In Defense of the Radical
In an effort to clear my head and offer a different perspective for some of my Christian friends on the issue of “Radical Christianity” and whether or not it is required of us:
A few months ago, some friends started circulating an article online that critiqued contemporary social manifestations of Christianity. It claimed that these new Christian leaders are wrong in their assumption that Christ has called all of us to “radical,” or “missional” living, that these people are narcissistic and legalistic, and that most of us are called to live much more ordinary, simple lives. Since then, I’ve seen about a dozen similar articles and blog posts, critiquing everything from individual people to specific ideologies and practices.
A friend sent me a link to the original article and cued me into the conversation with a few very simple words: You will hate this article.
She was right.
My first brush with a real Radical was when I was in elementary school.
Our Sunday school class at church did a series on international missionaries and I heard, for the first time, the stories of Jim Elliot and of Amy Carmichael. Those two missionaries became the standard in my mind, the archetypal Radical who gives their life to serve God. My interest in their lives and missions led me to discover dozens of other missionaries throughout history who have given their lives (both literally and figuratively) in radical ways, both here and abroad. I was drawn to them as if they were rock stars–if they sold t-shirts, I would have worn them–and their stories planted seeds in me that took root and sprouted a commitment to do something BIG in the future for God.
In high school and college, I devoured books by and stories of all different types of Radical people–both within the Church and without. I started college convinced that God had called me to full-time, radical commitment to ministry and then, by the time I was 21 (oh, gosh, that was ten years ago), I had just graduated from college and was searching for the path that would lead me to that radical future. In those four years, I had dipped my toes in a million different ministry pools, worked in churches and out of churches, been overseas to do ministry, spent time with the homeless folks who lived behind my building, and had begun writing music in the hope that I had something significant to share with the world.
Those next few years didn’t pan out the way I’d intended. I had a severe crisis of faith toward the end of college that poured over into my “young adult years” and muddled my early 20’s. I followed my boyfriend to a different city, joined AmeriCorps, took an environmental educator job (and one as a bartender to make ends meet), and spent some time sorting things out. It was a messy but monumental few years, both spiritually and emotionally, but by the time my 25th birthday rolled around a lot had changed. I’ll spare you the details here, but suffice to say that my world was slowly rebuilt–piece by piece. Faith, relationships, family, ministry, etc.
I guess I never got to live out my Radical fantasy. Instead, I wasted “my best years” (i.e. my 20’s) in a journey of self-discovery and spiritual development. In a tangible way, I have a lot to show for it–a wonderful husband and (nearly) 3 beautiful children, a nice home in a great neighborhood, a solid group of friends, a few decent songs under my belt. But, in terms of the radical existence I’d hoped for, it’s not quite what I intended.
When some of my peers started circulating these articles about how Radicals are out to make us feel bad about our average Christian lives, on a base level, I agreed with some of the critiques. I worry, often, that I can never live up to the standard of “radical” that I once prescribed to. And many of the critiques I’ve read–especially those written by moms like me–have really gripped me and said aloud things that I’ve felt many, many times in the past 5 years since I got married and settled deeper and deeper into “normal life:”
“I’m afraid I’m not doing enough.”
“My work is not important enough.”
“My lifestyle is not radical enough.”
But, after a few months of thinking it over, I’m willing to reconsider.
I still believe–wholeheartedly–that every Christian is called to be a Radical.
What I mean by “radical” is what Jesus mentioned in Matthew 24. You know, that business about “taking up your cross” to follow Him? Yes, I still believe that Jesus meant what He said and that it is exactly what his disciples are called to do.
But, as I said, I’m sympathetic to the critiques of modern Radicals for a few reasons.
First of all, none of us like being called into question. Not by our pastors, not by our peers, and definitely not by some skinny-pants-wearing guy across the country writing a blog about his innovative ministry.
Also, the world of the internet has created a culture of instant celebrity and fake community. In the world of social networking, we can be inspired by strangers who have found their niche in the Church and world, but we can never know their whole story or be in a relationship with them that offers the accountability and mentorship we’d need to actually learn from them. The capacity for spreading news about other people is immense, considering how quickly a single blog post can be spread between hundreds of friends. But it can lead to a confusing and dangerous sense of importance–both on their side and ours.
These inspirational stories can also confuse us into believing that some random blogger’s particular calling is magically transferable to our situation and our context. But it’s simply not the case. The way we live out the mission of the Church was never meant to be homogeneous. I can almost guarantee that many of these modern-day Radicals already understand this. It’s those of us on the other end that get confused and defensive.
Add to that, we mistakenly equate “radical” with “eccentric.” Those of us who live and look like normal people are extra sensitive about this (as tend to be older folks who have “outgrown” their youthful eccentricities), and it makes us extra defensive when any eccentric personality questions our lifestyle. But the truth is that many of the most radically mission-focused people I’ve known were pretty lame by pop culture standards. They live in normal houses and eat normal food; they get normal haircuts and shop at Target. What makes them radical is their mission, not their appearance.
The eccentricity issue is true for the nature of their mission, as well. Just because some Radicals have been called to ministry in wild places or in wild ways, it doesn’t negate the ordinary, every day work that every person has to do on an average day. Radicals need clean underwear, too, and if you are a woman raising a Godly family as a part of your ministry, you should expect that much of your time will be spent doing things like laundry instead of the more exciting things that 22 year-old single and childless women and men have time to do.
That said, there will always be eccentric people in the Church. This is especially true in an era when so many young people are a part of what is sometimes called the Creative Class–a demographic of people who are creating culture rather than consuming it. Creative people will naturally decorate their lives with more color and it’s really not their fault that I’m sensitive about my own lame taste.
