Here Comes a Confusing Article About Radical Discipleship

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radical-claiborneNorth American Christians have a lot of anxiety about whether we’re living “radical enough” as disciples of Jesus.

We all want to learn how to get it right, and so we’ve been buying lots of books and hearing lots of people speak about how to live as a radical Christian. Some have made costly personal commitments to live simply or even in poverty.

It was only a matter of time before someone asked, “Is all of this radical stuff actually working?”

Let’s talk about the Christianity Today article Here Come the Radicals by Matthew Lee Anderson that attempts to answer that question.

The cover image features caricatures of Shane Claiborne, Francis Chan, and David Platt. Platt, sadly, got the largest head in the illustration and the bulk of the attention in the article. With a teaser that mentions all three, Claiborne and Chan get passing references with the bulk of the article focusing on Platt and other megachurch pastors.

Just seeing Platt and Claiborne mentioned in the same article left me a bit uneasy.

What are these guys doing together?

After giving a brief mention of Claiborne as the one who coined the term “ordinary radicals,” Anderson goes on to write:

More recently, Kyle Idleman, teaching pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote Not a Fan after realizing he had made following Jesus "as appealing, comfortable, and convenient as possible." Francis Chan caught the wave with Crazy Love, a book that tries to affirm our desire for "more God," even if we are "surrounded by people who have ‘enough God.’" Steven Furtick, whose Elevation Church in North Carolina is one of the fastest-growing megachurches, added Greater to the mix, proposing that Christians are mired in miserable mediocrity and should open our "imagination to the possibility that God has a vision for [our] life that is greater" than what we’re experiencing. All of these have hit the Christian best-seller lists, and most are still on them.

…They have both incited and tapped into a widespread dissatisfaction with many Americans’ comfortable, middle-class way of life and the Christianity that so easily fits within it. These pastors may not be saying much new about the Bible or Jesus, but their message says enough about us.

There are some helpful warnings and critiques in this article. Any time “radical” goes mainstream, we should certainly be vigilant. If anything, evangelicals have been hasty to hop onto the latest fads and trends uncritically. I’m looking at you Prayer of Jabez and your covert prosperity gospel!

However, and this is one of the bigger “howevers” I’ve written in a while, there is a shocking lack of precision in this article. So while I can read most of the critiques and see their relevance to particular people mentioned in the article, the inclusion of Claiborn in particular is akin to buying tickets for a hockey game and winding up at Disney on Ice.

As with any movements, there are going to gradients and shades displaying diversity and differing approaches even if the vocabulary in books resemble one another at certain points.

If there are a couple of mega church pastors who are using the word “radical” and making some huge sacrifices for the sake of the Gospel. Good for them!

However, there is a world of difference when you compare Shane Claiborn, the new monastics, and an inner city church like Circle of Hope in Philadelphia to pastors like Platt, Idleman, Chan, and, heavens to Murgatroyd, Steven Furtick. This is the same Steven Furtick who produced the “Haters” Video, which may be the two most uncomfortable minutes you’ll ever spend on YouTube.

And here is where the article starts to unravel for me. If you want to quickly destroy your credibility in an article, stick Shane Claiborn and Steven Furtick into the same camp, suggesting they are both fellow “radicals.” Good heavens!

Call me a hater if you will, but if there isn’t a world of difference between those two dudes, there’s at least 20 minutes of highway driving, 30 strip malls, and a couple hundred abandoned homes.

Who Is Really Radical?

There is a lot we can critique about the language of radicals in books. It’s something that I found personally challenging in the article. Heck, I wrote a book called “Hazardous.” So I’m in the thick of all of this myself.

I especially appreciate this common mistake:

The reliance on intensifiers demonstrates the emptiness of American Christianity’s language. Previous generations were content singing "trust and obey, for there’s no other way." Today we have to really trust and truly obey. The inflated rhetoric is a sign of how divorced our churches’ vocabulary is from the simple language of Scripture.

