Tens of thousands of college students from around the country sat on the edges of their seats. From a circular stage centered in the massive arena, the speaker spoke into a wireless microphone, an atmospheric instrumental track underscoring his somber delivery.
“Would you leave behind your families, jobs, friends, colleges, and familiar surroundings if God asked you to?”
Following a loaded pause, he brought his message to a dramatic finish.
“If we take Jesus’s words in the Gospels seriously, He already has asked you to do those things. The only question you should be asking yourself is why you aren’t doing them already. Did God really call you to Stay? Or are you just addicted to comfort?”
Afterward, as we navigated the human flow out of the arena and to our hotels, I overheard attendees tearfully remark on the “hard” and “convicting” message. Coasting off the communal high from the concluding worship concert, it was nigh-impossible to imagine living a life that wasn’t “100% sold-out” for Jesus.
We’ll be different, we promised each other, our carry-on luggage packed with shirts, journals and CDs purchased from the conference’s merch table. We’ll never live in the suburbs, work in a cubicle, attend a megachurch, own a home, or settle for comfortable Christianity.
And even though we were college students (who had paid hundreds of dollars for the tickets, flights, and lodging at the conference), it was easy to return home and look down in pity on the safe career tracks of our peers and the financial stability of our parents.
But then real life happened.
We graduated college and took that office job so we could pay off our student loan debt and have health insurance. We married and found ourselves debating on whether we should continue to rent an apartment or buy a house. We purchased a new car because the one we’ve been driving since high school finally began to break down.
We once dreamed of freeing sex slaves in India and bringing the Gospel to an unreached people group in an untamed wilderness. But now we fret about car payments, ferrying kids to and from soccer practice, and finding friends in a new city.
We attempt to justify our life decisions and situations (“God needs Christian accountants and engineers, right?“), but deep down we silently struggle with the shame that we’ve sold out to the false promises of the American Dream.
And another part of us feels duped.
The speakers, pastors, and authors we’d been so enamored with during our high school and college years never talked about the economic systems that would conspire to sabotage our passions.
Instead, the message we implicitly absorbed from all the books, conferences, and sermon series was that our inability to live radically for Jesus was probably a result of our unwillingness to fully entrust our lives to God.
In other words, we were the problem.
On Mission For God
Are you an effective follower of Jesus?
Are you producing disciples who multiply?
Are you a spectator or participant in God’s mission for the world?
Are your passions the same as God’s passions?
Throughout high school and college, I was repeatedly challenged to be a “relentless” and “radical” follower of Jesus. I read books and listened to sermons that criticized “comfortable Christianity” and “spiritual apathy.” I attended big conferences that rivaled Coldplay concerts in their commitment to spectacle that galvanized me to “be the hands and feet of Jesus.”
And, for the most part, I still agree with most of what I read and heard. Living in a developed and privileged nation, spiritual complacency combined with a Western emphasis on thinking the right things about God over doing the things of God inspire some of the most cringe-worthy stereotypes associated with evangelical Christianity.
But if the messages of “making your life count for God” aren’t balanced with a healthy side of grace or an honest assessment of the economic realities of most young people, you get a lopsided work-based Gospel preloaded to sow inadequacy and hopelessness.
Sprinkle on the threat of eternal damnation and the fear of being a judged a “lukewarm Christian,” and it’s not hard to see how this kind of rhetoric can send people spiraling into destructive cycles of self-doubt, inadequacy, and burnout.
I have friends who told me they faked speaking in tongues, pretended to receive a vision from the Holy Spirit, or manufactured a “calling” to go overseas simply because their Christian community had normalized those experiences in such a way that to not have those experiences was to be a lesser Christian.
All of these anecdotes are symptoms of “missionalism,” or the belief that one’s worth is directly correlated to how much one accomplishes and/or suffers for the sake of the Gospel.
Missionalism elevates the mission of God above God Himself. It encourages an addiction to activity, productivity, and efficiency.
Missionalism promotes a results-oriented and impact-driven mindset that resembles the capitalistic business models developed during the early twentieth century. And it fosters a worldview that reduces all people into pawns in service (or in opposition) to The Mission.
In With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God, pastor Skye Jethani writes,
“Some great goal – understood to be initiated by God and carried forward by us – defines everything and everyone. An individual is either on the mission, the object of the mission, an obstacle of the mission, an aid to the mission, or a fat Christian who should be on mission.”
Missionalism isn’t some easy-to-detect monumental heresy; it’s motivated by good intentions and rooted in Scripture. From the Great Commission to just about anything in the Book of James, the New Testament is clear that our faith should directly influence how we choose to live our lives.
(And it’s easy to see why these messages are often directed at young people – outside of schoolwork and extracurricular activities, most students are free of the personal and financial responsibilities that tend to ensnare young adults and married couples).
However, when missionalism intersects with our cultural tendencies toward workaholism, performancism, and one-upmanship, we can easily become marred by personal ambition, spiritual vanity, and religious dogma.
At the dark heart of Missionalism is the toxic belief that the Christian life is all about paying God back for what He did for us. In that regard, Christianity becomes another pagan religion seeking to appease God’s wrath through sacrifice, ritual, and service.
In the article “Dangers of Missionalism,” pastor Gregor Macdonald writes,
“Before long The Mission controls almost everything: time, relationships, health, spiritual depth, ethics, and convictions. In advanced stages, missionalism means doing whatever it takes to solve the problem. In its worst iteration, the end always justifies the means.”
While couched in good intentions and motivated by an urgent need, missionalism can quickly devolve into another futile attempt by Christians to earn their salvation and pay back Jesus for His death on the cross.
