Efrem Smith: An Outpost for the Kingdom—Part 2

Christians must ask themselves: “What countercultural, upside-down vocation am I involved in?” The church ought to be a refuge where the divided become brothers and sisters—become family. When Christians are building extended family in ways that dismantle class and race division, it is a tremendous example of living as right-side-up people in an upside-down world.

So how do we become people who can really listen to the voice of God coming from someone we feel is deeply different from us?

People of all economic backgrounds, ethnicities and races must wrestle with the ways we must surrender and die to self. All of us. But, there is an additional level of surrender and humility and generosity that Jesus called the privileged to in the Gospels. To the point where some of the privileged and the wealthy walked away, not feeling that they could live up to what he called them to do. What I say humbly, especially to my white brothers and sisters, especially to my white, evangelical brothers and sisters, is that for reconciliation and transformation to take place at greater levels in this divided, broken world, those of privilege in our society, those who have shaped what people think of as “normative” Christianity around the color of their skin and their ethnic origins, are going to have to participate at a greater level of listening, humility, surrender, generosity and purposeful building extended family across race.

With only a few exceptions, I don’t think you can look at the black church and say that they have refused to be bridge builders across race. The black church in the United States of America, especially through the Civil Rights Movement, has been the most visible, dynamic force for racial reconciliation and bridge-building over troubled waters. I guess, in all humility, I should just say it plain: I think we need greater efforts from our white, evangelical brothers and sisters when it comes to listening, humility, generosity and purposely seeing the blessing of being involved in extended family across race, ethnicity and class.

Can you tell me one story of hope you’ve seen in this area?

One of World Impact’s ministry sites is in Wichita, Kansas. Last year, some of our staff participated in an event in which members of the Wichita Police Department and the Wichita chapter of Black Lives Matter put on a community cookout together. Pastors, community leaders, officers, activists all came together to eat and laugh together. Then at the end of the day, there was a huge circle, where folks from all these different backgrounds held hands, prayed together, cried together. That warms my heart. Because about all we see on TV is young African-Americans and police at odds. The police with tear gas and batons, and the young people in the streets shouting. That’s not the whole story. God is leading people together—sometimes just to have a hamburger together, hold hands and dance. To play games in a park for a day. How powerful.

I travel a lot, and hear all the time from pastors who are saying that people in their congregations are more open than ever before to find a different way of living their Christian life daily. People are wearied and worn out, to a large degree. There are still hard hearts out there—don’t get me wrong—Christians who are stuck in their beliefs and willing to sacrifice brothers and sisters for politics. There are even influential Christian leaders whose remarks from behind the pulpit sound more like political ideology than Scripture, in my opinion. But there is such a desire for authentic dialogue and participation in evangelism, discipleship and all the right-side-up living for compassion, mercy and justice that brings Jesus’ kingdom to this upside-down world.

That call to die so we can live is the heart of the gospel: saying that we have been wrong, repenting and humbly turning to Christ and his body. What’s one first step that leaders can take to do that?

Consider right now: Who is in your inner circle of extended family? Who do you lean on? Who do you trust? Might God want to extend that family so that it is more reflective of the kingdom?

Also, we need more intentionality in terms of pastors and leaders—across race and ethnicity—learning from one another, sharing each other’s stories. Sometimes I get in conversations with my white brothers and sisters, and the first question they ask is something like, “What do you think of President Trump? What do you think about Black Lives Matter?” And you know, it would be better if those conversations started not with what we think, but about our stories. “How were you raised?” “What were the issues about race that were talked about around your dining room table?” “What did your parents think about race and politics?” If we share stories without fear of judgment, those real-life stories build brotherhood, sisterhood. If more leaders across race intentionally developed relationships beginning with their own stories, pain, fears and hopes, we would get much further than by starting with what our president tweeted last night.

We need to start by sharing our own hearts and lives. It would bring greater faithfulness and fruitfulness in the church.

I have such hope for the right-side-up life of Jesus to transform this upside-down world through his people.

But how hard it is when we, his people, are called to be flipped right-side up, first.

Find more content from Efrem Smith »

Paul J. Pastor, editor-at-large for Outreach magazine, is author of The Listening Day: Meditations on the Way (Zeal Books, 2017).