When Christian “Answers” Are Too Simplistic


Many Christians are talking about what it means to be radical for Jesus. You’re either caught in the hellbound grip of the comfortable American Dream, or you give it all up to follow the Lord and therefore gain eternal life as a true disciple.

Alex and Bree are a young couple who read David Platt’s book Radical and decided they could no longer live the complacent hipster lifestyle they’d adopted. They sold their townhouse, quit their jobs as a videogame designer and a florist, and moved to Uganda, where they now serve as missionaries, working in an orphanage.

Rob and Tiffani, on the other hand, go to the same church as Alex and Bree once did. Tiffani works as a paralegal but is saving money to attend law school one day. After work, she holds down a second job as a waitress at an upscale restaurant, where Rob is one of the cooks and has a small vested interest in the restaurant as a limited partner. Both spend most of their day working, collapsing into bed at 10 p.m. each night. Neither has much time for church activities, but they are there in the seats every Sunday morning.

Alex and Bree versus Rob and Tiffani. Which couple is truly radical for Jesus?

What if you knew that Rob and Tiffani are the major dollar donors that make it possible for Alex and Bree to stay in Uganda? What if you knew that Tiffani works her second job solely to ensure that money keeps going to Alex and Bree?

Who is radical for Jesus now?

I don’t know about you, but I’m bored with facile arguments from within the Christian community. Most of the situations we set up to illustrate “Bible truths” are so disconnected from most people’s lives as to be utterly useless. No one can argue against them because they are so simplistic and obvious.

But people’s lives are not so easily measured. And what folks do with those lives is more complex than the simplistic bins we want to file them in.

I think that one reason that Christianity is suffering some losses in the United States is that smart people can see through the oversimplifications we sometimes hold out as “truth” on Sunday mornings. We attempt to take Scripture and shoehorn it into our perception of “genuine Christian living” only to find out that result leaves something to be desired—at least it does for those folks who think hard about implications.

Einstein: Duh!The problem is that not enough Christian leaders think about implications. Doesn’t matter what the topic is, they stay on the surface and then try to sell their biblical solution as the only way.

In the case of Rob and Tiffani, I think a lot of Christian leaders who ascribe to the new radicalism would condemn them  as not being radical enough. But what those leaders never consider is how folks like Rob and Tiffani are the ones who make it possible for others to pursue the kind of radical faith that the leaders hold up as necessary. Such is true in a lot of cases. People living a supposedly “self-centered, American Dream life” wind up funding big chunks of ministry because of the fact they ARE living according to the system. Take away the Robs and Tiffanis of the world, and you get a lot fewer Alexes and Brees as a result.

It’s not just that illustration I raise, either. Thousands of other cases exist that don’t fit our facile arguments of what genuine discipleship and commitment look like in real life.

More than ever, we need Christian leaders who go deeper. Not just deeper in Jesus, but deeper into the complex problems that face modern America.

Because I have to say that we are doing a terrible job communicating the essence of real discipleship to real people. Our answers are too simpleminded and not well considered. Living for Jesus doesn’t just mean handing out food to the homeless. Sometimes it means tackling entire systems of thought and redeeming them in Jesus name. Sadly, because we avoid the tougher problems in favor of the easy ones, our efforts are a figurative Band-Aid on a severed limb, and we pat ourselves on the back for what we label “radical ministry.”

Church, we have to do better. And doing better is going to ask more of us. And what is asked of us is going to be more complex than what we’re hearing from the pulpit on Sundays IF Christian leaders start examining what goes on beneath the veneer of real discipleship.

What is the radical Christian life? It’s not always the Alex and Bree response. Sometimes, it’s asking the harder question and then doing something about it.



Between the silence of the mountains
And the crashing of the sea
There lies a land I once lived in
And she’s waiting there for me
But in the grey of the morning
My mind becomes confused
Between the dead and the sleeping
And the road that I must choose

I’m looking for someone to change my life
I’m looking for a miracle in my life
And if you could see what it’s done to me
To lose the love I knew
Could safely lead me to
The land that I once knew
To learn as we grow old
The secrets of our soul

–Excerpt from “Question” by The Moody Blues


In searching for some factoid last week, I stumbled into a piece about The Moody Blues and their top songs, one of which is “Question” (shown in the excellent video above).

