Radical for Jesus: What Does That Look Like in America?


When my wife and I lived in Silicon Valley (that’s the South San Francisco Bay area for the geographically business challenged), we’d routinely encounter folks who would brag about chucking their tech jobs to run a bed & breakfast or start an organic farm. The appeal of that break from the typical grind for something more idyllic became even more engrossing when the Dot Com bubble showed initial signs of bursting.

Couple after couple were successfully negotiating the move from being beholden to The System to charting their own destiny—well, who wouldn’t love to break out of that stranglehold and find a new way to live?

What they don’t tell you of the New American Dream story is that folks who make this sort of change are rich. Or were rich. Because the way to a small fortune as a bed & breakfast owner or an organic farmer is to start with a large fortune.

But who talks about that? Don’t be a downer, right?

Over the last couple weeks I’ve written about voices preaching that the only genuine Christian life is the one that is radical for Jesus (“Radicalism and Reality (A Response to ‘Here Come the Radicals!’),” “God’s Promises and Their Fulfillment: How Much Is the Church’s Responsibility?,” and “Kids, Systems, and Success (A Response to Brant Hansen’s ‘Your Kids Don’t Need Your Stupid Success Track’)“). This is the hot, new clarion call coming from some well-known pastors/leaders of churches and parachurch organizations that cater to the rich or upper middle class.

Only the utterly sold out are truly Jesus’ followers, they claim. Everyone else is duped—and possibly on their way to hell.

Because I think the Church in America is increasingly out of touch, that should be a message that resonates with me. But it doesn’t.

I have a problem with pulpit-preached messages that sound great on the surface but come with no practical way to make them happen. It is one thing to tell me about a radical life sold out for Jesus but quite another to model it for the rest of one’s life and in such a way that others can emulate it.

Isn’t there something off about a pastor of a church of rich people talking about being radical for Jesus? When that pastor claims to live radically, is he really doing so?Radical for Jesus? If he and his family got in financial straits for their “radicalness,” wouldn’t one phone call to the elder with connections result in a “rescue” check showing up within half a day? How radical are you truly when you live off the donations of people who are not as sold out for Jesus as you claim to be? So they fund your radicalness yet go to hell because they weren’t as radical as you?


And how radical are you really when you have no chance of failure? When you can simply press rewind and go back to doing what you did before you got radical? How painful is it when you started with a large fortune and ended up with a small one, but a small one nonetheless?

Then there’s the poorer working class schlemiel who hears that radical message, takes it to heart, and gets in trouble because he didn’t calculate the cost of entry to being radical and didn’t have a cushion when he fell.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

—Matthew 10:34-39 ESV

We know the words of Jesus, don’t we? What I don’t think we know is how to apply them to our lives today.

For all the talk of being radical for Jesus, how do we actually live it?

America 2013 is not an agrarian culture. We don’t teach our children animal husbandry. We don’t weave fabrics from plants we grew to make our own clothes. We aren’t fishermen by trade. We’ve farmed out large chunks of the kinds of things people did in Bible times to others to do for us. That’s how our economy works. We’re all niche players in a way that people didn’t use to be.

Today, the cost of entry into our society is a college degree. A private college costs $50,000 a year for many kids. And many employers now demand a master’s degree. Some kids end their schooling six figures in debt.

How radical for Jesus can you be when a bank owns you?

Unless you live in a city in America, you need a car. And a car costs money. A lot of it. The United States developed differently; it’s not Europe, where you can walk to work or to the grocers. Our spread-out-ness changes things. There’s a different, higher cost.

In fact, everything about America costs—and much more than some are willing to admit.

Many years ago, I worked for a ministry that didn’t pay very well. I think I made $60 a week. I didn’t have a lot of debts, but I still had some, so I needed to supplement that income by asking people for financial support. I raised four times what I really needed and secured a lot of promises from people. In the end, that support dried up within months, and I was quickly under what I needed to meet my meager obligations. I had to quit that ministry.

I have been a Christian since I was a teenager. As much as it pains me to admit this, I don’t know how to live the kind of sold-out-for-Jesus life that I hear talked about by these preachers of radicalness. I don’t know how to make it work.

I don’t think I’m alone, either.

Is it as easy as selling all you have and giving it to the poor? What it your spouse doesn’t share your radicalness? What if you have a mentally challenged child? What if all the donations that support your radicalness dry up and you end up failing? Is failure even possible for the genuine, sold-out Christian? Where does radicalness end and “thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test” begin? When can one “put down the plow” and not look back, and when does one need to fulfill existing obligations? When can you rely on the Church to bury your dead for you and take care of any widowed parents you leave behind?

Here’s where I struggle: If preachers of radicalness are right, then almost all of us are in trouble. The question then is, what do we do to get out of that trouble in a practical way?

No one really talks about that, though.

What does a genuinely radical life lived for Jesus look like in America 2013? And how do people make that work in a way that isn’t fluffy bunnies and unicorns?

Or is radicalness by nature always impractical? And if it is, what do we do when we go for the impractical and fail? Are American churches ready to support and dust off those folks who embrace the radical life and yet blow up once, twice, thrice? Or is the message of radicalness one that sounds good on the surface but is simply impossible to enact unless we Christians change everything about the system in which we live?

