Jesus wouldn’t choose the same leaders you would.

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In church these days, we know how important it is to choose the right leaders. After all, these people will represent our local church (and God himself) to the community around us. We nominate selection committees and spend countless hours searching for the right person who will embody the moral and professional characteristics needed to lead God’s church in the right direction, to shepherd and guide and nurture and feed us. We use “Top Ten” lists of leadership characteristics to remind us to look for church leaders who are skilful, competent, professional, influential, visionary, hard-working, energetic, charismatic, highly trained and gifted communicators.

Jesus didn’t seem to get that memo.

While we look for the most squeaky-clean, well-presented, got-it-together, charismatic communicators to lead the church, Jesus chose the most rag-tag, unlikely outsiders to be his ambassadors.

He publicly endorsed a despised tax collector who stole from his own people.

He commissioned a naked madman as his first missionary.

He entrusted a promiscuous Samaritan woman with his testimony.

He held up a Roman centurion (the military enemy of the Jewish people) as the greatest example of faith in Israel.

He let a woman sit in learning at his feet, in the place of a man.

He handpicked uneducated workmen as his proteges.

He selected a headstrong, unfaithful loudmouth to be the foundation for the church.

He chose the murderer of the church to proclaim his name to the Gentiles.

Over and again, Jesus picked the most unlikely characters to represent him – the least of these, the outsiders, the bottom of the food chain. What was he thinking?

Fortunately, we know much better now. We’ve learned from leadership manuals and business studies what to look for in the perfect leader, the top 10 list of character traits to measure up against, how to get the very best people in the right positions.

But maybe, just maybe, we’ve missed the point?

 

The hard, slow work of rooted Christianity (insights from Chapter 4 of “Subterranean” by Dan White Jr.)

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Every one of us longs for impact. Nobody wants to be a nobody. We want to leave a legacy, start a movement, and make a meaningful difference. As followers of Jesus, we are inspired to change the world (and change it now). It sounds so innocent and worthwhile – we rarely see the danger in our mindset. We are driven by a sense of urgency, a pressure to prove our worth, a commitment to having impact at any cost.

We are rarely inspired to be ordinary, go slow, think small, live local, and wait on God’s timing.

Dan White Jr. is a prophetic voice to the modern church, calling us to return to rootedness, to work on the structures below the ground, rather than the visible ones above it. In Chapter 4 of his new book, Subterranean: Why the future of the church is rootedness, Dan reveals that we have made an idol out of impact. He addresses the pressure to grow churches bigger and better, the drive to “expedite production” and bypass God’s slow and steady ways. Dan highlights the danger of our impatience by reminding us of Judas Iscariot, an ambitious man longing for impact, who ultimately took matters into his own hands in order to force God’s hand. He points out the risk of seeking impact without restraint, of superseding our limits, of having a microwave mentality of trying to speed things up, of bulldozing God’s work with the tyranny of demand. He ends the chapter by reminding us that God is not in a rush, that his ways may seem slow to us, but they help us build the patience we need to dwell in true community alongside others.

I’m a huge fan of Dan’s work. I love his writing style – he has a deft touch with words and a poetic cadence in his prose – but it’s the substance of his message that really resonates with me. Dan is calling for a subversive, upside-down approach to kingdom life. He is prophetically crying out to the institutional church that we have lost our way. He freely admits to his own personal struggle to commit to community, live locally and be ordinary rather than extraordinary. I highly recommend you get a copy of his book (you’ll get 40% off if you use the code ROOTED before 23rd October) and wrestle with what it means to choose slow over fast, small over big, local over global, and consistent over impressive.

 

I was honoured to be asked by Dan White Jr. to participate in the blog tour of his new book. Make sure you check out these recent posts, and look for those to follow, as 11 bloggers draw insights from the 11 chapters of this book.

Zach Hoag has written a review of Chapter 1: Hotels or Trees

Tim Suttle discusses Chapter 2: Excessive Personality

Ben Sternke reflects on Chapter 3: Extracted Perception

I have written about Chapter 4: Expedited Production

I’m looking forward to the next seven blog posts covering the remaining chapters! Thank you, Dan, for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

 

Listening to the least of the these

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My husband just walked in the door with a huge grin on his face. He’s come home from facilitating Fresh Start Community, a weekly gathering of a rag-tag bunch of misfits on their journey towards maturity and unity in Christ. They come from all walks of life – many of them are in recovery from substance addiction, some are covered in prison tattoos, others are gentle grandmothers who come each week to love and be gracious. He always comes home refreshed and inspired.

