Anthony Bradley is a professor of theology and ethics, a social commentator, and a speaker. He is a theological conservative from the Reformed tradition, as I am myself, and a political conservative by all appearances. Lately, an article of his made the rounds on many of the Conservative Christian blogs called, The New Legalism: Missional, Radical, Narcissistic, And Shamed. In this article, Bradley contends that some of the youth and young adults he has counseled from the Missional Church movement have burned out because they tried to reach for the spiritual stars by doing too much for others. According to Bradley, these young people feel like failures when they end up settling for normalcy. Thus, after hearing inspirational messages from their spiritual leaders imploring them to change the world, they become guilt ridden for having failed. Bradley's therapy for them focuses on settling for reduced expectations and a smaller sphere of influence.
Bradley mentions specifics on how to be healed from or escape this you must be special trap. First, instead of living the "missional" life of sharing the Gospel in the roughest neighborhoods and environment, one can settle for a guilt-free, quiet life in the suburbs where loving one's neighbors and living the Christian life is more manageable. And even if one does not live in the suburbs, again, reduced expectations is the key. According to Bradley, the selling of living up to great expectations in terms of life and mission occurred simultaneously with the "narcissism epidemic." We should note here that diagnosing Americans with narcissism has been around for 30+ years longer than the reference that Bradley provided.
Is there validity in Bradley's observations and suggestions? Of course, however I would not lay all of the blame at the feet of the Missional church movement. My college teaching experience has told me that many high school students, including nonChristians, have been sold a false set of goods. They come into college indoctrinated with the belief that they can be anything they want (was this from narcissism alone?). Obviously, such a message played better to their young egos than academic disciplines did to their patience and ability to handle frustration. So I saw student after student with such high career hopes for the future be taken back when they struggled with freshmen math. It was sad. In response, I did try to introduce to them the distinction between not knowing one's potential from thinking that one can do anything.
We should note that it is not biblical to motivate people for any kind of ministry by inspiring them to long for greatness. Greatness is usually a recognition given by people. And if we contrast that with Paul's view of ministry and why he preached the Gospel, we see that we have to choose between trying to please people or trying to please God. The logic Paul employed was an exclusive-or. We cannot set out to do both.
But there are concerns with Bradley's views because there are other icebergs in the sea than winning awards for living the impossible dream. For example, how do we bear our cross while living an ordinary Christian life in America? Are the two compatible? We might also ask, is living the ordinary Christian life in the suburbs an attempt to live in a world that we can love rather than living our faith in the world that is (read Is The American Dream A Christian's Nightmare)? Bonhoeffer used this line of questioning when analyzing the life of the monks during Luther's time. Bonhoeffer charged the monks with creating a world they could love rather than living out their faith in the real world. What is important here is whether Bradley's suggestions lead us to love the world, as described in I John 2? If so, we need to realize that, as I John 2 says, we cannot love the world and have the love of the Father in us.
In addition, we might also ask Bradley, why does he use such a stark contrast to make his point? Rather than comparing a more moderate approach to the missional life, Bradley uses the completely different life as his standard. Is Bradley against the missional way of life altogether or just its extreme forms?
Finally, we should examine who one's neighbor is in Bradley's model. Are one's neighbors just those who live on the same street? This question is important because with our ever advancing communications technology and proliferation of democracy, our neighborhood has become much larger as is our ability to affect change.
Remember that in the parable of the Good Samaritan, what made the victim of a violent robbery the neighbor of the Samaritan was that they crossed paths. With that being the case, how many people in the world become our neighbors via today's communications technology? And does our democracy, which allows us to reach out and touch more people, make us responsible for helping more people than was true for those who lived in Biblical times? Thus, we should ask, is living Bradley's "normal" Christian life compatible with following the parable of the Good Samaritan? And are we called to some kind of missional lifestyle regardless of where we live?
The last consideration is of particular importance because of the Left's accusation against the Church in general. That accusation says that the Church is just another institution of indoctrination for the maintenance of the status quo.
Here, we should note two points. First, the status quo favors those with wealth and power. Second, the status quo puts those who are vulnerable at a greater risk to being abused. We do know that what puts the status quo at risk is solidarity amongst people from all walks of life. That is the greater the number of people who join in speaking for a cause or group, the better the chance that some kind of positive change will take place. Though Bradley briefly mentions that we should be involved with social justice, does the normal, suburban life he advocates favor enough involvement that will challenge the status quo? And if not, is Bradley guilty of belonging to the long, global list of conservative theologians and ministers who confirm the charge from the Left?
|This Month's Scripture Verse:|
Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless -- Ecclesiastes 5:10