Theology

“Radical” review: 85-106

Thankfully, there’s no horrifying story opening Chapter Four of Radical, “The Multiplying Community.” This is one of the chapters I remember clearly from the last time I read this book because it contains an argument I’ve employed with church leaders fairly consistently over the last few years. I don’t agree with David on much– and there is, of course, things I disagree with him on even here– but the basic argument of this chapter makes sense to me.

David makes the case that the Great Commission isn’t about simply converting as many people as possible, but that our primary focus should be on the “baptism” and “teaching” aspect of Jesus’ command– and I agree with him on that:

Making disciples is not an easy process. It is trying. It is messy. It is slow, tedious, even painful at times. It is all these things because it is relational. Jesus has not given us an effortless step-by-step formula for impacting nations for his glory. He has given us people, and he has said “Live for them. Love them, serve them, and lead them” … (93).

I don’t know how ubiquitous “witnessing” or “doorknocking” is, but in the area I grew up in the practice was commonplace, as was street preaching. Every Thursday night we would canvas a neighborhood, trying to hit as many homes as possible. We would do our best to introduce the “Roman’s Road” (Handsome had never even heard of that, which shocked me, who’d had it memorized since she was eleven) and lead them through the “Sinner’s Prayer.” At the end of the evening we would report back on how many soul’s we’d managed to save. Once a month the teenagers would take the lead on the whole shebang, which led to some of my more humiliating moments.

The last church we attended was pretty numbers-focused, as well. The number of people who attended each service was a relied-upon metric and was promoted pretty heavily from the stage as well as through the pastoral staff. How “big” they’d gotten and how many people they’d convinced to attend a small group were pretty much the only standard for success we heard from anyone. When Handsome and I brought up the problems with relying on this metric– notably, that simply attending service once a week isn’t a good way to understand how people are growing to become more like Christ, which we understood as one of the main goals of this whole “Church” business– they were always dismissed. We don’t just see numbers, we see people, and that would be the only answer we got out of anyone. That exact sentence, usually.

David thinks all of that is ridiculous, and so do I. My blog is one of the ways I try to fulfill the “Great Commission,” but it’s not just the writing– it’s engaging with all of you. Getting to know you. I know all my regular commenters, and you pick up on things over time: faith struggles, how it feels to parent children, frustrations with partners or parents. If you write a blog, I’ve probably read a bit of it. Many of you I follow your blogs now and read them consistently. For all my lurkers– you’re in my thoughts, too. I care about you. I care about the way my words might affect you.

At the GCN conference I met with several people who are regular readers, but rarely or never comment, and it was amazing getting to see your face and meet you offline. To hear your stories. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: you are why I do this.

That seems to be what David is getting at with this chapter of Radical. I’m still confused on all of what he means by “sharing the Gospel”– on page 91 he says that it’s how people “come to faith in Christ,” but then he immediately turns right and around and starts talking about a married couple who help men and women in Tanzania start businesses. He leans on conversion-style rhetoric, and then he tells a story about how they opened a booth in Jackson Square for the primary purpose of sharing “Christ’s work on the cross” (95), but that ultimately ends up with them feeding the homeless there every few days … which results in a lot of those homeless people attending his church, a fact he doesn’t fail to mention (96).

This is one of the things that bothers me about David’s stance, but it’s hardly unique to him. It seems like he sees “The Gospel” as being the act of evangelizing and conversion, but that one uses the tool of “building a relationship with a person by helping them and loving them” as a means to get there.

My small group/book club/house church (we’re not exactly what we are anymore) is going through the Gospel of Mark at the moment, and the thing that is leaping out to me every week is that it talks about Jesus spreading the gospel … but the only thing he ever does is heal people and cast out demons and shout at the lawyers about how “God made the Sabbath for man, not man for the Sabbath” and “damn right I’m going to heal this person on the Sabbath, now you sit down and shut the hell up.”

Yes. I paraphrase Jesus like that. It might be sacrilegious, but I find it delightful. Anyway, Jesus’ version of sharing the gospel seems to not have much to do with conversion, but with loving people and helping them.

I do have one pretty serious problem with this chapter, though, and in my opinion it’s a fairly egregious failing. He bases his entire argument on his interpretation of Jesus’ ministry: that Jesus’s style of “discipleship” was to focus exclusively on the Apostles (88-90). His support of that comes from John 17, supposedly:

What is shocking is that when Jesus summarizes his work on earth, he doesn’t start reliving all the great sermons he preached and all the people who came to listen to him … Instead he repeatedly talks about the small group of men God had given him out of the world. They [the Apostles] were the work God had given to him. They were, quite literally, his life.

When you read through John 17, you cannot help but sense the intensity of the affection Jesus had for this band of disciples and the gravity of the investment he had made in their lives. (88-89)

Except he doesn’t actually want us to “read through John 17.” If you read the entire chapter, the second half of it starts off with “I do not pray for them alone.” I also disagree with the argument that John 17 is about only the Apostles. The attention the Apostles receive in the Gospels isn’t insignificant, but those books also heavily emphasize the fact that there were many people that Jesus considered his “disciples,” and it definitely included women (like Mary and Martha, or the women who went to the Tomb, just for starters). David erases the women who were utterly essential to the success of Jesus’ ministry (89, 93), and he downplays anyone who wasn’t a member of the Twelve.

In a way he comes by it honestly. Most of Christian history has done the same thing.

But, it disturbs me how willing David is to completely ignore anything Jesus did or said that doesn’t jive well with his argument. He opened Radical with the claim that we’ve all twisted Jesus into something he isn’t, but I’ll repeat myself: David is twisting Jesus, too.

