The Dangers of "Radical" Faith (and What They Teach Us)

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.

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  • This: “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.”

    This is potent and powerful — thank you.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks, Ann. Nice to hear from a fellow writer.

  • tonsure

    “(1) One of the worst enemies of Christians can be good things in the church.” so the solution is of course to remove these things. How on earth can that be a “bad solution?” Are you trying to keep a grasp on the American Dream?

  • Morgan

    Wow. Fantastic, helpful article.

    This reminds me of Paul – many of us (sometimes myself included) are trying to be the spiritual Eye or Hand. Not many can stomach being a spiritual Foot.

    It’s just not sexy enough for us.

    Again, really enjoyed this. Well done.

  • Tim

    Every time I read your longer columns, I find myself remembering those annoying commercials where young women compared their yogurt to completely unrelated sensory experiences (“This yogurt is First Kiss Good…”) Anyhow, Tim… work like this is Best Episodes of Friday Night Lights Good.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Those *were* annoying commercials! But thanks, this is one of the funnier pieces of feedback I’ve received. 🙂

    • As a fellow Friday Night Lights fanatic who’s feeling very emotional at the moment – goodbye to FNL and Harry Potter in the same week!?! – I have to agree with Tim. This article is wonderful. Thanks for cheering up a woman in mourning 🙂

  • Tim, I appreciate how you capture the nuances of the different topics that you tackle. great stuff here!

  • Galen

    Well said. While some of Jesus’ followers were visibly radical (like Peter and Andrew who walked away from their fishing boats and nets to follow Jesus), there were vast hordes who were just as radical (if not more so) who died in the flames of Nero’s garden or in the Coliseum or in purges and persecutions throughout the centuries.

    Jesus hasn’t called us to be successful. He has called us to a lifestyle of faithfully following Him WHEREVER He leads us.

  • anna

    I definitely appreciate some of your points in this segment; however, I’m not sure about the entire premise begun in the last segment. I find the depiction of Americans as worshippers at the alter of fame and wealth to be, in large part, a bit of a media-induced caricature and always bristle when I hear religious leaders speak in this way because it sounds like a commercial. As an adult, I’m certainly not needing someone to define who I am or what I want. That is why I consider most pop-culture media outlets worthless. But, I also find most sermonizing to be equally unworthy. Can the “church” be revived without using the same unsavory tactics used by marketers? Maybe, it’s folly to call it “dead” in the first place or to assume complacency. Platt’s message appears kind of a natural follow-up of the WWJD movement mixed with social gospel. There’s always someone willing to tell you just exactly what Jesus would do, but frankly, I find the question most unhelpful.

  • Nicholas Benton

    I do not find it surprising that the topic of “Radical” congregations has come up on this forum. I believe God sends out messages to those who are watchmen.

    One such message I will share in return and thank you for your work. I have been aware of a growing trend in the United States that I see moving down a frightening road. I’ll elaborate more on this in my own writings and pray the Spirit give me the courage to speak boldly.

    When I speak to mainline congregations, I see a trend toward “political” ends. I see this trend waste resources, time, and in the vanity of it, I see compassion waning thin. I smell the “dead men’s bones” within these political movements, an empty form of godliness that produces offense, creates stumblingblocks for the young, and threatens the Gospel at every turn.

    For all who read this, consider what Proverbs says of a “fool” (or one who denies God). They cannot be “forced” to live righteously. When Paul discusses the manifestation of God’s wrath in Romans, we see a picture of what vanity is present.

    As an apolitical person, I find myself constantly being accused of dissent (strictly against my principals as a Christian), when I suggest that the “law” is precisely what Jesus spoke in opposition to. I am no anarchist, but I believe that when Christians become caught up in angry debates in opposition to the non-believer, they are not adhering to the simple Gospel…which is not tied to national laws, requires His to suffer indignity and wickedness, without judgment or wrath.