Today he’s smiling because he’s so blown away by how God speaks through the most unexpected people. A young woman has been coming for a few weeks, and has been very quiet. Sometimes she sits on the outskirts of the circle, playing with the toddler of a single mum. Her own children are in care, while she takes part in a recovery program to overcome the years of drug use, prostitution and crime. During the meeting this morning, when the group were discussing Scripture together, this particular woman spoke up. Her words triggered deeper sharing and insights from others in the circle. Kevin-Neil says it was like the Holy Spirit was in the room. There was a power present, and a number of people commented on it afterwards.

Kevin-Neil is convinced that God loves to speak through the least of these. In a room full of people, it is often the most downtrodden, the most marginalised, the most overlooked person who has the deepest insight into God’s heart for the last, the least and the lost. This is why pastors need to talk less and listen more. This is why we should use our opportunities to lift up and empower others, rather than holding onto the pulpit, the stage and the microphone.

The voiceless have a voice – but the rest of us need to learn how to shut up and listen. We might just hear God speaking to us through those who are often unseen and unheard.

 

The way of love vs. the way of power.

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One of the most profound theological statements is only three words long – “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Love is the defining characteristic of God’s nature, his personality, his code of conduct. Within the Godhead we find the ultimate picture of interdependent, mutually-submissive, other-centred community – love in its perfect form. Jesus put flesh to love, showing us what it looked like lived out in real life. And he calls us, his followers, to the way of love.

Only, our world doesn’t teach us to walk in the way of love. Since Adam and Eve turned their backs on God’s way, humanity has been broken and damaged. Our relationships have been marked by power struggles, violence and inequality. We jostle for position, prestige and privilege, at the expense of others. We adopt hierarchy structures to convey some sense of order to the continuous wrestle for control over one another. We establish “organisational charts” in our businesses, government and military as a visual reminder that those at the top hold the most authority and influence, while those at the bottom have little or none. Most of us put up with the-way-things-are without questioning, but ask anyone at the lowest tiers of our society – the ones who have no voice, no impact and no way of climbing upwards – and they’ll tell you the system is broken, violent and oppressive. It needs to be turned on its head.

Jesus did just that. To an oppressed people group, the Messiah who was expected to come in power and wrath came in gentleness and vulnerability – heralding in a new kingdom, striking a crippling blow to the powers of empire. In the midst of a power-hungry, revenge-seeking, self-oriented world, he showed his disciples a more excellent way. Serving one another. Looking not to his own interests, but the interests of others. The king who rides a donkey, washes his disciples’ feet, lays aside his claim to equality with God and takes on the form of a servant. Who lifts up the low, loves the unlovable, empowers the disempowered, restores the outcast to society. Who trumps the powers and principalities of this world by stretching out his arms and surrendering his life. An unexpected subversive strategy of non-violent submission, radical and revolutionary, inverting the way of power and overcoming with the way of love.

The story doesn’t end at the cross – or even at the empty tomb. The centre of Jesus’ strategy was modelling the way of love to a small group of followers, who would model and pass it on to more followers, creating a network to spread through the world like yeast through dough – small in size but significant in impact – to undermine the coercive nature of human relationships, undo the way of power, and reconcile the world to God. Just as Jesus embodied the loving relationship of the Godhead, his church is called to embody the way of love, submitting ourselves to God and to one another, and presenting a real and living alternative to the way of power.

Mary’s subversive song.

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2000 years ago, a poor, pregnant teenage girl in an oppressed people group sang a prophetic song of revolution and revelation, a song which told of God’s heart for all people. She started her song with personal words, glorifying God and thanking him for blessing her, even though her pregnancy-outside-of-marriage could have put her life in danger, and subjected her to scandal and scorn. Then Mary, the ultimate nobody in a power-driven world, uttered these profound and political words;

His mercy extends to those who fear him…
(but) he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
 “He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
“He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.” 

Luke 1:49-53

These words are so revolutionary, they were banned from being read aloud in British ruled India, and again in 1980’s Guatemala and Argentina. Mary knew that Jesus’ birth was not “good news” for everyone. For each blessing she spoke, there was an answering curse on those who thought they “had it all”. Mary’s song should be deeply troubling to all of us. It reminds us that everything we aspire to – power, pride, strength and wealth – is a barrier between us and God. If the church has lost her way and become proud, rich and powerful, then she needs to re-examine herself, lest she be scattered, brought down, and sent away empty.

God has never been happy with human structures to subjugate and oppress one another. The Old Testament is littered with God’s explicit commands to care for “the widow, the orphan and the foreigner”. God’s heart is biased towards the weak and the marginalised. His way, fully revealed in Jesus, is paved with love and forgiveness. Jesus’ life and teaching consistently lifted up the weak, the low, the humble, the hungry – but he willingly and deliberately confronted and chastised the proud, the self-sufficient, the religious and oppressive.

