We’re continuing in our series Learning From Leaders.
Tom has always been good with language, but more importantly he’s been faithful to Jesus in ways that make others see Jesus more clearly and, in the process, make religious people uncomfortable (both are fantastic things, by the way). I’ve appreciated learning and processing life and faith issues with Tom because of his heart and his important perspective, which is not rooted in North America. He helps remind me that Jesus the man was not an American and therefore pushes me to see Jesus for who he really is, in his proper context.
Tom, tell us a little bit about yourself and your family.
I am an amateur Jesus follower and a lifelong reader. I am also a heart attack survivor. Our family lives in Johannesburg South Africa. I am married to Lollie and we will celebrate 15 years together in February 2013. Tayla is our daughter and Liam is our son. They apprentice us into a different kind of life and we love it, mostly.
When you and I met around 2002, you were pastoring a community of believers (and skeptics) called Pierced Chapel in Colorado Springs. Tell us how you are different today than when we met a decade ago.
Ten years is a long time. I think I have come to know my own limitations in a huge way. I am broken, and less together. I am also bald and have many more body aches. I think I am less angry and more hopeful – but in a smaller mustard seed way.
I’ve always appreciated your perspective (and healthy critique) of contemporary culture – especially American culture – as a keen ‘outsider.’ As a South African who lived in the United States for several years, what did you notice about Americans – good and bad, big and small?
America is our second home and we have been graced with amazing relationships with exceptional people. The body of Jesus is truly diverse and wide. Our almost three years in the US was a time of experiencing deep hospitality. Therefore, it is hard to generalise. Like my own country, South Africa, I feel one of the hardest challenges facing American Christian culture is to unwrap Jesus from a nationalised Christendom package. Domesticating Jesus comes with contemporary culture (everywhere). On a lighter note, Americans have good and big food (Chipotle burritos) and know how to take stories and package it into a curriculum and formula (going big).
For those who know you, they would say you are obsessed with Jesus and following him faithfully. In many ways, it feels radical, but really you are just trying to be faithful to what Jesus said. Tell us a little bit about your journey in following Jesus.
It took me a long time to realise that Christianity is in essence about a relationship with Jesus, with having the faith of Jesus not just faith in Jesus. In 2003 as a group of friends we started reading through the Gospels in a systemised and thorough way. For four years we read the words of Jesus and asked what it means for us to follow. It was/is liberating.
Let me give you an example.
Jesus hung out with poor people. Real poor people not just the spiritualised versions of the poor. When I looked at this obvious fact in the life of Jesus I asked the question, “do I hang out with poor people?” The answer was no in 2003 and then I accepted Jesus’ invitation towards a new journey. It has been liberating. Another example, Jesus speaks some hard words towards the rich. One of my hermeneutical manoeuvres used to be to read the word rich as synonymous with “American” or “Bill Gates”. But I am rich. So how do I accept Jesus’ challenging and liberating words towards Tom, the rich male from South Africa? This is not a guilt trip for me it is a liberating walk. To use Nelson Mandela’s biography title, “A long walk to freedom”. Jesus is amazing. In grace I follow Jesus as my Savior, Teacher, Lord and Friend.
You are a big fan of Dallas Willard and Richard Foster – and of Renovare. I know the past few years you’ve been involved with helping Renovare and got back from a trip to Brazil. Tell us a little bit about your time and what you were doing?
Renovaré has been a lifeline for my formational journey. I ‘discovered’ them as a young sixteen year old when I bought the devotional classics at a book sale. Through that book I was introduced to the different disciplines and also the different streams within Christianity. Currently I am the leader of the South African Renovaré expression. Renovaré endeavours to “bring the church to the church”. It is a funky way to say that the church of Jesus is incredibly diverse and wide and that we can learn a lot when we brake out of homogeneous circles. Through Renovaré I became friends with the leader of the Brazilian Renovaré expression, Eduardo Pedreira. Together with him I have been part of conversations among pastors who realise that discipleship is at the core of the church’s task. I love Brazil because it has so many similarities with South Africa. I have been in Brazil twice to teach on the role of spiritual formation in churches and in a leader’s life.
What are some of the misconceptions about spiritual formation – and what is a proper approach to them?
I think a big one is that spiritual formation only deals with “spiritual stuff”. This feeds into the deadly dualism of spiritual and sacred. Which in turn brings about a lot of disembodied versions of Christianity. I call them “Jesus-deep-in-my-heart-syndrom”.
