The ‘new legalism’

Religion How the push to be ‘radical’ and ‘missional’ discourages ordinary people in ordinary places from doing ordinary things to the glory of God | Anthony Bradley

The ‘new legalism’

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Is Paul’s urging to live quietly, mind your own affairs, and work with your hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11) only for losers? Do you feel that you’re wasting your gifts if you “settle” into an ordinary job, get married early and start a family, or live in a small town or suburb? Acton Institute Power Blogger Anthony Bradley has some provocative thoughts on the “new legalism.” —Marvin Olasky

A few days ago on Facebook and Twitter I made the following observation:

“Being a ‘radical,’ ‘missional’ Christian is slowly becoming the ‘new legalism.’ We need more ordinary God and people lovers (Matt 22:36-40).”

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This observation was the result of long conversation with a student who was wrestling with what to do with his life given all of the opportunities he had available to him. To my surprise, my comment exploded over the internet with dozens and dozens of people sharing the comment and sending me personal correspondence.

I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and young adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not be doing something unique and special. Today’s millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential. The sad result is that many young adults feel ashamed if they “settle” into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thessalonians 4:11 says, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.” For too many millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.

Here are a few thoughts on how we got here.

Anti-Suburban Christianity

In the 1970s and 1980s, the children and older grandchildren of the builder generation (born between 1901 and 1920) sorted themselves and headed to the suburbs to raise their children in safety, comfort, and material ease. And now millennials (born between 1977 and 1995), taking a cue from their baby boomer parents (born between 1946 and 1964) to despise the contexts that provided them advantages, have a disdain for America’s suburbs. This despising of suburban life has been inadvertently encouraged by well-intentioned religious leaders inviting people to move to neglected cities to make a difference, because, after all, the Apostle Paul did his work primarily in cities, cities are important, and cities are the final destination of the Kingdom of God. They were told that God loves cities and they should, too. The unfortunate message became that you cannot live a meaningful Christian life in the suburbs.

Missional Narcissism

There are many churches that are committed to being what is called missional. This term is used to describe a church community where people see themselves as missionaries in local communities. A missional church has been defined, as “a theologically formed, Gospel-centered, Spirit-empowered, united community of believers who seek to faithfully incarnate the purposes of Christ for the glory of God,” says Scott Thomas of the Acts 29 Network. The problem is that this push for local missionaries coincided with the narcissism epidemic we are facing in America, especially with the millennial generation. As a result, living out one’s faith became narrowly celebratory only when done in a unique and special way, a “missional” way. Getting married and having children early, getting a job, saving and investing, being a good citizen, loving one’s neighbor, and the like, no longer qualify as virtuous. One has to be involved in arts and social justice activities—even if justice is pursued without sound economics or social teaching. I actually know of a couple who were being so “missional” they decided to not procreate for the sake of taking care of orphans.

To make matters worse, some religious leaders have added a new category to Christianity called “radical Christianity” in an effort to trade-off suburban Christianity for mission. This movement is based on a book by David Platt and is fashioned around “an idea that we were created for far more than a nice, comfortable Christian spin on the American dream. An idea that we were created to follow One who demands radical risk and promises radical reward.” Again, this was a well-intentioned attempt to address lukewarm Christians in the suburbs, but because it is primarily reactionary and does not provide a positive construction for the good life from God’s perspective, it misses “radical” ideas in Jesus’ own teachings like “love.”

The combination of anti-suburbanism with new categories like “missional” and “radical” has positioned a generation of youth and young adults to experience an intense amount of shame for simply being ordinary Christians who desire to love God and love their neighbors (Matthew 22:36-40). In fact, missional, radical Christianity could easily be called the “new legalism.” A few decades ago, an entire generation of baby boomers walked away from traditional churches to escape the legalistic moralism of “being good,” but what their millennial children received in exchange, in an individualistic American Christian culture, was shamed-driven pressure to be awesome and extraordinary young adults expected to tangibly make a difference in the world immediately. But this cycle of reaction and counter-reaction, inaugurated by the baby boomers, does not seem to be producing faithful young adults. Instead, many are simply burning out.

Why is Christ’s command to love God and neighbor not enough for these leaders? Maybe Christians are simply to pursue living well and invite others to do so according to how God has ordered the universe. An emphasis on human flourishing, ours and others’, becomes important because it is characterized by a holistic concern for the spiritual, moral, physical, economic, material, political, psychological, and social context necessary for human beings to live according to their design. What if youth and young adults were simply encouraged live in pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, understanding, education, wonder, beauty, glory, creativity, and worship in a world marred by sin, as Abraham Kuyper encourages in the book Wisdom and Wonder. No shame, no pressure to be awesome, no expectations of fame but simply following the call to be men and women of virtue and inviting their friends and neighbors to do the same in every area of life.

It is unclear how millennials will respond to the “new legalism” but it may explain the current trend of young Christians leaving the church after age 15 at a rate of 60 percent. Being a Christian in a shame-driven “missional,” “radical” church does not sound like rest for the weary. Perhaps the best antidote to these pendulum swings and fads is simply to recover an mature understanding of vocation so that youth and young adults understand that they can make important contributions to human flourishing in any sphere of life because there are no little people or insignificant callings in the Kingdom.

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