Christianity Today has a smart piece on the rise of preaching a radical Christianity (“Here Come the Radicals!“). It’s a solid examination of “radical” voices in contemporary Christianity that are calling people to a faith that eschews the trappings of treacly Christian comfort and feel-good Evangelicalism.
As they say, read the whole thing. It’s an astute commentary.
Cerulean Sanctum readers will recognize a lot of the call for radicalism that some of these preacher/teacher/writers like Francis Chan, David Platt, and others demand. In fact, it’s heartening to read their books and hear some of the things that have bothered me for years finally published in the wider court of public opinion.
But there’s a disconnect between that radicalism and reality. This is also something I’ve talked about for years, but no preacher/teacher/writer with a national voice, publishing contract, or a megachurch pulpit ever takes on.
The buzzkill remark by Matthew Lee Anderson, author of “Here Come the Radicals!”:
“By contrast, there aren’t many narratives of men who rise at 4 A.M. six days a week to toil away in a factory to support their families. Or of single mothers who work 10 hours a day to care for their children. Judging by the tenor of their stories, being ‘radical’ is mainly for those who already have the upper-middle-class status to sacrifice.”
In 2003, the majority of Christian households I considered peers were single income. Today, none are. It’s crazy hard to sustain a single-income household anymore, and hardly anyone, no matter how radical, is up to the task. The economy is wrecking “simple living,” and the government plays fast and loose with real inflation numbers to make it look less horrifying than it is
Reality: I replaced the windshield wipers on my wife’s car yesterday and the cheapest I could get them was $25. That’s two to three hours salary for some people. For windshield wipers. How do people survive?
What does genuine Christian discipleship look like when everyone is working like crazy just to keep up with rapidly increasing costs of living? It’s one thing to be radical, but quite another when you get socked with a $15,000 hospital bill because your uninsured child needed an emergency appendectomy. Try paying that while working with street kids in the inner city while on donated support or working part time.
There’s another issue too.
So you feel called of God to be a doctor. You go to medical school. You end up with $350,000 or more in college and medical school debt, even if you go to a cheaper, no-name school. So, after graduation you, the newly minted doc, go to Africa to work as a doctor in an orphanage, just as the preachers of Christian radicalism would have you do.
How unlikely is that radical move to Africa? If your debt obligation makes it impossible to do something radical because you have to make serious cash to pay down your debt, does that put you in a position of earning hell for yourself because you fell into a comfortable suburban medical practice that charged enough for you to pay down that debt? Or do you simply bail on the debt in your pursuit of radicalism and hope someone else can absorb your failure to pay?
This is the reality for which radicalism offers no solutions.
Because there are no solutions within our present system. Too much of that system demands a certain adherence to the system or else. Yes, some people can flaunt that, but not everyone. If every Christian did the radical thing, then there would be no Christian doctors, lawyers, engineers, or any other professional in a career that demands much of its bearer in both time and money.
And after all, who is it who pays the support of those radicals who abandon the traditional lifestyle to work in an orphanage in Africa or save street kids in inner city America from a short, brutal life?
Notice this doesn’t even address the issue of the exhausted dad or the single mother mentioned in the quote above who is simply trying to get by. Or the caretaker dealing with sick and dying parents. On whom do we foist those in our care? Will the Church take care of them for us so we can be radical? Do we really just abandon them in their time of need? Where does this fall between “honor your father and mother” and “[he] who does not hate his own father and mother…cannot be my disciple”?
I’m not saying that God can’t come through with miraculous resolutions when we live “on the edge.” But at what point do we end up in a “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test” situation where we abandoned responsibility to pursue a radical Christianity?
I’m all for a radical faith. I’ve been saying for years we need it. But until Christians in the West address work-life issues with some modicum of sense, we’ll keep preaching a radicalness of faith the majority of Christians can attain only in their dreams.
18 thoughts on “Radicalism and Reality (A Response to “Here Come the Radicals!”)”
All very true. My big issue with the radical movement is that it is not terrible radical, presumably because calling for a really radical movement is not going to sell many books or fill many pews. Most of what passes for radical is just scratching the surface and even those milquetoast suggestions of “radicalism” cause controversy in the church.
Calls for radicalism in what is mostly a middle to upper middle class, comfort driven church are almost inevitably going to be little more than watered down suggestions that make people nod piously but little else.
I am convinced the Church in America has GOT to start dealing with people’s job issues. Nothing we do in a week demands more of our time. Nothing. If we don’t start talking about this in terms of reality, everything we attempt is going to fail. People have to work! How do we come to terms with that in light of globalization’s definition of work, especially in an economy that demands tremendously expensive (to develop and maintain) specialization skills?
If every pastor in the United States was forced to be bivocational (and I’m not talking about supplementation by writing books or speaking at conferences), this issue would be center stage and we’d be getting somewhere. But with a pastorate so out of touch with the basics of a working a “real” job that doesn’t get paid by pressuring folks to donate–well, there’s your “radical” reality check right there.