I should have an answer, but I don’t. That I don’t seems like a failure both of the American Church and of my own discipleship. Maybe we’ve abandoned too much of the infrastructure needed to make such a radical life possible. Maybe our role models let us down. Maybe the Spirit has been trying to get a word in edge-wise, but the clamor of the American Way of Life has drowned Him out to the point that we don’t even know what He sounds like anymore. Maybe it’s simply too late for all of us to change.

It is one thing to tell us the engine of our car is broken. It is another to fix it. It is quite another to teach us how to diagnose and fix it ourselves with guidance from wise mechanics who already know what must be done to fix it and can pass that practical, step-by-step wisdom onto us, and who will bear with us when we don’t fix it right the first time.

If we don’t find those people soon, we’ll never get this thing running right and never get to our destination. At least that’s what we keep hearing.

18 thoughts on “Radical for Jesus: What Does That Look Like in America?

  1. I am not sure there are any wise mechanics out there to walk us through this. We kind of have to figure it out on our own but as you point out the way we are structured as a culture and the way the church mirrors that culture makes anything even resembling radical living pretty unlikely. The church as we see it in the Bible was reliant upon one another and in return rejected a lot of what makes our culture function. Can you imagine half a dozen Christian families all sharing a piece of property and only having a couple of cars? Can we do something like that without reverting to a bunker mentality like the Hutterites?

    I don’t have a lot of answers. I can tell the car is broken but I am not sure what to do about it especially since so many people seem content with a car that looks nice but doesn’t actually run.

    • Arthur,

      What discourages me is that so many of my peers instantly discredit any thought of creating a Christian community such as you describe. I’ve written on that topic previously several times, going back almost ten years (one early post: http://ceruleansanctum.com/2004/06/work-and-everyday-life-redeemed.html). Yet when I bring it up, the answer to me is always, “It won’t work because of sin.” Always, it seems that sin and fallen human nature are given too much credit for their ability to destroy community.

      In this, I side with good ol’ papist G.K. Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

      • We have desired community like that that I described for a while but it seems like we have a hard time finding other followers that want much more than Sunday morning fellowship. We actually have some Hutterite friends and would love to find a way to live like that but without the focus on rules while also maintaining zeal for evangelism.

  2. Debra Westbrook

    I loved this post because I can identify, along with my husband, with the questions you are asking and the observations you are making. I also don’t have any answers but this journey in Christ is one that I keep walking day by day. I love the Lord and when all else seems to fail, I stand on that foundation.
    Your points are solid and deep, bringing up questions rather than supplying answers and that is what i like.
    We have moved back from living overseas for the past 7 or more years to relocate to SoCal from the Bay Area which we call home (Contra Costa). In doing that, we are ‘lost’. We truly have focused on the grace message in its reality and see that it contradicts much of what we believed before. Also simply do not go to churches that are…..well, how to say this……well that just seem to be a bit….don’t know the word but we simply don’t go at this point and don’t feel at all guilty about it.
    Let’s see, what else. I also preached that ‘radical’ thing for years but I actually tried to live it by doing what I sensed the Holy Spirit was telling me to do. That meant an exciting Christian life through travel and healings, etc. Yet I can say that if I depended on the church to finance that, I would not be going to I stepped out in faith to go and realized that God would have to fund His endeavors which He actually did because we did not have a large or a small fortune.
    So what am I saying and where am I going? It is refreshing to read this truth with an edge………an edge to this blog that is not in the least bit sarcastic but real and real is what we like.
    Our Christianity is not ethereal or mystical although we wholeheartedly believe in the supernatural.
    In Christ

  3. After I read K.P. Yohannan’s book “The Road To Reality” (I think? It was his book about simplicity), I felt encouraged while also feeling a fair amount of guilt. It was a call to consume less, if I wanted to crudely simplify it, so that we would have more.

    There might be some Dave Ramsey concepts worth noting regarding debt. I agree on this: if you have debt, you are owned. You cannot do the things you describe.

    I might also add…Paul had a valid point about the need for singles, for those people who do not get married. In some ways, I can do some of these “radical” things fairly easily, being single and without debt. Perhaps the church should stop focusing on the family (i.e. pushing kids to marry and have families) and encourage celibate singles for those who might be meant for that. With the current debates on homosexuality and how the church handles it, I am appalled sometimes that this isn’t really talked about. (That’s a huge other discussion.) There is great potential in those celibate singles living for Christ, the ability to do some of these things that families cannot because of inevitable financial obligations.

    Just thoughts.

  4. Maybe in the upcoming post-collapse America, we xtians can experiment with radical communities.

    For starters, every church should have its own cemetery. Nothing fancy, but everyone gets the guarantee of plain wood coffin and a plot in the yard.

    • Oengus,

      I think it was Leonard Ravenhill who said moving the cemetery away from the church was one of the worst trends in American Christendom.

