Yesterday I read a post called Demythologizing “Radical” Christianity at the Internet Monk. A few paragraphs in, I was disagreeing vehemently with the post. It seemed to be both promoting complacency and demonstrating contempt for passionate Christians. But I don’t know…the more I read, the more I began to wonder if there wasn’t a valid point in there somewhere. I think the article is unnecessarily critical, but it also points out traps that we Evangelicals too often fall into. Chaplain Mike argues that in an attempt to escape the corrosive effects of consumerism, the Evangelical church has made an idol of activism – or “radical missionalism”, as Gordon McDonald calls it. We measure true spirituality in light of what we do – to evangelize, fight injustice, help the poor – in short, save the world. We’ve replaced God as the divine vending machine with God as “the the One who exists to grow our churches or solve the problem of world hunger.” The point, I think, is not that we should not care about the poor or want to reach others with the gospel, but that making our activism (and the expected results) the test of our Christian faith, rather than a Spirit-led outgrowth of that faith, “robs people of their joy, burdens them with guilt, and fails to draw people into a passionate communion with Christ.”
Even now, typing that, I’m a little uneasy with it. I think many people find joy and passion through service, and I’m certain that we are called to lives of discipleship. But what Chaplain Mike goes on to say strikes me very deeply.
Friends, it’s OK to just be a Christian. Receive God’s grace in Christ through Word and Sacrament. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love your brothers and sisters in Christ. Walk in the Spirit. That is truly radical. Not flashy. Not “extreme.” But fundamental. Solid. Grounded. Maturing.
In my corner of the church world I see a another danger, in addition to the idols of consumerism or activism. It’s emotionalism. We want to feel transported every time we come together in worship. We want music that moves us, preaching that is dynamic, prayer lives that are filled with ecstatic encounters with God. We want to be “on fire” at all times, and if we are not, we start carrying guilt or laying blame. Few of us want to be “ordinary” followers of Jesus, finding our satisfaction in quietly serving, carrying on with the spiritual disciplines even when we’re feeling muted and weary. In that environment Chaplain Mike’s advice seem like water in the desert. I don’t have be “extreme,” whatever that means. I can be solid, grounded, maturing.
In the comment section of Chaplain Mike’s post a reader refers to this problem as “Radical On Fire For Christ As The Only True Keepers Of The Flame brand Christianity”. That makes me laugh, in the “funny because it’s true” kind of way. We Evangelicals tend to always be scanning the horizon for the next church, next book, next movement, next thing that will make us feel extra-spiritual-special. We mock as lukewarm anyone who suggests that perhaps a life of simple faithfulness to an ordinary calling is worthwhile. Oh, no. We want the constant buzz, and we’re pretty sure that Jesus promised it to us.
I understand this drive. I really do. I’ve always been a bit of an extremist myself, in the activist vein. I’ve looked not only for the emotional high but the sense of specialness that comes from constantly pushing some cause (all for Jesus, of course). In high school, it was the pro-life movement. In college, it was famine relief. In early adulthood I was campaigning for political prisoners and arguing against the death penalty. And on it’s goes. I don’t regret any of those commitments and I still try to rouse some rabble from time to time. But I’ve also come to accept that I’m not called to be a high profile “world changer” right now – perhaps never. I have enough on my plate trying to love my husband and care for my children and invest in the life of my church. Am I a sellout? Is God disappointed in me? And what about that emotionalism? Why is it that I find it so hard to sustain the highs? Do I just really not love Jesus enough?
More and more, as the years pass, I find myself looking to the elderly Christians I’ve known over my lifetime – the “saints of the church”, as we often refer to them. I look to someone like Pauline, who is 93 this year. She has been in our church since she was 19 years old. Pauline loved her husband and raised her children and led, from all I know, a pretty ordinary life. She taught children’s Sunday school for decades and bestowed little gifts on the children of the church (including my own), and always has a wonderful word to say about the goodness of God. I’ve never heard Pauline complain that she didn’t get to be a missionary or end human trafficking. I’ve also never heard her complain that the music in the service doesn’t move her or the preacher doesn’t deliver like they did in the old days. She is faithful. She is content. She is a saint and loved by everyone who knows her.
How much sweeter and more winsome to be like Pauline than like some other Christians I know who are anxiously, restlessly waiting for God to do the Big Thing in their lives for which they were surely born; who are constantly lamenting that they don’t feel the way they did when first converted; who are complaining that the Christians around them just aren’t passionate or “sold out” enough. I’m reminded of Judith Warner’s description of perfectionist parenting as a “choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret”. I’m sure I know some Christians who are tossing back the same drink.
I suspect that some will read this post and think I’m endorsing lazy, apathetic, uncommitted Christianity. I’m not, truly. I happen to think we already have that in abundance in the U.S. That particular aberration doesn’t need my boosterism. I’m not encouraging anyone to stay in the shallow end of the pool. What I’m suggesting is that perhaps we’ve been confused about what it means to really dive in deep. It may not mean that you’ll be shouting and dancing in church every week. It may not mean that you will found an orphanage in Uganda, or preach a sermon that will bring weeping throngs to the their knees, or publish a book that will reveal the secret to spiritual transformation. Maybe you won’t even be able to pull the triple shift at your church’s all night prayer vigil. But perhaps in the deep end you will learn what it is to be content. Perhaps you will clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Perhaps you will love your enemies and encourage the disheartened and live in peace. Perhaps you will lead a quiet life.
As Chaplain Mike points out, the word “radical” comes from “radix”, meaning “root”. To get back to the root of Christlikeness – to be the kind of person I’ve just described – seems plenty radical to me.