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Radical or Normal? Or Neither?

'Old Globe' photo (c) 2007, Kenneth Lu - license:


Update: The article referenced below is now featured on the World Magazine website. It was written by Anthony Bradley.

Recently I have been reading critiques of what some are calling the new legalism of being “radical” or “missional.” One writer suggests young adults are constantly under guilt and pressure to do something amazing for God. He states this leads to a new culture of narcissism and shame within the church. Are you radical enough? Are you doing enough? Or have you settled for a conventional, suburban life?

I get what he’s saying, and I have struggled with this in my own heart. I wonder if I’m doing enough. Am I sacrificing enough? Am I wasting my life? Should we move from the suburbs? Should we move overseas? What am I doing? It quickly becomes legalism, and I judge others by the same standards, or even stricter ones. Why do they live in such a big house? Why don’t they go on mission trips? Legalism is exactly the word for it.

The solution given by some of these writers is a “normal life.” We’re told we just need more people content to live a normal, suburban life. We need people who have kids, grow the church through our children and just live faithfully. We don’t have to leave our current context, but should stay here and serve and love where we are.

But then I have conversations like one I had with a young friend today. She has dreamed of going overseas for years and desires to start an orphanage or some sort of orphan care ministry. But she knows there’s a mission field right here in Nashville–right out her suburban front door, in her school, at her workplace, even in our church. So she almost feels a little guilty for going overseas, as if she’s saying the mission field here isn’t good enough or big enough or radical enough.

This is what happens when we bounce from extreme to extreme. Either everyone should move to the ghetto or overseas, or everyone should be content to live in the suburbs. I don’t think anyone would actually say those words, but when we react to one idea so strongly, we risk this effect.

In essence, we leave out one important component–the Holy Spirit.

When my husband and I were actively praying about and pursuing a possible adoption of a child with special needs, many people thought we were crazy. This particular need scares many people, but it didn’t scare us at all. And this isn’t because we’re super-human. It’s because the Lord had clearly put this on our hearts. It just seemed obvious. Other families who adopt kids with other needs seem crazy to me. I can’t imagine doing what they do. But I get it–it’s not radical to them; it’s just where their hearts are.

When we tell people they don’t have to move overseas to be missionaries, we’re right. But let’s not quench what the Spirit may be doing in their hearts. And when we say everyone could move to the ghetto or work overseas, this might be true too. You could do it. But let’s not mistake the possibility for a commandment. It could be we are called to be right where we are.

Either way, the Great Commission is for all of us. “All the world” includes suburban Nashville and outer Mongolia. The mission is the same, but the placement is up to the Holy Spirit. I have to remember, Jesus gave His followers the Great Commission, then gave them instructions to wait until the Holy Spirit came upon them. It’s all Spirit-powered.

We can tell one another, “You don’t have to do this,” but let’s not forget that it might be just what we have to do–just what the Spirit has put in our hearts to do. This is what it means to abide in Christ (John 15). If we’re there, abiding, we will bear fruit. We can’t do it apart from the vine. My friend Marci says, “As we draw near to Christ He bears the fruit through us. We can dream big as we think about how we would like to participate in the kingdom of God, but we have to let the Lord put us there.”

So I pray we will come alongside each other, praying for the Spirit’s guidance and power in directing each of our paths. May we encourage those serving in the suburbs as well as those in the inner cities or undisclosed locations. May we not assume our passion is from us, but instead given to us uniquely by a loving God who graciously created us for this very purpose–proclaiming His gospel for His glory. May we celebrate and encourage those with other gifts and pray as they use them by the Spirit’s power. May we focus on international missions and local missions–may one fuel the other, in a cycle of excitement and rejoicing at the power of our great God.

Wherever we are, let us love. And let us assume nothing–the gospel is for each of us, every day of our lives.

4 responses »

  1. So good. So very good — and I hate using the word “very.”

  2. This is Carol on behalf of the Parks family. Catherine, you’re absolutely right and thank you for the reminder. Sometimes pastors & teachers, authors & journalists create guilt in their zeal to energize the “frozen chosen.” Ultimately, though, it is the Holy Spirit that moves the pew-sitters to action, in the neighborhood or overseas.

  3. Catherine, I think we all bring our own history and context to this issue. First, I thought the article brushed with a broad brush. Second, I think the word “legalism” is a bit extreme in this case unless the local church leadership is actually telling its people this is the only way to be holy. Moreover, we have experienced the exact opposite. Major complacency in many types of churches we’ve been in. Third, and this is a huge issue, you have to consider the teleology of the suburbs. It’s not that you “can’t” be a Christian in the suburbs, it’s that you have to be so incredibly deliberate because the entire structure and function of the suburbs is working against you (e.g. ease, comfort, safety, accumulating riches, segregation, complacency, etc. etc.).

    This is just my two cents. But I see the middle ground you’re trying to strike and it is indeed true that it MUST be Holy Spirit driven. As John Piper has said there are senders and there are goers. :-)

    • Catherine Parks

      Luma, thanks so much for taking the time to read and respond. It means a lot. I agree with you, and wonder too if it’s actually very helpful to speak so broadly on an issue so complex. In my own context, I know young adults who run the whole spectrum. But I think the backlash to this is that people with a desire and passion for going overseas or living in certain areas actually being discouraged from doing so. It has not been my experience to see churches being too radical…if only that were the problem. But I think young people are reacting against the complacency they’ve seen for so long (and rightly so), yet we easily turn that reaction into comparison. Are we doing enough? Are we sacrificing enough? It’s all just very reactionary. My own church is awakening to the great need for gospel clarity and understanding in our wealthy, Bible belt suburban context. It’s a beautiful thing to watch people meet their neighbors and come out of their comfortable way of life. And yet it’s still a constant struggle for dependence on Christ, rather than on our possessions or safety, as you mentioned.

      I do disagree with his suggestion that this pressure is causing young people to leave the church. In my context, the problem seems to be more a misplaced identity. These kids are so wrapped up in academics, athletics, and extra-curricular activities. It becomes who they are. So they go off to college and these things continue to consume. Where can church life fit in? If it isn’t a priority in high school, why will it be in college? And they get out of college and their whole communities are wrapped around what they do. They are challenged to be and do better. But the brand of Christianity they have consumed provides no challenge to their way of life. Their parents look no different than unbelievers. So what’s the point? Where’s the meaning? Where’s the “I count everything but loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”?

      Anyway, thanks for chiming in :).


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