A few days back, CJ Mahaney posted on Kevin DeYoung’s message from the “Next” conference in May 2010 in Baltimore, Maryland. CJ lauded Kevin’s call for “plodding visionaries” and listed several points from Kevin’s talk that developed his understanding of this term.
This term and the idea behind it caught in my filter, as the kids say nowadays. I don’t know how it strikes you, but that term seems to me to nicely sum up biblical Christian living as a “missional” believer. This isn’t necessarily the line of thinking that sells the most books, but it captures, I think, both the Christocentric idealism and the conscionable realism of the biblical authors. I want to look into this below (and would commend Hunter’s To Change the World, which has stimulated my thinking). This will be a bit lengthy–I’m warning you up front. Adjust your goggles; set phasers to stun.
There is a need for this kind of thinking and communication in our day among young people. Twentysomethings are notoriously and historically idealistic, of course. This isn’t new to our day. But it’s interesting to survey the culture at present. Idealism–even an unnuanced idealism–is alive and well. This despite a twentieth century marked by devastating wars, political corruption, the overturning of conservative cultural mores, widespread loss of religious faith among many elites and cultural leaders, more wars, and more political corruption. Generation X was jaded, angry, characterized by the raging nihilism of music groups like Nirvana. Rappers told stories of cities overcome by drug wars and vice lords. The President of the USA came close to being impeached. The last decade, it would seem, was tough ground for inflated optimism.
But, surprisingly, optimism has indeed taken root in our cultural soil in the last couple of decades. Many young people, especially, found great hope and promise in the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. Gone was the suicidal raving of a mad guitarist; in was “Yes We Can,” set to a hip hop beat and featuring a kaleidoscope of young celebrities mouthing words to Obama’s stump speech. MLK had not died, or rather, he had risen again. The hopes of a generation rose with him.
All this, hastily sketched, to set the table for a bite-sized commentary on the modern church. The same idealism and passion that swells the hearts of young politicos stirs in the chest of young Christians. Having pushed away, at least in principle, from big-box, cookie-cutter, megachurchdom, we have warmed to an activist, nonjudgmental Christianity that soars with hope and promise. We can end sex trafficking, we are told; we can transform the political scene; we can end world hunger in this generation; we can right the wrongs of the historic church, one state-fair confession booth at a time; we can correct the heinousness of the Religious Right and win our progressive friends to the faith; we can reclaim the life and practice of the early church; we can reconstruct the American polis through soup kitchens and after-school mentoring; we can rediscover the secret of true community through monastic living; we can dial down the fire-breathing tone of past evangelists and win our friends, in massive numbers, through gentle conversation; we can turn back whole denominations and movements from heterodoxy and faithlessness; we can plant churches by the bushel and they will all succeed and flourish; we can complete, like a bulleted check list, the momentous task of evangelizing all the people of the world in this generation; we can create culture that is so beautiful, so stirring, so epic that people simply will not be able to turn away from it and deny the faith that fuels it but will embrace it in a great wave that will break over the art galleries and cinemas and coffeehouses of the upculture bohemians.
In these and many other ways, the Christian movement today is soaring with idealism. There’s plenty of disagreement and discouragement, but we are an impassioned generation. Raised on the tuned-out optimism (and the ironic achievement mentality) of the 60s and 70s generation, we have seen our destiny, and it is now.
A few words are in order. I am an idealist. I love to “dream big dreams,” sometimes too much so. On a theological level, I have hope, pure hope, as all Christians do, because that hope is Christocentric. I am not worried about the Way Things Will Turn Out; I know from the Bible how things end. I believe in the sovereignty of God over every molecule of creation, and I believe that God does exactly what He wants for His glory–and that will is always best. The Scripture regularly shows God performing miracles as He leads underdog after underdog to triumph and blessing. The gospel–a message, a proclamation–constantly does the unthinkable and saves vile people and sets them on a previously unthinkable path. As my faith is (appropriately) eschatological, gospel-driven, and Christocentric, I can’t help but be optimistic.
