What Does it Mean to be “Radical”?

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A business manager wants to live a radical Christian life—a life for which Jesus will say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” But he is frustrated because he is inundated with so many everyday urgent decisions, concerning product and distribution, supply chain, and personnel, that he doesn’t have time for what his pastor says really matters—sharing the gospel with his co-workers. But if he did find the time, how would he do it without getting the owners angry for his proselytizing? He wonders: Do I need to go to seminary so that I can live radically for God?

A woman changes the umpteenth diaper for her toddler twins. She took maternity leave when they were born, but as she ponders the future, she can’t shake the feeling that she should commit to staying home with them rather than immediately going back to her career. She is torn, because she saw very clearly how her work was serving both God and her fellow humans. Would her staying home to be “just a mom” be a radical enough Christianity?

After going to a Christian conference, a college student feels he needs to quit school and join a non-profit in Africa in order to live more radically for Jesus. He doesn’t see how taking classes like Geometry or World History or Chemistry has anything to do with the radical call to yield his entire life to God. He wants his life to count for something, and right now. Is being a college student radical enough to count for God?

A man works in the mid-summer heat of the factory. As he wipes the sweat from his forehead, he looks forward to Father’s Day, a day of leisure spent with his three kids. He thinks about how all this hard work serves them in their needs for food and shelter, and he prays that their college fund will continue to grow. Is he being radical enough in his Christianity?

Here Come the Radicals!

For the cover story of Christianity Today (March 2013), Matthew Lee Anderson wrote an insightful article entitiled, "Here Come the Radicals!" The "radicals" he is talking about are David Platt (author of Radical and Follow Me), Francis Chan (Crazy Love), Shane Claiborne (The Irresistable Revolution), Kyle Idlemann (Not a Fan), and Steven Furtick (Greater).

What makes them “radical”? These are young evangelical pastors who feel called to shake Christians out of their suburban middle-class malaise. Anderson says that Platt’s message sums up well what all the “radicals” are preaching.

“At the heart of Platt's message is his claim that we mistakenly turn the ‘radical Jesus of the Bible … into the comfortable Jesus of 21st-century American culture.’ He warns that the culture of ‘self-advancement, self-esteem, and self-sufficiency’ and our ‘individualism, materialism, and universalism’ have neutered American Christians’ witness and blinded us to widespread global poverty, an orphan crisis, and the massive number of those who still have never heard of Jesus."

Anderson observes that the favorite word in all these books is “really.”

“If there's a word that sums up the radical movement, that's it. Platt's Radical opens with it, by describing what ‘radical abandonment to Jesus really means.’ Idleman says he's going to tell us ‘what it really means to follow Jesus.’”

Why is there a need for intensifying words like "really?" Because so many of us American Christians have settled in a comfortable and secure evangelical Christian sub-culture. We have not been willing to “count the cost” of following Jesus. We have not yielded every aspect of our lives over to the lordship of Jesus. When I look around me, I have to say “Amen” to that. Especially when I look in the mirror.

This is the frustration of discipleship, isn’t it, for all of us? We desire to be wholly devoted to God, but our sinful nature gets in the way all too often. We want to live deeper Christian lives, but we just don’t do it. Sounds like Paul in Romans 7 when he says, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

Do We Need More Commitment or Deeper Desire?

The "Radical" pastors attempt to overcome half-hearted Chrsitianity with intensifiers: We must really trust; we’ve got to truly obey. But Anderson provides a very important insight about this:

“The intensifiers don't solve the problem. Replacing belief with commitment still places the burden of our formation on the sheer force of our will. As much as some of these radical pastors would say otherwise, their rhetoric still relies on listeners ‘making a decision.’ There is almost no explicit consideration of how beliefs actually take root, or whether that process is as conscious as we presume.”

This reflects what James K. A. Smith says in his must-read book, Desiring the Kingdom. Smith writes,

“Human beings are fundamentally lovers; that is, we are not primarily ‘thinking things’ or ‘believing animals’ but rather desiring agents with a passional orientation to the ultimate—to a vision of ‘the kingdom.'”

How do we develop our love for the right things—that is, for God and his vision of kingdom living? Smith says it is through what he calls liturgies, or the practices and rituals of Christian worship. These shared worship routines "shape and constitute our identities by forming our fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love."

In this article on the “New Radicals,” Anderson talks about the formative nature of Christian corporate worship—“Communion, baptism, corporate singing.” He explains that, even though the Radicals seem to criticize individualism, they actually continue to propagate the idea by championing an individualistic radical inner life. They do not highlight enough how corporate worship counter-balances the individualistic lone-ranger Christianity that is so prevalent in American society. Focusing on our individualistic inner piety still makes us self-centered.

What we need is to more fully live into the rituals and rhythms of corporate Christian worship. What these liturgies do is form in us what we love. All the intesifying talk about deeper commitment will get us only so far without the shaping of our desires, through which beliefs actually take root.

The High Calling of our Daily Work

Perhaps the most significant insight from Anderson about these “New Radicals” is that they are so focused on an intensified Christian life that they seem to demean how most Christians are actually called to be witnesses in this culture.

“There aren’t many narratives of men who rise at 4 a.m. six days a week to toil away in a factory to support their families. Or of single mothers who work 10 hours a day to care for their children. Judging by the tenor of their stories, being ‘radical’ is mainly for those who already have the upper-middle-class status to sacrifice.”

Here at The High Calling, we encourage Christians to embrace the high calling of our everyday work. We believe that this is indeed radical Christian living.

While it is an extremely valid point that many Christians are not being as faithful to their Lord as they should, the antidote is not to call people away from the ordinary, everyday lives in which God has placed them. The antidote is to desire the kingdom in and through our workplace, our relationships with people, our dedication to the common good through what we do, in our raising kids who love the right things, and by our witness to the way things are meant to be.

Anderson ends his article with these words of hope,

“For us in the pews, testing ourselves must include deliberating about our vocations and whether we are called to missions, or to a life of dedicated service to the poor, or to creating reminders with art and culture of the gospel's transcendent, everlasting hope. Discovering a radical faith may mean revisiting the ways in which faith can take shape in the mundane, sans intensifiers. It almost certainly means embracing the providence of God in our witness to the world. The Good Samaritan wasn't a good neighbor because he moved to a poor part of town or put a pile of trash in his living room. He came across the helpless victim ‘as he traveled.’ We begin to fulfill the command not when we do something radical, extreme, over the top, not when we're really spiritual or really committed or really faithful, but when in the daily ebb and flow of life, in our corporate jobs, in our middle-class neighborhoods, on our trips to Yellowstone and Disney World—and yes, even short-term mission trips—we stop to help those whom we meet in everyday life, reaching out in quiet, practical, and loving ways.”

Read the entire article by Matthew Lee Anderson at