Love Your Provocateurs Again, Church.

Tash McGill Love your provocateurs again.

You talk to your young people (the way you used to talk to me).

I spent this last Easter weekend at a Baptist Eastercamp, with 5000 young people, leaders and volunteers. It was a bit of a returning for me. About 6 years ago, you would have found me behind the scenes and on stage, running the programme and writing all sorts of creative experiences for young people.

At writing school, they try and train you to make your point up front, then produce your evidence summarised with a convincing conclusion. They also tell you not to begin sentences with the word ‘but’.

But today, I need to give you the supporting evidence before I make my point, so you have the opportunity to understand why it matters. So you have the chance to know why I can say it, must say it and say it with conviction of honesty, love and hope.

6 years ago, we parted ways from each other, that Eastercamp and I. About 6 months after that, I moved away from my formal connection with the Baptist church. So going back to that place where I have poured sweat, blood and plenty of tears – well, it was a big deal. It was like returning home and returning to the scene of the crime all at once. They were tumultuous days then, they still echo now in the peaceful times.

Here are some things you might want to know:

  • I went back because the young people I work with now, in a different spiritual community really wanted to go, so their needs came first
  • I have plenty of dear friends who continue to serve and volunteer with that event and do an amazing job. I admire them and love them deeply.
  • I’m no longer part of the Baptist church, but I am connected deeply to dozens, even hundreds of youth workers & youth volunteers, young people grown up and young people still growing. I’m as invested in that community as I ever was. As I ever was.
  • The event was good. Reconciliation is a process of years and it’s ongoing.

But this is my open letter to the Baptist church in New Zealand. As one of your born and bred. You trained me, you were my home for many years. I fought you and you fought me, and now I’m happy not to fight about it. But I will fight for you.

Here’s what I love about you, Baptists.

Here’s what I love about the Baptist church in New Zealand, and why when people ask, I still describe my way of following Jesus as being bred in the Baptist tradition. Which, for me, means ‘freedom of conscience’, the ability and invitation for every believer to participate in governance, theological practice and missional engagement. The tradition I grew up in was full of pioneers, ground-breakers, boundary pushers, people who engaged at the edges of society and innovated.

Baptists, please learn to love your boundary pushers again. Don’t fool yourselves that ‘inclusive’ doesn’t also apply to a line of political correctness that easily draws us away from provocative truth. Those who push the boundaries are diving into new territories of what truth looks like in today’s emerging reality.

Learn to love your provocateurs again. Don’t settle for talking to young people about sexuality in a way that gives them all the responsibility and none of the tools. I was horrified when my amazing friends, who worked so hard on the programming, had to swap out a movie choice. Somehow, no one complained about showing The Hunger Games (where children are forced to slaughter each other in a dystopian future) but it was unacceptable to show Captain Phillips, a movie that highlights the plight of Somali pirates in a cycle of economic oppression and slavery.

I’m not arguing the merits of the film, I’m pointing out that you can’t embrace some justice issues (freedom from sex trafficking) and deny the reality of others; like gay marriage, refugee policies or economic reform. You can’t choose the sexy stuff and deny the messier truths. There’s no film rating on the real world.

Eastercamp is just a shopfront window. It’s an insight into who the Baptist church is and will continue to evolve too. Everything you’re doing is good, even great – but you need to keep following through. If you’re going to continue to encourage young people to become agents for justice and social change – please realize you’ll be part of the society they’ll end up changing. You better damn well ensure there’s room for them at the table.

You see, you can read Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’, but it won’t make you a change agent. Reading it so you can talk about it, doesn’t make it real. Please don’t settle for the soundbite of philosophy that sounds good but doesn’t mean anything without hard yards and uncomfortable moments. It’s not enough to talk about social justice issues alongside the Gospel. We have to somehow engage with what an expression of these things will look like in our own lives. It requires some provocation to get there because real transformation of people, culture, churches and mission will always be more than a slogan that sounds good and an easy-fix of donation money to a cause.

The Baptist church, nor any church community, cannot thrive on Facebook likes, fundraising campaigns and easily digestible, dualistic snacks of the Gospel alongside justice issues. For more on this train of thought, please read the 2010 commentary by Malcolm Gladwell for The New Yorker, ‘Small Change‘. He argues that social media requires less motivation of those who participate.

Prophets and commentators

Societies need the prophets and commentators who cry out from the edges. Please be careful that you don’t lose too many of us. The way we think, often pushing and arguing with you will not ever be comfortable – but if you lose us all, you’ll begin to realize something’s missing. It’s part of your identity – to wrestle, to provoke, to engage.

The first Baptist church I went to as a young person was started by a group of rebellious 20-somethings. Don’t lose what it means to our history, to embrace the diversity and spectrum of who we have always been. Fight against the gravitation towards middle ground. Treasure the diversity at each end of your theological spectrum. That’s what has powered your ability to be accessible to such a broad range of New Zealanders and to wrestle with complexity in your missionality and governance.

In the last 20 years, the NZ Baptist church has bred and housed some amazing theologians, community leaders, creatives and philosophers. What I noticed last weekend was how they were missing from the shopfront. I saw lots of people excelling in their work – but they used to have prophets and provocateurs around them and beside them. They were the ones I called on, wrestled with and relied upon. Where have they gone?

Well, I know where I am. I still have the phone numbers, blogs, email addresses of many of those provocateurs. So I know where some of them are. It’s not our lack of fortitude that sees us finding other homes and places of respite, nor a lack of desire to engage. It’s that you don’t love us in the same way you used to.

It’s ok, I know (I’m) we’re hard work. We step on toes and speak out all the time. But it’s our role – we provoke, in order to give new ways of being and thinking a way to emerge.

