I remember meeting with a friend over lunch one day. We had been in Bible college together. I had gone on into the ministry in a small church in the Vermont mountains. He never was able to find his way into “full-time ministry.” And he felt terrible about it. One of the things that was driving him crazy was reading biographies of “great Christians” that others had recommended to help him discover his calling.
He did not feel like he could relate to any of them. These Christian “superstars” all had dynamic personalities. They were pioneers. They seemed to have no trouble stepping into the unknown with courage and reckless abandon. Their charisma drew people to them like a can of soda pop attracts bees at a summer picnic. They not only had “successful” ministries, they started entire movements and organizations, and, at least according to the books, God did magnificent works through their lives. But these hagiographies that had been urged upon my friend did little to encourage him; indeed, just the opposite.
My former college mate simply did not have the kind of personality these Christian “heroes” had. He was quieter, more thoughtful, less visionary and activist in his orientation. He lacked self-confidence and was not driven to achieve lofty goals. My friend admitted to having lots of doubts and questions. If the Christian leaders in the books likewise had them, their biographers certainly didn’t highlight that fact, and it made him wonder.
If this was the model, the template for being a “man of God,” my friend was realizing that he had been formed from a different mold. He felt like a player on the field in a game he’d never practiced, trying to compete against a bunch of pros. He wondered if he lacked commitment, or faith. He questioned whether God had a place for him to serve.
In the second part of his articles at Out of Ur on “Redefining Radical,” Skye Jethani asks us to think about who we set up as examples and models of the Christian faith in our churches.
Consider who is celebrated in most churches. Typically it is the person who is engaged in “full time Christian work”–the pastor or missionary, or people who pursue social causes that result in a big and measurable impact. (Who isn’t talking about William Wilberforce these days?) Similarly, those who behave like pastors or missionaries periodically in their workplace, neighborhood, or perhaps on a short-term trip overseas are praised for these actions. But a church will rarely, if ever, celebrate a person’s “ordinary” life and work.
Evangelicalism’s definition of “radical” does not seem to include ordinary people living quiet, faithful lives, fulfilling their God-given vocations in the normal course of daily life. I think that’s a big problem.
So does Skye Jethani.
Here’s the problem–when we call people to radical Christian activism, we tend to define what qualifies as “radical” very narrowly. Radical is moving overseas to rescue orphans. Radical is not being an attorney for the EPA. Radical is leaving your medical practice to vaccinate refugees in Sudan. Radical is not taking care of young children at home in the suburbs. Radical is planting a church in Detroit. Radical is not working on an assembly line.
What we communicate, either explicitly or implicitly, by this call to radical activism is that experiencing the fullness of the Christian life depends upon one’s circumstances and actions. Sure, the man working on an assembly line for 50 years can be a faithful Christian, but he’s not going to experience the same sense of fulfillment and significance as the one who does something extreme–who cashes in his 401k and relocates to Madagascar to rescue slaves.
The error Jethani points out is pervasive in American evangelicalism, and it is as representative of fallen American culture as the “consumer” mentality or the “entertainment” addiction we often lament and critique. This is the elevation of the successful entrepreneur, the celebration of the “winner,” the admiration of the risk-taker, the worship of the extraordinary achiever. We love the adrenalin rush of hearing about exciting adventures. We love “the thrill of victory” (not so much “the agony of defeat”). We desire to either have the “great experience” ourselves or live it vicariously through someone else. We must have our super-heroes and feel like we are on their team.
Now, there is a place for this. I don’t want to flatten life to the point where we don’t appreciate those who may be specially gifted, recognize outstanding accomplishments, or admire extraordinary sacrifices. Nevertheless, in our celebrity-saturated society, it seems we are on a track of needing more and more of this, while at the same time we understand less and less about the blessing of common everyday grace and faithfulness.
By so doing, we create first and second-class Christians—those who are “radical,” “sold out,” “on fire,” “totally committed,” and those who are not. We also seize control of a process that is the rightful domain of the Holy Spirit. Friends, it is not the pastor or the church that is called to define the path of discipleship. That’s God’s job. Too many church leaders are making up their own definitions and laying burdens on believers that are much too heavy to bear. Their “radical” yoke is not easy.
I was heartened to read that Skye Jethani’s prescription for us is a revival of the Reformation doctrine of vocation. In my view, vocation is one of the most important and delightful teachings that drew me to appreciate the Lutheran tradition. It is summarized well in the following quote from Gene Edward Veith:
When I go into a restaurant, the waitress who brings me my meal, the cook in the back who prepared it, the delivery men, the wholesalers, the workers in the food-processing factories, the butchers, the farmers, the ranchers, and everyone else in the economic food chain are all being used by God to “give me this day my daily bread.”
This is the doctrine of vocation. God works through people, in their ordinary stations of life to which He has called them, to care for His creation. In this way, He cares for everyone—Christian and non-Christian—whom He has given life.
Luther puts it even more strongly: Vocations are “masks of God.” On the surface, we see an ordinary human face—our mother, the doctor, the teacher, the waitress, our pastor—but, beneath the appearances, God is ministering to us through them. God is hidden in human vocations.
The other side of the coin is that God is hidden in us. When we live out our callings—as spouses, parents, children, employers, employees, citizens, and the rest—God is working through us. Even when we do not realize it, when we fulfill our callings, we too are masks of God. -- Gene Edward Veith, “The Masks of God”
The essential apostolic perspective on this is found in 1Cor 4:2—“Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” The quality of our life with Christ is not measured by how “radical” it is. God asks us to be faithful, by his grace, to that which he has entrusted to us.
If you are a plumber, be a faithful and honest plumber. Do your work well. Help people. Provide for your family and bless others through the wages you earn. Be a good neighbor and use your skills to assist folks in need when you can. In so doing, God will work through you to bless the world. You need not think you are doing less than the pastor or missionary or the person who does something out of the ordinary. You may never take a mission trip. You may not be able to serve in the church institution as much as you’d like. You may never give a sermon or lead someone personally to conversion. People won’t think of you as a “radical Christian,” but if you live faithfully in the vocations God has given you, that’s exactly what you’ll be. Salt of the earth. Light of the world.
I like the word Skye Jethani gives to church leaders like himself at the end of his article:
So I’ve come to embrace the reality that my place as a church leader is not to get people to do more for God. Rather, I believe my responsibility is to give others a ravishing vision, rooted in Scripture and modeled by my own example, of a life lived it communion with God. And there, as they abide in him, calling will happen. The Lord of the harvest will call and send workers. And he will call others to live quietly and work with their hands. Some may be butchers, and others lawyers, and some he will even call to be suburban moms. And all of their work will be holy, good, and, if rooted in communion with God, truly radical.
I don’t know about you, but I am tired of the hype. I’m ready to start a “Remove the Adjectives” campaign to protest the addition of any description to my calling as a follower of Christ. I am a Christian. Period. In life, I am a husband, father, grandfather, neighbor, member of my community, hospice chaplain, Little League baseball coach, blog author, and so on. In and through these “masks” God loves the world through me. I, who have been given these trusts, am called to be faithful.
I can’t think of a higher calling! A more noble stewardship!
Please, don’t start laying words like “radical” on me. That’s your deal, not God’s.