It goes something like this.
I buy into a version of formation where I do nothing with my body but Jesus knows I do it deep in my heart. So I sing a song during the church service wherein I state that I lift up my hands. I don’t lift my hands up but Jesus knows I do it “deep in my heart”. Jesus says that we should seek him in the marginalised (Matthew 25). I don’t do it but Jesus knows I hang out with poor people deep-in-my-heart … all the time.
Another misconception is that I earn God’s favour when I engage in spiritual formation. In this version I think, “If I engage with some kind of discipline then God loves me”. But if I don’t then I am bad or unloved. The fact is that formation cannot make God love you more. You are already loved to the max. Formation opens the doors and windows of your life so that the God who already loves you can be with you.
A last misconception (there are more) is that spiritual formation is an individualised thing and otherworldly. I think formation is a community adventure and if it doesn’t make the world a better place then it is a waste of time and energy.
Tom, you helped me immensely in my years right out of college to see the areas where the American Church has been lacking. What are some of those major areas and what posture should Jesus followers take in the midst of it all?
I think one area that needs re-focus is a relational engagement with the person of Jesus; the invitation is towards keeping the focus on Jesus. Back to basics. Read the gospels (not just the latest book about Jesus). Talk to Jesus, not just about Jesus.
Another area is relationships. Church is people, not buildings and not programs. A posture of people as holy ground is essential. CS Lewis’ essay “the weight of glory” is my favourite exploration about this. Become fascinated by people, their names and their stories – people’s lives equal holy ground; we need mathematics of love. We need to detox from church as program and confess our idolatry of relationless churches.
A last refocusing that is needed is away from superiority. Americans are not superior. A few weeks ago I was in the gym and listened to a sermon. It was an American pastor teaching and in his teaching he made the statement, “won’t it be amazing if Americans can adopt all the African orphans”. I know he didn’t mean it maliciously but it comes across as if America is the superior giver and savior and Africa is the perpetual inferior recipient. I think the invitation is the one Jesus narrated in the Good Samaritan. The challenge in that parable is that the superior one (Israelite) is placed in the receiving position (helped by a Samaritan). Those who are thought of as superior (male and white for instance) are invited into a different journey.
Rhythm is a big word for you and a central part of how you enter into the kingdom life. Talk about some of the practical rhythms you are engaged in on a regular basis.
As a community we developed a “rule of life” as our membership process. When we developed the rule it was within the confines of a rich, white and suburban congregation. During the last three years we have explored what formation means in a diversified community spanning boundaries of race, class and geography. Out of this the “rhythm of life” was born. It took the “Rule of Life’s” principles and added some extra rhythms. The way it works is that every rhythm represents a specific invitation of Jesus (like plugging in, going on a downward journey, including others, being a gift to the world etc.) Each rhythm has questions linked to it, as well as some exercises and teachings. Within community we ask each other the questions and practice the exercises (we call it “training naked”). It has been a fantastic tool in helping me to follow Jesus. The exciting thing for us is that the rhythm is now used by a bunch of communities in ten countries – all these communities is now part of a movement wherin we share our different learnings. We have also started a new ministry called “Rhythms” that specifically help churches to engage spiritual formation that could make the world a better place.
The past several years you have been trying to understand the apartheid issue in South Africa and what role the Church should take in it. What are you learning and what are you passionate about in this discussion?
I think one the saddest aspects of South Africa’s history is that we had this dehumanizing system called Apartheid and worse that it was legitimized using a specific form of the gospel. Furthermore, it was built on a hyper-individualised spirituality. I am learning how deep this distorted gospel and misguided formation runs in the South African church (and in other places, like my own heart). I am also learning what it means to become aware of my white identity within South Africa and the rest of the world. I have a lot to unlearn, confess and relearn. It is a hard but liberating journey.
If you had the attention of every American Christian for 3 minutes, what would you want to tell them?
Jesus invites you into an amazing adventure. Get to know Him better. Read the Gospels often, with diverse people in different places. Follow within the unique contours of your life. Risk, experiment and be brutally honest. Love people. You are loved and God delights in you … and he loves the world.
Who are you becoming?
Is there anything else you would want people to know about you and your life?
I have been blogging since 2002 and people can connect with me at www.soulgardeners.com or on twitter at @soulgardeners.