Efrem Smith: An Outpost for the Kingdom—Part 1


Over the past several years, cultural divisions of race, class, politics and faith have become starker than any time in recent memory. While it would be easy to only think of American politics here, it is a worldwide phenomenon, one that requires a quiet, global response of love and reconciliation from Christians. It calls leaders to respond to the many difficult dynamics that influence outreach today.

Enter Efrem Smith. He’s the author of Killing Us Softly: Reborn in the Upside-Down Image of God (NavPress, 2017). Smith wears many hats, as president and chief executive of World Impact—an inner-city missions organization—teaching pastor at Bayside Church in Sacramento, California, and the author of numerous other books. Smith’s work happens on the frontlines of cultural divisions, within the body of Christ and in the culture at large.

We spoke with Smith to hear his take on how our gospel can bring the hope of Christ’s life—not only to a desperate and divided culture—but to us desperate and divided Christians, too. Read on to find out why Christ’s most basic teaching must be rediscovered today.

There are a lot of books that offer new strategies or analysis on cultural issues. Killing Us Softly doesn’t, instead turning back to the heart of the gospel. Why the focus on “dying to self,” something every Christian leader has heard, today?

Because it sure doesn’t seem like we are living it like we should. Sometimes the people who know something best are most in need of being reminded of it.

Over the past few years, especially through social media and video, we’ve seen a lot of the unfortunate racial tensions and divides in our nation. From conflicts between police departments and African-American communities that have led to the loss of life, to protests, riots, political unrest and division, acts of terrorism and so on. Part of the motivation for writing this book came from my deep belief that Christians can be God’s vehicles of transformation, reconciliation, justice and healing in these deeply divided times.

What’s your perspective on this cultural moment? Every day it seems we’re faced with a new crisis, outrage, tragedy. It seems like division is accelerating weekly.

We’re just seeing what’s always been there. Through technology, we have a front-row seat to these things that we didn’t have before, but the issues are nothing new. Before Facebook and Twitter and cellphone video, you knew what was going on in your local town, then whatever was on the national news. Now, we are bombarded by a constant stream of information and images, and unfortunately, the negative, divisive, uncivil, violent news and commentary is what drives ratings and gets attention. The shocking news is what grips people. They’re stuck to their phones and TVs. We share, we comment, we get outraged.

But for a long time, if not since the beginning of the United States, we have had this tension—we are the Land of the Free, but also the Land of the Deeply Divided, the Land of Those Still Waiting for the Fullness of Their Freedom. Those tensions of our racial and social divisions have, from time to time, caused social storms to erupt. They flash along the lines of gender, of race, of class, of the documented and the undocumented.

Now this doesn’t surprise me, and it should not surprise the Christian. We live in a broken, sinful, upside-down, divided world. That’s not a shock to us. What concerns me are the ways in which the Christian church and Christian individuals are held captive to the structures, systems and ideologies of that broken, sinful, upside-down world, when our call is to transform it in the name of Jesus.

Talk for a moment about that transformation. What specifically do you mean?

I mean that Christians must remember their key mission: following Jesus by producing reconciling, justice-rooted disciple-makers.

Isn’t that what we’re doing already?

Yes. And no. I am very hopeful, but I am grieving, too.

I know that God is yet present in this broken and divided world. I take hope in that presence. Even in our flaws and mistakes, I have hope in God’s church. Transformation, salvation, discipleship, ministries of salvation and mercy and justice can flourish through us. I’m not just holding this by faith in my heart, but I’m experiencing it in my work. In my travels to different cities, my chances to preach in different churches, to sit down with faith leaders both evangelical and mainline, I sense a desire to see the kingdom of God come to bear on the social complexities of our nation and world like never before. There is an increased desire in pastors and ministry leaders to participate in this.

But my heart grieves, too. We need a greater level of acknowledgement and repentance around the ways in which we are held captive as Christians by extreme political ideologies (right and left), by hyperpatriotism and nationalism above our citizenship in the kingdom of God and by our apathy when it comes to preaching and teaching biblically rooted, Christ-centered messages. As a whole, we are failing to present the deep reservoir of Scripture on reconciliation, justice, transformation and new life.

You’re on the front lines of divided places and people. Tell us about it.

For a number of years, I have written on urban ministry, reconciliation and ministries of compassion, mercy and justice. I’ve been involved in reconciliation in the context of developing, planting and moving churches toward being multiethnic and multicultural while still being strongly Christ-centered.

I am both a product of the traditional black church, and evangelicalism. The emphasis of the black church gave me the deep spirituality of social transformation, never separating the inward faith from the outward transformation. Evangelicals, from Billy Graham to Tony Evans to Joni Eareckson Tada, have inspired me to never separate that justice work from a deep well of intimacy with God, identity in Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I guess I’d call myself a “liberation pietist.” [Laughs]

The church ought to be equipping, empowering and releasing reconciling-disciples of kingdom transformation into this broken, sinful, divided, upside-down world. The concept of dying to self as an essential component of Christian formation is needed like never before.

We must reunite personal depth of spirituality with outward, honest, sacrificial work for reconciliation. Our public work for transformation must be deeply connected to our intimacy with God. Our work to transform is based in our identity with Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But we have largely separated public ministries of justice from the inner work and pietism of a deep, intimate relationship with God. That includes dying to self, decreasing so that God might increase.

How do we rediscover that teaching? We could say we believe it but unwittingly fail to live it out.

Rediscovering the teachings of Christ always begins with rediscovering Christ himself. If we’re going to rise up as kingdom reconcilers in a divided and broken world, we must rediscover Christ. Paul had to go through this. He thought he knew God, and was “serving” him with all his might according to what he believed was right. He had a clear conscience. He was righteous, after all, according to his religious beliefs. But those beliefs led him to persecute Christians. Then he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. That encounter changed his life. He died to his old self and had a conversion experience based on his rediscovery of Jesus.

