Saturday, June 28, 2014

Radical or Relevant?

Over the years, I've encountered many different interpretations of what it means to live life as a Christian. When confronted with the vast array ofoften conflictingopinions on how we as believers should live out our faith, I've often been left scratching my head, and asking myself: so, are we to be counter-cultural or culturally sensitive? How much in the world can we really be without being of it? Are we to be radical or relevant, or somewhere in between? 

The perennial question, how in the world should I live? is one which continues to occupy my mind even now in my thirties. Living in the culturally diverse DC area, I've observed a wide variety of takes on the Christian walk, many of which bear surprisingly little resemblance to one another. For example, here are two Christians I have known...

"Jim" is the first. He lives out his faith in an "out-there" kind of way, wearing his convictions unashamedly on his sleeve. Jim personifies what could be seen as radical. Everyone in the office at work knows he is a Christian. He talks openly about his relationship with the Lord, prays before eating his sandwich in the lunchroom and reads his bible on the metro. Everyone likes him well enough, but in all honesty, no one seems to take him all that seriously. He might be a little unrelatable.

On the flip-side, there's "Rob." You would never guess Rob was a Christian if you bumped into him at one of the heavy-drinking get-togethers he frequents. He doesn't use Christianese. He has swagger. He wears believably edgy clothes. He only listens to secular music. You might say that Rob is relevant. He's a fixture at the bars, but you'll often find him at church on Sunday as well (with a bit of a hangover sometimes, let's be honest). If you get to know him, he'll tell you what he believes. And you might say: wow, normal, fun people like you can be Christian? Maybe there's something to this Christianity thing after all.

Rob and Jim may seem like over-generalizations, but I think many of us have known some version of a Rob or Jim at one point in our lives or another. We may even identify certain characteristics of Rob or Jim in ourselves. Both Jim and Rob sincerely believe in Jesus, but they each have a different idea of what it means to live out their faith. 

I have been fascinated by people-watching in the Christian community for years. I noticed that those who are more like Rob often seem better positioned to reach out to unbelievers than the Jims seem to be. This is because the Jimsinadvertently perhapsmight operate in more of a Christian bubble than the Robs. The Robs tend to have a lot of friends (in some cases the majority of their friends) who are not Christians. Some of the Robs may even date unbelievers. But the Jims may struggle to relate to unbelievers on a personal level because they're so different from them, culturally as well as spiritually. So, which type of Christian is getting it right, and which one isn't...or are they both acceptable?

This is an important question. Jesus' last, and arguably His most important, commandment before His ascension was to go and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19). A friend once said to me, "the only thing we can't do in Heaven is evangelize." He was right. And we are each called to be witnesses (Acts 1:8). So how do we best do this? Many would argue that people like Jim aren't very effective in this endeavor. After all, how could unbelievers possibly relate to him? 

But I think one of the biggest mistakes we could make in discerning how best to live out our faith and witness to others, is to look to the world first for the answers. The reality is, even if we try to fit in with the world, the world may reject us all the same. How many celebrities have we seen rise and fall in popularity? How many people who were once idolized have we seen plummet from fame? The world is ruthless and fickle. But the love of God endures forever. In light of this, we should seek to please God first, not people first, in how we live—even if doing so might not win us popularity or make us more relatable.

Furthermore, if we base the way we live on worldly opinions, we will find ourselves being blown about by every wind of teaching. We'll find a lot of different theories, strategies, and lifestyles out there and many of them won't be consistent with Scripture. It's when we turn to God's Word, however, that things start to become clear.

Rather than feeling pressure to fit in with contemporary culture or the worldly status quo, then, Paul says we should "come out and be separate from the world" and not be unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Cor 6:14-14-18). The bible says that believers are to live as foreigners in the world (1 Peter 2:11). Foreigners tend to stand out from the crowd, not blend in. Sometimes, they are rejected by people just as Jesus was rejected by the world. As Jesus said, "If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you." (John 15:19)

And so, Paul admonishes us not to conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2). And he further explains that we, "must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart." (Eph 4:17-18). In all honesty, it's hard to break free from the deceitful patterns of this world, if we fellowship with darknessif we live life in close partnership with those who worship the things of this world.

Ultimately, living an authentic life as a Christian is the best witness to those around us. If we're disingenuous about how we live out our faith, we'll likely end up being exposed as hypocrites or fakes. Instead of trying to be like the world in order to be accepted by it, I think it's important to keep our identity firmly rooted in Christ, remembering that it's the role of the Holy Spirit to convict hearts, not ours to finesse our faith and tweak the gospel to make it more culturally acceptable.

The truth is, Christians are called to believe a foolish message and live a foolish lifestyle. But, God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise (1 Cor 1:27). Although Jim's faith may appear foolish at times to his colleagues at the office, after a time, they may come to respect him. They may notice that he is a man of his word and a man of integrity. Deep down, they may admire the fact that he turns down happy hour to go home to have dinner with his family and that he's conspicuously absent from the office drama or water-cooler gossip sessions. They may notice that he's quick to speak words of encouragement rather than criticism. Ultimately, they may see the light of Jesus in him.

