We Need Boring Christians
By Andrew Byers
December 28, 2011
Andrew Byers serves as chaplain at St. Mary's College, Durham. He is the author of TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age and Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint. He blogs at hopefulrealism.com.
Editor's Note: This week, we're taking a look at the best web content on RELEVANTmagazine.com in 2011. This article especially struck a chord in a culture so driven by wanderlust. It asked brave questions about missions—at what point does responding to a dangerous calling turn into a self-serving desire for adventure? As for Christians who may not end up on such big and exciting paths, is their "boring" discipleship any less valuable? Judging by the comments, Andrew's words seemed to be a welcome relief from "the calling competition" and a challenge to find the radical in the everyday. What did you think? Revisit this article, and chime in on the conversation below.
I was sure God was telling me to quit my landscaping job. I was bound for something more important. The horizon beckoned. So I turned in my notice and embraced unemployment as a divine calling. I spent my hours reading Scripture and praying over maps, nobly trusting God for my provisions. I had a fever of 360 degrees—I wanted to travel the globe. All of it. Four months later I told my girlfriend that the next time I saw her I would ask her to marry me, then I pulled myself out of her arms and boarded a plane. I had some funds, but only for 180 degrees of my round-the-world trip. God would provide.
Six weeks later I was stranded in Southeast Asia with a depleted money belt and the gnawing suspicion that I had missed God somewhere along the way.
Radical is in my resume. Radical is part of our calling. But radical can be dangerous. With seven years of working with college students (and with a personal penchant for the extreme), I offer a couple warnings to complement the needed exhortation to be radical.
“What are you doing this summer after classes?” a college student asks his friend late in the spring semester.
“Well, I’m working with an electrician.”
“What about you? What are your summer plans?”
“I’m actually gonna be living in an orphanage in Africa, loving on those kids and doing some community development stuff.”
In conversations like this, it is likely that the 20-year-old working with the electrician will feel spiritually inferior to the 20-year-old who has plane tickets in hand for Kenya. There is also the tendency for the guy with the ticket to feel as though he is a bit more sincere in his devotion to Jesus.
Believe me, I do not wish to discourage young people from boarding flights to Africa. But I also do not wish to disparage electrical work as spiritually insignificant.
Scripture calls us into radical service—but that does not allow others to eviscerate tedious, less “spiritually” glamorous tasks of their meaning in God’s Kingdom. Scripture also calls us to embrace the mundane and ordinary as holy and beautiful: “... aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11).
Many of us want to do something awesome, something epic. We tend to think that the more normal, the less “spiritual.” So it is quite possible that our aspirations to be radical stem from dangerous ambitions to perform biography-worthy feats of global glory.
But radical discipleship is not adventure tourism.
Following Jesus is not to be romanticized through impressive Facebook status updates or photos of exotic places on our blog. Discipleship is often ugly, messy and painful. Faithful service will regularly lead us into dull labors and bewildering struggles that would make unexciting press. To romanticize social justice or cross-cultural evangelism is to promote an idealism that will be inevitably vaporized on the field, inadvertently leading to burnout and cynicism.
The first person to be filled with the Holy Spirit for a task in the Bible was not commissioned to lead a battle or to prophesy over Israel. Bezalel (ever heard of him?) was filled with the Spirit to build stuff. To make art. To carve, mold and weave. He was the guy God commissioned to build the tabernacle and its accoutrements (Exodus 31.1-5).
Spirit-anointing does not always propel us into radical action. Instead we may find ourselves entrusted with tedious, meticulous handiwork that feels ... well, boring.
I was 20 years old and wracked with angst. I was on my knees with a heart burning so fiercely with passion to serve Christ overseas that I felt I could not go another day without a global assignment, without a divinely issued itinerary in hand.
This was my prayer that day. And I meant every word: “Lord, just whisper a country, and I will walk to it I don’t care how far it is. I don’t care what it costs. Just whisper a place and I will go.”
Had the country been overseas, I would have secretly boarded a cargo ship as a stowaway. I just knew there were more urgent tasks out there than doing my statistics homework.
But I think I was much more interested in a radical leaving than a radical going. The heart behind the prayer was not so much, “Let me serve you, Lord” but, “Lord, get me out of here.”
I wanted to escape the unexciting “local” for the exotic “global.” I wanted freedom from the tedious tasks of the daily grind for the thrilling speed of travel and for the gratifying buzz of experiencing something new. I did not want to do statistics homework—I wanted to fulfill the great commission. I did not want to dig another ditch as a landscaper in the summer heat—I wanted to preach the Word on a distant city street.
As a former college student and a current college pastor, I know it is so difficult for a young person to see how doing their accounting project will glorify God. It is hard to see how finishing the research paper on 18th century art forms can contribute to God’s Kingdom work. Staring at spread sheets, calming grumpy customers or chasing a toddler down all day don't seem like tasks that will make any kind of eternal impact. Aren’t people dying out there from lack of clean water? Aren’t the lost dying without the Gospel?
Yes, but an untested 20-something without the work ethic required for completing the annoying accounting project or the boring research paper will likely be of little help in dire situations overseas. Those assignments can actually be effective training for the arduous labors of missional service. “What ever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23). Remember how Jesus calls us to faithfulness in the small things (Matthew 25:14-30).
Aching for yonder shores and longingly scanning the distant horizon may well be God’s call on our lives. But it also may be our impatience with the monotonous minutiae of the daily grind. Escapism is not fulfilling the great commission.
Regardless of our location, abroad or at home, all ministry is inescapably local. Every worker in a global context must embrace the monotonous minutiae of a new daily grind after the plane lands—figuring out the postal service, dealing with the cell phone company, conjugating verbs in the slow and tedious study of the language. If we cannot be faithful to do our statistics homework or collaborate with our coworkers, then we may lack the strength of character required for dealing with the meticulous annoyances of a more radical life beyond the romanticized horizon.
Andrew Byers is living in England and working on a PhD in New Testament. He is also the author of Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (Likewise Books / IVP). He blogs at Hopeful Realism.