I began reading Mark Labberton’s Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today the same morning that I met a new mom friend from my twins’ Gymboree class for coffee. Their family had recently moved back to America from Asia, where her husband had been involved in an anti-trafficking ministry, and she had taught at a mission school. She was explaining to me how she’d grappled with culture shock when she’d returned to America, especially in terms of the church. Her experience of Christian fellowship abroad had been one rooted in community, where Christians served on the frontlines of each other’s and their neighbors’ lives. One brother or sister’s problem or need was everyone’s problem or need. They “did life”—as she put it—as a unit of friends and caregivers, as family. And she had found a greater interest in justice there too, a stronger focus on training converts in how to serve, and in loving others radically and without concern for one’s own comfort or convenience. Though she grew up in America, her time outside its borders gave her a new perspective on the American church and culture. Aggressive, competitive, and disjointed were all words that came up. She was worried that too many of us here have heard a “diluted Gospel.” When I pressed her to further explain, she said the focus on conversion sometimes seemed to overshadow the making of disciples. In other words, she had observed many people calling themselves Christians but not living like they are called.
Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary has made the same observation, and he tackles it head on in Called. He takes the Christian church’s diminishing cultural influence as proof of our inattention to our calling, noting that “It doesn’t take research to know that many people, especially in the millennial generation, feel that the Christian church bears little resemblance to the One it claims to follow.” As my friend had observed, we are a nation of many Christians and many churches and yet so many of us still fail to thrive, still aren’t secure in our purpose, still unsure how to answer those fundamental questions of existence that have nagged at the hearts of human’s for millennia: “What are our lives in this world about? What are we to make of being human? Why are we here? Is there a reason we are alive, and, if so, how do we know what that is?”
Labberton attributes part of the American church’s problem to our commitment to what he calls the “Promised Land” narrative, the notion that, being American, we are due or can—if we just work hard enough—earn worldly success. We are uncomfortable with discomfort (our own or that of others), and we are fierce individualists, believing that self-reliance will culminate in self-fulfillment (and, by turn, that if others aren’t thriving, it must be their own fault). Our allegiance to this narrative leads us to live “self-interested, consumer” lives, to be out of touch with the needs of our neighbors, and to be perceived by the world as judgmental, hypocritical, and divisive. By not attending to God’s call, we are misrepresenting and stifling the true Gospel.
“With grace and hope, the church is to inherently and commonly seek and love the forgotten, the unseen, the undesirable, the uncool. We need to do so with unexpected, tangible love, displaying counterintuitive compassion (including enemy-love) and demonstrating a capacity for magnanimous forgiveness, mercy and justice.”
Re-read that one more time. I love that.
Now consider how different our world might be if each of the hundreds of millions of Americans who identify themselves as Christian took this call seriously.
Called is an especially exciting book because—being written by a university president—one of its primary audiences will undoubtedly be college students. In fact, according to Dr. Labberton’s Twitter feed, every single student, staff, and faculty member has already received a free copy. For this book to be in the hands of young Christians and those responsible for their education and inspiration is exactly where it should be. I am excited to see the difference it will make.
Amber M. Stamper holds a Ph.D. in English (Rhetoric and Composition) and is an Assistant Professor of Language, Literature, and Communication at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. Her research and publications center on religious rhetoric and communication, especially issues of Christian evangelism and the digital church.