things for all the right reasons. But it’s also possible to yearn for them, as this imagined young Christian does, for mixed motives, including a sort of spiritual egotism. He dreams of becoming a Christian hero, of the admiration he will receive, of the esteem he will feel for himself, or how grateful the needy will be, of the hagiographies that will be written. He may not admit he feels these motives; he may not even be self-aware enough to know. But this young believer imagines that if he can just try hard enough, if he can just discipline himself, then he can live up to that romantic image of the radical Christian.
It’s not without reason I chose a young person for this example. Young people, especially the ambitious and the over-achieving, still dream of what Richard Rohr calls “the heroic journey.” There is much to praise and encourage in the desire to “do something radical” for Christ. Older believers should not dampen their zeal. But they can help guide that zeal toward the right goals.
One of the best indicators here is whether the ‘radical’ believer wants to be noticed for his radicalism. So our hypothetical young believer imagines giving up his home and living upon the streets, in order to give more of his money away to the needy. He says that he will probably write about the experience, in order that others may be inspired, but his motives are mixed. He wants to be recognized, because there is at least a strain of egotism in his desire to be radical. (If it seems as though I’m speaking from experience, it’s because I am.)
Radicalism is not the point. Faithfulness is the point. Radicalism lends itself to self-righteousness and egotism; faithfulness lends itself to confession and humility. Jesus does not call us to be radical. Jesus calls us to follow after him — and if we do so, if we follow him, then we will be radically counter-cultural. In other words, we should not focus on a preconceived image of what it means to be “radical.” We should focus on Jesus and becoming like him. Radicality will be a by-product.
Finally, a focus on being “radical” can lead us to bad solutions. Tell me this. Which is more radical: living upon the streets in order to give your money to a homeless shelter, or investing your money in launching a business that can employ hundreds of people and supports their families? Now, which is actually more helpful to more people? Or to give another example, which is more radical: assembling an organization that helps people in poverty or assembling an organization that strengthens marriages, preventing divorce and all of the poverty that often follows from divorce?
The point is not to enter a discussion on policies. The point is that the most helpful thing might not be the most radical thing, so – again – radicality cannot be the goal. We must have warm hearts, but we must also have cool heads. The excellence of our intentions should be matched by the excellence of our actions.
In closing, again, I strongly doubt that Platt would disagree with these points, so this is not a criticism so much as a development of the theme. If we understand what radical discipleship should not mean, if we identify the pitfalls, then we are better prepared to find the right path forward. Tomorrow I’ll continue this conversation with Platt’s Radical Together and suggest more positively what it might mean for believers – individually and in community – to live a radical faith-life in the right way. (Note: The Gospel Coalition has also hosted a nice discussion specifically on the issue of facilities and personnel.)
We’re not called to be radical. We’re called to be Christ-like. And that will be a radical thing, an extraordinarily radical and counter-cultural thing, but it may not always be radical in a dramatic and public way.
Note: Please see the next post in this series – called “Narcissa’s Camera” – right here.