On a similar note, and this is an issue fraught with danger because it sounds like “liberalism”, there is a very real question of income disparity not just in the church in America but globally. We read Acts 2 & 4 but then see nothing wrong with some Christian living lives of unimaginable luxury while others, perhaps even in the same church, struggling daily to make the rent and buy food. I have been to churches in N. Kentucky with a parking lot that looked like a new car showroom (even once at an Answers in Genesis conference with a Ferrari in the parking lot) while less than half an hour away in downtown Cinci there are believers who live in abject poverty. How can we talk about Jesus when we won’t even talk about income disparity in the church?
Try writing a book that suggests there might be something wrong with the economic reality in the church in America and see how many conferences you get invited to.
Shane Claiborne has tried, but then the people who most need to listen to him write him off because his theology isn’t “pure” (read: exactly like theirs).
Income disparity within one church is heartbreaking. My church is in Detroit, but only about a mile from the Grosse Pointes. The disparity is huge. I’ve heard someone complaining about how difficult life is when you are remodeling your kitchen, while someone else in the body has rain pouring through his roof because he can’t afford repairs. People ask for prayer for car repairs so they can get to their job; meanwhile, the church elders decide it’s a good thing to install flatscreen monitors throughout the building so you can see the sermon even if you aren’t in the sanctuary. (Ok, that was paid for by a special donation, but the elders still thought it was a good way to spend $40,000 during a recession.) We do have a food pantry/clothes closet that operates 2 Saturdays a month, and individuals with means certainly have stepped in now and then to help others in the body, but overall we just don’t seem to “get it.”
…and don’t even get me started on able bodied men in the church, often those with the most education, expecting the poor and the elderly and the widows in the church to support them financially.
You mean able-bodied, educated men who can’t get hired in their field, and who won’t get hired outside of their field because they either have no experience, or they’re overqualified? 🙂
I attended three churches with bivocational pastors: my own, with a pastor who is a financial planner; the church where I asked Jesus into my heart when I was a teen, whose current pastor is an electrician; and another church, where the pastor is a television repairman (!). Perhaps it makes a difference in pastoral counseling, which is confidential, but if it made a difference in the services and fellowship, I must have missed it.
I recently heard of a missionary family who got whacked because of their child’s sudden onset of a chronic disease. The bills piled up and they had to abandon the field. Now the dad, who never studied anything but ministry, can’t find a “normal” job with medical benefits that will cover their costs.
I have no doubt of Satan’s hand in all this, but there has to be a solution. Faith healing? OK, then where’s the faith? The best doctors? OK, then where’s the cash? Dad needs a job? Then which Christian brother or sister is going to give that dad the job to meet his need? And what of the hole in the mission field right now?
Someone needs to answer those questions and needs. And you’re right, Arthur: That’s where the real radicalism is.
In my younger days I dated some Seminary guys (they attended a well-known evangelical seminary). Here is the path of these guys. After high school most go to college and often a Christian one. Then they go to seminary and are treated like stars in their churches. In the last year of seminary they intern and are now really stars. Then after graduation they usually serve as youth pastors or assistant pastors and then eventually become head pastors. In seminary they sat around and talked about Barth and Tillich. Today they probably sit around and talk about the Postmodern philosophy of Foucault and Derrida and how McClaren and company are bringing it into the church. You are right on when you say these guys have their on reality. By the way, Clairborn has says he doesn’t believe in the substitutionary atonement. I would call that REALLY impure, not a trifling thing.
The lukewarm pastor from Laodicea really knew his Barth!
I suggest Christians do two things: firstly, know the people in your church so if there is an opportunity to help you know about it; secondly, learn some economics so that the government and the corporations won’t get away with the present exploitative position. For a start I suggest Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. For a commentary on how the present system aids the corporations (but including some really quite dodgy economics) check out Kevin Carson.
I get the essence of this, and have for a long while. Glad to see others’ like-minded.
Tough stuff, Dan, but…yeah. There’s beautiful theory and there’s reality, and not nearly the overlap that should be.
Interesting comments above, have to disagree with most especially with your comment Dan:
“If every Christian did the radical thing, then there would be no Christian doctors, lawyers, engineers, or any other professional in a career that demands much of its bearer in both time and money.”
What if those Christians lived radically right were they’re at? What I mean is, actively pursuing Christ and living out it day by day, minute by minute. I’ve gone through all the study’s mentioned – not a fan, Follow Me, Radical, Crazy Love and what I learned was that I was living comfortably making no waves for the Kingdom of Christ. How many of us are just pushing through life keeping this great gift of salvation a secret? Now I am not walking around with a sandwich board telling folks they are going to hell and are sinners, but what if God has called ‘that guy’ to live ‘radically’ by doing that? What if you (Dan), just didn’t mention that “I recently heard of a missionary family who got whacked because of their child’s sudden onset of a chronic disease. The bills piled up and they had to abandon the field. Now the dad, who never studied anything but ministry, can’t find a “normal” job with medical benefits that will cover their cost” but actually started a GiveForward (giveforward.com) account to help them, wouldn’t that be ‘radical’? Just a thought…..