At the Altar of
“What has following Jesus cost you?”
If someone were to ask me that question point-blank, I’d have to truthfully reply, “Not much.”
Identifying as a Christian has been an inarguable benefit to every facet of my life. It’s paved the way toward leadership positions, career opportunities, and a supportive community of friends and family.
And, in a weird way, that’s actually not a good thing in some evangelical circles.
Dozens of Christian books and conference speakers have taught me the best way to induce feelings of guilt and spiritual insecurity is to draw a comparison between the audience and the lifestyle of a persecuted Christian living in a developing nation hostile to the Gospel (or the early Church in the First Century).
It’s a wildly effective rhetorical tactic that inadvertently promotes the idea that an obedience to Christ that doesn’t result in suffering and persecution isn’t authentic obedience.
Not only can this lead to priviliged Christians developing an obnoxiously oversensitive persecution complex, this brand of missionalism can develop into a joy-averse religious ideology that seeks validation through intentionally making life difficult.
When we immerse ourselves in the testimonies and stories of extreme sacrifice and radical devotion, and present those experiences as prescriptive (rather than descriptive), we create an exhaustive grind-based culture that places a precedent on “doing big things for God” at the expense of our mind, body, and soul.
Writing to Christians at the church in Thessalonica, the apostle Paul urges believers to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life” and “mind your own business and work with your hands” in order that “your daily life may win the respect of outsiders (non-Christians) and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
In the first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul says that “each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them.”
And in his letter to the persecuted church in Rome, Paul writes, “Take your everyday , ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.”
Paul’s words to the believers at the churches in Corinth, Thessalonica, and Rome don’t negate, invalidate, or contradict the Great Commission or other teachings of the apostles.
It’s merely a reminder that since the very beginning most Christians throughout history have lived quiet and ordinary lives.
In Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren writes,
“The new life into which we are baptized is lived out in days, hours, and minutes. God is forming us into a new people. And the place of that formation is in the small moments of today.“
God certainly calls people to move to dangerous places. And our faith should routinely invite us to step outside of our comfort zones. But the mundane and the ordinary appear to be God’s favorite venue for orchestrating moments of startling grace, courage, and joy.
Be it through the rhythmic hum of the copier at work, the incessant ringing of another sales call, or the early-morning cries of a hungry newborn, all work can be God’s work if, in the words of pastor Tim Keller, it’s “reconceived as God’s assignment to serve others.”
Prior to my marriage, I lived with a group of guys involved in full-time ministry and missions organizations. Their passion and zeal for the Gospel was infectious and inspiring. I still count them among my very best friends.
But at the time, I was the only one in the house working an 8 – 5 “secular” job. By no fault of their own, it was easy to fall into the trap of comparing my “everyday” life of one-hour lunch breaks, department meetings, and performance reviews to my roommates’ routine of early-morning prayer meetings, coffee shop evangelicalism, and late-night worship gatherings.
I used to do all of that in college, I wondered. What happened to me?
I viewed my faith as second-rate and without merit, and it sometimes felt as if the sole purpose of my secular job was to provide financial resources to those truly “on mission.”
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus instructs his followers to “take my yoke upon you.”
In the ancient Near East, a “yoke” was a wooden collar that would be placed around the neck of an ox that would help the animal shoulder the weight of a plow.
However, there’s another cultural definition of yoke that is far more relevant to what Jesus is actually talking about. Within a Jewish context, a “yoke” was also a word used to describe a rabbi’s specific interpretation of the Torah – the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Different rabbis taught different yokes, and it was up to you to determine which yoke you apply to your life.
In Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell writes,
“When you followed a certain rabbi, you were following him because you believed the rabbi’s set of interpretations were closest to what God intended through the Scriptures. And when you followed that rabbi, you were taking up that rabbi’s yoke.”
Jesus describes himself as “gentle and humble in heart,” and says that his yoke is an easy and light burden. According to Jesus, those who take on his yoke will “find rest for their souls.”
I have a friend who works for a missions organization that tries to make sure people are spiritually and psychologically fit enough to work overseas as a missionary. He told me that applicants who sign up to be missionaries out of guilt or shame are often absolute disasters on the mission field.
In The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, Peter Greer, the CEO of Hope International, writes,
“Without evaluating our motives, it is possible to love our service more than we love our Savior. It is to pursue working to see “thy Kingdom come” without having a vision of our King. It is possible to be so proud of all we’re doing for God that pride chokes our good deeds.”
In a performance-driven culture, believing that salvation is a “free gift” may require our greatest leap of faith.
In What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Phillip Yancey writes,
“Grace is free only because the giver himself has borne the cost. God loves people because of who God is, not because of who we are.”
There’s no fine print. No catch. Jesus isn’t a cosmic loan shark or repo man coming back with a chip on his shoulder to collect what He’s rightly owed.
In the book of 1 John, the apostle writes, “This is the embodiment of true love: not that we loved God first, but that He loved us and sent his unique son on a special mission to become an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
You don’t have to make your life count for God.
You already count.
You already matter.
You’re already loved.
And, in a weird twist, it’s those Christians who accept this truth about their identity who end up making a real difference in the world around them – be it their living room, neighborhood, or some remote village overseas.
You cannot freely give what you believe you had to earn for yourself.
It may look like a subtle shift in thinking, but it can have monumental consequences for your spiritual life.
Once you accept your worth to God isn’t dependent on what you do for God, you’re free to live out the life God has uniquely prepared for you in all of its rich significance, humble gratitude, and meaningful duty.
The yoke is easy,
and the burden is light.