The Grace of Radical Ordinariness
There has been much discussion in the evangelical world about the call to radical discipleship. Perhaps it began with Matthew Lee Anderson’s corrective to books by men like David Platt, Francis Chan, and others. I thought Matt’s piece was very helpful. On other hand, I have also been encouraged by the books and movements Anderson sought to correct. David Platt and Francis Chan and others are right in pushing the American church from it’s lethargy, of echoing Jesus call to radical discipleship.
Where the conversation, I think, is unhelpful is when it devolved into a sort of mockery of some of the radical message. I felt Anthony Bradley’s piece in World was unfair and, at times, snarky and dismissive of genuine attempts at Christian faithfulness. I also disliked Erick Erickson’s piece, which demonstrated a sort of dismissive, broad-brush approach to Christian’s answer the call to go serve Christ in hard places.
The problem, sometimes, with our discussions and our movements is that we embrace some wild, reactionary pendulum swings. I’m disturbed by this. I think it reflects our inability to embrace tension. The Scriptures are full of seemingly competing ideas that are not meant to be resolved or “won.” They are meant to be embraced as they are. One of these is the two , side-by-side ideas that form the basis of the “Radical” conversation.
On the one hand, Jesus calls us to sacrificial, out-of-the-ordinary, commitment to His call. He calls us to suffer and to die. He calls us to give up what is precious. He calls us to be his emissaries to the hard and difficult places of the world, to permeate all corners of the globe with His love.
And yet, we are called to a sort of ordinariness. A sort of faithful, anonymous regular living. We are to fulfill our unique vocations, based on the set of talents, gifts, and opportunities He has given us. We’re called not simply to be pastors or missionaries in far-flung places, we’re called to faithful living at home, in ordinary vocations, because the actual work we produce honors God as the Creator. We reflect him when we do good work.
These two realities do not have to compete. So why do they? Well I think we have two problems inherent in a depraved nature. First is the temptation to hold ourselves in higher esteem than our neighbors. So the call God has given to me has to be the call God gives everyone and so we look down on those with differing vocations and choices. The guy who moves his family into the inner city might think Christians in the suburbs are not living out fully the mission of Christ. And the suburban guy might think the city-dweller is just a bit grandstanding with his big ‘save-the-city’ mission. Both suffer from judgmentalism. We can easily become legalistic and make our choices the norm for everyone around us.
Secondly, we tend to justify our own choices and comforts. So our reaction to reading a book like Radical might be to mask the conviction of the Spirit with a sort of mockery. I know this attitude well as a long-time Christian. I remember growing up and looking friends who took their Christian commitment a bit too seriously. The easiest thing, when you are seriously challenged, is to respond with mockery and self-justification.
So how should we approach our call to discipleship? First, we should it seriously. I agree with Ed Stetzer when he says that, in general, the problem in America is not that too many Christians are selling all they have and moving to far-flung places. The problem is that not enough people are. As a pastor I see, too often, a lazy approach to Christianity, where living for Christ really causes no additional sacrifice. To follow him, to evangelize, to grow in knowledge is viewed as sort of a nice option after everything else in life is taken care of. To see the gospel permeate all of life sounds a bit too, well, radical. The Great Commission after all, is not an option. Making disciples is part and parcel of our Christian commitment. And to mock someone like David Platt who has an urgent desire to see Christians make disciples, to me, is wrongheaded. It sounds too much like the short-sighted church folks who dismissed William Carey’s burden to bring the gospel to India. I praise God for men like David Platt.
But secondly, we must understand that you can be radical in an ordinary sort of way. Radical doesn’t always mean doing what God called someone else to do. And my radicalness shouldn’t be used as a hammer against your life. The radical call to discipleship shouldn’t damage the doctrine of vocation, which gives God-ordained worth and value to seemingly “secular” endeavors. The guy who sweats Monday-thru-Friday in a low-paying factory job can be radical in that he is unusually committed to his chosen vocation, seriously about knowing Christ, wildly extravagant in his giving, and faithful to his local church. He may never write a New York Times bestselling book, may never be interviewed by Christianity Today, and will likely never appear at a conference near you. And yet, he is radical. I think of my own father, a plumber. Dad doesn’t preach sermons. Doesn’t visit AIDS orphans. Hasn’t been to a third-world country. And yet Dad has always done great, great plumbing work to the glory of God. He’s been an incredibly sacrificial giver. He’s been faithful to God and to his local Bible-believing church. And he raised his family to love Jesus. That’s radical in an ordinary way. Dad has been radically faithful in a way that few Christian men are.
My point is that we shouldn’t pit Christians like my father over against Christians who are doing more seemingly radical stuff like digging wells and helping in the slave trade. We need both kinds of people. We shouldn’t shame those who are being faithful where they are in their chosen vocation, who live in the suburbs, who have nice manicured lawns. And we shouldn’t mock those who feel persuaded to move to difficult areas of the world and live out the gospel that way.
And all of us should periodically examine our obedience. Are we being radical where God has called us?