Efrem Smith: An Outpost for the Kingdom—Part 2

“Outside influences have shaped the allegiance of God’s people more than the kingdom of God or the authentic Jesus.”

Don’t miss Part 1 of the interview, in which Efrem Smith calls churches to put into practice a ministry of reconciliation.

A powerful image came at this year’s Grammy Awards. When Chance the Rapper, who is outspoken about his faith in Jesus, won Best New Artist, the Grammy stage transformed for a few minutes into a worshipful, joyful choral moment with the song “How Great.” Can we expect surprises like that when the kingdom starts turning the world upside down?

Absolutely. I don’t know all the details of Chance the Rapper’s faith, but that moment was so beautiful. Compared to the other messages being sent out that night, he was right-side up, courageous and grateful and uplifting. He not only gave God the glory but practiced it, artistically proclaiming his hope from that stage—very upside down for the Grammys! That’s a great example of an upside-down moment, where the world gets to witness the power of our faith in Jesus. We must look for God’s true work in surprising places.

In the first century, godly men and women proved themselves to be culturally adaptable and open-minded. Think of how unnatural—from a worldly perspective—it was for lifelong, faithful Jews to go to places like Corinth and Colossae, fully accepting these other ethnic and cultural people in the name of Jesus and building reciprocal relationships with them. Paul, the Pharisee, went into Athens, and quoted a pagan poet! I am not convinced that we have their attitude or energy today for that kind of bridge-building. We need to change our thoughts about what is secular and sacred to have those transformative interactions. We could see even greater transformations in our communities and lives, even greater advancement of the kingdom of God. We would see ourselves as missionaries in every sphere of society we go to, ambassadors for God’s kingdom posted in that realm.

But we need to ask ourselves on a regular basis, “What are the ways I need to be careful not to be held captive by the systems in which I serve?” That’s why, in some circles, “missionary” gets a bad name. In the beginning of our country, many of our missionaries and evangelists were held captive by systems like slavery, which clouded our missionary presence and evangelistic efforts. We had to decide if we’d be “right-side” enough to say slavery was wrong, in the middle of an economic system that benefitted from slavery. Fast-forward years later during Jim Crow segregation; to some degree, the Christian efforts of evangelism and discipleship were hindered because the church was held captive by the racial divisions of Jim Crow segregation. Racism was attached to what we were doing, until we were forced to confront if we would be courageous enough to say that Jim Crow segregation—with white-only water fountains and the whole lot—was wrong. To do that, “good Christians” of the South had to risk their reputations, going against a sinful cultural system to try and bring the upside-down kingdom in.

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I think, unfortunately, we are at a moment again where the church must be courageous enough to say that we are here as missionaries to our culture, not mouthpieces for it. We cannot surrender the outposts of God’s kingdom to the ways of our nation. We are here to transform. To make disciples.

Pastors have a hard task today. We’re called to preach and teach and equip and empower and release people who may not be quick or open at first to admit the ways that they are enslaved by the systems of our world or nation. To tell someone they’re enslaved—that’s quite a statement. It’s offensive. We can’t kill relational dialogue, but the truth is that I hope pastors and ministry leaders can tell people that they are held captive by the systems and structures of this upside-down world. We can lovingly present that and point them to freedom in Christ. We all want to be free in Christ. We want to be liberated parents and spouses and friends and workers. We want to be liberated and loved children, members of a community where we are empowered with purpose. But the issue is that to be liberated like this, you must be willing to die to the old self, the old system, the things within us that show the reality of our captivity.

So how, practically, do we lead our church or organization through a process of dying to self and working toward renewal?

At World Impact, what helps us is our work with (and our belief in) those who are at the bottom of the upside-down world: the poor, the weak, the marginalized, the incarcerated. Jesus, remember, elevated the least to the greatest in his kingdom. We are about empowering Christian, urban, indigenous leaders.

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All the “weak” of our society ought to have just as much right to participate in the Great Commission as anybody else. All of them, who our society so lightly throws aside or mocks or turns away, ought to be empowered to become our Christian leaders: church planters, pastors, evangelists and missionaries in whatever societal domain in which they live. The poor ought to be just as involved in contributing to the flourishing of the church as the privileged and the highly educated.

That is a countercultural idea. It is also completely Christ-centered. It’s what Jesus believed: Samaritan women, and tax collectors, and diseased people and left-for-dead people, and people struggling with demons could be just as engaged in the kingdom as Pharisees and Sadducees and the wealthy. He didn’t just declare it; he demonstrated it. That assisted in getting him crucified.