This Christmas, while we were filling our faces and accumulating more possessions in our warm, snug homes, surrounded by family, we may have missed the impact of the image of teenage Mary, separated from her family by scandal, homeless as she gave birth to her son in squalor, heralding in the greatest ideological reversal of hierarchy the world has ever known. Christmas is over now, but we should use this point of the year to remember we are part of a subversive, upside-down, revolutionary movement which can and will change the world.

Christmas – the ultimate revelation of God’s nature.

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In the beginning, God revealed himself to the world. He made all creation in its beauty and wonder – and we did not see him. He crafted man in his image; creative, powerful and capable of great love – and we did not identify with him. He chose an unknown slave nation for himself, to bless all nations – but they turned away from him, again and again. He sent prophets to speak on his behalf – and we did not listen to them.

God took the ultimate step to fully reveal to us who he was. The great “I am” became fully human – fragile, vulnerable, born into poverty, a labourer’s son, an obscure nobody in an oppressed people group. Narrowly escaping death as an infant, forced to flee as a refugee. He made himself like us, so we could truly understand him.

Jesus completely revealed God to us. A God who is willing to walk in our shoes. A God who always chooses to love the unlovely, to honour the dishonoured, to place value on the undervalued. A God who doesn’t choose the fastest route to the top, who doesn’t take advantage of power and position to oppress others. A God who antagonizes the proud and religious, but gently raises up the weak, the lonely, the hurting. A God who has no place to lay his head, but offers all he has to the very ones who reject him. A God who would give everything, even his own life, to be fully known by us – even risking being misunderstood in the process.

Christmas isn’t about trees, or trimming, or food, or even family. It’s not about presents – it’s about power and position – with a twist. Christmas is the ultimate revelation of God’s way – choosing to shun the conventional power play and violence towards others, choosing to go lower to lift others higher. Christmas should confront all our notions of success, relationship and vocation. If God’s own Son chose not to use his position and power to his advantage, but made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant, how then should we follow him this Christmas?

 

The God who meets us in our messiness.

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You’re never too messy for God.

Jesus wasn’t afraid of our messiness. He mixed with the most messed up people. He hung out with the riff-raff, the rascals and the rejects – not the religious. The Bible, from start to finish, is an extraordinary tale of ordinary people, imperfect people, from Adam and Eve onwards. Sordid, complex, untidy lives, not the kind you find in children’s fairytales. Messy people like you and me.

We spend a lot of effort trying to hide our messiness from each other. We edit our status updates and choose what people get to see. We put on our “Sunday best” and put our best foot forward. We wear masks and hide from each other as if life were a giant masquerade ball.

Yet the messiness is never far away. Your friends, your neighbours, your relatives and your colleagues carry wounds and scars. Broken relationships, unhappy marriages, physical and sexual abuse, doubts, depression and loneliness. it’s all there, just behind the surface. They don’t want to see your fake side, your “perfect” mask. They need to meet real people, honest people, people who are willing to be seen and known. People who have learned to be comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. People who have come before God in their messiness, and allowed his love and acceptance to transform them.

Jesus didn’t come for the healthy, but for the sick. He came for the lost, not the found. For the messy, not the perfect. 1 John 4:10-11 says it all – “This is love; not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, so we ought to love one another.” God loved us when we were still messy. He wants us to enter into each others’ lives and love each other, mess and all.

Don’t be afraid of allowing some untidy, awkward moments into your church life as you seek to become a community of love. Confess openly to one another. Cherish honesty. Be real. Go deep. Accept others. Accept yourself. Set up spaces in church to share and care for one another. Don’t be easily shocked. Forgive. Listen. Be interested. Laugh and cry together. Bear one another’s burdens.

God is big enough to handle all of our mess. Let’s find ways to make church a safe and welcoming place for messy people (myself included).

 

You are welcome here…

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I grew up feeling like an outsider. The first few years of my life were spent overseas, and when we came back to Australia, I felt different to the other kids. It didn’t help that my parents were from migrant families and had different cultural celebrations, or that we went to church when nobody else at school did. I felt like I didn’t “fit in”.

My strongest “outsider” experience came when I was 16 and went on exchange to Germany. I could hardly speak the language, and people treated me as if I was an idiot. They literally thought I was unintelligent, because I couldn’t express myself. I felt vulnerable, alone and misunderstood. It was an enormous insight into how newcomers feel in a new country, culture and language.

