Note: You may want to read the Christianity Today article, “Here Come the Radicals!” by Matthew Lee Anderson in conjunction with Dan’s post.
Thanks to Dan for sharing these perspectives with us. Check out his blog at Sliced Soup.
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A dozen or so years ago, I took my youth group to an event called, Acquire the Fire. For those unfamiliar with ATF, think of it as Promise Keepers on steroids. 14,000 teenagers jammed into Michigan State’s basketball arena for a weekend of music, videos, drama, and, especially, preaching; all of it had one theme: You are not radical enough in your devotion to God.
At the next church service, the teens gave testimonies of what spiritual impact the weekend had. Andy, one of the student leaders summed up the challenge to the youth group and the church as a whole with this warning: “Listen, if you don’t want to be completely sold out and filled with the Spirit…run!” It was a shot across the bow, letting everyone know that lukewarm Christianity would no longer be tolerated.
Andy has grown into a fine young father, wise beyond his years, and I am sure he looks back on the episode with a wince and a wink. For no-one ran, but neither did most change in the long run. That weekend (and more like it) served to up the ante of what it means to be a Christian, but only a few students actually changed their behavior for more than a month or two.
I thought of that event (and Andy’s bold warning) today as a read an article on the glut of new books aimed at making Christians more radical in their commitment to Christ. The article is the cover story of the March issue of Christianity Today, and is titled, “Here Come the Radicals”. Matthew Lee Anderson surveys the books which have come out and offers a rather nuanced critique. I have broken up my comments into three posts. This one, the first, will basically be a summary and analysis of Anderson’s article. The second and third will deal with my own critique (for what it’s worth) of the new call to radicalism.
Anderson begins by focusing on David Platt, pastor of a mega-church in Alabama, who in both his books and his sermons is renowned for calling Christians to a more radical commitment to Christ. At the heart of Platt’s message is that we often turn the “radical Jesus of the Bible…into the comfortable Jesus of 21st century American culture. Our luxury and self-focus have blinded us to the lost and the hungry around the world.
The article then lists other men who are writing in a similar vein. Altogether, the books he engages with are:
- Radical (David Platt)
- Radical Together (David Platt)
- The Irresistible Revolution (Shane Claiborne)
- Not a Fan (Kyle Idleman)
- Crazy Love (Francis Chan)
- Greater (Steven Furtick)
Noting that all of these books have hit the Christian best-seller list (and most are still on them), Anderson writes:
In other words, the radical message has found an eager market. The books have their theological and pastoral differences, but the thrust of their rhetoric moves in the same direction. They have both incited and tapped into a widespread dissatisfaction with many American’s comfortable, middle-class way of life and the Christianity that so easily fits within it. These pastors may not be saying much new about the Bible or Jesus, but their message says enough about us.
Anderson notes the dominant theme (you’re not really committed to Christ unless…) by highlighting typical phrases:
- We radical abandonment to Jesus
- We need to understand what it means to really follow Jesus
- We need a desire for ‘more God’, even if we are surrounded by people who have ‘enough God’
- we need to have a ‘serious self-inventory’
- we need to have a ‘define the relationship’ talk with Jesus
- we need to put everything in our lives on the table before God
- counting on the sinner’s prayer for salvation is superstitious
- a lot of people who call themselves Christians are dangerously deceived
The common warning is that a stunted belief in Jesus that does not result in radical obedience is either missing the point of the Christian life or is missing salvation itself. Those who are held up as models of the Christian life are those who made radical life changes to follow Christ, like becoming overseas missionaries, or moving into the inner city. Anderson writes, “It really hard to read these books, one after another, and confidently declare yourself a Christian at the end”.
What to make of this? Well, before getting to Anderson’s critique (and later my own) let me just honor these pastors for taking up the trumpet and sounding forth the same needed note played by many others in previous centuries. Every generation needs its own prophets reminding us, in the words of Bonheoffer, that the call to the cross is a call to come and die. For the seminal period of my own life, A. W. Tozer played this role for me, just as Kierkegaard, Andrew Murray, and countless others did for people in their time. Perhaps we need this trumpet call more clearly in our culture than even in times past, since the usual cacophony of the world is increasingly joined with the strident songs of the prosperity preachers. I continue to believe the greatest heresy of the modern American church is the monstrous notion that the gospel is primarily about making us succeed in this world’s terms.
So I take my place on the side of these men. I count them not only as my brothers, but models of Christian commitment that I can learn much from.
But every emphasis needs both clarity and balance, and Anderson offers an irenic but helpful critique of the new call to radicalism.
First, he points out that the medium is constantly working against the message. He notes that the message of self-denial and of radical concern for the poor “occurs in massive church buildings in middle-class surroundings, spoken to people who shop at the Gap, on platforms called stages rather than pulpits. In order to inject the message with more meaning and more power we revert to the language of the theater—one of our cultures favorite pastimes.”
In the same vein, he writes:
What’s more, the radical message comes packaged in the Christian-conference-publishing-celebrity-industrial complex… [which] has to think and act with profits in mind. The really radical path for a mega-church pastor these days would be to refuse to publish, to take a smaller church, to not podcast sermons, and to embrace a more monastic witness. The irony is that if they tried, we’d probably turn them into larger celebrities and laud their humility. The desert fathers had a similar problem. But if the message is going to critique the American dream for the people in the pews, then we need pastors willing to show us the path of downward mobility in their lives.
A second corrective Anderson gives relates to the difference between an interior and individualized faith (based mainly on personal intensity) and a public, culture-changing, multi-generational faith-movement. As he puts it, “The urgent rhetoric of preaching the gospel to the billion unreached and helping the poor right now leaves little space to create the institutions and practices (art, literature, theology, liturgy, festivals, etc.) that can transmit such an inheritance to the next generation, and to form belief in deeper and more permanent ways.”
To use an analogy of my own, while the founding fathers of our country needed a fighting army, they also needed to create, perfect, and sustain institutions, practices and ideas so that the freedom fought for lasted for more than one or two generations. The radical commitment of the infantry soldier will take a different form than the work of the state representative. In focusing on radical commitment rather than faithfulness , the heroic rather than the mundane, these pastors risk undermining the ways that most people can better serve Christ; they are at risk of divorcing spirituality from the everyday (even as they proclaim a holistic commitment to Christ).
Anderson’s warning, I think, is fair and needed. It is not that a call to deeper commitment to Christ is bad, of course; rather, that call needs to be interpreted in a way that everyday people can follow over the long haul.
That last sentence brings us to the brink of my own critique of the new radicals (to use CT’s phrase). But that will be in part 2.