I always liked that song. The plaintiveness of the question that erupts from the heart of the singer resonates.

Many people are looking at life right now and asking how it is we are where we are. Beyond the questions that afflict us all comes that one individual query, the one that haunts a lot of us who scout our personal situations and ask what happened to that place of refuge and hope from long ago, that “land that I once knew.”

I turn 50 in a few weeks, and I guess that’s good enough time as any to get introspective. Now more than ever, I run into fellow travelers paralyzed by the search for the land they once knew, for someone to change their lives, for some miracle to happen that will forever alter the inevitability of the road they find themselves on, the road that winds through the grey mists of morning that lead into forgetfulness and loss.

How is it that some people seem to find their mission and fulfill it, while other people look and look and yet the road never makes itself clear?

How is it that some people can clearly see where they have come from and where they are going, yet they never quite get to their destination?

How is it that some people find the opposition to their entire journey so strong that it never truly begins?

Where the trouble for me begins is that I know a lot of Christians who are stuck in these No Man’s Land locations. For whatever reason, they’ve been sidelined. All those things they hoped to do now seem less likely than ever. The vision that lit up their early lives now flickers, a cooling ember inside a broken heart. You can see that cool nostalgia in their eyes and hear the tremor in their voices when they tell their stories, especially when they reflect on what might have been.

Some wonder how it was that they had a yearning for foreign missions, yet every opportunity to do those missions blew up or met with seemingly pointless resistance.

Some wanted nothing more than to work with young people, yet the vicissitudes of life kept pulling them away, and now they no longer understand youth.

Some wanted to change the world for Christ, yet they got drawn into the embrace of the American Dream and saw their youth and enthusiasm sucked dry by it.

And some reflect on it all and wonder if they are the ones who put their hands to the plow but then looked back. And they wonder if there is any redemption for that very human failing, a second chance, a ticket back to that land they once knew, where they could start again and do it all right this time.

I think there are a lot of people who found that Someone who changed their life. And yet the finding somehow didn’t shield them from broken hopes and dreams, especially when those hopes and dreams were to be all they could be for that Someone.

There is no joy being caught in that time of discernment yet unable to tell the difference between the dead and the sleeping.  When the road we take from here seems obscured. I don’t know what to say to people when I see them struggling to find how to move on when there appears to be no place to move to. I hope that whatever words come out of my mouth have some of God’s life in them, but I don’t know myself how to answer the questions of how one finds himself here, because I’m not so sure of my own location.

At this point in my life, I wonder about systems and how people end up mired in them. Government, institutional religion, personal expectations, other people’s expectations– they seem to conspire to cloud rather than clarify. And the “land that I once knew” seems farther off than ever.

What do you do when you tried to do everything right by God and yet it led to this far off place that feels so alien and removed from where you think you should be?

I wish I had an answer to that question. I wonder if it lies back in that land we once lived in, but I don’t know how we get back there.


See also:

From a “What?” Church to a “How?” Church


QuestionWas reading Jack Towe’s astute comments in his post today, “Mature Christians.” He notes that he has been a part of 16 churches in his long life, but while most of them sought to answer the what? questions of Christianity, none of them talked about the how? questions.

I know Jack from a ministry he used to run in Cincinnati. He saw that a bunch of old buildings  in decent shape sat unused. He worked to buy them, fix them up, and give them to people who had no decent housing. For a couple years, I was one of those who helped Jack prep buildings for use.

Jack always was concerned for actually living out the faith and not simply knowing about it.

The issue of churches that focus on what? instead of how? is a huge one. Questions of what? are baby-step questions. They’re the basics of the Faith: What did Jesus say? What was the purpose of His coming? What are folks supposed to do once they become Christians?

What? questions are easy. Milk.

But how? questions are harder because how? takes the what? and tries to make it applicable and functional in life. Unfortunately for most churches and the Christians in them, going from what? to how? is a little like Evel Knievel’s jump across the Snake River Canyon. It seems possible, but the execution grossly underdelivers and leaves everyone a little embarrassed.