The truth is, we’ve all felt like outsiders at some point – and it’s not a nice place to be. We all want to “fit in”. We only feel truly alive when we are loved, and secure, and connected into accepting communities. We bend over backwards to be embraced by the crowd (if you don’t believe me, look at the absurd fashions young people have worn over the years, just to gain a sense of belonging). Humans are designed for relationships – and we suffer greatly when they break down. We all need to belong.

Jesus was a friend to outsiders. Wherever he went, he could pick out the most hurting, needy individual and meet their emotional need. He treated the Samaritan woman with dignity and answered her questions as an equal. He elevated Zaccheus’ social standing by inviting himself over in front of the crowds, and connected him back into his community by calling him “a son of Abraham”. He touched the “untouchable” man with leprosy. He refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery, turning the spotlight on her condemners. He spoke the delicious words to our aching hearts; “Come to me, you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).

As followers of Jesus, our gatherings are to be places of welcome. Outsiders should feel loved, and embraced, and knitted into community. Hurting people should feel safe. Welcome isn’t all about a big smile and a handshake when they walk through the door (although that’s a good start), but about creating spaces for connection, and deep relationships, and actively placing value on others. Instead, many people report feeling unwelcome and judged by churches, and feeling they have to “jump through hoops”, change their behaviour and shift their value systems before they can be accepted in “Christian culture”.

Who are the outsiders in your local area? Where are the hurting people? Do they feel welcome and safe in your gatherings? If not, what can you change about the way you meet, so they know how important they are to you?

 

There is only one church.

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Today, I met some wonderful Christian brothers and sisters from the local Arabic Church. Their skin colour was different than mine, their cultural background was different, and their native language was different – but we reminded each other we are all from the same Church, we all worship the same God, we are united by the same Spirit.

I am very grateful that God allows so many diverse and beautiful representations of his church to flourish. I celebrate that we can worship God in rows or in circles, informally or liturgically, in living rooms and in mega-churches, contemplatively or loudly, in organic or organised structures. We have so many different personality types and contexts that we need different expressions, different denominations, different models of ministry. Jesus promises to be present when His people gather in His name – without setting too many ground rules for what those gatherings are supposed to look like.

I want to thank traditional churches for carrying the Scriptures and the message of God through the ages and keeping it intact for us to receive today. I want to thank local churches for caring for the folk in your area. I want to thank mega-churches for providing a high-quality, attractional service for those who are seeking. I want to thank progressive churches for engaging in complex dialogue with those who are questioning. I want to thank missional churches for stepping out of your comfort zone and going where God sends you.

This Sunday, my local church is combining with the Arabic Church to share together in a Love Feast. We get pretty excited about these events – not because two churches are coming together, but because there is only one church. No matter how we express ourselves, no matter what clothes the pastor wears (or whether there even is a pastor), we are united as a body with Jesus as the Head. We are members of the same family. And that makes me happy.

 

 

Jesus had favourites.

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As a parent of four, I’m not supposed to have a favourite child. Countless adults are still suffering the pain of knowing their brother or sister was “the favourite one”. The truth is, on a given day, any one of my four kids is probably my favourite of the bunch. They take it in turns. Sometimes it’s the best-behaved. Sometimes it’s the worst-behaved. Some days, one needs a lot more loving than another. Some days, one gives more love than the others. I once heard a speaker say “it’s ok to have favourites – but every one of your children should grow up believing he or she is the favourite.” I loved that. It’s a piece of advice I try to live by.

But when I read the Bible, it becomes really apparent that Jesus had favourites. And he didn’t try to hide it. In fact, he used every opportunity to make it obvious to onlookers where he placed his value. Read through the gospel of Luke some time and ask yourself who Jesus pays the most attention to? Spends the most time with? Seems to like the most?

The lonely. The hurting. The sick. The needy. The downtrodden. The ostracised. The neglected. The unheard. The disempowered. The outsiders. The despised. The sinners. These were Jesus’ favourites. He even explicitly said it; “the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”

If we are Jesus’ followers, we will walk in his ways. If we are his family, we will model his values. But when I look at our model for church, I see the opposite mindset. Most churches lift up the clean-cut, well-behaved, highly moral, over-educated, cleverly spoken, physically attractive, gifted and talented – and place them on a stage as an aspirational role model. The limelight is on “the greatest of these”, where Jesus asked us to place it on “the least of these.”

The church is most powerful when she lifts up the weak, places honour on the dishonoured, gives a voice to the voiceless, meets the needs of the needy and loves the unlovable. Let’s remember who Jesus’ favourites are, and make them our favourites too.