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Which adjective do I want?

January 11, 2012

Have you noticed that calling yourself a Christian no longer seems to be enough?  We now need an adjective before the word to make it clear where we stand.  So I became an evangelical Christian some years ago.   Since I was then, and am now, a member of an Evangelical Free Church you would think that was clear but, nevertheless the adjective stayed.  It made it clear that I was not one of those other adjective-based Christians like “liturgical” or “pentecostal” or “mainline.”

But today the adjective evangelical is under attack from two sides.  The popular media has taken note of it and, in the recent and upcoming caucuses and primaries the “evangelical” vote is being scrutinized.  Sadly the word is being mocked and the people using it criticized. 

On the other side, the word is being attacked by zealous Christians too.  They are not so much down on the term evangelical, although I have seen one commentator say that it has “outlived its usefulness.”  Rather they have given the majority of American evangelicals a new adjective – “consumerist.”  If you are a consumer Christian you are all about what is in it for you.  And one only needs to go through the aisles of a Christian bookstore to see the charge has merit.  There are hundreds of books focused on helping you get more out of your relationship with God.

In a way I suppose this was inevitable.  We live in a consumer world and consumer attitudes were always a threat to infiltrate the church as they have.  So as the term evangelical comes under attack and is being ever more tainted by consumer tendencies is it time for a new adjective?  It seems that most feel it is.

Riding to the rescue is a new adjective – radical.  Proponents of this new adjective say it is not enough to be a Christian, we need to be “radical” Christians to show we are really, really, really serious about Jesus and the Christian life.  The term “radical Christians” has come to represent believers who have an extreme commitment to their faith and are dedicated to living it out in the world.  Proponents of the adjective are sincerely trying to transform consumer Christians into activist Christians. 

Hey, what could be wrong with that, right?  Maybe I should jump on the bandwagon and start calling myself a radical Christian.  Books and seminars already exist to show me how to do it right.  Is it time to make the jump?  If I start using the term, I do need to recall that the adjective “radical” does not wear well in the public arena.  Just take out the word “Christian” behind it and substitute the word “Islamist” and you will see what I mean.  But that is OK, right?  I shouldn’t worry about what the world thinks.

But there is part of me that hesitates to make the jump.  Yes, consumer Christianity is blight on the church but more and more I wonder if the switch to radical Christianity is the answer.  Sermons, seminar, and books on radical Christianity are truly inspiring.  They get me fired up.  But as I walk out of the church or close the book I go out into the world where I see ordinary Christians. 

And we all seem to struggle with problems.  Crushing financial pressures, job loss or insecurity, marriages that are shattered or decaying, illnesses, aging and infirm parents, wandering children, personal struggles and a host of other problems weigh us down.  To call such people fighting to keep their noses above water on a daily basis to a deeper and more active zeal seems to be a sure-fire way to burden them with guilt and steal their joy.  And I am not at all sure that activism is the path to a deeper and more passionate relationship with Jesus.

What is more, Paul, cited always as the role model of the radical Christian, says this to the Thessalonians:  “Make it your aim to live a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to earn your living, just as we told you before.”  (I Thessalonians 4:11.)  It doesn’t sound very radical, does it?

Maybe I should just drop the adjectives altogether.  Maybe I should just be a Christian.  Maybe my goal should be humility, a peaceable life, and attention to my job.  Maybe I should take care of my family, love my neighbors, and take joy in the members of the body of Christ I worship with.  Maybe I should just love God, be delighted to belong to Him, and be ready to tell others that I do.  Maybe then God will open doors to bigger and exciting opportunities in His time and at His pleasure.

Is seeking to create a life where my “cause” (faith in Jesus) is ever my goal really all that radical?  Aren’t there a dozen causes out there where other radicals are doing the same thing?  Maybe what is really radical is simply following Paul’s injunction to the Thessalonians and waiting in expectation of His working through me in ways that will amaze me.

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