Picture the scene: It’s Sunday morning in an average church, and the meeting’s host says: "And now, let’s have a warm welcome for Pastor John."
A man in his late 30s steps forward. He has a long, unkempt beard; no hipster beard oil or trimmer has been near this face. His hair hangs long and shaggy around his shoulders and his face is pock-marked with deep acne scars. He’s wearing ripped jeans (with haphazard tears, not the designer-style ones) that look like they’ve been wiped down with greasy motorbike hands; his boots are half unlaced and badly scuffed.
Then he starts to speak. John has a very strong cockney accent, dropping his Ts and sounding like he’s definitely not the type to have been to university. His hands are overly large and look like he hasn’t washed them properly before the service, the dark stains of mud and oil still encrusted in his fingernails. He keeps sniffing intermittently and talks in a gruff voice, his eyes mostly averting people’s gaze in the congregation, as he’s not great with social skills. When you saw him in the welcome area earlier, not only could you smell diesel and oil on him, but you’re pretty certain he reeked of dog hair and stale beer.
You’re probably thinking: “Well I don’t think I’ve ever come across a preacher like that before”, and you’d be right. And yet, this description has parallels with the image we see in the Gospel of Mark, when one chosen by God to announce the imminent coming of Jesus the Messiah is not a slick, perfect-looking and sounding gentleman, who’s respected in his community. Rather, this John the Baptist character is someone who in modern times we’d likely describe as ‘a bit of a weirdo’.
In this image alone, where John is described as dressed in camel hair and living off locusts (Mark 1:6), we start to see that God loves diversity. He could have sent a popular, well-presented character to preach of Christ’s coming; instead God sent scrappy-looking, brash John.
A different set of criteria
We often think that God should use leaders and prophets who fit into our perception of ‘suitable’ or ‘gifted’ or ‘respectable’.
When we consider leadership roles, we often wonder whether an individual ticks all the right boxes; has everything together in terms of societal norms. We seem to take our role models from the world of business or management, where the corporate image of smart, well-spoken and presentable is imperative for success.
This is certainly the image I had growing up, of those at the front leading things in various types of churches, especially when church services were an occasion when people mostly wore their ‘Sunday best’ and seemed to link this to their desired level of holiness.
Yet, through scripture, we see that God likes to use unlikely types. Even Christ, who came to earth in human form, had no special or remarkable features. Isaiah says that: “There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him" (Isaiah 53:2, NLT). Christ was no different to the average man of his time; he wasn’t super good looking or charismatic. Nobody would have admired him from afar; none would have rushed to model their image on his style or appearance. However, it would seem that, sadly, many today are rushing to model their style on successful preachers and worship leaders.
If John the Baptist had applied to be a church minister, he would have been rejected by the average panel of church leaders
In our churches and congregations today, apart from some trendy (yet still invariably middle-class) youth leaders, we still see a great deal of conformity, where certain standards of suitability in dress or class are adhered to. We gravitate toward the well-presented and well-spoken ones.
Often our leaders seem to reflect conformity of culture in terms of acceptability and suitability. We need to remember that scripture that says: “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). When leaders are being sought out, selected or recruited, are we looking into issues of the heart – a totally different focus to the qualities sought after in the corporate world? I’m pretty certain that if John the Baptist had applied to be a church minister, he would have been rejected by the average panel of church leaders.
Diversity reflects God
If being around people who are different to us makes us uncomfortable, we need to think again. God’s inherent design for the Church is always for diversity. The calling of eclectic and diverse characters, which is woven through scripture from Genesis to Revelation, is a reflection of the very nature of God. We cannot box God into one particular style or culture or appearance.
If being around people who are different to us makes us uncomfortable, we need to think again
When churches limit their leadership to one narrow style in some ways we’re limiting our representation of God to people (even when it happens inadvertently, and I’m also aware that in some places it’s hard to recruit). In God’s business plan, things work differently to the world’s.
The paradox, in terms of leadership styles, is that – just as "the first shall be last" and "whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant" (Matthew 20:16,26) – so also, the person who seems the slickest and the best is not necessarily the one that God wants. It’s all about the heart and being willing to follow God’s call and obey what he wants.
That’s not to say that the smart, polished and beautiful need not apply. All are welcome, and all have potential to qualify. We need to see beyond first impressions and look increasingly more towards the heart; and that takes a bit of time to discover. We all make rash judgements based on the outward, but this means we run the risk of making too many assumptions about a person based on initial and external values.
When we meet the multitude of godly heroes of the faith, as listed in Hebrews 11, do we really expect them to all look alike – stereotypical leaders? If the list of godly heroes in the Bible represents diverse types, why should we expect any different for today’s leaders in church settings?
Annie Carter is a writer and educator from Peterborough and the author of The Book Beyond Time, a children’s epic fantasy novel.