Every once in a while we do this around here at Everyone’s Entitled to Joe’s Opinion: Pick a topic and keep on talking about it until there is nothing left to say.
If you have been tracking with me on this blog for any length of time, or any of the other blogs where I hang out regularly, you may have heard the term “post-evangelical wilderness”. Despite what you may think, this “post-evangelical wilderness” is not simply some fanciful construct created by young punk bloggers living in their parents’ basements with nothing better to do with their lives than sit around all day in front of their computer screens and write whatever strikes their fancy. This post-evangelical wilderness is a real place inhabited by real people with real stories. These are people who have grown up in evangelicalism or invested a significant season of life in evangelicalism, but who now, for whatever reason, feel seriously out of place in evangelicalism in its current state–people who are, to borrow an oft-used (around here, at least) quote from Rachel Held Evans, “caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles”.
It occurs to me that some of you may not have any idea what I am talking about when I speak of the “post-evangelical wilderness”, so I am going to offer some snapshots over the coming days/weeks of what this looks like on the ground in my world.
Today we are going to talk about one of contemporary evangelicalism’s worst tendencies: namely, its addiction to chasing extraordinary, or as I would call it, chasing the fame monster.
Over the past several years I have volunteered at the Passion gatherings that typically happen in January. It has frequently been emphasized to us as volunteers that somewhere in the room was the next John Piper or Louie Giglio Beth Moore or Chris Tomlin, and we get the opportunity to be on the front lines of serving them during these days and facilitating their encounter with God. There is the story of Matt Chandler, who attended one of the very first Passion gatherings ever, had his world wrecked by God during those days, and went on to found a large megachurch in the Dallas area. He is now widely considered to be the next John Piper.
Of course that is true. Given the laws of mathematics and the size of a typical Passion gathering these days, it is entirely likely that the next John Piper or Beth Moore or Chris Tomlin is somewhere in the room. But what they don’t say is that the vast majority of students passing through these gatherings will go on to what we would consider an ordinary existence. The vast majority of these students will go on to be doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, nurses, paralegals, teachers, IT professionals, plumbers, carpenters, electricians–you name it. The vast majority of these students will live in the city as young professionals, or get married and move out to the suburbs and start families. There they will live as husbands, mothers, fathers, wives, and strive to raise children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.
But in much of evangelicalism these days, that is not good enough.
In so many parts of evangelicalism, Paul is held up as the standard to emulate and strive for. Look at his zealous, singlehearted, radical devotion to Christ! Look at what all he went through in order to spread the Gospel throughout the known world of that time! Look at the passion he felt, that drove him forward in all he did to advance the Gospel! Shouldn’t you be ashamed if your life is anything less than this? That stuff will preach at conferences for zealous young evangelical college students these days.
But who received Paul’s letters? Not other apostles. Not even other pastors. Paul’s letters were written to ordinary, rank-and-file believers. Bet you didn’t notice this, did you?
These people, the recipients of Paul’s letters, were carpenters, farmers, traders, sailors, fishermen, shepherds, mothers, fathers, and children. Compared to the apostles, these people were nothing. Their lives were quite mundane. They were ordinary people who gathered together in someone’s home to drink their wine and eat their bread and hear the Holy Spirit speaking to them through the words of an apostle.
And then they went home.
And then they got up the next day and lived a perfectly normal life.
And they came back the next week and went through the exact same drill.
And on and on it went, all the way to the very end of their days.
Then they died, and now they are all forgotten.
For most of these people, the most extraordinary thing that happened in their lives was the day they trusted Christ and joined the Christian community. After that, their lives went completely back to normal. They listened to the words of Paul, learned from him, then in faith stayed exactly where they were, doing exactly what they were doing before, after he left.
Never in any of Paul’s writings do we get the sense that he was asking his readers to stop being who or what they were. He never challenged them to pack it all up and go overseas to preach the Gospel. We never get hints that he is making them feel guilty for living in relative comfort and ease, compared to his lack of it.
For some of you, this idea of identifying with the ordinary rank-and-file believers who received Paul’s letters may seem like a sort of death. Death to the dream of being extraordinary, of being someone special.
I get that. I once dreamed that I could one day be the next Chris Tomlin. I once dreamed that I could stand on a stage and preach or sing in front of thousands.
