The Shaming of Non-Radical Christians?

Dr. Anthony Bradley, an associate professor at King’s College and an Acton Institute research fellow, wrote a thought-provoking piece on May 1 called: The New Legalism: Missional, Radical, Narcissistic, and Shamed. It seems to have struck a nerve and I have some thoughts on the subject as well. I hope I don’t ramble too much.

I beg you to read Bradley’s entire piece before continuing since I’ll only be using excerpts.

He writes that “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.”

Althought I don’t really identify strongly with Gen Y (millennials), I think Bradley is right that they have been told they have to be extraordinary. I’ve certainly seen this happening in my time, and I think it is even worse for people younger than me. It certainly was being pushed at Liberty in my time there. We were urged to dream big dreams for God, have a “big hairy audacious goal,” pursue that thing we would do if we thought we couldn’t fail, etc. And thanks to that I naively left college intent on changing the world. Have I? No. But am I proud of the years I’ve spent working hard in my field? Absolutely.

Over time, I’ve come to realize that what really matters are the relationships you form and how you can minister to the people in your life — whether that means praying and serving your brothers and sisters in Christ, or listening to, praying for and having honest conversations about your faith with the non-Christians you know as well. That is where you can have an impact, no matter what job you have or where you live.

Do Christians have to do extraordinary things? Is that what we’re instructed to do by Scripture? I don’t think so. The more I think about it and the more of the Bible I study, the more I realize we are called to pursue righteousness, holiness, and to be people of character and to be ministers of the gospel wherever we reside/work/play. What is extraordinary is that we’ve been saved and that we’re being transformed by Jesus Christ.

Bradley also addresses what he refers to as “missional” narcissism. “There are many churches that are committed to being what is called missional. This term is used to describe a church community where people see themselves as missionaries in local communities. A missional church has been defined, as ‘a theologically-formed, Gospel-centered, Spirit-empowered, united community of believers who seek to faithfully incarnate the purposes of Christ for the glory of God,’ says Scott Thomas on the Acts 29 Network. The problem is that this push for local missionaries coincided with the narcissism epidemic we are facing in America, especially with the Millennial generation.”

Please pardon my tangent. I am discomfited by the term missional. What ever happened to missions and missionary? Being a missionary doesn’t just mean going to another country and telling them about Jesus (although that is awesome and we need to do it!), it can mean having your neighbors over for dinner and getting to know them and telling them about Jesus too. I once had a person I barely know ask me about Jesus at a swing dance, and I had the opportunity to explain what Jesus did on the cross and why. God made that happen, not me.

Christians are commanded to evangelize and that is supposed to begin where we are. I’m afraid the newfangled term “missional” can become a way of escaping our primary responsibilities of evangelism, by doing good things for people and our communities. As far as I can tell it is also bound up in the theology of reconciling creation to God, which I think is a misinterpretation of Scripture (I’ve said this before in my review of The Explicit Gospel). I believe our role as Christians is letting Jesus change us, and telling the world about him.

But getting back to Bradley’s remarks, he is absolutely right that there is an epidemic of narcissism plaguing our world and millennials in particular. It is possible that the missional movement, combined with that narcissism is preventing people from choosing ordinary lives (or making them feel ashamed of that sort of life). I haven’t personally experienced shaming along those lines, but that doesn’t mean others haven’t. What I have noticed is the church feeding into this narcissism problem, by trying to misapply stories in the Bible to Christians today with poor exegesis (Narcigesis if you will).

There’s nothing Biblically wrong with living a humble life. In fact, I think it may be easier to pursue righteousness and holiness in an ordinary life than in a so-called extraordinary one. We can serve him in small towns and big cities and we can share the gospel with our neighbors in New York or Nairobi. Our lives should not be lived out of selfish ambition and we should boast only in Jesus Christ who saves us. We must reject the narcissism of our age because it is incompatible with Christian character.

Is the movement toward “missional” and “radical” Christianity becoming the “new legalism” as Bradley suggests? I don’t know for sure, but I think it is entirely possible. We are in danger of legalism whenever we try to set a new standard for ourselves, that is additional to what the Bible instructs to be and to do. This may be an area where good intentions have led to precisely that.

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