And 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.

However, Shane Claiborne and the other new monastics rely on rhetoric and challenges far less than Platt, Idleman, or Furtick—if at all. Clainborne’s story has a whole lot more to do with love and brokenness and getting to know people.His commitment to the roughest neighborhoods of Philadelphia weren’t sparked by a challenging sermon or book. He just tried to help some people in need and then he fell in love. People imitate him based on story and personal connections with the people.

My friend who lives and ministers in West Philadelphia was asked by a police officer, “What are you doing in this neighborhood?” and he replied, “The people I love are here.”

So while we should be thoughtful about radical rhetoric and the ways the wealthy will try to address poverty and injustice, let’s remember that the new monasticism of Claiborne and many of my friends around the country has more to do with downward mobility. It’s spurred by a commitment to love others and is far from a hip new rhetorical challenge from Christian authors and pastors.

And before we slip into hater-mode again, let’s give Platt credit. He has what could be a cushy job, but he’s trying to take the words of Jesus seriously and is stepping out of the status quo. Critique what we will of his books or his approach that could be a bit too close to gentrification, I’ll take someone with imperfect actions over someone doing nothing at all.

In everything I say here, I’m not out to slam Platt, as much as I want to distinguish the new monastics from the movements in megachurches to pursue justice or radical Christianity. In fact, most of Anderson’s critiques of Platt and his ilk are irrelevant for the new monastics.

Are you looking for greater attention to worship forms? How about the liturgies the new monastics produce?

Are you looking for greater attention to the spirituality of the mundane? What do you think the new monastics do all day? They work!

Are you concerned about the affluence of megachurch pastors preaching about radical living? Spend a few minutes with the Simple Way in Philly’s inner city.

To lump Claiborne with Platt, Furtick, Idleman, and any other megachurch pastor or conference speaker makes a critical mistake. The new monastics and churches living out the Gospel incarnated in poor communities are simply in a different category from the suburban megachurches trying to sort out the meaning of radical discipleship.

Perhaps Platt and his brethren rely too much on rhetoric for their messages. It’s an understandable oversight, but it doesn’t hold true for Claiborne and other new monastics.

Who Can Live as a New Monastic Radical Christian?

As we would hope, Anderson is committed to asking tough, practical questions in this article. He shoots the elephant in the room when he critiques Platt’s sermon where he brought trash onto the stage in an attempt to rally his people to address poverty. Such reliance on theatrics over personal connections with people is something we’ll always struggle to sort out in larger churches.

Once again, I’m not saying Platt was wrong in his approach, only that it’s the kind of thing we need to step back and ask whether the medium undermined a well-meaning message.

Anderson is also concerned about the kinds of examples radical Christians provide for their lifestyle. Is the bar set too impossibly high for many Christians, especially those outside of the affluent suburbs?

By contrast, 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.

This critique is once again a matter of apples and oranges. A new monastic living among the poor would never be so foolish as to overlook the needs of the poor in sharing a radical message about following Jesus. It’s enough to make me wonder how much Anderson actually knows about Claiborne and new monastics like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. While his critique may be a worthy one for a megachurch, it fails to make sense if applied to the Simple Way community that intentionally lives at or near the poverty line.

One of Claiborne’s constant themes in interviews and speaking engagements is providing simple ideas for living the radical lifestyle. No one has done more than Claiborne to provide practical ideas for Christians at any income level to live as a radical. You’ll find plenty of ideas in his response to questions at Rachel Held Evans’ blog.

What Is a Radical Christian Anyway?

My concern with the article is that it makes valid critiques of certain pastors and books, but it lumps too many people and groups with them, creating a distorted view of radical discipleship. While I can’t speak to what the author did to research new monasticism, you can just listen to a single interview with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove to get a clear picture that we’re talking about two very different kinds of radical here.