Also, before assuming that a particular eccentric aesthetic is just a matter of taste, we should consider what it calls into question about your own choice in purchased goods, fashion, and lifestyle. Sure, there are plenty of self-appointed prophets who point fingers at the rest of us, but they are the minority. Most eccentric folks are really just trying to live by example. In fact, someone once explained their personal style to me as being “a walking hyperbole.” Maybe the judgement I feel is actually more akin to insecurity or (gasp!) Godly conviction. I’m sure that, after seeing John the Baptist, some of his contemporaries questioned their hairstyles, too. And rightfully so.
Basically, I think it’s important that those of us who struggle with feeling “normal” don’t blame the Radicals for our struggle. If radical discipleship should be the standard–as I believe it should–then the Radicals are not the enemy. The Church would actually benefit from more of them, not fewer.
I would like to quickly (ha! quickly?) offer a few things that I think all radical disciples have in common so we can see through the faux celebrities and pure eccentrics and help define what we, as individuals called to discipleship, might look like as Radicals.
1. Radicals are motivated by ideology. They believe they’ve been called to a particular mission and are willing to put the mission before more common motivations like self-preservation, comfort, and practicality. In certain personalities, this can come across as being judgmental or proud, but it is more likely conviction–something that, if we’re honest, we don’t see enough of these days to really know how to recognize it.
2. Radicals work humbly, with or without recognition. They are not self-made celebrities. But, by sharing their stories and encouraging others to follow their example, they are often made examples by those who they inspire. Very few Radicals would welcome a following. Most would probably prefer a faithful group of co-laborers to help with the mission.
3. Radicals are willing to take chances. Because of their strong faith and ideology, they are willing to do things that others are not. This includes wild and crazy things like selling everything to open an orphanage in the Sudan and simple, wonderful things like having an awkward conversation with that extra difficult visitor at church. They have nothing to lose and so are willing to go places that are difficult and uncomfortable.
4. Radicals are dependent on God’s provision. Pursuing their calling means relying on God’s providence over their future, their family, their income, and safety. They have put it all in His hands. This is the part of radical-living that makes most of us very uncomfortable. The concept of “daily bread” is scary, especially for those of us with spouses and children dependent upon the same daily provision. No matter what their mission and calling, a Radical’s daily bread will be enough to sustain them and fulfill their mission. (Just to be clear, those who receive a larger allotment of this proverbial bread are supposed to be using it to fulfill the mission of the Church, not simply build their stock portfolios.)
5. Radicals live intentionally as missionaries. They do not just float through life. Their heart for ministry has brought them to a particular people or place and they have invested their lives there and they are intentional about what that life looks like. The Church is called to preach the Gospel in the urban core and suburban community of every city, the heart of every farming community, every corner of industry and business and culture, and every tribe across the globe. We should be thankful that other people are called to places where we have no urgency to go, and can never excuse ourselves from finding a similar calling elsewhere. Some call it “mission”; I tend to call it “vocation.” It’s the same thing, really.
6. Radicals love other disciples. They love sharing stories, encouraging those engaged in ministry, promoting each other’s ministries, and learning from each other. They are the iron sharpening iron. They give generously to each other. They share their provision and resources. They push buttons and challenge each other and are willing to learn.
And, perhaps, most significant is this:
7. Radicals boldly pursue the Kingdom of God. Their mission is not borne of compulsion, fear, or the emotional need to please God. They are pursuing a deeper need and desire–participation in the grand scheme of God’s redemption of the world. They have seen a vision of the Kingdom and they are running toward it. It is a difficult, but joyful pursuit; it is an easy yoke and light burden, but a yoke nonetheless. It requires everything and offers something altogether different in return. They know that it is bigger than themselves and the role they play, but they are happy to play that role, regardless.
This is where the author of that original article really missed the mark. His main point was that “there are no little people or insignificant callings in the Kingdom.” I obviously agree, but I believe he is missing the point. The bigger issue–the one addressed by Radicals–is that there is a difference between living “a simple life” because you feel called to nothing in particular and living out your simple life as a part of a greater calling and mission. The problem is not the nature of our calling, but our complete lack of a commitment to our calling. If we would begin to live our lives in terms of vocation and mission, we would see value in all work for which the Kingdom is the intended end.
To give a personal example: my problem is not that motherhood is made of too ordinary a life to be considered “radical,” but that we’ve stripped it of its rightful place as a God-given vocation. Doing this renders the day-to-day work of motherhood meaningless and, therefore, ourselves and other mothers as simply “ordinary.”
I guess, in short, I could have summed this all up by saying that it’s not the hipster sunglasses that make someone a Radical, it’s their ability to see the Kingdom of God and step in to be a part of it. And once they’ve seen it, like the merchant in pursuit of the costliest of pearls that Jesus talked about (Matthew 13) , they are willing to give everything for the sake of attaining it.
When faced with the call to become a Radical, let us stop defending ourselves and the parts of our lives that feel ordinary and “normal,” as if those somehow disqualify us from the task. Let us, instead, let the lives of Radicals inspire us and challenge us to find our particular calling in the Kingdom, be it through wild and crazy or simple and ordinary lives.
Don’t cheapen the grace that allows you to participate in the Kingdom of God by thinking that it will cost you nothing. If you believe that Jesus was joking when he described the life of discipleship as denying ourselves, giving up everything, and following him, you have misunderstood the sacrificial nature of discipleship. Disciples pursue the Kingdom, regardless of cost. The Person standing at the end of the pursuit (Jesus) is the one who redeems the sacrifice. And the pursuit itself is what counts us among His disciples.