Efrem Smith, preacher, author and urban ministry advocate, delivered a challenging, uncomfortable and anointed message about evangelism, according to some of the thousands who attended or tuned in via a live webcast to the Exponential West Conference at Saddleback Church on Tuesday.
Smith, president and CEO of World Impact and author of The Post-Black and Post-White Church, preached a message titled "Rethinking Evangelism Through the Suffering," making the case that the atrocities and painful conditions people experience today require a refocused approached to doing outreach.
He began by reading to the thousands in person and likely thousands more watching online, the description of the multi-ethnic and multi-lingual kingdom of God described in Revelation 7, specifically verses 9-17.
"After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands," reads Rev. 7:9.
The author of the New Testament's final book, identified as Jesus Christ's "servant John," goes on to relate in verse 13 being asked by an elder in this apocalyptic vision if he knows who "these in white robes" are and where they came from.
"These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb," the elder is recorded as saying in verse 14.
Though he touched briefly on the image of diversity presented in the popular eschatological image, Smith instead used this verse, which he said was presented "through the lens of those who have been suffering," to make a case for the upside-down way in which he has observed how some church leaders and ministers do evangelism.
"We live in a Bizarro world," said Smith, making a comic book reference. He insisted that the reason why there is a need for church plants, teaching, and for churches to be missional was because this is an upside-down world.
"We live in a world that is tore up from the floor up," he added.
Christians can no longer afford to walk around as if that isn't the case. With issues like human trafficking, modern-day slavery, disease, arrogance, racism, sexism, broken marriages, and a slew of other problems, "we have an urgency to rethink evangelism on this planet," said Smith.
That shift in thinking and method requires taking another look at how Jesus "demonstrated and declared what this world would be like if it was turned right-side up again."
"Jesus demonstrated this with the marginalized, the broken, the outcast, the left-for-dead, [and] the oppressed to show us the kingdom of God," said Smith, explaining that Jesus did not show preference for the privileged.
Smith suggested that, like the great multitude in white robes seen in Rev. 7:9, there were many people experiencing tribulation today in the form of slavery, persecution and martyrdom.
The minister went on to call out church planters who want to lead people to Christ and experience the kingdom of God without experiencing any suffering.
"That's not how Jesus came," said Smith, who confessed that he too, once had the wrong mindset. "Jesus, God, came to earth not in the package of a privileged human being."
The one professed as savior and lord of the world by billions of Christians came to earth in "the package of an oppressed Jewish exiled minority ... a carpenter's boy."
Smith went on to relate how in his ministry Jesus purposely reached out to or restored those who were on the margins of society — the crippled, the poor, women, and others. Giving examples of how Jesus empowered two women to preach (John 20 and John 4), Smith asked the audience:
"Do we believe that the suffering, poor, marginalized, [and] lowly can become missionaries, evangelists ... prophets and apostles in their own communities? [Or] are they just objects of our evangelism?"
Instead of actively working to engage, empower and resource the same kind of people who Jesus reached out to, "we're busy resourcing privileged people ... to rebuild ministries to reach the poor, hurting and lost," said Smith.
"I believe that we need to move from having compassion for the poor and [that] we need to empower them," he added. The minister added that it has been "the lowly" who were responsible for "many major movements, revivals, awakenings, [and] city transformation."
"Are the poor and suffering a part of your narrative?" he asked. Did his audience believe that these same people "can do the work that you do in their own communities" and special contexts?
Smith noted that there are plenty of people who have visions for the young boys and young girls they come across. But those plans might be to make them drug dealers and prostitutes, he suggested. "What does the church believe?" asked Smith.
The World Impact president closed out his remarks by singing a line from Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly," to reference the work Christ has done in him and will likely have to do in others before they adapt a similar mindset.
As seen in the numerous tweets shared by those either in person at the conference or watching via the live webcast, many walked away from Smith's "ReThinking Evangelism Through the Suffering" remarks feeling challenged. One viewer stated that Smith's message was "uncomfortable" but "necessary."
Smith was among more than 75 speakers presenting at the annual Exponential West Conference at Saddleback Church in Los Angeles, scheduled from Oct. 6-9. Working this year under the theme of "Seek + Save," the conference "will take a fresh look at evangelism — proclaiming the Good News — as we rethink and challenge some of our old paradigms and rediscover some of Jesus' old truths."