Any time the Christian conference and publishing industries embrace a trend, there is always reason for caution mixed with hope. On the one hand, Christians are having tough conversations that are essential for followers of Jesus. We should rejoice that even megachurch pastors have jumped on this train.

However, we do the radical movement a disservice when we confuse a variety of shades with a single color.

I’m particularly interested in this article because I personally identify with the new monastic approach and values, even though my wife and I aren’t all that monkish in our own calling. We have opted for a particular lifestyle and career choices because we felt led by God to make some tough decisions that impacted our career paths and lifestyle. That’s really all there is to it.

Evangelicals have a way of overthinking discipleship or radical Christian commitment.

My uneasiness with Platt’s approach to radical discipleship is on a more foundational level.

Every major decision we make as Christians needs to be decided with the Lordship of Christ in view. With that in mind, discipleship to me is profoundly charismatic and Spirit-led (With apologies for the plug, see my co-authored book Hazardous for a bit more about this).

I could make all kinds of bold, daring, “biblical” decisions that are rooted in a desire to follow Jesus, to take big risks for God, and to step out of my middle class comfort zone, but that does not guarantee I’m being faithful to God’s calling in my life. If I don’t know how to hear the Spirit speak and obey the leading of the Spirit, how can I actually follow Jesus? Much less radically?

I would guess that Platt wouldn’t necessarily disagree with me here, so our difference is more a matter of emphasis.

From where I sit, you can’t do anything radical as a follower of Jesus unless you get spiritual formation right. If you can’t follow the Spirit, you can’t follow Jesus.

The most radical thing you can do as a disciple of Jesus is to wait for an invisible Spirit to tell you what to do with your life. If you’re worried about whether you’re living a radical enough life, the good news is that God’s Spirit will walk with you step by step.

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23 thoughts on “Here Comes a Confusing Article About Radical Discipleship

  1. Jeremy Myers

    I made the mistake of a posting a 1-star review of “Radical” on Amazon a few years back…saying that the book wasn’t all that radical.

    Wow, did I get slammed!

    The point you are making here is similar. We are not radical disciples simply because we latch on to the coolest buzzwords.

    I think people in the mega churches are doing lots of really good things. But they should take pride in what they are doing, and not try to co-opt the things that people like Shane are doing by saying, “Yeah, we’re doing that too!”

  2. Abby Norman

    I always say my parents were “missional living” before it was a term. They arranged their lives (and thus our lives)around my dad’s clients. They were our family friends. It was very natural. My sisters and I are always taken aback when people present it like some new thing. We thought it was just what Christian’s did.

  3. HopefulLeigh

    Great work here, Ed! I read the CT article the other day and found it to be confusing as well, for similar reasons. And while Radical and Crazy Love had a profound effect on my faith, I would never lump the authors/pastors in with Claiborne et al, nor would I associate their efforts with the other folks mentioned in the article. I didn’t agree with everything Chan and Platt wrote but it opened my eyes to some changes I needed to make. Reading the rhetoric made way for action. As with everything in life, there’s a spectrum. We all need to figure out what God would have us do and act accordingly.

  4. Jennifer Lundberg

    “The most radical thing you can do as a disciple of Jesus is to wait for an invisible Spirit to tell you what to do with your life.” I loved this line.

    It feels like a lot of pressure, your friends recommending books like Radical to you and suddenly spurred into action. When did being radical become the point of Christianity?

    1. ed Post author

      I think sometimes book marketing has a way of unintentionally distorting a message or at least how it’s received. I think Platt found a catchy title for his book, and perhaps that title has grown a bit bigger than intended. Just my guess.

  5. Hannah Anderson

    I read Anderson’s piece about a week ago when my CT print edition came in the mail. And quite frankly, it didn’t bother me to see Platt and Claiborne paralleled because the overarching question of the piece was whether “radicalism” is essential to mature Christianity, not whether radicalism is expressed the same way.

    The thing that connects people like Platt and Claiborne isn’t their practice but the form of their rhetoric–they both identify status quo as inconsistent with Christ’s message and call people to intensified response.