So, in light of Scripture, who's got it right? Jim or Rob? I would say, actually, neither. Again, I think the answer lies in Christ, not in man.

The bottom line is this: each believer needs "to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in us to will and to act according to His purpose." (Phil 2:12-13) The Greek verb, "work out," means "to continually work to bring something to completion or fruition." We do this by actively pursuing obedience to God as part of our sanctification process toward the goal of becoming more like Christ. The “trembling” Paul describes is the attitude Christians are to have in pursuing this goal—a healthy fear of offending God and an awe and respect for His majesty and holiness. Basically, it's about living in reverence to a holy God.

The way this looks for you might be a little different from the way this looks for me. Each believer in the Body of Christ is spiritually wired in a unique way. Just as we each have a unique finger print, we each have our own gifts, our own part to play, our own personalities, and we each relate to God individually in our own personal relationship with Him. 

More importantly, however, we are one in Christ and we are each a new creation in Him. (2 Cor 4:17). It is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. (Gal 2:20). Therefore, if our identity is rooted in Christ, we will begin to die to self and live in reverent submission to Him.

So is this radical Christianity? Living life as a radical Christian, like perhaps Jim intends to do, will hopefully involve a reverent faith. I liked much of what David Platt had to say in his hard-hitting book, Radical, for example. In it, he challenges Christians to live for the gospela gospel that not only saves us from our sins, but also compels us to lay down our lives gladly for God’s glory in a world of urgent spiritual and physical need. He unflinchingly calls out Christians on cheap grace, easy-believism, and consumer Christianity. It certainly convicted me in several areas of my own life.

But setting out to live life as a radical Christian can put us in danger of placing too much emphasis on what we are doing and how well we're doing it. Being a radical Christian is a good thing, but if it becomes an ultimate thing, then that's a bad thing. This can produce self-righteousness, pride, and an over-emphasis on works. If the focus becomes on how holy we are, as opposed to how holy God is, then we have a problem. Our identity is no longer in Christ, but in being "radical."

An extreme example of this recently unfolded in the highly publicized Bill Gothard sexual-misconduct scandal. Gothard's Advanced Training Institute (ATI) created a radical Christian culture of "quarantined Christianity" in which the sinful and demonic forces of the outside world were shut out in an effort to preserve an oasis of Christian perfection within their community. While the original aim was to live Gothard's interpretation of a radical Christian lifestyle, however, this soon morphed into an attempt to create an earthly utopia. The ATI culture was insularnot missionaland sin was treated as an external force, rather than an internal heart-problem. According to reports from insiders, self-righteousness was rife in the community, which distracted from the need for believers to seek their righteousness in Christ alone. As a result, the ATI community inevitably cracked under the weight of sin and scandal.

It's important, then, that not conforming to the world isn't confused with conforming instead to some type of conservative Christian subculture. To do so, would merely be exchanging one man-made system of living for another. The answer is not in a system, but in a Savior. And while it might be tempting to use the "unequally yoked" passage as an excuse to retreat into a holy huddle, this isn't what Christ calls us to. We're called to be salt and light in the world, not shut to ourselves off from the world. Making disciples can't be achieved inside a Christian bubble.

So what about relevant Christianity? At least this is outwardly focused, not insular. Again, however, I think it's missing the markand perhaps even more so.

A good example of the widespread effort over the last decade or two to make Christianity more relevant (i.e. more relatable) to younger generations can be seen in the Emerging Church movement—a broad, yet controversial, movement that seeks to use culturally sensitive approaches to reach the postmodern, un-churched population with the Christian message. Emerging churches often promote a feelings- and experience-based relationship with God, while downplaying the need for sound doctrine and a cognizant understanding of His word. Polarizing and inconvenient biblical truths are often glossed over in an effort to be "seeker-friendly" and to make everyone more comfortable.

Relevant Christianity is certainty outreach-mindedBut if it leads churches to mirror secular culture as opposed to presenting a counter-cultural worldview, then it looks to the world first, not Scripture first, for the answers on how best to live out the Christian faith. As a result, the gospel message is marginalized in a church culture that primarily caters to human needs. It focuses on people first, not God first and thus de-emphasizes the Lordship of Christ. Relevant Christianity tends to downplay the gravity of sin to make everyone feel better about themselves, but as a result God's grace doesn't seem so amazing anymore.

So, then, striving to be either relevant or radical in our Christian faith can actually lead us away from being reverent. Living out our faith reverently, though, is what really matters. Living in submission to Christ and dying to ourselves daily, will keep our eyes fixed on Jesusnot on ourselves or on the world around us. Living in reverence takes the pressure off us and allows us to enjoy our true freedom in Christ. And living out our faith reverently will actually have greater impact on the world around us, because the gospel of Christ will remain our focus and our motivation.

We don't have to over-complicate things and confuse ourselves (and others) by trying to be radical, relevant, or somewhere in between. Instead, we can simply aim to be reverent, seeking to glorify God in how we live out our faith.

1 comment:

Grainne McDonald said...

This is so telling - and a new view on how to live. Reverence in humble submission and obedience to our God through the grace He so freely gives to each one of us in whatever circumstances we are in is the key to living authentic Christian lives in the service of the King.