Monday, March 18, 2013

Opening A Major Can Of Worms

What a weird expression, has anyone ever actually seen a can full of worms?


Dan Edelen takes a look at a recent article that is getting a lot of chatter on the web. The article comes from Christianity Today and is titled Here Come The Radicals. Dan responds with a thought provoking post Radicalism and Reality (A Response to “Here Come the Radicals!”) . The article he cites (as have many others but that I just read this morning) is at times insightful. For example (speaking of The Church At Brook Hills where David Platt pastors)

The Church at Brook Hills's slum stage reflects the tensions of the radical movement. The movement is marked by the sincerity of young, energetic pastors and writers eager to make a difference for the poor. Yet the message constantly fights with the medium. It occurs in massive church buildings in middle-class surroundings, spoken to people who shop at the Gap, on platforms called stages rather than pulpits. In order to inject the message with more power and meaning, we revert to the language and symbols of the theater—one of our culture's favorite pastimes.

Which is to say, the problem with the call to radical Christianity is that it may not be radical enough. It's clear that middle- and upper-class Christians are looking for a deeper, more profound experience of faith. Yet it's unclear whether we can invigorate faith without revisiting our worship and community practices, asking whether they are forming disciples at subterranean levels.

Indeed. Talking about poverty is somewhat jarring in the midst of middle class affluence. Then there was this:

What's more, the radical message comes packaged in the Christian-conference-publishing-celebrity-industrial-complex. While Platt warded off critics early on by donating his profits to relief and missions work, the popularity of his call for radical living requires the existence of a lucrative publishing culture that, by its nature, has to think and act with profits in mind. The really radical path for a megachurch pastor these days would be to refuse to publish, to take a smaller church, to not podcast sermons, and to embrace a more monastic witness. The irony is that if they tried, we'd probably turn them into larger celebrities and laud their humility. The desert fathers had a similar problem. But if the message is going to critique the American dream for the people in the pews, then we may need pastors willing to show us the path of downward mobility with their lives.

I am sure that is a problem for Platt and others. The more popular you become, the harder it can be to live as you teach and when you do, like Francis Chan, you get beat up by watch-bloggers who think that leaving a cushy pulpit "ministry" and going out to minister among the poor is somehow being unfaithful. In his post Dan is thinking through the problem with these calls for radicalism given some of our economic realities.

This is the reality for which radicalism offers no solutions.

Because there are no solutions within our present system. Too much of that system demands a certain adherence to the system or else. Yes, some people can flaunt that, but not everyone. If every Christian did the radical thing, then there would be no Christian doctors, lawyers, engineers, or any other professional in a career that demands much of its bearer in both time and money.

And after all, who is it who pays the support of those radicals who abandon the traditional lifestyle to work in an orphanage in Africa or save street kids in inner city America from a short, brutal life?

Talk of being radical is pretty easy. Maybe a lock in for youth groups where they fast for a day, or a special collection for the poor or perhaps even volunteering at a food pantry or homeless shelter. That kind of stuff allows us to go on living as we are while being filled with a sense of "doing something". I am not mocking those sorts of activities, after all it is above and beyond what most of us have been taught in the church where "give to your local church first and if you have anything left over..." is the constant refrain and awfully convenient since most of the money we give to our local church goes toward making our own religious experience more convenient and comfortable. Giving to your local church to pay the mortgage, staff salaries and audio-visual upgrades is about as radical as bundling your cell phone, internet and cable TV. So I am not mocking it but it is setting the bar pretty low.

What puzzles me and perhaps shouldn't is the question of why these "radical" messages resonate with people and leads to best selling books but no appreciable change in our religious culture. I guess people like to feel like we care without actually doing much about it. I put myself at the top of that list for certain. Even though we are pretty frugal we are also still pretty frivolous and don't think about the poor around us nearly as much as we should.

Of course the other danger is also omnipresent. There are plenty of people who peddle a "social justice without the atonement, feeding the poor without making disciples, leftist political dogma dressed up in religious language" message. If you can talk about Jesus caring for the poor without talking about the reality of sin and the coming judgment, you are only seeing half of the story (and I would suggest not the really important half).

That is kind of a round about way to get to my real point. What got me thinking was something slightly different from the generic radical message.What it got me thinking about (again) was the question of income inequality within the church.

I am not talking just about orphanages in Haiti or Ethiopia, important as that is. What about the very real income inequality in the church in the same area code? This topic is a tough one because talk of income inequality smacks of leftist political ideology and most of the evangelical wing of the church is solidly in the "what's mine is mine so hands off!" economic camp. It is a testimony to the extent of the influence of politics and political entanglement in the church that we shy away from topics like this because we cannot divorce Scriptural teaching from our political dialogue. In spite of our political hang-ups you just can't get away from stuff like:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44-45)

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. (Acts 4:32)

You can try to explain that away as a particular practice in that time and place but then many of those people don't apply other passages with the same "time and place" argument.

So what obligation, not suggestion, do we have towards those in need within the family of God? I am not sure how we can read the New Testament and descriptions of the church as the family of God and stay silent in the light of the reality that some Christians have far more than they could ever need and so many others not even having enough to make it month to month. As I have said, it is hard to carve out a distinction between political philosophy and practical living within the church. I can look at our economic policies as a nation and believe, as I do, that policies that encourage growth and individual responsibility that maximizes liberty is the best system while also recognizing that my economic fortune cannot be hoarded for my own pleasure while my brothers and sisters go without.What is right for America is not necessarily what is right for the family of God.

I don't know the answers but I do know this. Any talk of "radical" discipleship needs to start within the church. Writing books about being radical to sell to people who have 10, 20 or 100 times as much as their brothers and sisters in the same area code might make people feel warm and fuzzy but it is fake radicalism that would either make our first centuries ancestors laugh or cry.

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