    And the subsequent response is largely shaped by how they define Christianity in the first place. Those for whom evangelism is central end up practicing their radicalism very differently from those for whom spiritual formation is central. But both responses are rooted in the same rhetoric: radical=truly Christian. If your faith (however you define that)doesn’t become radicalized, it is not mature or real.

    And THAT is a significant question to wrestle with. Do those of us who don’t move into the inner city or don’t live among the poor or don’t sell all that we have–whether that means becoming missional or monastic–are we less in the kingdom? Must we be radical to be mature?

    1. ed Post author

      Thanks for your comment Hannah. I don’t think Claiborne does the same thing as Platt.

      Claiborne coined the term “ordinary radical” with a wink. If you hear his interviews or read his interviews, you’ll always find that he’s extremely down to earth and practical and rooted in everyday life. He is quite different from Platt because he really doesn’t rely on rhetoric. He just tells stories and asks the tough questions evangelicals tend to avoid. When people ask him for his position on anything, he’s more likely to share a story. That’s really all that his Irresistible Revolution is.

      So I can read Claiborne and his new monastic friends without intensifying my response to match his own. He just tells his story and encourages others to ask, “Where does following Jesus take me?” If anything, Claiborne has shown me by his example, not rhetoric, that I need to hear what Jesus is calling me to do and then follow through.

      I can understand that Claiborne makes many uncomfortable with his disruptive message, but I don’t see the same rhetoric from him. I could be too “close” to Claiborne’s message to spot it, but I just know that his message strikes me completely differently from Platt’s.

      1. Hannah Anderson

        And it’s entirely possible that I’m not close enough. I suppose the reason that I observe them as parallel is that they both embody a “anti-establishment” Christianity — both are rejecting popular Christian culture and attempting to return to “real” Christianity.

        Also when I use the term “rhetoric,” I’m using it in the denotative sense of the form of the underlying argument not the colloquial sense of proposition and logic. Platt’s radicalism is much more structural because it has been shaped by a subculture that emphasizes proposition and argumentation (i.e. sermons and lecture); whereas Claiborne’s has been shaped by an anabaptism which relies more on individual encounter, personal journey, and stories as rhetorical device.

        And yet both are arguing for the same thing–recovery of an “authentic” Christian message by rejecting status quo.

    1. ed Post author

      I am toying with one long post instead of 3 shorter posts… My brain may prefer it even if the Google does not!

  6. Matthew Anderson

    Thanks, Ed, for the feedback and the conversation on Twitter. I know it doesn’t mean much, but the final 3000-word version lost many of the distinctions I tried to keep hold of in my 4300 version.

    I will commend to anyone who is interested Hannah’s comments above as encapsulating my own thoughts on the matter, with the addition that Platt doesn’t really rely on “rhetoric” either. He has, actually, a similarly down-to-earth, personable style that actually isn’t that far off from Claiborne’s. The thing that strikes me about them both is how personable and approachable they are, and what good storytellers they can be. There is, in other words, more in common there than people realize. (And FWIW, when *Radical* first came out Platt’s publisher listed Claiborne’s book as one of those that were similar to it.)

    But then, that’s just to repeat Hannah’s point. I volunteer her to write on all this next time instead. Thanks, Hannah.

    All the best,

    matt

    1. ed Post author

      I can certainly appreciate those challenges of editing Matt. I’m cool with agreeing to disagree on some of these points. I suppose I’ve just had a very different take on Platt vs. Claiborne. However, we’re all on the same team at the end of the day anyway. Thanks for dropping by to comment. I’m glad we were able to discuss this further. I’m grateful for the dialogue with all parties.

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  10. Amanda Harrison

    Here, here. I’ve always wondered why I couldn’t get fully behind a lot of the ‘radical’ rhetoric and books. You articulated the point well: it places the emphasis on sheer force of my will or making a ‘decision.’

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