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  • Catherine Cavanaugh Martin

    I’m reading through Mark right now, too, and I’m noticing, like I do every time I read the Gospels, how much Jesus heals the sick and preaches about giving to the poor and helping the needy and visiting those in prison. He very rarely mentions the whole atonement thing – that’s much more a product of the Epistles. I thought I had the Bible figured out when I was 20. I’m 48 now and realize that I know nothing. Much like parenting.

  • nelson_keener

    Samantha…..have you posted any of your comments about Radical on Amazon Reviews?

    • They seem a little bulky for that format?

      • nelson_keener

        True…because you written multiple segments. I was thinking maybe just pull a paragraph or two from a post where you had a succinct counter thought; i.e. what he calls the gospel vs. the kingdom. But hey, just a thought.

  • Blogging is definitely the best faith-sharing tool for introverts. I actually find more community here than in my physical small group.

    • I’m always really sad any time I hear about other small groups because mine is completely wonderful. We have completely different views on God/The Bible/Christianity/Politics, but it actually doesn’t matter. We care about each other, and that’s the only thing that matters.

      • I don’t have a formal group like that, but luckily a handful of Christian friends to talk theology and questions with, and that is enough for me.

  • I enjoy reading your thoughts. It coincided with my recent thoughts about how one lives their faith. I dove into the sacred texts of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity for a curriculum and an interfaith devotional I developed. This was the beginning of my shift. I also systematically removed negative thoughts and words.

    My working theory, based on the scriptures I’ve read, is to be an example of love in action. That’s the goal – the only game in town worth playing. I kind of got this intellectually when I was younger, but I didn’t know exactly how it would work until recently. Now, I see every word and thought as a potential expression of empathy and compassion, a way to spread good feeling to every person I meet. When I removed negative feelings, thoughts, and words, I saw this as a possible avenue for living my faith. It was like everything finally made sense. It changed how I interact with each person. I moved from a place of vacillation and uncertainty, to a place of joy and love. It may sound cheesy, but I’m completely sincere. It was quite a transformation, and I’m still experiencing it.

    Your thought about caring for everyone who comments here and following regular commenters touched me. I appreciate the love you express for others and I am so glad you do this. 🙂

  • Pauline

    You seriously need to write a book, I’d read it then share it with everybody I know.

    • Well, I’m working on the research for one at the moment, on why complementarianism is abusive, so. 🙂

      • Lindsaydoodles

        Oh man, I’m popping out of lurker territory just to say I can hardly wait to read that!!

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    I feel like this book is like many others where the author goes hunting for ways to make Christianity more challenging. This tells me he isn’t being challenged enough by his practice of Christianity – which is reasonable: the faith is big and important, and we have a desire to do something big with it. My problem with this approach is that the challenge he offers is basically to think and analyse yourself silly, not to mention go fault hunting.
    How about if he tries offering his time to Habitat for Humanity, or volunteering to invest time regularly in an unparented teen, or something that is not about analyzing but rather about offering ourselves to the many needs in the world around us? Now that would be radical.

    • To be fair, he does talk a lot about how he’s been involved in those sorts of things and encouraged his church members to do the same. I’m just suspicious about his motives.

  • This is something that has always made me profoundly uneasy when it comes to the concept of conversions. While I have seen many genuine and true ways that people have simply shared the Gospel without there being pressure, I’ve seen just as many or more people who leveraged relationship/friendship ties in order to guilt-trip or push someone into going to church with them/converting, and I just can’t see that as the right way.

    I’ve always liked Madeline L’Engle’s words on the subject: ““We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.””

  • Spooky Fox

    I haven’t actually read Radical, but I write a blog post recently about how I don’t think we should use the word “radical” to describe ourselves. It has negative connotations. If you google “radical Christians,” you will find several stories about Christian terrorists. It is also incredibly unfair for christians to be able to describe themselves as radical when Muslims can’t use the word without being called terrorists. Nope, I am not a radical Christian.

  • I feel like this must be the part why I have heard mostly good things about this book. It’s interesting to contrast what the Great Commission actually says to how evangelicals often use it: It says to make disciples, not converts. It says to teach them to obey the teachings of Jesus. It does not say to teach them the theology of penal substitution, or to pray the Sinner’s Prayer. It says to baptize, which isn’t just a ritual – we immerse people in Jesus, which inevitably means doing the kinds of things Jesus did: healing, speaking truth to power, etc. And interesting the rationale: because Jesus has authority – not because the Bible or even the nice compact four point Gospel has authority. Can’t make disciples without centralizing Jesus. I’m seriously thinking about preaching about this in some form or another, first time preaching to my very non-evangelistic Mennonite church.

    Point 2: relationship evangelism. My favourite way to summarize this came from a visiting professor who spoke to the campus leaders at my university. He said: “the concept of relationship evangelism prostitutes relationship to evangelism.” If relationship is just a tool to achieve something that makes you feel good without actually caring about them, that’s completely missed the point of being good news.

    Point 3: On the style of discipleship, I think there’s something to be said for having a smaller focus. Jesus had thousands of followers, and there were probably a few dozen other than the Twelve who had a similar level of commitment for as long (including several women). But there’s still definitely a difference between the crowd who occasionally drop by to hear something interesting and those who gave up everything for 3 years. Then within those, there does seem to be that inner circle of Peter, James, and John who got even more attention than the rest of the Twelve.

    Sounds like David oversimplified – including with John 17 which definitely suggests to me it is meant for all of the Church in their present and future – but the general idea that Jesus invested in some more than others definitely seems fair. You can’t effectively disciple 300 people at once. You can teach them ideas, but you can’t really be walking with them all through everyday life. Most Christians (and humans in general) probably can have at most a couple dozen people that they are investing in deeply.