But I do not think that this requires that I subscribe to what might be called blind or naive optimism. The Scripture is not only idealistic, after all, but honest. The fall has unleashed terrible suffering on the world, suffering and sin and death that our minds could not take in if we tried. This is not to say that sin and Satan are greater than Christ; far from it. The head of Satan is crushed like a pulpy grape under the heel of Christ. But, as we know from the Word, this does not mean that sin is eradicated from the world. On the contrary, it thrives.
Where does all this biblicizing intersect with our contemporary world? Well, much as we try, we cannot, in one fell swoop, with an entire generation of Christians working together, overturn the evil of this world. Perhaps that sentence angers you; perhaps it relaxes you. Do you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders? Honestly, is there a part of you that feels constantly responsible for not ameliorating the suffering of this cursed place? Do you really think that the church can end hunger in Africa, reach every unreached person, re-transform American (to say nothing of Western) culture? Do you find yourself saying things like “If the church would just (fill in the blank), then (fill in the blank) would be ended?” If so, I wonder if you have swallowed too much of the cultural water and have not eaten enough of the meat of Scripture.
Theologian Michael Horton had a very helpful (and, to my knowledge, largely unnoticed) piece in 9Marks three years ago about how evangelicals have the habit of taking upon themselves the Messianic ministry of Christ, of inserting themselves into the story of the world where only He can stand. I think Horton is onto something in that piece.
If we look at church history, we see that Christians have done amazing things, astounding things, world-shaping things. The examples are well-known, but the early church transformed the Roman world. The Reformers altered Europe forever. Wilberforce and his friends overhauled slavery. Jonathan Edwards and Co. led the bewildered American colonists in a series of dramatic–and real–awakenings. The missions movement of the nineteenth century unleashed the gospel and sent it to the farthest corners of the world (praise God!). Evangelical benevolence societies–spurred in part by the Edwardsean conscience–addressed on a major scale the social inequities of their day. The missions movement of the early twentieth century sought the spread of the gospel to all the world in its day. The neo-evangelicals of the mid-twentieth century reengaged the culture and caused Christians to sweep back into public life, affecting society in too many ways to count. Francis Schaeffer showed Christians that it was okay to think (and listen to good music). In these and many other ways, Christians have altered the world.
But let’s stop for a moment. Despite the long catalog of evangelical accomplishments over the centuries, have we turned back the curse? Have we ended suffering? Have we beat back sin? No. Only Jesus can do do these things.
Does this mean that I am saying that we should throw our arms in the air and just give up? By no means. Never. We are charged to give our all to the cause of the gospel. We are called to be relentlessly idealistic in a Christocentric fashion, to trust in Him and then work with all our might to win the lost, be the church, and live transformed lives in a sinful world. This means disciplined stewardship, focused partnership, sacrificial friendship, constant vigilance against sin, continual rededication to the mission, stepping out in nothing but faith to try great things for God.
But we do so with a realistic perspective, don’t we? While we hope to work with all our energy to spread the gospel and show grace to the fallen, we do so knowing that 1) we are not God and 2) we cannot altogether defeat sin and suffering. In fact, it seems like Revelation indicates that the world will get worse as time goes on rather than better (Greg Gilbert makes this point in his new book). Much as we hate this reality, much as we hate political corruption, and children suffering, and boys growing up to drop out and abuse women and children, and cataclysmic levels of human starvation, and spiritual idolatry, and the encroachment of Islam, and the breathtaking unfairness of the academic and cultural elite, and the advancement of sex trafficking, and every other ill, we are not God, we are not sovereign, and the Bible makes painfully clear that sin and wickedness and suffering on a stratospheric scale will be with us to the bitter end.
Jesus has won; Satan is defeated; victory is sure. The kingdom is advancing as the gospel is advancing (praise God!). Christians, filled with a love for the Lord and a sense for how He blesses radical faith, are attempting great things for Him. May that only continue. But we need to do so not with a naive optimism, with a worldly hope that is set, like a swelling balloon, to pop, but with a rich blend of complete trust in our Lord and Savior and full awareness of our own finitude and our world’s depravity.