How being radically missional is a new legalism


Is living in a suburban neighborhood compatible with the Bible’s call to steward creation?

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.

photo credit: Scorpions and Centaurs via photopin cc
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  • I’ve already had a long dialogue with Matt about this, but since then I’ve had a few more thoughts:

    -Our culture, our families, and sometimes even our churches will insidiously push us to embrace a comfortable life where the sacrifices we make for God are relatively within our comfort zone. There may be a few Christians called to such lives, but I would imagine that they are rare (at least based on the representative sample of Jesus-followers described in the New Testament.)

    -Everyone’s sacrifice for God will look different. Some may have to sweat it out in liberal academic environments, some may
    literally sell all they have and move to Afghanistan or inner-city
    Detroit, some may stay in the suburbs and adopt foster kids, some may
    have to simply deal with the disabled child or abusive parent in their
    life. All of us must learn the quiet disciplines of pursuing God, loving
    our neighbors (especially the unlovely ones.) But we should expect painful sacrifice (and an outweighing joy!) when we choose to worship and obey God. And we should constantly be reconsidering what God has called us to and whether or not we might be the person or the family meeting the enormous need for people in hard places doing hard things,

  • Dave Strunk

    I’d also add that the “missional/radical” crowd also caricatures what exactly a suburb is, versus urban or rural. Having read both articles, I’ll gladly plant my flag with Bradley.

    I live in Denver proper, with a Denver address, but I also seem to live in an inner-ring area. Is it urban or suburban? Most of the people in my neighborhood are first-time home buyers, hispanics, or the elderly (score 1 for “urban”), but we don’t live that close to much else and you’d need to drive to accomplish much (score 1 for “suburban”). We live in a terrible public school district (score 2 for “urban”), but we’re much closer to the nice school districts and two of the best private schools in the state (score 2 for “suburban”). Our houses are generally older (score 3 for “urban”), but our streets are not gridded and straight with old trees (score 3 for “suburban”). There’s two apartment complexes at the entrance of our neighborhood that doesn’t have a nice stone entrance (score 4 for “urban”), but there’s also 400K homes at the back of the neighborhood that look suburban (score 4 for “suburban”). I could go on and on.

    So, am I being a disobedient Christian or an obedient Christian by virtue of where I got a mortgage? I hope that question seemed absurd, because that’s how this whole conversation strikes me. I would imagine that it also seems absurd to other Christians- most Christians- in Denver, who happen to live in neither a discernible urban or suburban place. Because that’s most of the city….

    • I think most “radical” Christians worth their salt would not engage with the suburban/urban/rural distinction quite as much as they would ask you what your heart is engaged with. I know urban Christians who are awash in self-centered living as they barely leave their downtown apartments and suburban Christians who have made the giant step of being on call 24/7 for emergency foster care placement. Like most things, it is not the legalism of where you live but the orientation of your heart– towards the needs of others and the worship of God, or towards the protection of your own tribe and your own sense of safety/security/prosperity? I think the call of the “radical” movement is a deeply theologically grounded invitation to self-introspection for the sake of drawing deep from the well of Jesus’ sacrifice and responding joyfully with a similar sacrifice– the proverbial treasure in the field.

      That is, one could argue that Platt/Piper/Claiborne are merely trying to get people to look more closely at the price tag on the pearl.

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  • Matt Mills

    This is great, and a welcome balance.

    I think what it boils down to–as most things do–is the heart. If we are truly submitted to Christ, he will constantly be pulling us back from whichever extreme we tend to run to.

    For those who cling too tightly to comfort and security, perhaps He will indeed call them to take more risks, to be more radical, and to sacrifice the safety of their own bubble. For those who feed their worth out of a mistaken idea of “how much I can do for the kingdom,” however, perhaps their call is to remember that God is not interested in how much WE can accomplish–nor, for that matter, does he even NEED us to accomplish anything–but rather how much we are like His Son…even in the quiet, monotonous, UNglamorous space of normal–even suburban–life.

    We simply can’t say that intense, radical living is somehow superior to quiet, peaceful living (nor the other way around). What matters is the HEART with which we are living, and whether or not it is constantly submitted to the kingship of Christ in all things, both radical and quiet.

  • A.T. Stowell

    Every new book from the Christian publishing industrial complex IS a new legalism.

  • Keith Schooley

    Good article. 1 Corinthians 7:17 tells us to “live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to [us].” We are best able to live out the life of Jesus in the cultural situation we grew up in, and of which we are most naturally a part. Much of what is shared here dovetails nicely with what I write in my book, What’s Wrong with Outreach

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