Even Christians need to rediscover Jesus. That includes two things. First, a deep understanding of Jesus as the eternal Word, God who became flesh. Jesus is the only begotten God in human form. The spiritual supernatural dynamic of “Christ in us the hope of glory” must penetrate our being.

The second thing, though, many of us miss. But it’s vital, and found in the genealogy of Matthew 1. The Son of God, Alpha and Omega, was multiethnic, multicultural. In the family tree of Jesus were the indigenous inhabitants of Israel, Palestine, Ethiopia, Egypt, the Sudan, Libya. If that is true, we need to present it, remember it. Then we need to ask what it means for us, through the Holy Spirit, for that Christ to live in us. We must wrestle with what it means to follow that Jesus, to surrender to that Jesus, to represent that Jesus. He walked our Earth as a multiethnic, multicultural, Jewish human being. But we have reduced him from that. In our culture, we have made Jesus look like whoever we are instead of who he is. We have made him white. Western. European. Democrat. Republican. Urban. Handsome. Comfortable.

What a quiet, deadly mistake. “I’m black, I’m going to make Jesus black.” “I’m Republican, Jesus will be too!” “I’m suburban, so I’ll make Jesus suburban.” These counterfeits replace the Jesus that causes all of us—regardless of ethnicity, race, class, political affiliation or nation—to surrender to his lordship.

When we acknowledge the true Jesus of Scripture, we find he can do what he has done from the very beginning: tear down dividing walls between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, left-wing and right-wing, black and white. I’m pushing that we discover the same Jesus that Paul discovered on the Damascus road. Like Paul, that will not be easy for us.

The Bible of that true Christ is in front of all of us, but we still miss it. How do we encounter that Christ with fresh eyes?

Most of us aren’t reading it while connected with people of different experiences from ours. We need to spend time in God’s Word with Christians who are different than us, in a setting (like church should be) that forges a sense of extended family. In this sense, being separated from people different than you are in race, class, politics, etc., allows you the “luxury” of not having to humbly rediscover Christ. Your church development and evangelism ought to be shaped by the true demographics of your community, not by convenience or trying to ease cultural pressures.

Sometimes there are missional reasons for homogeneous churches. If you live in a community where you can go five blocks in any direction and only see, say, Koreans, then you should have a Korean church. Same goes for any demographic. But if the mission field outside the walls of your church is racially diverse, multiethnic and multicultural, then part of our Christian life in community ought to be to plant and revitalize existing churches to reflect that diverse mission field. Our participation in the Great Commission ought to drive us to intentionally multiethnic and diverse community-building as the church.

The Bible clearly shows Jesus doing the ministry of reconciliation, and he passes on to us—according to 2 Corinthians 5:14-21—the ministry and message of reconciliation. That ministry and message through the church ought to be bringing the kingdom of God to bear on the divisions in our world and culture. It is meant to.

A lot of leaders will applaud that assertion—in the abstract. But practically, many pastors aren’t sure where to start. Walk us through where to start putting the ministry of reconciliation into practice.

Start with more attention (especially through teaching and preaching) on the authentic Jesus. You must say truths that startle many people: Jesus was not white, not American, not rich, not aligned with our politics. Nor is his kingdom.

Revelation 7:9: The kingdom includes a multitude that no one can count, of every nation, tribe, language. The kingdom of God, the place we’ll live eternally, is a Christ-centered community, multiethnic, multicultural. There is no terrorism in that community. There is no racism in it, no sexism in it. There is no divide between the haves and the have-nots, no divide between liberal and conservative. We are citizens of that kingdom now. Are we living like it?

The church needs to push Christians to get practical. What does that citizenship mean? How do we follow the authentic Christ as a citizen of the kingdom? How do I express my true citizenship through my life daily—to the point that my allegiance to Christ and his kingdom even supersedes my citizenship in the United States of America, my political opinions, my family of origin and all my assumptions?

The Christian needs to be a missionary wherever they go. But my concern is that instead of Christians seeing themselves as missionaries in, say, the Republican or Democratic Party, or entertainment or arts, or their vocation, that we are being held captive by those institutions or systems. We are more attached and surrendered to what we hear on MSNBC or Fox News than we are to God’s authentic Word.

Christ, the kingdom and Scripture ought to inform how I practically live in this world. Instead, my concern for the church right now is that the ideologies, systems and institutions of this world are holding God’s people captive. They are informing how we read the Bible, how we see Jesus and what our expectations of the church are.

There needs to be humble acknowledgement and repentance. Outside influences have shaped the allegiance of God’s people more than the kingdom of God or the authentic Jesus. We see the fruit of that in our divisions today.

What we’re talking about here is liberation. I am African-American, the descendent of slaves. What inspires me in my Christian life is that I’m the descendant of people who came to know Jesus while longing for liberation from the systems and structures of this world and nation that had holistically enslaved them.

This relates to your concept of the upside-down image of God—in opposition to the way the world’s system says things ought to be.

Yes. Much of what we have accepted as “right-side up” is really the upside-down, sinful world’s influence on our hearts and churches, not God’s way. Just look at the authentic Jesus, and that much is painfully clear. We need to seek liberation so that we can truly be right-side up, strange, peculiar people in this world. I dream that the church would become an outpost of the kingdom of God, not the mouthpiece of any competitor.

Read Part 2 of the interview with Efrem Smith »

Read the 4-part Ken Wytsma series on race and the gospel here.

Read Bryan Loritts on why diversity is not a fringe issue here.

Read Brenda Salter McNeil on why pursuing reconciliation is essential to the gospel here.

For more on the topic of racial reconciliation: outreachmagazine.com/racial-reconciliation