Nearly two years ago Josh Kelley wrote a book that essentially asked if Christians have to live crazy and obsessive lives to be meaningful and authentic followers of Jesus. His rather hipster title was Radically Normal: You Don’t Have to Live Crazy to Follow Jesus. You can read a review here. We wanted to catch up with Kelley again because we appreciate him for tasting from a variety of different life experiences (pastor, professor, homeless shelter board member, and coffee barista) and doing a good job of making Christian life look real, meaningful, and authentic—all the while being radically normal.
[Joy & Matthew] Let’s get right to it, and thanks for being radically available. Speaking of radical, why do you think “radical” became such a prominent and attractive feature of many of our sermons of today, or topics in the media? How and why do you think church has contributed to making radical look so attractive?
[Josh] I think pastors are guilty of bad rhetoric. By that I mean we have a tendency to overstate things in hopes of motivating people to change a little. So if a pastor just wants his congregation to start tithing, he might preach a sermon about how Jesus asked the rich young ruler to sell everything. There are two problems with that tactic. First, Jesus doesn’t want us to sell everything (I talk more about that in my book). Second, it doesn’t work. When people hear that selling everything is the gold standard, they tend to just give up. By making “radical normalcy” achievable, it makes it less easy to dismiss.
[J & M] It seems that you are speaking to the importance of balance in spirituality in general: the idea that there aren’t binaries—that it’s not merely one or the other. Yes, of course there is hot and cold, but a term like radical is slightly more nuanced than that, i.e., “No, don’t sell everything; maybe just be more bounteous with your efforts and time.” Let’s talk about a connected question. It seems that the average congregant might have quite high expectations for their pastor. We are thinking here of the hugely popular preachers who draw in large crowds. It would be easy for the average pew warmer to think that these gals and guys must be radically cool, right? But, as a pastor yourself, what would you want a congregant to know about the dangers of being pressured into the mould of a radical pastor?
[Josh] I think that many Christians love putting their pastors on a pedestal so they can excuse their own complacency. The unspoken mind-set seems to be, “I don’t want to actually read my Bible or witness to my neighbor, so I’ll hire a pastor to do it for me.” Under this system, the congregation tends to freak out when the pastor says, “I have a hard time reading my Bible and witnessing to my neighbor.” My hope is that (among other things) Radically Normal will help people understand that pastors are not anything special. We have a particular job but are not, by nature, any closer to God. All Christians, regardless of their vocation, are equally capable of living a life fully devoted to God. Clerical collar not required.
[J & M] If we can shift back to the word you used before: mundane . . . This might be a tricky question, but how do you think—as a pastor, husband, and father—love might look more normal and less radical?
[Josh] My most important acts of love are incredibly mundane. Not being a jerk to my wife, for instance. That has required a deeper submission to Jesus and reliance on the Holy Spirit than any mission trip I’ve gone on. I think one of the attractions of radical faith is that it is far more “sexy” than daily dying to self.
[J & M] Nice. Like you mentioned, the more seemingly mundane but loving aspects of living aren’t as sexy. So to another question, how do you think our “instant” culture, which focuses on speed more than the process of becoming, has contributed to the message of being radical?
[Josh] I am not sure how to connect it with the “instant culture,” but I certainly see a connection to American Exceptionalism (I doubt Canadians are exempt from this, so no free pass for you, my Canuck friends). Perhaps our celebrity culture is to blame, but it seems that even in the church, nothing is so horrifying to us as being normal and/or unexceptional. But the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of the ancient Israelites were just normal farmers, while still being a nation of priests. God is far less impressed with us being a big deal than faithfully following Him in our context.
[J & M] Speaking of cultural context, it seems like being radical is a two-part job: not only what the individual her/himself thinks is radical, but also what the individual thinks everybody else thinks about being radical. If you could, what would you say to fellow pastors about how their preaching might influence their congregants who have everyday jobs?
[Josh] First, as impractical as it may be, I would love to see every pastor have to get a “real” job. My time as a pastor/barista did wonders for both my ego and my inflated sense of ministry. I had to find meaning in making $4 coffee. Even if they can’t do that, I would encourage them to spend time learning what life looks like for their members outside of church. Second, I would encourage pastors to preach on the spiritual side of everyday life. If it weren’t so self-serving, I’d also ask them to read my book!
[J & M] We think mass handouts of your book would be a fabulous idea. In the book and in this conversation you have mentioned the importance of seeing the spiritual aspect of everyday life. I fear that for some this statement may rustle up images of boredom rather than delight, which I know is precisely the opposite of your message. Could you clarify how you see joy fitting into the average Christian’s life?
[Josh] I really think people need to know something about the nature of fun. I once talked to a young missionary who was deeply stuck in the radical mind-set. For instance, he was agonizing about whether to go to the movies with his friends that night or stay home and pray. At one point in the conversation, I asked him, “Who made fun, God or Satan?” The poor boy struggled to answer the question. I guess he was being honest when he said, “I’m afraid that it was Satan, to distract us from God’s work.” So I shared with him the study I did on joy (which I talk about in Radically Normal), trying to show him how joy and enjoyment was God’s idea. I don’t know if he decided to go to the movie or not. I share that to say that the bonus of being radically normal is that it is just so much dang fun.