Matt Chandler, as noted above, attended the first ever Passion gathering in Austin as a college student back in 1997. During those days God turned his world upside down and sent him out as a flaming arrow across the sky for His glory. Stories like that are routinely celebrated in the world of Passion. You too can be just like Matt Chandler. You too can be just like Chris Tomlin, who is now living the dream, married to a former Miss Auburn who is now the woman whom every young Christian woman on the face of the earth would give her very life to be. Just pray harder. Surrender more. Dedicate more fervently. Live with even greater zeal than before.
I wanted it. God, how I wanted it. I have been going to Passion gatherings for over a decade now, just hoping and praying that God would rock my world as he did Matt Chandler’s, and send me out as a flaming arrow across the sky for His glory.
Hasn’t happened yet.
So if this seems like a death to you, death to the dream of being extraordinary, death to the dream of being someone special, I get it. Really I do.
But for countless others of you, this idea of identifying with the rank-and-file believer instead of the Apostle Paul is the greatest news you have ever heard in your life, next to the Gospel itself.
As noted earlier, we in evangelicalism are addicted to chasing extraordinary. Meaning that we have GOT to make a good name for ourselves. We have GOT to do big things for Christ that will be remembered by God and by others for all of eternity. It is not enough to run your business ethically or raise small children to the glory of God unless you are doing it on another continent, with bullets flying overhead and malaria crouching at your door. Why? Because we approach life needing desperately to succeed. To fail is to die. Success equals life.
But because of God’s grace, we are free to be ordinary. We don’t have to go out and turn the world upside down. Jesus Christ already did that when he won the victory over sin and death at the cross. We don’t need other people to love, respect, or approve of us in order for us to matter. Because Jesus was extraordinary, it is perfectly OK for us to be ordinary.
Don’t you just love how I was able to wrap that up and put a nice little bow on it at the end there?
At this point some of you who have been tracking with me for a while have probably noticed that this sounds a lot like something I wrote a few years back at Life in Mordor (I am nothing if not all about shameless self-promotion. But you knew that already), where I was a guest contributor at the time. (That blog has long since gone dormant, but I still like to throw them a bone every once in a while just to let them know I’m still out there.)
I wish that were the end of the story. It isn’t. That is the way of things out here in the post-evangelical wilderness.
One of the things I alluded to in the prior post is the awareness of hopes, dreams, wishes, desires, and aspirations that I had back when I was still a young hot-blooded evangelical, which remain unfulfilled to this day. One of these is the aspiration that I would serve God via full-time ministry and/or missions. Since that time my perspective has broadened on what it means to serve God faithfully via ministry/missions. And I have this blog, which is making a difference here in this little neck of the Christian blogosphere at least. Yet that differs significantly from what I was hoping for, and from my perspective it feels as if I have offered myself to the Lord to be used in His service, and He has said “Sorry, but no thanks. You are not what I am looking for.” That is something I have had to carry with me out here into the post-evangelical wilderness. It has defined me going forward (“Well, if the Lord doesn’t want me then I’ll just go on about my business, living a normal life and having normal relationships with normal people, and moving forward in the best way I know how, according to such light as I can find for myself.”) I have made a fairly nice life for myself here in the city, yet I cannot help feeling that this is significantly different from what my life would look like if the Lord had turned my world upside down and sent me out as a flaming arrow across the sky for His glory a la Matt Chandler, as I had earnestly desired so long ago. The better wisdom and counsel that I have received along the way tells me I shouldn’t feel this way, yet still I cannot help it.
Here is the other piece of this: I said above that we don’t need other people to love, respect, or approve of us in order for us to matter, that because Jesus was extraordinary it is perfectly OK for us to be ordinary. I wish I could believe that for myself. Yet we as humans were made to live in community and in relationship with others. I yearn to feel as if I belong and I matter, and I certainly don’t expect to get that all by myself in an experience of what some would call the presence of God but in all likelihood is just a good feeling. Evangelicals talk a lot about the “fear of man” which prevents us from speaking truth when it needs to be spoken, yet I find it difficult if not impossible to believe that ultimate significance can be found apart from human community, that I can matter if I do not matter to others. Call it “fear of man” if you will. Say that I am addicted to pleasing others and this makes me unfit for ministry so no wonder the Lord has never called me. That may be true, yet it is part of who I am, a part of me that I cannot let go of and don’t want to let go of even if I could.