By Shannon Baker
RENO, Nev.— “My thesis is simple: Real Christianity is subversive. Biblical Christianity is rebellious. Real Christianity leads to some degree of social revolution, said Michael Crawford at the recent Acts 29 Network’s 2018 U.S. West Annual Conference at Living Stones Church in Reno, Nev.
In other words, “real Christianity should lead to a degree of social upheaval,” Crawford, state director of missions for the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware and pastor of Freedom Church in Baltimore, told over 675 participants who attended the April 30-May 2, 2018 church-planting conference.
Acknowledging he’s spent the past 10 years in Baltimore – there for the 2015 riots and unrest, Crawford said, “This is what’s bothering me. I planted a church. We’ve got hundreds of people. We’ve got all these people in the [church-planting] pipeline. We just got this new building on the west side, and we have another building.”
Crawford said he had all these “missional” plans, but the thing that “just haunts me when I lay my head down at night is that we are not making an impact on the things that the citizens of Baltimore care about most.”
Like homicide. Like “Heroin Capital of the World.” Like systemic and intrinsic poverty.
According to Baltimore’s Department of Planning, about 23.6 percent of Baltimore residents lived in poverty in 2014, including 32.6 percent of children between Pre-K and 12th Grade. That means nearly a quarter of Baltimore’s population is living below the poverty line.
About 16 percent of Baltimore City residents did not possess a High School Diploma or a GED in 2014. And only 29.7 percent of Baltimore’s residents has a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Moreover, about 1 in 4 Baltimore residents live in “Food Desert,” an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food.
“I mean, my kids go to the best public high school in Baltimore, and they can’t drink the water!” he exclaimed.
“I think to myself: ‘I’m planting a church. I’m making disciples. God’s blessing. But it doesn’t seem like we’re able to touch those intrinsic issues in the city.’ It begins to get me thinking, ‘What is this really all about?’”
He continued, “And what haunts me is the thought that not only am I in the city of Baltimore, but there are multiple people moving to Baltimore—multiple networks and denominations—and I might calculate, in my small estimation, millions—20, 30, 40 million dollars over the last 10 years—have been dumped into Baltimore to reach Baltimore.
“But Baltimore is still Baltimore.” He paused.
“Is it possible that we’re going to dump all these resources and all this stuff, and we’re all going to live, and we’re all going to die, and Baltimore’s still going to be Baltimore? Seattle’s still going to be Seattle? Every city that we occupy, all this missiology that we’re doing, it’s not going to really make a tangible difference?”
Recently turning 50, Crawford shared about his experience getting into the cage with a Bengal tiger. While the staff distracted the tiger with “chicken” to eat, Crawford and his wife touched the animal and took photos alongside it.
It occurred to Crawford that they’ve tried to domesticate the tiger, but the tiger is created to kill things. Then it occurred to him, “What is the church designed to do?”
“Just like lions and tigers and orcas, we put the [church] in tanks, and we try to domesticate them, and every now and then, they remind us, ‘I am a wild animal, fool!’”
He stressed, “So I wonder, brothers and sisters, if the church has been domesticated. I’ve wondered if the world has fed us 501c3s, allowed us to have Chick-fil-A, LifeWay Christian bookstores, Christian conferences. Allowed us all these privileges in order to feed us ‘chicken’ while we can be domesticated and held in cages and not really do what God has created us to do.”
He challenged, “We are a revolutionary institution. We were not born for the normal. We were born for the abnormal!”
Pointing to God’s nature, Crawford, reminding his listeners of John 3:16, determined “God’s love caused God to do something.”
This verse does not say God asked for permission, advice, or a planning committee or strategy or if there was money or finances. Instead, “this verse says God’s love drove Him to give us the greatest gift that was ever given to humanity,” Crawford said, sharing that God’s love – and His justice – had sociological implications.
Illustrating with the flood during Noah’s time, Crawford admitted, “Serious sociological implications flow out of God’s character.”
In other words, “when God feels something or God thinks something, it doesn’t just get put in a theological book. It inserts itself into society and things change!”
Concerning Israel’s reputation, Crawford referenced Ezra 4:19, “I issued an order and a search was made, and it was found that this city has a long history of revolt against kings and has been a place of rebellion and sedition” (ESV).
When the world looked at Israel, they said it was a rebellious nation, Crawford paraphrased, marking Israel’s “own code of holiness,” separateness and noncompliance.
“You can’t bring them in your nation and just have them do what you do,” he stressed.
Furthermore, pointing to new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), Crawford asked, “If a person who is dead in sin is made alive, does that or could that ever have a sociological impact or is it simply just a vertical thing? … If you inserted these types of people into culture, shouldn’t culture be different?”
And what about Jesus, who was known to “[stir] up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place” (Luke 23:5 ESV)?
“He caused a ruckus. He shook things up,” Crawford said, calling attention to when Jesus used a whip to chase out the moneychangers in the temple.
“That was … archaeological ‘viral-ness’… The ministry of Jesus was not just to heal somebody and to have it all self-contained. The ministry of Jesus greatly impacted the sociology of His day!”
Crawford also described the early church, whom Acts 19:23 says caused “no little disturbance.” He described Pentecost’s multiple languages, Peter and John’s miraculous rescue from jail, and the many times the apostles spoke out against the reigning authorities.
“We can be so concerned to be right, so calculated, that we’re just don’t tell the truth” like these men did, he said, elaborating on the authorities’ response. “They were furious and wanted to put them to death…. When’s the last time you heard of any church planter that somebody wanted to kill?”
He considered, “It’s just ironic to me that you have to leave America to get killed. I don’t know. Is it because America is just such a great Christian Nation? Or is it because we are a domesticated tiger? America’s feeding us chicken—Chick-fil-A.
“They’re feeding us all these things that are taming the tiger. They can go in and take out the teeth out of the Gospel. They can take the teeth out of the church. They can take the revolutionary nature out of the church, and we just sit by with our anesthetized mouths going, ‘Woo, this is wonderful! It’s awesome to be a Christian in America!”
Rather, he urged everyone to be like Peter, who once was racist toward the Gentiles, and the other disciples who were accused of turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6) and whose actions led to revival in the city.
Crawford, recalling how his native Los Angeles once was the “porn capital of the world,” said, “Imagine if Christianity was having such an impact, that the porn industry said, ‘Who are these Christians that are doing the damage? We are going to get them, and we’re going to kill them.”
He reflected, expressing concern that today’s Christians are a little bit too passive, “When has the world ever been afraid of the church?”
He asked, have we become “content with being conservative, reformed, missional” without sociological impact? Is America so conformed to the Gospel that it no longer needs “salt, light, and prophets” and more pointedly, why is it that we are planting thousands of churches with sometimes… very little sociological impact?
“Where is the social upheaval? Where are the people causing trouble?” he asked.
He characterized Paul as many of today’s American Christians: “All I want to happened was some disciples to be made and our church to be planted, and I just wanted to have a 501c3 and have my own building and have some conferences and some denominations, and I just want to be able to write some books and just do some ministry and then die and go to heaven.”
In closing, Crawford offered three questions: Is it possible that our Christianity is domesticated? Is it possible, that in all of our zeal, we’re trimming the edges off the Gospel? Is it possible the reason why we’re not seeing more of this is because we’re afraid to die?
“And maybe one of the reasons why we’re not seeing more of this is because we’re too busy fighting over stupid things,” he offered.
Crawford asked for younger pastors in their 20s to stand as he and others prayed they would be “the generation to actually go into the land and take” what has been given to them.
View video here.