This August, I will begin my fifteenth year in teaching, which also means that over the past fourteen, I have finished them all by sitting through fourteen different--yet remarkably similar--high school graduation ceremonies.
Well, that's not true. There were three of them I found to be somewhat riveting.
By an incredible coincidence, I was the speaker at three of these fourteen graduations.
I'll leave you to draw your conclusions what the overlap of those two claims happens to be.
But back to the graduation thing. One thing I've discovered in a lot of cases (and what I try to avoid whenever I speak) is that the gung-ho, here-are-the-principles-for-successful-living, we-want-you-to-make-a-riveting-impact-on-the-world-around-you pleonasms still blaze a trail through the commencement zeitgeist. Lately, I've come to believe we're doing students a huge disservice with exhortations and imperatives to grab the speeding rail of life and put their footprint on their social environment. First of all, we are feeding an already increasingly narcissistic horde a de facto message that this is their destiny. Secondly, we are setting a lot of these students up for a crash into vocational and metaphysical depression. If they engage in a life path or career that doesn't seem to "measure up" to the message we lay before them, they run the risk of feeling like failures.
That's when I wondered if I was wrong. Maybe we are meant to encourage to the nth degree and speak of students' futures like politicians of the nineteenth century waved the standard of Manifest Destiny as the justification for marching across the American continent, for provoking the Mexican War to precipitate a land grab, and heaven knows what else.
Nah, I said. I don't think I'm wrong. But that got me even more worried. Are we not only feeding this stew in academic context, but also in the church?
As I wondered and fretted about that, Dr. Anthony Bradley's article went viral at WORLD Magazine. Dr. Bradley is an energetic Acton Institute blogger, an insightful African-American thinker and theologian, and a former professor at Covenant Theological Seminary here in St. Louis (Alas, not from my days as a student.). And in this article, he points out a lot of truth. In fact, the conversation began with a comment he made on Twitter: "Being a 'radical,' 'missional' Christian is slowly becoming the 'new legalism.' We need more ordinary God and people lovers (Matt. 22:36-40)"
There has been an increasing surge in new churches that label themselves as "missional"--defined as communities of Christian believers who describe themselves as Christ-centered, theologically conscious, Spirit-led folk who bring the message and life of Jesus to their neighbors [a.k.a., "tribes"] in the local, everyday context of their lives. This is allegedly in marked contrast to the "traditional" or "liberal" ways of church ministry in the past. For a more evangelical view of what this looks like, check out Mark Driscoll's Confessions of a Reformission Rev to see how Driscoll and Mars Hill Church have pulled this off in Seattle, one of America's least churched metropolitan areas.
My beef--like Dr. Bradley--is not with the existence of such communities. Rather it lies with the unspoken but heavy-handed push that if one is to make impact for the kingdom of God, one must be a "missional Christian" or "radical believer" to do so successfully. Bradley makes this point in much more erudite fashion than I can, which is why you need to follow the above link to his article. In fact, if you haven't done so, do it now and then come back to this point.
Done? It was a sweet write-up, wasn't it? Back to my thoughts. I would just say several things:
(1) By definition, EVERY Christian is a missional believer, called to engage those around them as faithfully as possible with the Gospel, in word and in deed. There is no real dichotomy between "missional" and "traditional", between "radical" and "ordinary". Not every Christian has been granted the spiritual gift of evangelism, but each believer is called to bear witness to others with the Gospel.
(2a) I fear that we are really putting evaluation before fidelity with this new paradigm of "missional" or "radical". There seems to be such a certainty of God's "blessing" upon these efforts that I wonder what happens if a young Christian moves to an urban area, links up with a missional church, tries to live out his faith "radically" (whatever that means, since Jesus was much more interested in a slow injection of God''s transforming shalom on the planet during his ministry than in blowing up the apple cart of empire and power), and does all sorts of relational and incarnational ministry amongst the unbelievers in his orbit...well, what if that doesn't work out? What if any of those items wither? What if he loses his job and has to move? What if he encounters friction in the small group Bible study he's a part of? What if he feels like he's not being radical enough (and then faith becomes not trusting in Christ but tracking the general feeling we have when trying to follow Jesus?) or--heaven forbid!--NO ONE BECOMES A CHRISTIAN as a result of his activity?
(2b) I take you to the career of the prophet Jeremiah. Called by God to warn the people of Judah about their impending national doom because of their spiritual decline. Ordered and empowered by God to call them to repentance. Driven by the Holy Spirit to enter the fray of extraordinary resistance...And you know what? You can't find any evidence in Scripture that he ever converted a soul or that his words or message changed the situation. Was he a failure? Heck, no! As LeBron James would say in the foul lane in Game 2 of the NBA finals, "Get that crap outa here!" If Jeremiah followed God's call, that's the bottom line for success, not whether he was strategically missional or radical enough.
(3) As Dr. Bradley shared, we seem to be losing our grip on the dignity and worth of the ordinary Christian. Yes, we will always have our megachurches doing great things, we will always have a need to transform the urban centers of out nation with the Gospel as the financial and cultural capital shifts to different places in different times (Atlanta and Nashville are hip today, but Indianapolis and St. Louis can be the next decades trend-setters...you never know). But we will always have the 120-member non-denominational church in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin that ministers to the homeless by providing hot meals and thick blankets. We will have First Baptist Church of Scott City, Kansas, which is quietly growing its community groups ministry and where school teachers, coaches, farmers, and shop clerks draw strength from one another in various hardships. And we will have my church here in St. Louis, which doesn't have a Book of Common Prayer or some sweet icons throughout the sanctuary (we are Presbyterian, after all, even though I'm a high church guy myself), but where the members--in much of their coat-and-tie Monday-through-Friday existence--find ways to interact with pagans, pre-believers, seekers, and all manner of folks in between. And there are individuals like me who--despite that I haven't joined a commune and even though I live in the suburbs--think I do a fairly competent job teaching Ethics in a conversational manner at a Christian school to students who are more and more wrapped in the secularism of today. Some days I hit, some days I miss, but God's in the midst of that.
"Missional" and "radical" are not primary markers for God's people; "faithful" should be. The world needs more ordinary Christians in ordinary places. And I'm not embarrassed to take my place among them.
And one last thing: If people are all screaming that you need to think and act outside of the box, then if everyone is doing their thing outside the box, wouldn't that make what goes on in the box that much more unique?
Yup, my point exactly.