In the March 2014 issue of The Atlantic, celebrity journalist Hanna Rosin turned her attention to America’s coddled children. “The Overprotected Kid” traces Rosin’s experience with her son at a Welsh playground called The Land, which is a cross between Blade Runner, a garbage heap, and a sandbox. In short, it sounds awesome.
Rosin argues in her perceptive piece that American parents are beset with “safety paranoia.” Where once children roamed the land, built forts, and did daring things like cross city streets, now they risk a 911 call if they venture out of eyesight of their parents. Rosin’s thesis is worth considering, even if many fathers and mothers will recognize the limitations of what one could call the “state of nature” movement.
I found the piece compelling because it speaks to me of problems not merely gymnastic, but spiritual. I think many of us evangelicals have our own “safety complex.” We’ve been trained to live life fearfully, to damp down any sense of risk at all costs, and to believe that failure is the worst possible fate on this earth. I think we’ve got it wrong.
We’ve Been Trained to Adore Safety
It’s hard to pinpoint how many of us have been indoctrinated into safety-hunger and inoculated against adventure. We surely have, though. Here are some factors:
1. We are, in relative terms, beneficiaries of an era of unprecedented wealth. Capitalism comes in for hard critiques, but studies show that its advent coincides with soaring life-longevity and material prosperity. When you reach this state, you don’t want to leave it.
2. We have grown up in a church-friendly culture (now under major renovation). I don’t decry this history as some do. But we all have to acknowledge that being a majority culture will cause us to be less prophetic, less daring, than we might otherwise be.
3. We live in the age of the mega-watt spiritual celebrity, people who promise us wealth and ease and unending upward mobility. Whether we know it or not, easy-believism affects us all.
4. We’ve bought into a theology of grace that softens every edge and cushions every fall. More than we know, we’re therapeutic and psychologized. There’s a “gospel-driven” form of this problem. I call it “gospel self-help.” Just like the secular kind, it makes us the focal point of our faith. Narcissism easily suffocates a courageous spirit.
5. We want to fit in more than ever, in part because our identities—even as evangelicals—are so this-worldly. We care tremendously what other people think of us. The worst thing for an undergrad today isn’t an injury—it’s to be “awkward” (in sing-song). We all fear man now. God and his inter-galactic holiness seems far off; your self-aware neighbor with her judgey gaze seems all too near.
We could go on. Suffice it to say that these cultural factors end up getting baked into the church’s main course. Our preaching trains us, week after week, to manage the status quo, keep the boat un-rocked, and experience greater self-fulfillment. At the same time, somehow, we’re told to dream big dreams, undertake grand schemes, and discover who we truly are. But here’s the strange thing: even in this me-centered air, few of us actually seem to end up launching anything grand. The fulfillment of our “dreams” seems to end up looking a lot like secular versions of the good life.
We’re over-protected Christians.
We Need Something Bigger
Lest you think I deride “normal life,” I do not. I think it’s good and honorable. In my book Risky Gospel, I esteem the ordinary things: church membership, family-building, cultivating a vocation. But I do think all our lives could stand an infusion of risk. What do I mean? I want to re-enchant our daily Christian lives. I want Jesus to cease being the first-century prosperity-lite preacher we think he is and to once more disturb the peace.
I want Christians to read the wild stories of God calling his people to himself in the Old Testament. When God showed up, people hit the ground. Moses was afraid. Ezekiel didn’t even dare to lift his eyes before Yahweh’s likeness (Exodus 3; Ezekiel 1). I want believers to see Jesus calling and saving us less as an invitation to lifelong spiritualized therapy and more as a summons to a lifelong spiritual quest. I want us to see the gospel as our means of acceptance, yes, but also as the precious cargo that must be taken and preached and translated to every people group on the earth. I want us to see our lives not as a project to be curated but as a drink offering to be poured out to the glory of God.
Toward this end, I want to see fathers who lay their lives down for their families, women who boldly reject the pattern of Eve for the beauty of godly femininity, college students who study to know the mind of God, workers of all kinds who labor as if God were beside them in the design room or the classroom or the sawroom, and church members who treat the body of Christ as if it is the only infinity-spanning institution on this earth (because it is).
With many others, I want to see all of these people pushing as many workers as humanly possible to the leading edge of global mission (per Matthew 28:16-20). This goal will mean that tons of Christians stay where they are and earn all they can, valuing their day-to-day lives even as they savor the chance to support worldwide evangelism. This work will also mean that many other Christians break away, see their family members once every two years, and embrace the bewildering and even frightful realities of ministry in a pagan village, a pluralized meta-city, or a socialist state.
The two parts of this great work are not disconnected or at odds. The staying church is the sending church. The sent church does the work that the staying church knows must go forth. The two churches are one. They pray for one another; they support one another; they depend upon one another.
There is no guilt complex here. One must send, the other must go. All must be fully committed to the awesomeness of God, and to a life of self-sacrifice in order that the word of Christ might spread over all the earth, and the kingdom of Christ with it.
So What’s the Secret?
The way to get to this point is to break with a spiritual culture that fetishizes personal safety and comfort, and to embrace once more the concept of risk. Risk is for every Christian. We hear its tones over and over again in Scripture. Jesus called the apostles to follow him on the spot (Matthew 4:19). When he evangelized certain people, he told them to “count the cost,” because it would be heavy (Luke 14:28). When he named Peter as the rock of his early church, he indicated that Peter’s fate would be bloody (John 21:18). When beatific Stephen was slain, all who witnessed or heard of it discovered that Christianity would not fit the glossy promises of ancient prosperity preachers (Acts 7:54-60).
Being up front in the church did not mean you would be coronated early, but that you might well die young.
I recently heard a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary administrator tell me of a child he knew who was adopted by a godly family. The child had been told for years that he couldn’t walk. So he didn’t. He was carried everywhere. When he came into this Christian home, the father thought to himself, This little guy can walk. He may not dunk a basketball in the future, but he can walk. He began encouraging the boy to do so. Within days, the child walked up the family’s stairs. A lifetime of low expectations, of zero risk, undone in a few days’ time.
I wonder if our churches are under a similar spell. We feel the heat rising in the culture. Either we issue our jeremiads, our cultural diagnoses, on the one hand, or we quiet our voices. We go to church, but we don’t want prophecy, with its challenging and all-too-personal implications. We want comfort, spoonful after spoonful of it. Spiritual therapy.
You Have to Wonder
You have to wonder what Jesus thinks of this response. You have to wonder if, like a child trapped indoors for an unending school-day, we might look out the window and see him outside, kicking some tires, walking around, pacing. Deep in thought. Preoccupied and bothered. Maybe he’s restless, itchy, frustrated.
Maybe he wants for us to pause the Serenity Prayer, lift our gaze to the nations, and get active in the role he’s given us, whether the sending church or the sent one. You have to wonder if Jesus is eager for his people to rise up, risk everything we have, and watch as his Spirit re-enchants our lives. This life of risk might mean you work harder at home; it might mean you mentor a child; it might mean you move to a foreign country to do evangelism. Whatever your work for the Lord, you can do it knowing that God will preserve your soul and reward you beyond your wildest envisioning in the life to come.
That protection doesn’t pamper you and me. It propels us.