May 30, 2013

The High Calling of Everyday Ordinary Living

Being a “radical,” “missional,” Christian is slowly becoming the “new legalism.” We need more ordinary God and people lovers (Matt 22:36-40). - @drantbradley

That was a tweet sent out earlier this month from Anthony Bradley, Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at The King’s College in New York City and a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute.

Can a Christian simply dedicate his or her life to loving God and loving neighbors, or does God demand from us a life that is extraordinary? What does it take to glorify God in today's world?

Do Christians have to be "radical" to have significance?

Anthony Bradley expands on what he meant in his tweet at a post at The Acton Institute’s Power Blog (and re-printed at WORLD). In his post, “The New Legalism: Missional, Radical, Narcissistic, and Shamed,” Bradley writes,

“I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and young adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not be doing something unique and special. Today’s Millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential. The sad result is that many young adults feel ashamed if they “settle” into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thess 4:11 says, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.” For too many Millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.”

Bradley names what he believes are the causes of this. The first is an attitude of “anti-suburbanism” that is being promoted to and by young adult Christians which places such an emphasis on doing ministry in neglected cities that living in the suburbs is seen as settling for something less spiritual. The second cause is “missional narcissism,” when a zeal for local missions gets coupled with the Millennial generation’s tendency to have an inflated view of the self. The result, according to Bradley, is that the only way that Millenials have been taught that their faith life is meaningful is when it is "done in a unique and special way, a ‘missional’ way.”

This leads him to his criticism of the “radical Christianity” movement that has been promoted by such books as David Platt’s Radical. In an earlier review of that book for WORLD, Bradley stated,

“Using Christianity as a means of achieving comfort, safety, ease, and professional success has certainly poisoned the missional spirit of many Christians. But while Platt rightly calls this syncretism sin, in the end readers are left with nothing more than a ‘compassionate revivalist’ Christianity that fails to radically call Christians to live in harmony with God's desire to redeem the entire creation... Reducing the mission of the Kingdom to evangelism tends to discourage Christians from pressing the claims of Christ into renewing and creating culture.”

The High Calling’s own Marcus Goodyear had similar thoughts on Platt’s book, saying,

“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 we do. And what we do does not merely add credibility to what we say…

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.”

Are we in danger of creating a new "legalism?"

So what Anthony Bradley is cautioning Christians about is that all this talk about “love for the city” and “missional incarnation” and “radical Christianity” loads up a lot of shame on Christians. This is what he calls a "new legalism," because it creates a man-made standard when all we are actually called to do is to love God and love our neighbor. Bradley states,

“Maybe Christians are simply to pursue living well and invite others to do so according to how God has ordered the universe. An emphasis on human flourishing, ours and others, becomes important because it is characterized by a holistic concern for the spiritual, moral, physical, economic, material, political, psychological, and social context necessary for human beings to live according to their design.”

I still think that there is a great need to call Christians away from the "Suburban" malaise that American Civil “Christianity” (in quotes, since it is a pale imitation of the real thing) has created, where the desire for comfort and security takes precedence over the willingness to take risks and make sacrifices for the sake of the Kingdom. But that being said, Bradley seems to me to be correct about how we often have a tendency to swing the pendulum too far the other way. Certainly we want to be on the front lines of transformation in needy places, but that is not the calling of every Christian. We can glorify God in the ordinary as well.

As Drew Randle writes in "Transcending the Ordinary" here at The High Calling,

"Why do we struggle with this? We want the glory of the extreme. We want to be recognized. To rescue the child stranded in a smoke-filled house. To discover the next technological advance. To preach the next, best sermon. God may call us to these extraordinary things. However, most of the time, he calls us to be extraordinary in the everyday, to glorify him in ordinary things."

What does God actually expect from Christians?

In college ministry (where I spend the majority of my time), this is always the tension: I want to encourage college students to live life as whole-hearted disciples of Christ, where every sphere is yielded to his Lordship. Why? So that they can “transform the world!” But can any of these students actually do this? Both Andy Crouch and James Davison Hunter say, “No." They say that changing the world is too grand a cause for any one of us. As Crouch writes, 

“When we thoughtlessly grasp for the heedless rhetoric of ‘changing the world,’ we expose ourselves to temptation. We find ourselves in a situation similar to Adam and Eve’s in the Garden. ‘You will be like God, knowing good and evil’… Is there a way to change the world without falling into one of the many traps laid for would-be world changers? If so, it will require us to learn the one thing the language of ‘changing the world’ usually lacks: humility” (Andy Crouch, Culture Makingp. 201).

Hunter states that all Christians are actually called to do is to be a “faithful presence” in the places that God has placed them,

 “...fully present and committed in their spheres of social influence, whatever they may be: their families, neighborhoods, voluntary activities, and places of work…to create conditions in the structures of social life we inhabit that are conducive to the flourishing of all.” (James Davison Hunter, To Change the Worldp. 247)

So in my college ministry, I try to help young Christians realize that they will actually make their greatest contributions not as “radical” missionaries with some high-profile ministry or NGO, but within the vocations to which God has called them.

  • This serves the common good (both for the city and for the suburbs) as they faithfully and intentionally work for the flourishing of all -- their co-workers, the communities and cultural spheres that are affected by their industry, our culture’s various institutions, our families, etc.
  • This is missional because it participates with God in his redemption of the world as they love their neighbors in and through their vocations,
  • And this is indeed radical, because as they live faithfully in their everyday vocations they are intentionally looking for ways to participate in God’s kingdom. As they are purposeful in all they do to help people experience the way God intends things to be, their ethics and proclamation will be genuine and effective.

What Anthony Bradley is telling us is that, as Christians live normal lives characterized by love and a desire to promote shalom (universal flourishing), they are indeed living radical Christian lives. 

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Post by Bob Robinson, a Content Editor for The High Calling and the Executive Director of The Center to Reintegrate Faith, Life, and Vocations. Read Bob's articles in the (re)integrate online magazine, follow Reintegrate's tweets at @re_integrate and Bob's personal twitter at @Bob_Robinson_re.

Image by Mathias Klintberg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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