Exodus tells us that God saved Israel that it might "serve/worship" (avodah) him (Ex. 7:16; 8:1; 9:1). Contrary to what we might think, the Israelites weren't set "free" to go off, settle in, and have a safe, pleasant life according to their own whims. God had particular, sometimes difficult, purposes for them. God's redemption aimed at creating a people to boldly worship, serve, and represent him before the nations (Ex. 19:5-6). In Risky Gospel: Abandon Fear and Do Something Awesome, Owen Strachan, assistant professor of Christian theology and church history at Boyce College and executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), revives this message for a modern Christian audience. Framing our situation with Jesus' parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30), he invites us to do more than accept life in a fallen world, hoping not to screw up too badly before the master returns.
Instead of living "safe," miserly lives as the wicked servant did, we are called to go out, fulfill the creation mandate, and "take dominion" of the world (Gen. 1:26-30)—in other words, "build something awesome." For this, we'll need a willingness to take up our crosses and risk discomfort, failure, and pain in order to boldly do great things for the glory of God.
Sadly, instead of bold worshippers, Strachan sees a landscape filled with Christians who are tired, scared, defeated, and satisfied with small, pointless pursuits; we're living our "stressed life now." To use Andy Crouch's language of "gestures" and "postures" (Culture Making, pp. 90-96), Christians have been flinching, slouching, and playing it safe for so long, we've developed a sort of scoliosis of the soul. In other words, we're stuck. Stuck in weak prayer lives. Stuck in our parents' basement. Stuck in suburban monotony. Stuck in marriages we're scared to actually try at and are tempted to bail on. Stuck trying to merely hunker down and survive the Christian life. Well, as a good doctor would, Strachan endeavors to apply the medicine of the gospel to straighten our spines, and walk with the upright boldness of people who know the trustworthiness of God.
Strachan's solution is to remind believers of the Trinitarian grounds of their gospel-centered life of faith: God our Father is big and sovereign, holding us securely in his hands. Having been justified through Christ's sin-bearing death and life-giving resurrection, Satan's accusations are dispelled as our old self with its fears and flaws has been put to death. Finally, in Christ we've been given the power of the Spirit who enables grace-driven effort to obey Christ's call. Strachan sums up this message in one sentence: "God's awesomeness should propel our faithfulness." In this sense, risking for God isn't really a risk at all, because in him you have everything and lose nothing.
Later sections of the book are devoted to envisioning what "gospel risk" looks like in the various domains of our lives. For the most part, Strachan places himself squarely within the shoes of his potentially scared and coddled hearers, striking a firm, but gentle, inviting tone. This is not a ringing jeremiad. Still, in clear, straightforward language, Strachan welcomes us to build our spirituality, family, vocation, churches, evangelism, and public witness with greater boldness, despite the cost.
I have to admit, I approached this work tentatively, fearing it was just another entry in the "radical" genre. But as I read, I found myself gently challenged and encouraged in my faith, convicted to pursue the Lord more resolutely in my life and ministry. Working in college ministry, I especially found much of the advice directed at millennials to be biblical, timely, and wise. Strachan doesn't stay up, high in the sky of theological speculation, dispensing ethereal injunctions into the air. Bewildered college students, disengaged fathers, frazzled wives, lonely singles, unmotivated employees, and disciples of all types—all find themselves addressed personally, as a friend, and given specific, concrete instructions from Scripture to bold, obedient life in Christ.
Yes, Risky Gospel has some of the key marks of the "radical" mindset (ably critiqued by Matthew Lee Anderson in the pages of CT). Yet there's an appreciable ordinariness to Strachan's call to a "risky" life. This might be what I enjoyed most about the book. Yes, there are times when the call to discipleship looks like going to a faraway nation. But for most of us it looks like the difficult decision to get up a little earlier and read our Bibles; to get our kids to school; to love our neighbors and come home to love our children instead of distracting ourselves with TV; to work honestly and diligently for the glory of God in normal jobs; to share our faith with a neighbor; to plug into a local church; and to vote in an election or two.
A Few Concerns
I did have a few concerns here and there. One of the areas where Strachan thinks we've lost our nerve is our witness in the public square, especially on hot-button issues like homosexuality and abortion. So he devotes a few pages to the intra-evangelical culture wars about how involved evangelicals should be in the culture wars. I'm generally sympathetic to Strachan call to neighbor-love through public engagement. But I found myself sensing wondering whether he was unfairly reducing criticisms of the culture war model to a glorified desire to be liked. After all, there are deeper concerns underlying many of these disputes, concerns about the church's proper role and core mission.
Undoubtedly, readers who don't share Strachan's complementarian perspectives will chafe at his section on the family for the typical reasons. What caught my eye, though, were his comments on the single life. Strachan acknowledges its difficulties and gives plenty of sound pastoral advice. But I still sensed him putting the burden on singles to make their place in the church, strengthening its "family culture" of the church, without a corresponding call for the church to make room for singles in their families (and not only as babysitters). One of the greatest risks the Church needs to take is creating a deeper sense of space for singles in the alternative family of God—no matter how awkward, difficult, or uncomfortable that might be.
Get Out of Your Seat
To be honest, I'm a risk-averse kind of guy. While a lot of my friends had to "learn things the hard way" in high school, my motto has always been, "I'll watch you learn things the hard way and avoid the bloody nose." Unfortunately, bold risk for the gospel is one thing you can't learn just by watching—you actually have to get out of your seat and try it. You know what happens when sinners, even redeemed ones, take risks in a fallen world? That's right: pain, suffering, and a whole lot of failure.
Strachan knows this, which is why he ends his book on a hopeful note. In the end, he encourages us to be Hebrews 11 people—faithful men and women who hear Christ's call and follow him, knowing that we may suffer and never see the fruit of our risk in this life. But we can do this because we follow the one who gave himself, suffered, and lost in ways we could never fathom, so that by his grace our risks might not be in vain.
Derek Rishmawy ministers to college students and young adults at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Santa Ana, California. He blogs at Reformedish.