You talk to your young people (the way you used to talk to me) and inspire them to take a stand. To be bold, inspired, challenging. But be careful what you wish for, because if you want us: the outliers, the goalpost changers, the innovators and boundary pushers – the ones our Baptist history was written on – you’ve got to follow through with what you’re asking us to be. We won’t be satisfied with ‘inclusive’ or politically correct, or safe. We’ll want to shape and change you, as well as the rest of the world.

You’re calling a generation of kids to be something you don’t know how to love yet. I know you want to love us, you’ve got to love us; sometimes we’re more Baptist than you.


  • Tash, are you implying that permitting gay people to marry is a “Christian justice” issue? Just wondering what your views are, because I love your writing, but I am a bit confused about your theology.

    • tashmcgill says:

      Hi Darryl, thanks for commenting. In this article, I’m using how the Church responds to the issue of gay marriage as an example of something that the world sees as a justice issue, that we avoid. In terms of theology, I’m saying that it’s critical not to ignore some issues that are equally prevalent or important to young people just because they are harder to take a viewpoint on. Development of sound and practical theology for our communities is vital across all justice issues – whether we call those justice issues Christian or not.

  • Thanks for clarifying Tash. I have meditated on your earlier post about gay marriage, so please prepare yourself for a defense of the traditional Biblical view of marriage.

    Yes it is a justice issue regarding what justice God will give to those who continue to rebel against Him. Romans 2 says that God gives to them the judgement due to them in this life (a perverted mind which ‘calls what is good evil and what is evil becomes good’).

    From your post I notice that your stance on gay marriage is to permit homosexuals the liberty to do whatever they want. Sure, they can do whatever they want, but I would prefer to stand against their defiance of God’s good commands, rather than lay down and let them destroy themselves and the entire fabric of society.

    Now to your points:
    “1) Marriage of any kind, is not the domain of the Church alone. Cultures throughout history have formed marriage rituals for the formalization of societal arrangements by which to raise children and manage property.”
    Creating legal marriages is not the exclusive aspect of the church, but the church must not be excluded from being able to enable legal marriages, because for a Christian, marriage is about the union of Christ and the church – is never merely regarding sexual compatibility/preference or legalities or providing stability for children. These practical outcomes flow from the theological basis of unconditional love that Christ shows to His Bride, the Church.

    “2) Why should ministers of religion be charged with carrying out civil tasks?”
    Why is marriage merely a civil task? For a Christian, marriage is not just a legal contract, but a life-long spiritual commitment made before God. And if one breaks that covenant, it is a sin before God. Why shouldn’t a Christian minister be the one inaugurating that covenant, and performing the attached civil aspect that the state recognises legally.

    Secondly, why should any person be excluded from carrying out a civil task simply because they hold a Christian belief?! All people hold a religious belief, and the idea that there is a sacred/secular divide is false.
    If you were correct, then no Christian should perform the civil task of being a politician either.

    “3) Can it be possible for the Church to decline to marry those with opposing beliefs around human sexuality, but not refuse those who decline any spiritual belief at all?”
    The purpose of marriage is a covenant of commitment, not merely a temporary contract that can be ripped up at any time. Many Christian ministers decline to marry people who they believe do not consider it a serious commitment, are doing it for illegal reasons (like “spouse visas”), or one is a Christian and one is not.
    A Christian minister should have the continued right to refuse to marry those they judge by their conscience (before God), are not genuinely looking to enter a compatible lifelong marriage. A minister may marry a non-Christian couple because they are actually spiritually compatible, but would, unsurprisingly, rejecting a homosexual couple because they are incompatible in every way possible and are just not aware of it in their own perversion.

    A Christian minister would also decline to marry someone on the basis that the children of such a union would suffer harm. This is certainly the case in homosexual marriages.

    In every case that a Christian minister freely refuses to marry a (hetero) couple, they COULD still be married in a civil ceremony somewhere else. They still have their freedoms.

    “4) Entering into the state of Marriage (legal) does not presume entry into any spiritual state of marriage, a holy union or otherwise. In it’s essence, the marriage licenses we sign are contracts, made with promises but they are not promises of spiritual intent and union.”

    For a Christian, it IS a holy union. And Christian ministers should be able to proclaim and make it as such, as official celebrants of Christian marriages.

    Just because non-Christians disagree doesn’t make the Christian belief incorrect. Just because non-Christians say Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, does not make Christianity wrong.

  • Deb Harris says:

    Hi Tash, I’ve been reading through your blog (albeit in a rather fragmented fashion, being pulled from one delicious suggested article to the other in no particular order!) and really enjoy the honest and intelligent way you write. Your posts are always juicy and thought provoking, often require a couple of re-reads of certain points to really chew on (which i love) and are just a refreshing pleasure to read. I feel that this one really resonated with me. It makes perfect sense how this can happen in a church setting, and it does, a lot! (baptist background myself) but also everywhere! Boundary pushers, creative thinkers, often pose a ‘threat’ to those who can’t visualize things the way they can, they look out and see darkness where others see a clear vision and who wants to step out in to darkness! Learning to listen to and occasionally be led by those who can see further than us, or at least discuss the possible direction they want to take us is vital! Just as nobody wants to step out in to darkness, I feel that visionaries get tired of always being the one pulling them by the hand and trying to convince them to move, so eventually will move on to other environment where people are more ready to walk with them! Just my thoughts 🙂 Deb

    • Tash McGill says:

      Hi Deb! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and share your thoughts.. I find it really encouraging. And I agree about the visionary leader often being exhausted by the ‘drag’.. I believe visionaries are often best placed in the centre of a community, rather than the front.. it’s much easier to lead through momentum and shared energy than a single driving force!

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