CHICAGO, IL (January 18, 2011) – Efrem Smith and several other Evangelical Covenant Church ministers sat together in the hotel lobby during a Midwinter Pastors Conference and swapped stories that might be used as sermon closers. Darrell Griffin, the pastor of Oakdale Covenant Church in Chicago, offered one to Smith.
That story became more than just a sermon illustration. It became the sermon that Smith, then pastor of Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, used to raise the roof during CHIC 2009. He has expanded on that sermon in his latest book, Jump: Into a Life of Further and Higher.
Griffin had told Smith about impalas – not the car Smith was familiar with, but an African antelope that can jump 13 feet high and 13 feet out from a standing position. Despite the animal’s extraordinary leaping ability, only a three-foot wall is needed to contain them at the zoo.
Zookeepers train the young impalas early on that it is impossible to jump over the wall. They use the example of adult impalas, which won’t jump over anything if they can’t see what is on the other side. By the time the young animals grow up, however, they already have been convinced not to make the attempt over the low barrier.
Smith, now serving as superintendent of the Pacific Southwest Conference, says that humans often suffer from that same kind of training. “I want people to know that they are God’s beloved – and to jump into a beloved life, a beloved church, and a beloved world,” he said during a recent interview.
Smith said he wrote the book for three audiences. The first part is especially targeted to people with little or no faith, but who picked up the book because they were intrigued by the title. The second part is intended for people who are Christians, but may be disenchanted with the church. The third is for lay people who don’t realize that God has a significant call on their lives.
A good portion of the book is autobiographical – Smith’s life offers insights into how Christians grow, and struggle at times, to develop the ability to jump. Telling some of the stories in print for the first time enabled Smith to reflect on how events have shaped him.
That journey includes his years as a student at Saint John’s University, a Christian college that was attended almost entirely by whites. He entered into a world where some students told him he is the first black person they have ever known.
He experienced racism in different forms at the school. Some of their actions were mean-spirited and some were done out of ignorance. “Those things were hurtful at the time,” Smith said. “They made me angry, hurt and resentful.”
Smith acknowledges in the book that he also was so focused on injustices being done to him that he failed to see the kindness extended by others.
During that time, however, Smith discovered that his self-identity was found in being God’s beloved, which enabled him to jump into the beloved life. Ultimately, he became a leader on campus and helped start well-received multicultural organizations and events.
“The book made me think a lot about my passion for reconciliation,” Smith said. “Those experiences prepared me to be a pastor of a multicultural church.”
Smith has written two other books that focus on multicultural ministry: The Hip-Hop Church: Connecting with the Movement Shaping Our Culture, and Raising Up Young Heroes: Developing a Revolutionary Youth Ministry.
Although Jump deals at length with multiculturalism, Smith said that topic is not the book’s primary concern. “I didn’t want to write about that issue, but I wanted to speak more broadly.”
Smith also wants people to jump into the world with their own gifts – everyone has them – and to value their own ministry. To that end, Jump includes two chapters from You are God’s Plan A: There is No Plan B, written by his friend, Dwight Robertson. One of the chapters includes the story of a rugged-looking roofer who saw his work as ministry. When a customer finally recognized the gift and prayed for him, the roofer sobbed.
“It’s a powerful story,” Smith said.
And a great closer.