The myth of trickle-down change

May 4, 2015 by

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I’ve heard some buzz in Christian circles that has troubled me. It is the idea that if we reach the most influential people in the world for Jesus, then everyone else will follow.

I’ve seen this philosophy infect churches and organizations, even entire movements and conferences whose goal is to reach the “influencers” — the gatekeepers, powerbrokers and social capitalists. I’ve seen it on the inside, because sometimes I’m considered one of those “influencers.”

I’ve had a hard time naming what I find troubling about it. After all, many of the people who come to these elite gatherings and summits and think-tank conferences are influential for a reason. They are brilliant (some of them). And articulate (most of them). And charismatic (all of them).

Then I remembered Young Life, an organization I was a part of in high school.

Young Life used to have something called the “Key Kid” philosophy. The idea was that if you reach the most popular kids — the cheerleaders and football players — then all the other kids will come. For years, this was the strategy that drove one of the most effective youth ministries in the country.

According to my friends at Young Life, they learned two things as they implemented the Key Kid strategy.

1) It worked. 2) It was at odds with Jesus.

Even if the philosophy was well-intentioned and effective in reaching hundreds of youth — it was problematic. It just didn’t jibe with how Jesus did ministry.

He didn’t pick the most powerful, the most influential, the most popular and polished and pristine.

In fact, it was those in the center of wealth and power that gave him so much trouble.

Surely there were rich rulers, decorated soldiers, powerful businessmen and influential intellectuals who came to Jesus. They need God too.

But Jesus was very clear that faithful discipleship would cost them everything they owned and trusted in — “it’s easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” But nothing is impossible. All their titles and riches and power needed to be exchanged for a cross.

Jesus didn’t start at the top — but at the bottom. Jesus chose the ordinary. He chose the down and out, the bruised and battered, the marginalized and outcast. He chose fishermen and prostitutes, tax collectors and lepers.

Perhaps it was because they had nothing to lose — but their chains.

The temptation is to believe that it is the rich and powerful who will be best suited or most influential in communicating God’s love, reaching people for Christ or transforming the world.

But the Bible shows us something different, and history proves it true: the best Christians are wounded healers. It is not simply our degrees, skills or titles that are our credentials. Our wounds — our bruises, our scars — these are our credentials. I long for the day when those with the deepest wounds become the loudest voices in the Church.

Years ago, Young Life abandoned the “key kid” strategy. But the rest of the church still needs to let it go.

So let us pause.

Let’s look at our conferences and summits, our church pews and dinner tables. Are we impressed by people’s titles or by their tears?

Let’s make sure we attract the people Jesus attracted, and if we frustrate anyone — let’s frustrate the people Jesus frustrated. Too often the church has done just the opposite: we have attracted the people Jesus frustrated and frustrated the people Jesus attracted.

Would those who surrounded Jesus even be able to afford tickets to our conferences? Would they get an invitation to our think-tank summit?

I’m not sure Jesus would feel comfortable sleeping in a Ritz Carlton.

Jesus called the mighty down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He called those in first class to move to the back of the bus and invited those in the peanut gallery to center stage. The last become first, the first become last.

Those with loud voices were told to listen, and those who were voiceless were given a microphone.

The Kingdom of God does not trickle down . . . it bubbles up. So let’s exorcise the demons of entitlement. Let’s climb down from the latter of status. And let’s listen to the cries of the oppressed.

Let’s get out of our summits and into the streets.

Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are. — 1 Cor. 1: 26-28

Shane Claiborne is an author, speaker, activist and founding member of the Simple Way. He is one of the compilers of Common Prayer, a resource to unite people in prayer and action. Claiborne is also helping develop a network called Friends Without Borders, which creates opportunities for folks to come work together for justice from around the world. This blog post is provided thanks to our partnership with Red Letter Christians


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