Insignificant Is In
- Wednesday, November 17, 2010
The pendulum swings back and forth so rapidly in our days that you may not have noticed that insignificant is in. Church size still lands pastors book deals and conference platforms. Youthful boasting of plans to fix the world catch the media's attention. But the pushback has been strong, and not just from Christian leaders who toil in obscurity. Rather, some of the most prominent evangelical voices have raised concerns about our penchant for regarding bigger and newer as better.
Christianity Today senior managing editor Mark Galli launched one salvo with a column, "Insignificant Is Beautiful." He observed that Generation Y aspires to serve the cause of social justice and change the world. They want to be significant, to be remembered for cleaning up the environment, ending sex trafficking, eradicating HIV-AIDS, and much more. These are good and godly aims. But how do we know, Galli asks, whether this yearning is something more than "ego masked as altruism"? Might compassion masquerade as narcissism? It does if we talk a big game about changing the world but can't love our neighbors and take responsibility for what and who is right in front of us. Galli writes:
I have a good friend who has been caring for his elderly mother. She sits in a wheelchair, complains a lot, and requires constant attention—to the point of cleaning her up after regular bouts of diarrhea. What my friend and his wife are doing is heroic, virtue with a capital V. But it is hard to see how it is "world changing" as we normally think about such things. Such an act doesn't even change the mother's life, only makes it less miserable. It's not even "significant," by our usual calculation, but "merely" an act of love.
Galli has company in his concern. Writing earlier this year on "The Glory of Plodding." Kevin DeYoung said: "What we need are fewer revolutionaries and a few more plodding visionaries." Bono is a generational hero committed to healing the world but not so committed to serving the local church. Maybe Bono isn't the best role model, DeYoung suggests.
With all due respect, what's harder: to be an idolized rock star who travels around the world touting good causes and chiding governments for their lack of foreign aid, or to be a line worker at GM with four kids and a mortgage, who tithes to his church, sings in the choir every week, serves on the school board, and supports a Christian relief agency and a few missionaries from his disposable income?
DeYoung wonders whether young Christians are tired of the church because they haven't learned to be ordinary, to be part of the crowd. They don't yet realize life is characterized by routine. Marriage, parenting, church service, and work take discipline. And discipline isn't a valued virtue today. We honor the revolutionaries. But they mislead us unless they lead us to love the same old gospel message and the same old people in our families, neighborhoods, and churches.
Let me add my amen to the chorus of thousands who have already commended these writers for bucking contemporary fashion. They remind me of how Fyodor Dostoevsky criticized Russian revolutionaries in the 19th century. It's easy to love humanity in the abstract, Dostoevsky wrote through his character Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. But at close quarters, it's nearly impossible to love our neighbors. In fact, these revolutionaries who profess such great love for humanity actually burn out and turn against their neighbors when the world does not change. So they fail to do Jesus what Jesus has commanded (Matt. 19:19; 22:39).
I feel somewhat conflicted, though, when I try to temper youthful expectations. After all, I've recently co-authored A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir. Historian John Woodbridge and I didn't write the book for those who are comfortable with the status quo. We trust that the Holy Spirit is nudging Christians to ask God for revival in their communities, nations, and the world. We believe that after reading about ways the Lord has awakened his church in the past, Christians today will see ways they have been satiated by small things and lost the taste for the big things. Because Jesus is Lord, everything changes. Our timeworn routines should not satisfy. God calls us to responsibility in these routines, to be sure. But they can also become hindrances to faith when they block us from considering what God can do in his glorious might. After all, God created the heavens and the earth! Surely he can revive our churches to glory in the gospel, to behold his beauty, and to tell of his works so that our neighbors might believe.
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