    To conclude, I find that my attempts to share the Gospel (which is, by definition, the good news of God’s love for us in the life, condemnation in innocence, sacrifice of love, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ,) with the atheist and unbeliever…on the common ground of flesh, I am often encountered with those who view the “Christian” as an enemy. The reason they feel this way is largely due to the vanity of attempting to prohibit wickedness through law.

    I ask all to consider. If Christians become unedifying in their speech, does that help or hinder the only thing that would create salvation and understanding in the life of the non-believer? If we, through attempting to re-establish Pharisiacal jurisprudence, designate ourselves as the enemy…the opposition, does that not destroy our witness as a loving friend with good news?

    This is the “radical” that I fear…and I ask that all who truly believe ask who Christ proclaimed would condemn and martyr His saints in the final days? Was it the atheist, or the homosexual? Or was it those who believed that in doing so, they were enacting the work of God. Would an atheist believe that?

    God bless all who hear,

  • Tim, this is the first time I’ve read your blog. I feel very blessed by this column. Reading material like this (that you somehow cooked up in ONE DAY) makes me wonder how many teachings, journal entries, sermons, or little newsletters of the church’s history have received a relatively small amount of attention.

    Thank you for working in excellence to put this out there on the internet, despite the fact that you undoubtedly feel a constant temptation to do something bigger or more radical for Jesus.

  • Larry

    It’s a helpful take on a trending topic among churches. I do believe that the most radical choice churches can make today is the choice to cultivate personal encounters (Paul referred to the phenomenon as “revelation”) with Christ. Believers who have awakened to a “now” Christ are inclined (by virtue of such a transforming experience)to live out their faith in meaningful ways as an effect of following Him … day by day. Such personal communion reveals itself in a fiery witness … not contrived or bottled and labeled … but authentically and spontaneously. Churches begin serving, in such contexts, as resourcing centers rather than institutions corralling and coalescing people and resources which pursue the goals of the institution. The most effective ministry/environment interface we can nurture is one which enthrones the Lord of the harvest as the ministry director and allows teams to form more organically around shared passions … resourcing and encouraging them in mission. This promotes maturing Christians, enrich commuity and a mechanism which better allows the Lord to “add daily to the church such as should be saved”.

  • The Immaculate Conservative

    “Why I Believe in God”

    If you take the average Christian and ask them why they believe as they do, you are likely to get a blank stare or, if you do get an answer, it will probably be a rambling spiel about how they just “feel” it to be true. The truth is that most Christians in the Western world are Christians because the West is Christian. If these same people had been born in Riyadh, would they be using the same justification for believing in the inerrancy of Mohammed? If they had been born in New Delhi would they “feel” the same certainty about their sacred cow? Truth be told, most Christians don’t know why they are Christians outside of the fact that that is the way they were raised. By and large, we were simply born into our faith. But, if the Christian’s Great Commission is to take the redemptive promise of Christ to the unbelieving world, how effective can we be if we don’t know why we believe what we believe? If an atheist or a Muslim looks at you and says, “Why should I believe as you,” what will you say?

  • Diane

    I think there must be a way to be radical while not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing. As someone said, most of us want to be the spiritual hand or eye of Christ (and I would add, the mouth) and not the foot. What happens, then, however, is that we end of being more like a Lee Press On Nail. Looks good, but is really fake and not really even part of the body at all. What we should want to be is the heart. Hidden, yet a source of both energy and love, quietly beating away. Not sexy, but we are dead without it.

    Good blog.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks, Diane, for the thoughtful comment, and I strongly agree with your first sentence.

      • Diane

        Thank you! And I’ve ordered Platt’s book from the library.

  • This article is so spot on…thank you for these gentle warnings…
    I have sat down with several folks who already had a propensity towards judgmental attitudes and this book simply turned the spark into a raging fire of judgment towards others.
    We can’t sacrifice Love on the altar of “being radical” for then we’ve missed the point altogether.
    thanks again.