April 11, 2011
Skye Jethani: Redefining Radical (Part 1)
Why the call to radical mission is not the solution to consumer Christianity.
“How radical do I have to be?” the suburban mom asked. She had recently read a number of Christian books decrying the self-centered nature of much of the American church. The authors had apparently had enough of the consumer orientation of their congregations. As a remedy, each of the books calls readers to live a counter-cultural life of radical sacrifice and mission. The books, while inspiring, left this woman feeling “exhausted.”
“I totally agree with the their assessment of the church. We are too self- centered,” she explained. “But how radical is enough? Should I sell my house and car? It is wrong for my kids to be attending a private school? Do I need to move oversees and work with orphans? I want to really experience the Christian life, but now I’m wondering if that’s even possible here in the suburbs.” She was looking for my pastoral advice. What I told her is not what I would have said 5 years ago.
I agreed with her that consumer culture has impacted the way many Christians view their faith. As sociologist Christian Smith has remarked, many Americans view God as a combination divine butler and cosmic therapist. And the church is often seen as a dispenser of religious goods and services for the enjoyment of those who put money in the offering plate. My unease about Consumer Christianity reached a crescendo a few years ago, so I actually wrote a whole book about the epidemic.
But what exactly are we to do about consumer Christians? The solution I hear in many ministry settings, and the one I would have given 5 years ago, is to transform people from consumer Christians into activist Christians.
The exact direction of this activism may depend on one’s theological and ecclesiological orientation. For traditional evangelicals its all about evangelism--getting believers to share their faith, give to overseas missions, and grow the church. For many younger evangelicals it may focus upon compassion and justice--digging wells and eradicating poverty. But what the traditional and younger evangelicals agree upon is that we are to live our lives for God by accomplishing his mission however we may define it.
But after years of hearing, and offering, this call to radical activism, I’ve realized that activist Christianity may be just as detrimental and off-center as consumer Christianity. We can all agree that using God simply as a divine vending machine to provide us with the American Dream, as consumer Christianity teaches, is wrong. God is not a means to an end. He is the end. But what about using God as a means of solving world hunger, growing the church, or constructing a sense of self-worth and value? Could such activist Christian tendencies be equally flawed? Might activist Christianity also reduce God to a useful device?
We pastors have a tendency to over-correct the error of consumer faith and instead make evangelism or justice the center of our life rather than Christ. We essentially exchanging one error for another, albeit a more admirable one. As Tim Keller says, idols are “good things turned into ultimate things.” When presented this way missional activism can lead to the kind of exhaustion expressed by the suburban mom, and it robs us and our people of the joy Christ intends for his children.
I’m reminded of the parable of the lost sons (Luke 15). The self-centered younger son only cares about his father’s wealth and squanders it on debauchery. He is an extreme model of consumer Christianity in which we focus on our Heavenly Father’s gifts, not the Father himself. But in the parable Jesus shows that the older, obedient son is just as lost as his wayward brother. His service for his father, his tireless activism, results in an equally estranged heart. In the end his focus is not on a loving communion with his father, but simply what he can accomplish for his father.
Are our calls to radical missionalism, to use Gordon MacDonald’s word, simply making younger son into older sons? Are we exchanging one false gospel for another? And might this explain the weariness felt by the suburban mom I encountered? Consumer Christianity is a pandemic in the American church, on that I agree. But a prescription of radical activism is not the remedy. It robs people of their joy, burdens them with guilt, and fails to draw people into a passionate communion with Christ. And we should remember that one of the most disturbing statements of Jesus is directed at those who nonetheless accomplished great things for him:
On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:22-23)
In Part 2, Jethani will examine how our narrow definition of radical Christianity ignores the rich Protestant theology of vocation.