I’m just going to say it. I believe one of the things that has hurt the economic and vocational future of young urban Christians is the misapplication of contextualized suburban theology. Let me explain.
My statement isn’t a castigation of suburban theologians. I’m simply making an observation from my own personal experience and the experiences of other urban brothers and sisters in Christ who I know. There has undoubtedly been an uprising of young, black and Latino urbanites who have come to know and love the truths of Reformed theology. This has led to a gravitation toward many Christ-centered, suburban theologians who champion a high view of God and his sovereignty. Many of these leaders’ sermons and academic resources have become a treasure to us, including written works on Christian living. But this is where I think the injuries have begun.
There are plenty of great books on practical living written by godly men. Many of those books have helped me tremendously in my spiritual walk, and I’m forever grateful to God for them. However, books written by mostly white leaders with a suburban church context in mind can sometimes lack holistic teaching which urbanites need in order to live effectively in their context. Furthermore, because of their conflicting context, urbanites can easily misapply these books.
Urbanites in their early twenties may pick up Dr. John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life and leave feeling convicted to make Christ the most important person in their lives. They may see that they shouldn’t waste their lives pursuing trivial things like money, education, status, and comfort over Jesus. And this is absolutely correct!
But Don’t Waste Your Life wasn’t written to an audience of urban minorities with minimal opportunities. So many of us translated Dr. Piper’s teaching to mean not valuing education and economic stability at all. We gained a great desire for missional sacrifice, but at the expense of an apathetic attitude toward responsibilities like our education and vocation. This in turn produced a bunch of men and women in their late twenties and early thirties who can tell you all about theology, but can’t pay their bills or rid themselves of debt. Don’t Waste Your Life to them meant demonizing their education and economic future. Books like this without proper contextualization for the urban community perpetuated the same behavior that has plagued us for centuries, but we felt it was okay because this time it was for Christ.
We may pick up a book like David Platt’s Radical and feel convicted to leave everything of value behind and become “radical” missionaries for Christ. We leave thinking, “Life is bigger than your school and your career! We’re sitting here in our comfortable American homes, while people overseas are perishing because they have never heard the gospel. What are you doing about it?! Be radical. Be sacrificial. Be missional. Leave everything and become a missionary!”
Praise God for missionaries going to unreached people groups! But young urbanites may read this book and feel like what they’re doing in school or at work doesn’t really matter in the advancement of the kingdom. This leads to men and women who go on missions trips in their early twenties only to be met with disappointment in their late twenties as they find themselves trying to finish degrees and rediscover a vocational calling that they lost years ago because a career wasn’t really a “calling” in God’s eyes…so they thought.
The Gospel and the American Dream
This is not to say these books are evil or cause all believers in the urban context to harm themselves. But contextualization is important. We must consider the implications of what we teach and how it will be understood by people from different backgrounds. Books should challenge us to not value anything in our lives above Christ; but the application of this command will look different among varying backgrounds.
It is important for urbanites from impoverished areas to learn the implications of the gospel as it relates to their economic, educational, vocational, and familial empowerment. These arenas of life must be impacted by the gospel in order for us to develop and grow as biblical men and women in society. Failing to see gospel implications in our manhood/womanhood, the mission of the family, and holistic human redemption will prove especially detrimental for those in the urban context.
For many middle to upper class suburbanites, a college education, lucrative career, home ownership, and family development are a given. Achieving these things is expected and common; it’s something you simply do. In this context, the “American Dream” is more of a reality. But because it is so typical, it can become ultimate. And this is what suburbanites must guard against. When you come from a family with a long history of success and stability, the “American Dream” may not seem like something you should strive for, but rather something you should avoid lest it become a stumbling block to your affection for Christ. When flourishing in society is commonplace for you, it makes sense for you to think this way.
But for urban minorities, these achievements are milestones. We come from a long history of oppression, lack of resources and opportunity, and failure. Therefore, progressing in our education, vocation, economics, and family relations is important. It means long-lasting cycles of hardship, lack of educational and economic opportunity, and crushed dreams being restored all because of the glorious gospel of God’s grace. This gospel doesn’t just save our souls for eternity, but it restores our dignity, empowering us to be society contributors and not mere beneficiaries.
In its call for Christians to forsake “making it” in order to know Christ, contextualized suburban theology does not account for struggling minorities who are asking, “Can the gospel not only redeem my soul, but also my dignity and lack of opportunity? Can the gospel empower me to contribute to society?” It’s easy to tell a person on their way to success to be careful to not pursue success above Christ, but what about the person who has no vision of success at all? Can Christ grant him success in human flourishing here and now? Can Jesus restore the years which the locusts of oppression, miseducation, and lack of resources ate away?
What if Don’t Waste Your Life for urban minorities, who are constantly told they will be failures, read: now that Christ, the God of the universe, has redeemed your soul and is for you, you can now go out and be something! You can finish school. You can get a degree. You can obtain a career. You can provide for your family and break the cycles of financial illiteracy, debt, and government assistance. And you can inspire others to do the same in the name of Christ.
What if being “radical” meant succeeding in a career in order to better fund missions? What if it meant starting a business and hiring others who lack opportunities, providing jobs for people to capitalize and have more? What if it meant being a lawyer specializing in the area of civil rights and education to help a population that is largely trampled upon and forgotten about, all in the name of Christ?
It would be tragic if a legacy is left of urban adults who are theologically astute, but lackluster in economic stability. Young adults who can thrive in the theological library should also thrive in the economy. Human flourishing is both spiritual and physical, because humans are both spiritual and physical. Economic astuteness is not the antithesis to knowing Christ; it is actually a byproduct.
Don’t Waste Your Radical Life
To be clear, the gospel is not mainly about empowering people economically. The gospel mainly concerns the redemption of one’s soul. But Christ’s redemption reaches more than the soul; it reaches the whole man, the whole of his life. Urban evangelicals aren’t always taught this by their suburban leaders, and they unnecessarily suffer as a result.
Human flourishing to God’s glory has been God’s goal since the garden. Adam was told to obey God, take dominion, subdue, and cultivate. All of this implies provision and culture-creating. Unfortunately, sin has damaged this mission, and urbanites know this full well. But Christ has reconciled all things to himself. Contextualized suburban theology can often leave the impression that advancing the kingdom of God can only be achieved via Bible college and overseas missions. There are many other ways to glorify Christ and prove him to be the all-satisfying treasure of your soul. We don’t have to downplay the importance of pursuing economic/vocational stability. We can and should use it to the glory of Christ.
Young urban believer, don’t waste your life believing that your educational/vocational calling and desire for a financially stable future has no place in the mission of God and his people. You can be radical by breaking generational cycles of sin, providing for your family, your community, and your church, all the while pointing those who are lost to redemption in Christ alone.