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Radical for Jesus a New Kind of Legalism?

07-01-2015
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NEW YORK CITY -- For many years, Christian legalism meant no drinking, smoking or dancing. Today, young adults struggle with a new form of it: the pressure to live radically for Christ.

It's become such a concern that a slew of Christian books came out this year to extol the virtues of an "ordinary" Christian life.

Author Jonathan Hollingsworth wrote about his struggle in the newly published Runaway Radical.

"For me, it all started with the question, 'Am I taking the words of Jesus seriously?'" he told CBN News.

Hollingsowrth answered that question in a radical way as a teenager, living comfortably with his middle-class family. He began to work with the homeless, then soon gave away his possessions. Finally, he left college to pursue missions in Africa.

"I was trying to prove to God that I was really dedicated to Him," he explained. "And that to me is where the legalism crept in because legalism to me is sort of trying to measure your devotion to Him by your outward behavior."

A New Legalism

This "new legalism" was first identified two years ago by Dr. Anthony Bradley, associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York City. He stumbled on the trend after numerous conversations with students.

A tweet he posted on how being "radical" and "missional" is the "new legalism" exploded over the Internet.

CBN News spoke with some students at The King's College about the pressure they have experienced.

"There is a huge movement for this generation to make a difference, to have an impact and I think it's just naturally seeped into the Christian world because you're hearing stories of people who are starting non-profits when they're 16," Andrea Lopez explained.

Josh Chiang is considering a career in finance and said, "I think my biggest fear is ending up at some normal, average job doing normal stuff."

Vincent Randazzo explained, "Growing up I was immersed in a culture, particularly an evangelical culture, that said 'you're going to do big things for God, Vincent.  You're going to change the world. You have so much potential' and I got this from leaders, from ministry camps in the summer, from my church."

Total Burnout

Bradley said many Christian leaders have inadvertently encouraged the radical message by calling young people to make a difference and change the world. 

A growing disdain for American suburbs in favor of the inner city has also contributed as has the missional church movement, which encourages people to be missionaries in their own communities.

"There's this weird pressure internally because of our culture that I've got to be awesome, be this amazing person," Bradley explained. "It's related to this generation's narcissism that unless my life is really awesome and cool and noteworthy, then my life means nothing."

Jonathan Hollingsworth decided to write Runaway Radical with his mom Amy about how he burned out, emotionally and physically, in Africa trying to live radically.

The two say the response to the book has been overwhelming as former "radicals," current "radicals," and their parents have appreciated their insights.

"We knew this couldn't be an isolated incident and we realized that Jonathan's story was just the crest of a wave because the radical literature tops the best-selling lists," co-author Amy Hollingsworth told CBN News.

"So if there are millions of copies being sold that means there are hundreds, if not thousands, of young people like Jonathan who are trying to follow that example," she said.

Ordinary Human

Runaway Radical isn't the only book sounding the alarm. It's joined by Ordinary and also Radically Normal written by Pastor Josh Kelley.

He wrote the books to address the problem he saw in the pew.

"So many Christians have this sense of they're always trying to please God. They feel guilty that they're not doing enough for God," Kelley said.

Kelley hopes Christians will be motivated by joy and not guilt and shame.

Bradley would like church leaders to give young people the freedom to pursue God's calling whether or not it fits their preconceived ideas.

For King's student Chiang, the process of working through the pressure to be extraordinary is ongoing. It came to a head recently after he realized taking multiple overload semesters to graduate early was taking a toll.

"I feel God's telling me 'Josh you can't do that, you have limitations. You're human and what you perceive to be ordinary, what you perceive to be dry, what you perceive to be dull, I can use that for my kingdom," he explained.

His Burden Is Light

King's student Vincent Randazzo responded to the pressure with a counter-argument in his thesis paper titled "Change the World: The Most Detrimental Inspirational Message of the 21st Century."

"I don't think God has called us to change the world," he told CBN News. "I think God has called us to love and you see this all throughout Scripture where Jesus tells His disciples."

For Hollingsworth, he simply hopes his next steps will not be motivated by guilt but by grace. For now, he's more open to ordinary ways of living out Jesus's calling and experiencing how His yoke is easy and His burden is light.

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