In college, my philosophy professor used to talk with affection about how his wife “schooled” him when they were first married. After hearing a Christian speaker on campus, he came home inspired and shared with his wife the speaker’s message: that life was all about big moments, and all the in-between stuff was just leading up to those climactic, world-changing events.
After he finished downloading, she looked at him with an eyebrow raised and said, “Sounds like a man. Men love to talk about ‘quality time’ and ‘high moments,’ but when you get up at 2 a.m. to change the sheets because our daughter threw up in bed, that’s living. When you have to change diapers for the 1,000th time, that’s living. All our time is ‘living.’”
I have the same response to the New Radical movement, led by David Platt and other pastors, which rallies western Christians to leave behind the ease of 21st-century living and return to the iconoclast vision of the early church. (See Christianity Today's Here Come the Radicals). The New Radicals mean no harm. In fact, they mean great good. They want justice. They want change. They want complacent Christians pushed out of their comfort zones and into the slums of a suffering world. What's wrong with that?
Here’s what: Their vision has the potential to leave suburban moms looking like lazy Christians. It's driven by a stereotypically male way of thinking that often values the dramatic over the mundane and loses sight of people who engage the greater good through the invisible monotony of home-making, childrearing, and other unseen acts of service. Men and women alike pine to make an impact—it’s human nature at its best and the imago Dei at work in us—but by virtue of child-bearing biology and traditional ties to the domestic economy, women have been forced to come to terms with the “mundane good” in a more systematic way than most men. (That’s changing, of course, with shifting roles in the home.) But no one gets medals or wall plaques for practicing the mundane good. By New Radical standards, we moms aren’t Christian enough unless we’re serving at a soup kitchen in the inner city or adopting orphans from Ethiopia.
In my early 20s, I lived by this vision. I served the urban homeless, worked with welfare families, and volunteered with orphans in the slums of Nairobi. I beat my fists against my chest in a spiritual war cry for global justice and swore never to set foot in the insular space of suburbia. Nominal, consumer Christians lived in suburbia, I thought. Real Christians were out on the frontlines fighting for great causes. Then I got married, had kids, and settled down in a cookie-cutter neighborhood of Austin, Texas, where I found myself forced to rethink what it meant to follow Christ and serve humanity in the context of the suburbs.
I’m still trying to figure it out. My days are filled with activities that would make David Platt yawn with boredom: I change diapers. I scrub pee out of carpets. I wipe vomit off the kitchen floor. Most days, I’m lucky to get out of the house at all, and if I do, I’m usually taking my 10-month-old and 4-year-old to visit the elderly woman down the street. We take dog treats to her yippy dog, sit at her kitchen table eating pretzels, and ask about her arthritis. What greater good do I serve? My widowed neighbor feels less lonely. My kids learn about hospitality and Christian love. That’s about it.
From the outside, the life of mothers may look unremarkable, and yet I’ve come to believe—had to learn to believe, actually—that our mundane actions have profound purpose if we take a long view of both our own lives and the life of the world. We’re raising our kids and rearing up the next generation of leaders. That has to count for something, doesn’t it? Behind every history-making visionary is (or was) a mother wearing an apron, mopping up puke, and reading Curious George ten times in succession at the behest of a half-dressed preschooler.
Exhibit A: Mother Mary. Apart from her not-so-grand entrance as a teen mom giving birth in a barn, she is otherwise hidden from our view. But we can safely assume that she raised Jesus in the way most mothers do—she fed him, trained him on the 1st-century equivalent of a potty, and “carpooled” him to the temple for teaching. She spent years engaged in the quiet banality of motherhood and that banality made space for the greatness (albeit sacrificial greatness) of her son’s more-public ministry. However, Mary isn’t memorable just because she produced a leader. Her work as a mother was intrinsically valuable.
Most of us—maybe Mary included—have to fight for that value. In her forthcoming book, The Mama Monk, Micha Boyett struggles with what she calls the “unremitting plainness” of her life as a mother, home economist, and wanna-be monk. She writes about her experience at a Benedictine monastery:
I spend only a day and a half at St. Andrew’s, but the simplicity of the lifestyle—being called to prayer five times a day by ringing bell, walking the grounds, seeing monks at work with their hands, some sculpting, some doing administrative work, others cleaning or cooking—reminds me why I am drawn to this strange throwback of an ancient practice. Their lives are more like a stay-at-home-mom’s than any other lifestyle I’ve seen. Our tasks are daily and often mundane. Our culture isn’t necessarily impressed by our life choices.
In other words, being a mom isn’t seen as public service. But, she asks, “If a day at home raising my son is not worthwhile, then what else could be?”
I might ask a follow-up to Micha’s question: What would the New Radicals have to say about monks and mothers? Their vision to champion the core tenants of Christian discipleship isn’t new so much as it is a remix of early church values, and their weakness for the dramatic isn’t new, either. The larger Protestant culture has for some time had a tendency to value public, “big time” do-gooders like evangelists, pastors, and missionaries over private, “small time” do-gooders, including mothers and many others. But as per Paul’s heed in 1 Corinthians 12, “There are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one” (ESV).
We all need each other, and we need to serve in all spaces—both the suburban kitchen and the urban slums. With that in mind, I don’t denigrate the core vision of the New Radicals, challenging suburbanite Christians, in particular, to engage the greater good in both a global and inner-city context. I simply want to expand their vision to include the moms (and dads) who serve day in and day out on the domestic front. I want to praise them just as they are, changing the world one diaper at a time. Suburbia needs Jesus, too.
Andrea Palpant Dilley is the author of Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt, which tells the story of her crisis of faith, her departure from the church, and her eventual return. She lives with her husband and their two daughters in Austin, Texas. To connect with Andrea, visit her on Facebook.
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