Recently, I was catching up with an old friend. We had attended the same church through high school. We had gone on double dates together. We had traveled on exotic mission trips together. We had reenacted elaborate biblical musicals together.
"I have a confession to make," he said at one point. "I'm an atheist now."
I was a little surprised, so I said the only thing I could think of: "Okay."
Then he asked, in all earnestness, "Can we still be friends?"
I had to laugh. “Of course, we can still be friends! And I can still believe in Jesus." My faith is a choice, I explained. If he wanted to talk about why I had chosen to keep my faith, I would share my thoughts. "But," I insisted, "my faith doesn't depend on your faith. I don't need you to believe to justify my own belief."
There is no preacher story ending to this. My friend is still an atheist. Deep wounds are not solved by mere conversation. Years of disillusionment do not disappear in a few months.
A Call to Follow the Great Commission
My friend's story came to mind several times as I was reading Follow Me by David Platt. Let me be clear. I find this book to be difficult to accept.
In the final chapters of the book, Platt calls us to share his "Vision of the Possible" (chapter 8). He challenges Christians to think globally. He uses language that empowers Christians to speak with confidence: "God has banded you together as brothers and sisters in a local church with a global commission." Then, he tells Christians that we were "Born to Reproduce" (chapter 9).
In these final chapters, Platt is a blue-faced William Wallace rallying the Scottish troops in Braveheart. He is Aragorn inspiring the army before its final stand at the Gates of Mordor.
At its best, Platt's book inspires Christians to get off their seats. Turn off the TV. Turn off the complacency. Stop being spectators and do something of eternal significance. For example, consider my favorite paragraph in the entire book:
"In our homes and our workplaces, in our families and with our friends, as husbands, wives, moms, dads, sons, daughters, employers, employees, teachers, coaches, lawyers, doctors, janitors, consultants, waiters, salespeople, and accountants, you and I intentionally lead lives that are worthy of imitation. Through modeling the character of Christ, speaking the truth of Christ, and showing the love of Christ, we commend the gospel of Christ to people around us in the process of disciple making."
Despite my objections to the book, Follow Me offers five positive challenges for 21st century American Christians.
- If you are not in a church group, start attending one.
- If you are in a church group, stop being a spectator.
- Start thinking about the global possibilities of your vocation.
- Start making disciples by acting as a witness in your vocation.
- Start actively sharing the gospel because faith without action is dead.
Platt doesn't actually quote James 2:26, but it is just under the surface of his argument. For example, he says, "People who claim to be Christians while their lives look no different from the rest of the world are clearly not Christians." As a reader of the Bible, I can accept this hard line because I know it is inspired by James.
But as a man who wrestles with the pious and judgmental nature of the American evangelical church, I cringe. Platt talks more hellfire than grace, and his rhetoric feels dangerous.
The book of James can feel dangerous, too. James rightfully challenges our shallow and dormant faith, but he does so with a spirit of grace and love. Taken out of this context, his ideas can be used to undermine grace itself.
A Perfect Mission for Imperfect People
It seems to me that Platt is similarly dangerous, though the attitude and tone of his writing is more judgmental.
At times, he openly questions the faith of people who are not making disciples or who have weak faith. Having grown up in a tradition that taught me to question my own salvation, I am particularly sensitive to these kinds of arguments. I prefer the stance taken by the author of Hebrews. When faced with an immature and unproductive church, the author of Hebrews does not question their faith but their maturity. They are living on the milk of the word instead of the meat of the word, and their lives reflect this lack of substance.
To be fair, Platt primarily questions the Christian faith of people who are on the far fringes of the faith, but his argument lacks humility and clarity. There is little room for healthy doubt.
And this is odd because the book is inspired by the great commission.
Remember how Matthew introduces the passage in chapter 28.
"Now the eleven disciples came to Galilee to the mountain where Jesus commanded them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, though they also doubted."
In his commentary on Matthew, Dale Bruner explains this passage as the birth of mission. Yet God extends his commission to an imperfect eleven, a broken group and a broken church. If that isn't enough, they also doubt!
In contrast, David Platt's rhetoric exudes confidence. At times, he emphasizes the great commission so much, it overshadows all other teachings of the Bible.
John Stott warns that this approach to missions can be dangerous in his book Christian Mission in the Modern World. This kind of thinking can lead us to forget that God is "the Creator who in the beginning gave man a 'cultural mandate' to subdue and rule the earth, who has instituted governing authorities as his 'ministers' to order society and maintain justice."
According to Stott, Christians must take the original cultural mandate in Genesis as seriously as the great commission. Our approach to missions must view social justice and vocational good as more than a means to evangelism. We are called to share our faith. There is no question about that. But we are also called to more than words. We are called to work in the world today just as we were before the Fall.
Follow Me does not seem to allow for the intrinsic value of work.
Work and Words Are Equally Valuable
God placed Adam in the garden in order to work and steward it. When the job was too difficult, God created Eve to help. From the beginning of God's story, work is more than a means to evangelism. The first thing we see God do is to create and work. The first commandment we hear God give is for us to create and work. In this way, work is intrinsic to God's nature, and it is intrinsic to ours.
Work is not merely a means to evangelism. If we elevate evangelism above work, we recreate the sacred-secular divide. Some Christian activities become a higher calling than others. Apart from a healthy view of work and the cultural mandate, the great commission becomes a message we deliver. We elevate the message of the gospel above and beyond the actions of the gospel.
The message of the gospel is important! Yes! We want to help people understand and meet Jesus. But the message we deliver is not more important than what work do. And what we do does not merely add credibility to what we say.
David Platt tells a story of a missions-focused business that understands this. He writes, "A small group of Christians are making disciples and multiplying churches... They are simply running a successful business that employs Muslim men and women... They start by sharing the gospel."
This story is so close to what we believe here at The High Calling. It is beautiful in its simplicity, but it is also incomplete. How many people do you know who are "simply running a successful business"? There is nothing simple about running a successful business. It is complicated work that requires attention to systems and cultures and market needs and supply chains and distribution and employee satisfaction and quality control and issues of scale.
This small group of Christians are doing wonderful work, hard work. They are Adam returned to work the garden and cocreate with God.
But they do not start by sharing the gospel. They start by working and cultivating the world that God has created for all of people—Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and anyone not included in this list already.
If we recognize God in our words but not in our work, we are only seeing part of God's nature. If we evangelize others without a sense of the intrinsic value of work, we may be sharing an incomplete gospel.
Back to the Beginning
This is the idea I shared with my atheist friend last week. He and I were at a large tech conference recently, and he introduced me to his immediate boss and the next boss up the ladder. All three of them are highly successful men in one of the most recognizable names in technology.
They asked about The High Calling, and I gave them a quick pitch. We believe that Christians in the workplace are called first of all to do good work and serve their companies.
The highest ranking executive turned to my friend's boss and said, "Do you hear that? It sounds like your faith should encourage you to sell more product for the company."
He was exactly right. Being Christian means more than simply sharing our faith to make disciples and multiply churches. Being Christian means simply running successful businesses—or doing any earthly work with excellence as if serving God and not man.
This is the gospel in our daily work.