      As far as post-anything goes, I used to think we Christians were smart, but we resemble the grasshopper in the Aesop fable to an appalling degree, except we use the Rapture as our excuse for ignoring “winter.” I see 40-year-olds pogo-ing during modern worship services and I just wonder how high they’ll be jumping when suddenly the “fun” goes out of being a believer and the real cost starts to show.

      Since day one of this blog I have been saying it: We are not ready. There is zero infrastructure in place. Zero. There may even be less than zero when you start asking if we’re actually endorsing aspects of the system that will work against us in the future.

      • But why would our joy (fun?) decrease when things get hard? Things can be very, very hard, yet we can still bask in God’s love and feel joy. I am so thankful to God for showing me this, because otherwise I would feel very afraid of the future.

        • Michelle,

          When Stephen was stoned, devout men cried over him and over their loss. It’s okay to be sad now and then. Some things are terrible. If I can’t be grieved by a child who starves to death, a marriage of solid people that blows up, or a lifetime of working toward a goal that will now never materialize–well, then something is wrong with me.

          • connie

            You know what? Maybe that forty year old pogoing in praise HAS been going through hell and focusing on the goodness of God is part of what keeps him going. This fiftysomething woman knows a little bit about that!

  5. Mr. Poet

    I live in the far west end, north of the river, in my city. My area used to be considered the place to live. Much of it is either treading water or declining. The area’s nouveau riche now live slightly north of here, and the city’s old money live a little south and east of here. We have pockets of poverty in my area, despite what looks like all of the money our residents may have.

    I say that as a build-up to one “radical” story. A woman in the church up the street moved into the area’s least expensive apartment complex so she could minister to refugees living there. Even though the neighborhood is a short drive from most other neighborhoods in the far west end, she now lives there. For location, it hardly can be beat. One can walk to several grocery stores and the public library.

    She did not have to move there, but she did. It is not a nice place to live. The other day, after I dropped off a friend in the neighborhood, two police cruisers pulled out in front of me, leaving after taking care of God knows what this time.

    I could have had the chance to live there, too. A church that is more of a conglomeration of refugees and immigrants who go to different churches wanted to rent an apartment in that neighborhood and let someone live in it for free…maybe even with a stipend, if I can recall…so that there would be a permanent spot for Bible studies to be held.

    I could have lived rent-free, probably on my own terms, except for having the Bible studies in my crib. Did I do something so radical? Nope…too radical for me.

    • Mr. Poet

      Of course, I’m still irked because, years ago, I wanted a Gospel-preaching church plant that was planned for the far west end to be planted in my old neighborhood, even though I no longer lived there, because I knew how isolated the neighborhood was for the kids living in the area. Instead, they planted it where the money was.

  6. Chris Baumgart

    Dan, timely post – great feedback from the comments above… Radical – to this day as I drive by million dollar Churches that are unused most of the week, I scratch my head thinking is this what God would want considering we’re to be good stewards of our finances? People’s offerings going into a basket once a week for a mortgage on essentially an empty space… How about Churches that offer better functionality, living space, food shelters open 24/7- practice/studio space for the arts, para-ministry space for other small evangelical outreaches *without having to pay rent… child care is an obvious one, but what about a 24/7 kind for second, third shift working moms in the community and -what else?- more ideas please! — Thanks for stirring the pot on this topic.

  7. Jack

    This – “How radical are you truly when you live off the donations of people who are not as sold out for Jesus as you claim to be?”
    I’ve met plenty of ‘radical’ christians but as you say their lifestyle is mostly sustained by the generosity of people working a normal 40+ hour week. Disturbs me when people talk about ‘living by faith’ when what they really mean is ‘living by donations’… especially when they come from rich developed nations. Its often easier to fall away working a 9-5 or running a business than many forms of so called missions.
    Part of the reason we are not told how to be radical is that hardly any pastor wants his income stream to dry up when congregants start quitting their job to follow what they think they heard god tell them. Also because genuine radicalism is tough and as you say the average western church going christian just isnt prepared for the high cost so they might give up on christianity altogether.
    That said them vs us thinking isn’t generally healthy. So judging christians in terms of lukewarm vs sold out/surrendered/radical is not really our role. We tend to magnify that which we consider important and have sacrificed on our journey so the temptation is to judge everyone else through that lens. In that regard responding to god will be different for each person and community. That said its never a good sign when many aspects of belief and practice aren’t up for scrutiny and reevaluation.

  8. I think there are many in our church who want to be sold out, but don’t really know what that means. I believe the first step is to get away from programatic church. By this term, I mean the church where everything is organised around the church. Every 4 hours of our time at church, equals to 2.3% of our time – and it makes sense for the church to equip and release Christ’s own – to minister where they live the other 97.7% of the time.

    Christ calls some to live within a poverty framework, while he calls others to be financially successful. Learning to know just which it is, is the tension we all face.

    I think the radical Christian life will start when we stop trying to get people into church and rather continue to live out, reach out, and disciple those outside the church, in the midst of where we find them.

    • Mr. Poet

      Sold out: isn’t that when a church runs out of tickets for the Christmas pageant, the Easter cantata, or the spaghetti fundraiser for the youth’s summer mission trip?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *