Searching for “Radical” Christians and Dynamic Equilibrium

I have seen a lot of articles FB posts, podcasts, and such talking about how people (particularly youth) are supposed to be “radical Christians.” I was originally going to write a cautionary note on this. To me the term “radical” suggests rebellious and reactionary (and noisy and odd). And while there is some truth in this, there is a fair bit of falsehood in this as well. A Christian (radical or otherwise) is supposed to have Jesus Christ as his or her model. Jesus, in many ways, wasn’t all that radical (as “radical” is commonly pictured). He fit into His culture quite well. He looked and dressed the role well (Judas had to identify Him to the authorities… presumably because His appearance was pretty ordinary according to 1st century Judean standards). Additionally, while some of Jesus’ behavior was considered radical to a subset of the people, it was quite ordinary to others (dining with common “sinners” would be seem “radical” to religious leaders but pretty normal for common people).

But then I looked up the word “radical” in the dictionary and realized that, while there are several meanings for the term, two different meanings stand out.

According to The World Book Dictionary (using an older version, 1970), radical means:

  1. Going to the root; fundamental; basic.
  2. Favoring extreme social changes or reforms; extreme.

I believe that when we talk about being a “radical Christian” the first meaning is preeminent. After all, the goal is not to be different or extreme for its own sake. Rather, a Christian should have had a radical change in his or her life… radical here meaning a fundamental, basic, change to their root or core. Being extreme, weird, separatistic, highly pietistic or having any other quality that puts one on the outskirts of one’s cultural setting is not really the point.

To me, the image of this is a ball on a string. If a ball on a string is tethered by that string to a solid point. Consider that point to be the foundation, or tether point. When there is kinetic energy (motion) related to the ball, it will rotate on that tether. There are two equal and opposite forces (ignoring gravity, wind resistance, and such). These are:

  • Centripetal force. This is the force that seeks to constrain the ball and pull it back towards the tether point.
  • Centrifugal force. This is a virtual force (a force derived from the inertial response to the centripetal force). It is resisting the centripetal force and pulling it away from the tether point.

The end result is that ball will move dynamically in a circle around the tether point.

Okay, enough on Physics 101. What does this have to do with being a “radical Christian”?

I believe the REAL Force of being a radical Christian is the centripetal force of Christ. Being radical is about being foundational… and that foundation is Christ. A radical Christian is centered on, empowered, and constrained by Christ.

I believe the VIRTUAL Force of being a radical Christian is the centrifugal force of cultural dissonance. Being Christlike will result in fitting into one’s culture quite nicely in some ways, and being heavily counter-cultural in others. It is a virtual force because we are not told to be odd or different (as a goal unto itself). Rather, we are called upon to be Christlike (the REAL Force). However, being conformed to Christ will typically result in being in conflict with (or being seen as being extreme to) the broader culture in various ways.

In other words (and redundantly reiterating myself again), radical Christianity is empowered by (and has as its goal) Christlikeness. Radical Christianity is not empowered by being “extreme.” Extremeness is simply the result sometimes of seeking Christlikeness over cultural conformity.

What is the result of the balance of these two (real and virtual) forces? Dynamic Equilibrium. A ball on a string that is spinning around has dynamic equilibrium, it is energized by under control. A radical Christian is also energized, but under control (God’s control).

Being radical is not about being noisy, out-of-control, or culturally weird. It is energized faithfulness to Christ impacting the surrounding culture (subversively but with targeted purpose, not reactionary or random).

Christmas. It’s Okay… Really.

christmas 2007
christmas 2007 (Photo credit: paparutzi)

A few thoughts on Christmas. May as well get the thinking started now.

1.  It is OKAY to Christianize a pagan holiday. <An Issue of Contextualization.> Some are bothered by this and make this a big issue at certain times of the year. But Christianization is simply the subversion or reinterpretation of symbols. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Jesus and the early church subverted/reinterpreted the symbology of the Jewish Passover and ritual purification rites with the sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism. The church structure is the reinterpretation of the Jewish Synagogue. One of the two primary words for God in Old Testament Judaism (“Elohim”) has roots in Canaanite paganism (the roots of “YHWH” are less certain). The primary word for God in the New Testament Church (“Theos”) has roots in Greek paganism. Again, the key point is not the symbol but the meaning given to the symbol. Frankly, the most recognized symbol of Christianity, the cross, is a Christian reinterpretation of a pagan practice (crucifixion). Harvest Festivals have deep pagan roots, yet the Jews were comfortable with reinventing them as Jewish holidays. Three major Jewish Festivals are reinterpretations of harvest festivals (Feast of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Feast of Tabernacles). Christians have, in turn, reinterpreted Feast of Unleavened bread as part of the Christian Holy Week, and the Eucharist. Christians have also reinterpreted Pentecost as a Christian celebration. Reinterpreting pagan symbols is a healthy part of the cultural contextualization of faith. To become a Christian in a non-Christian culture should not involve rejecting every aspect of that culture, but selective rejecting the bad, embracing the good, and reinterpreting the redeemable. That is the role of insider within that culture (not the outside kibitzer).

2.  It is OKAY celebrate a civil holiday. <An Issue of Separatism.> Some are bothered that Christmas has become a civil holiday and has been overlayed with a lot of non-Christian (and sometimes anti-Christian) messages. I believe that it is true that some things have to really be set aside. This manic materialistic busy-ness simply has little redeeming value. But we as Christians should find areas of healthy cultural interaction with the surrounding society. Separatism tends to lead to marginalization and/or ghettoization. I feel that the desire to radically reject everything in society without thoughtful evaluation may stem from the belief that it will show people that they are Christians. I suppose that works. Evangelical Christians are recognizable in that many/most don’t celebrate the local fiestas here in the Philippines (because of pagan and Catholic roots, and the proliferation of vices). In India, I have been told, Christian houses are easy to recognize because they are dark and dreary during the celebration a Diwali. There may be reasons not to celebrate (the tendency mix Christian messages with nationalistic messages during American Independence Day or Memorial Day does make me a wee bit squeamish). However, the fruit of the Spirit is a better way to show that you are a Christian.

3.  It is OKAY to celebrate Christmas in December. <An Issue of Historicity.> Some, in complaining about Christmas, note that we don’t know when Jesus was born (although March might be a good educated guess) so it is ridiculous to celebrate His birth on any day… including in December. I have to admit, this one never made the least bit of sense to me. We have friends who adopted a little girl… she was found wandering the streets in the Philippines. She was apparently abandoned by her mother at around 2 years of age. They don’t know what her birth name was or what day she was born. Yet her paperwork now has a birth date and a name, and they celebrate her birthday every year on a day they assigned her. Suggesting that they should not celebrate her birthday because they don’t know the exact day that she was born is ludicrous. Actually, celebrating Christ’s birth close to Winter Solstice, at least for the Northern hemisphere, makes a lot of sense. Since it is the darkest time of the year, and the coldest (again, in the Northern hemisphere) it fits symbolically the idea of Christ coming into a world of darkness to bring light. And the comraderie and celebration provides emotional warmth to a time so cold. So unless you are big on technical historical, astronomical, or astrological factoids, relax and enjoy Christmas in December

4.  It is OKAY to CELEBRATE.  <An issue of Ascetism> Sometimes it seems as if the problem with Christmas is a problem with celebration. I have not heard anyone complaining about eating rice or utilizing fire, based on its long documented use by pagans and in pagan rituals. Perhaps the focus on Christmas and Easter and such has more to do with the belief that God is against fun and celebration. The Old Testament was full of celebrations. Jesus was involved in much festivities. Not all celebrations are good… but celebrations, are redeemable, and can be good.

5.  It is OKAY to NOT listen to me. <An issue of Conformity.> You don’t have to listen to me. If you celebrate Christmas as a Christian (or a non-Christian), that is great. If you don’t celebrate Christmas that is your right and your freedom as well. That is really not the point and people who think that is the point have really missed the point. But for those who accept it, “Maligayang Pasko at Manigong Bagong Taon!”

Congregational Leadership Wheel (and Missions)

Leadership Wheel

I don’t normally emphasize my Baptist ties on this website since I don’t see that sound Christian Missions should be particularly denominationally driven. If one is focused on God’s Kingdom, you don’t focus on your own fiefdom.

However, I have been seeing more and more problems with self-destructing leadership in both church and missions. The numbers may not be increasing… it just may be that I am interacting with more.

