Friday, August 16, 2013

Even on the Margins, Faith Can Be Radical

Ambitious?  Consider these two quotes from two popular evangelical writers.

"Sometimes faith isn’t radical; sometimes it’s just holding on.  It’s not intellectual in the slightest and neither is it particularly well-argued.  It doesn’t seek to change the world or do anything dynamic.  It is not on any mission and it’s not a unique use of gifts.  It is just holding on tight because that’s all it can do at the time."

Pretty honest, realistic, and accurate... right?

Okay, so how about this one:

"Tim Keller's hugely popular Redeemer Church [is] the kind of evangelical church that nobody thought could flourish in the Big Apple.  It's attended by many of the city's movers and shakers; and then there’s Socrates in the City, a forum for busy professionals to help them examine life’s big questions."

Quite gushing, enthusiastic, and almost fawning... right?

The first quote is by Barnabas Piper, who wrote on his eponymous blog this week about faith oftentimes being that thing just barely sustaining us in the everyday challenges of life.  In his view, faith isn't always ground-breaking, precedent-setting, or monumental.  Some preachers and Christian authors want their audiences to pursue big, bold, and "radical" things for God, but in the real world, faith "is all the radical we can manage."

How true was that for Christ's disciples?  For the Israelites?  How true is it for you?

The second quote is by Eric Metaxas, writing for BreakPoint's website a glowing tribute about various evangelical ventures with which he's affiliated in New York City.  Metaxas may have those kinds of days of which Piper writes, where faith is all the radical he can manage.  But don't you get the impression from Metaxas that those days are few and far between?  After all, the guy sounds as though he's on the cusp of evangelical Protestantism's entry into New York's orbit, along with Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and King's College, the main subject of his exuberant article.

Getting Manhattan's Church History Right

Except Metaxas, Keller, Redeemer, and King's are only the latest players on a stage that never was lacking an evangelical urban witness.  I get frustrated every time I read a piece by one of Keller's devotees who labors under the false impression that before Redeemer, Gotham was one Godless hellhole.  They anoint Keller as the one guy radical enough to take on the Big Apple and establish a ministry for Christ on the frontier of America's urban experience.

Which, in reality, isn't true.  Yes, white flight and the city's legendary embrace of hedonism had rendered the city short on its count of evangelical churches, at least in proportion to its population.  However, for New Yorkers being transformed by the Holy Spirit into followers of Christ, the island of Manhattan housed a few churches that were pretty solid long before Keller moved there from Virginia.

There was - and still is - Calvary Baptist, the granddaddy of them all, smack in the middle of 57th Street; Manhattan Bible Church, smack in the middle of Harlem; Trinity Baptist Church, which Gordon MacDonald once pastored; Times Square Church, the famous outreach to the Theater District started by Cross and the Switchblade author David Wilkerson; and newer, more ethnic churches like New Horizon Church in Harlem, founded by Michel Faulkner, a former pastor at Calvary Baptist and a former Republican candidate for the House of Representatives.  There were also a couple of mainline Episcopal and Presbyterian churches that, at the time of Redeemer's launch, were still fairly orthodox in their theology.

Suffice it to say that much of Keller's and Redeemer's success has come not from the establishment of something that had not existed in Manhattan before, but from the timing of their arrival onto the island.  Crime rates were dropping, and new urbanism was taking hold among newer generations of kids who had grown up in - and tired of - suburbia.  They wanted something new, bold, and titillating - and if you were big-city-bound, what better place than a church that didn't frown on your penchants for drinking and dancing?

After all, good churches they were - and are - but Calvary and Trinity Baptists were not known for embracing traditional vices like alcohol consumption, and dancing may have been tolerated at Times Square Church, but only if it was in the sanctuary aisles - and done "in the spirit."  Young adults flocking to the Big City after college may have never before heard of the PCA, Redeemer's denomination, but when they learned the church threw birthday parties for its pastors where wine was the only suggested gift, it didn't take long to figure out which church scored biggest on the popularity scale.  When I lived in New York City, not long after Redeemer's launch, it was already widely known among us Christians that Keller's church featured great preaching and an ever greater singles scene.

"Did I Say That Out Loud?"

Of course, Metaxas and others fairly credit Keller's brainy sermons and cosmopolitan vibe for endearing the bald, bespeckled minister to Gotham's booming population of Gen-X'ers and Millennials.  And doing so far more effectively than the comparatively stodgy, conventional pastors at these other churches.  But then, too, these other churches are heavily populated by genuine New Yorkers, people of varying skin tones from all walks of life - not just the silk-stocking-district walks - who are not the "power brokers" Redeemer's celebrants crow over.  God is using Keller and Redeemer in significant ways amongst the city's career-focused class, consisting mostly of whites and Asians with advanced degrees and fashionable resumes, and that's a good thing.  Strivers need the Gospel as much as anybody.  But it's easy to take the heady pulse Metaxas describes as the type of radical ambition the rest of America's evangelicals would do well to emulate.

"We need to learn how to change culture from the CENTER of culture - not just from the margins," Metaxas writes.  "And where do we find the center of culture?  Places like Hollywood and New York City, where I live."

Oh?  And what about the rest of us, on the "margins?"

Metaxas says he isn't insulting us - honest!  "Many Christian schools are, instead, tucked away in small towns away from centers of influence - that’s not a criticism, just an observation."

I see.  Like Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and any number of "lesser" universities, I suppose?  Only one Ivy League school is in the "center of culture," defined by Metaxas as Los Angeles and New York, and that's New York's Columbia University.

How You Make It

I've lived in New York City, and I understand how easy it is for people like Metaxas to view the fenestrated confection of concrete, glass, steel, and pavement between New Jersey and Long Island as the center of the universe.  And yes, it is the Western Hemisphere's media capital and financial hub.  It is exciting, demanding, invigorating, and for some, extremely rewarding.

Basically, then, it's everything people like Metaxas view the margins of the United States as NOT being.  You know - the places where most of us Americans live, between our country's two biggest cities.  Fly-over country.  Middle America.  Even suburban New York City, which now reaches into Pennsylvania, and sprawling Southern California, of which LA is only a gilded corner.

These are places where "radical" faith can seem the most, well, unrewarding.  At least, compared to the important work people like Metaxas are doing for God's Kingdom in New York City!

Thankfully, for all the rest of us on the margins, Piper provides some refreshingly encouraging words.  "Sometimes all the radical I can manage is that death grip on faith as I’m tossed to and fro," he readily admits.  "No, it’s not society-reforming, world-altering, life-changing mission.  It’s just how I make it; without it I wouldn’t have a life at all."

Everyday New Yorkers, who don't live in chic apartments or trendy neighborhoods, and whose kids have to attend whatever school is down the block.  You and me, here in fly-over country.  And even those Redeemerites who are willing to admit how depressed, anxious, and weary their city's incessant excitement makes them.

Wherever we live, and however important we consider ourselves to be, it's God's faith that's radical.  Not us.

Peace out.

FYI:  By way of clarification, Barnabas Piper is the son of esteemed Minnesota pastor and author John Piper.

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