Anthony Bradley fired off an opening salvo at the Acton Blog arguing that being missional is a new legalism. (It’s worth noting that Matt raised similar issues in his “Here Come the Radicals,” essay for CT.)
The combination of anti-suburbanism with new categories like “missional” and “radical” has positioned a generation of youth and young adults to experience an intense amount of shame for simply being ordinary Christians who desire to love God and love their neighbors (Matt 22:36-40). In fact, missional, radical Christianity could easily be called “the new legalism.” A few decades ago, an entire generation of Baby Boomers walked away from traditional churches to escape the legalistic moralism of “being good” but what their Millennial children received in exchange, in an individualistic American Christian culture, was shamed-driven pressure to be awesome and extraordinary young adults expected to tangibly make a difference in the world immediately. But this cycle of reaction and counter-reaction, inaugurated by the Baby Boomers, does not seem to be producing faithful young adults. Instead, many are simply burning out.
Why is Christ’s command to love God and neighbor not enough for these leaders? Maybe Christians are simply to pursue living well and invite others to do so according to how God has ordered the universe. An emphasis on human flourishing, ours and others, becomes important because it characterizes by a holistic concern for the spiritual, moral, physical, economic, material, political, psychological, and social context necessary for human beings to live according to their design. What if youth and youth adults were simply encouraged live in pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, understanding, education, wonder, beauty, glory, creativity, and worship in a world marred by sin, as Abraham Kuyper encourages in the book Wisdom and Wonder. No shame, no pressure to be awesome, no expectations of fame but simply following the call to be men and women of virtue and inviting their friends and neighbors to do the same in every area of life.
The editors at Fare Forward responded:
Yet some forms of cultural resistance should be universal, because some aspects of “normal” life in America are deeply unChristian. Bradley laments that “anti-suburban Christianity” has lead to this kind of legalism. But there are some things deeply unChristian, and deeply counter to even natural virtue, in the suburbs. Will Seath does a good job of laying those out in his article from the winter edition of Fare Forward. Bradley suggests that the anti-suburban Christians advocate for urbanism at the expense of the suburbs. But, as the buzz around Rod Dreher’s latest book on moving home demonstrates, a lot of the anti-suburban sentiment comes from people who support small town living just as much as from those who support city living. And the thing that unites the city and the country against the suburbs is the belief that the suburbs are not, as a matter of fact, ordinary, natural life, but a strange artificial construct that hinders ordinary live and ordinary relationships (see Seath for more).
The breakdown seems to be happening around the question of whether the American dream, life in the suburbs, etc. can be reconciled with Christian faith. One of the problems with the radical rhetoric–and Matt raised this in his piece for CT–is that the rhetoric functions in such a way that “normal” becomes synonymous with “sub-Christian.” Further muddying the waters is the fact that Scripture several times holds up a “normal” life as being a very good one. Dr. Bradley cited several texts in his initial post, but perhaps the most subversive text to cite for the new radical or missional crowds would be Jeremiah’s letter to the exile, a favorite amongst pro-city Christians. There God tells his people through Jeremiah to plant gardens, marry, and give their children in marriage. Find their good in the good of their neighbors. Biblically speaking, that sort of ordinary fidelity is “missional,” and the sooner we realize it the better because we’ll be able to excise that sort of rhetoric from our vocabulary and, one hopes, get on with having more substantive conversations.
The issue that needs to be sussed out and where we’ll find the strongest disagreement is how to port that scriptural idea of a “normal” life over to the modern United States. Here the best move to make will be setting aside the rhetoric of being “missional” or “radical” so as not to be distracted by the more foundational question of how to shape our modern American life in light of the norms of scripture. Scripture doesn’t demand that we be “radical” in the sense of throwing a dozen people into an inner-city home and calling ourselves “neo-monastics,” and if we act as if it does, then we are being legalistic and we’re doing real harm to the church, as Bradley says. That said, scripture does call us to community and it does tell us to steward God’s creation well. If the modern suburban life fails, its failure has nothing to do with being “missional” or “radical” and everything to do with these questions of community and stewardship.