Clearly, one problem is a lack of accountability. I have seen a number of church leaders do remarkably bad, selfish, self-serving, … evil…. things, and then seek to justify them (or at least escape the consequences of them) under the guise that they are the pastor (if the pastor does it, it must be okay), the shepherd, the “anointed one.” <wow! “anointed one”  That sure is a term that has been abused and misused.> The Shepherding Movement sought to theologize such a system suggesting that Jesus was the shepherd (covering, umbrella) of the church leaders, and the church leaders are the shepherds (covering, umbrella) of the church members. This was a bit of a return to the system of the vicarious hierarchy.

There are advantages and disadvantages in such a system. An advantage of such a system is singularity of vision. A committee often makes decisions based on the path of least resistance. Great visions are often crushed. Another advantage is the relative simplicity. One person makes the decisions and the others follow. What’s simpler than that?

But there are disadvantages as well. While having a single leader who cannot be questioned gives singularity of vision, usually that vision is not very good. Individuals who truly are visionary are few and far between. Most “visionary people” are simply limited in exposure— so they read one article or visit one church and suddenly they have a “vision” of what needs to be done.  Most good visions come through interaction with others. Most great visions are good visions that have been honed through wrestling with others. <As always, there are exceptions.> Many leaders like to say that their vision is from God. However, that forces people into an uncomfortable position. Their leader is a liar? Their leader is foolishly mistaken? Their leader is correct that the vision is from God? Even if a “vision is from God” it can always use a bit of tweaking. Recall Jethro’s wisdom to Moses (Exodus 18) that adjusted, improved, that general vision from God that drove Moses to lead his people.

The biggest disadvantage is that lack of accountability is bad for the church leader. Pastoral staff have a considerable amount of ecclesiastical authority/power. In addition to this, especially for “preachers,” there is a considerable ego boost every time they stand up in front of a congregation to speak. There is risk that narcissistic or emotionally stable personalities will be attracted to this, and actually be further damaged. The Lord Acton quote on the corruptive nature of power is quite accurate. An immature person will not handle power well. It is actually cruel to give power to a person who cannot handle it.

Some hierarchal structures provide accountability but only outside of the church. Certainly, accountability in this manner is better than nothing. (In fact, even congregational, autonomous churches would benefit from an external leadership audit.) However, hierarchal structures without an internal check and balance can lead to the theologizing of the structure and supporting an idea that the leadership cannot be questioned, challenged, and held accountable.

The Congregational structure (that most Baptists and several other groups use) seeks to limit this problem. Ecclesiastical power is centered (primarily) in the pastoral staff. The Pastoral staff guides/leads the staff. The staff (whether professional or lay) leads/guides the leaders of specific ministries. These ministry leaders guide individual members. However, these individual members constitute the church body and so each individual acts to guide the church body which selects and guides the church council (or whatever term one uses to describe a group in this position). The church council, in turn, guides and oversees the pastoral staff. Is the system perfect? No… and as a church gets larger, there seems to be a greater need for power to be centered in the staff, and it becomes more difficult to provide internal accountability. Still, when the system works, it provides what the pastoral staff needs most… accountability.

In truth, on some level, all churches are congegrationalist. That is because, in all churches, members vote. Some churches allow their members to vote with their hands and voice. But in all churches people vote with their feet and with their wallets. That is why churches that are trying to maintain a highly authoritarian structure seek to theologize giving, membership, and leadership. You must give to this ministry or you are fighting God. You must not leave this church or your soul is in danger. You must submit to this authority or you are rejecting God’s authority. (In Slideshare, I have some powerpoints on  Churches that Abuse.)

Okay… so what does this have to do with Missions?

Actually, a huge amount. That is because many missionaries are churchplanters. And many “mission” churches, if they are not led by missionaries, are financially supported by a missionary or mission group. The problem is that the accountability structure becomes messed up. A missionary is normally accountable to his financial supporters and to his mission board, not to the members of his mission church. Often the missionary actually owns the church land and building. Essentially, there is no accountability. A similar problem occurs when a local pastor is set in place by a missionary. In this case, the finances and control are in the hands of an outside entity. The local church membership, in either case, is disempowered and the pastoral staff lacks the internal oversight and accountability it so sorely needs.

For missionaries, I believe that NORMALLY missionaries should not pastor a local mission church for a long time. It should be a transitional thing. For church leaders who receive outside funding and control, this again should be a transitional thing. It should not be long-term.