Efrem Smith: An Outpost for the Kingdom—Part 1

“We cannot surrender the outposts of God’s kingdom to the ways of our nation. We are here to transform. To make disciples.”

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.