I’ve written before that authenticity issues plague the Church in America, a problem that has led to a mass exodus of 18-35ers craving more practical sense and expression to their interactions with the world.

I know what I am to do as a Christian, but how do I do those things?

How am I supposed to feed the poor when I work an 80 hour a week job?

How do I heal the sick in Jesus’ name?

I’d like to visit prisoners in jail, but how am I supposed to do this when I have young children and I’m caring for two increasingly enfeebled parents?

How do I overcome the reality that I’m bored with the Bible? How do I even confess that without feeling like I’m an awful person?

The sermon on Sunday said that God accepts us as we are and we should not be worried about appearances, yet my company is handing out pink slips to people who look old. How do I keep my job and yet not concern myself with my appearance?

How am I supposed to be used of God when I’ve suffered from depression for years and sometimes find it hard even to get out of bed in the morning?

How do I know that moment when someone is ready to come to Christ?

I’ve had seven jobs in six cities in nine years. How do I find lasting fellowship with other believers?


The dearth of how? answers arises, in part, from a clergy that’s out of touch with real life. The professional minister doesn’t always realize what life is like for “real” people. I read a book several years ago called Making Room for Life by Randy Frazee that was both excellent and terrible. Randy proposed this idea of Hebrew Time and how we should construct our lives around it, carving out space for other people and real life. Randy’s ideas were fantastic, but they were burdened by one simple truth: while they worked excellently for a professional, salaried minister (which Randy was), they completely collapsed when applied to a second-shift laborer. Or someone who lived in the country. Or someone who was caring for an enfeebled parent. Or…

The disconnect between what paid, professional clergy think is possible in life and what “real” people experience could not be greater, yet sermon after sermon on Sundays in churches nationwide will avoid the question of how? by assuming that everyone not only knows how, but can implement the answers to what? questions with ease. Yet my experience is that most churches that easily answer what? can never provide answers to how? that go beyond the preconceptions of professional clergy, who look at themselves as perfectly representative people when they are anything but.

The other problem with how? is that the answers to it are not simple. Nor are they always one-size-fits-all. Sadly, we’ve structured our churches to reach seekers primarily, so most of our solutions to life are baby-step what? answers. In truth, we haven’t much thought about answering the how? questions of life.

But how? is where life IS and remains that place where we must abide. Sticking to pat answers simply isn’t Christian. Jesus never offered pat answers. His always came from left field and rocked people’s worlds. They were the “unanswers.” They took people down pathways they never envisioned and answered questions people didn’t know they had in ways they had never explored.

Why should the Church, which supposedly reflects the assembly of the Body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit, be so incapable of generating answers to how? in the way that Jesus did? If anything, that’s what we should be known for! That’s the very authenticity young people are dying to find.

But where are the great thinkers in Christianity today, especially among Evangelicals? Who out there is answering the harsh questions of everyday living with life-infused answers that not only provide real solutions, but which also shake us up while offering us peace?

How do I live out Christian faith?

More than anything, I would like to see fewer Christian leaders telling me what I should be doing and far more helping me achieve what I should be doing, despite my circumstances.

I think that many people now struggle with how they can live as practicing, worldchanging Christians in a down economy that has them scrambling for decent jobs all the time. I have yet to see a Christian leader tackle that subject, yet issues of work possibly create more how? questions than anything else in a person’s life.

Christian leaders, the questions of how? and how best to answer them are the most important questions in people’s lives. Start offering possible solutions. This means wrestling with tough issues. You’re a leader for a reason, so stop running away from the hard questions and start being that leader. Model what it means to take the answers to what? questions and make them answer how? questions in a practical way. This is what leaders do. They blaze a trail. Now blaze it.

And even if you aren’t a leader but have been around life long enough to answer how? questions, for heaven’s sake, DO NOT HIDE YOUR INSIGHTS UNDER A BUSHEL. The Church of Jesus MUST answer how? questions. If you have experience, share it. Who knows how many people might benefit? We are a body, and what one body part knows can serve a different part!

Christian maturity isn’t knowing all the answers to the what? questions of life. It’s more about the how? in the day-to-day. Successfully answering how? is the difference between just being in the race and actually finishing it.