I have a confession to make. When I heard that Francis Chan was coming to Sydney, I got a little bit excited. And by a little bit, I mean a lot.
I first stumbled across Francis Chan in about 2011 when I was running Immigration Detention Centres. The job had taken me all over Australia and the world – from Christmas Island to Weipa (Cape York) to Derby (WA) to the Detention Centre on Nauru.
I was thirsty for meaty, stimulating preaching that might help me navigate some of the demands of my fairly hectic job and I found Chan’s sermons on YouTube. See, at the time, working as a Christian in such a politically sensitive area was isolating. I couldn’t easily talk to those at the local church about the challenges in my workplace. There also weren’t that many Christians in the Immigration Department and none of my Christian friends back home really understood what I was doing.
I was also confronting some very challenging incidents in my day-to-day work life – from riots to self-harm to lip sewing to boat crashes – not to mention harrowing stories of persecution that the asylum seekers themselves told.
By 2011, the asylum seeker policy of the then Labor government was changing fast. Having won government in 2007 promising to be more welcoming and “humane” to asylum seekers, the government was facing a massive increase in the number of boats arriving. In response, it moved towards a policy of “deterrence” – making conditions for those people worse than if they’d never come to Australia.
In practice, that meant constructing an environment of hopelessness. We would tell asylum seekers that they would probably be in detention for 5 years, possibly longer. We would deny access to information and legal support and replace that information with advice on how they could return to the very place they were fleeing. The result was that asylum seekers – men, women and children, most of whom were genuine asylum seekers, many of them Christian and all of them broken and vulnerable – would simply run out of hope.
I found the teaching of Francis Chan to be both a breath of fresh air and a massive challenge. His radical approach to the invitation of Jesus to devote ourselves to him helped me think through the importance of submitting everything – including my work – to him. That meant asking how my job aligned with Jesus’ call (in Luke 9:23ff) to take up my cross and lead a radical life following him. I was making a good living in the public service, but was I selling my soul? I found passages like Matthew 25:31-40 impossible to reconcile with my job – what will Jesus say to me on judgement day when he looks at how I was treating the least among us?
In early 2013, while I was the director of the Nauru Detention Centre, I got my hands on Chan’s best-selling book, Crazy Love. In it, he challenges his readers to ask the question “is this what I want to be doing when Jesus comes back?”
My answer was a resounding “NO!” The last thing I wanted to be doing when Jesus returned was holding the world’s most vulnerable people in detention and strategically and deliberately removing hope from them.
My resignation from the Immigration Department took effect in April 2013.
Having had such a radical impact on my thinking – both through his book and his online sermons – I knew that meeting Francis Chan in person would be a big deal.
During his time in Sydney, I heard Chan speak four or five times at various events. I also spent a couple of hours listening to him answer the questions of a group of 15 or 20 young leaders.
As it turns out, I was wrong about him being a big deal. The Francis Chan you watch or read is the same Francis Chan you meet in real life. He is just as devoted to scripture, just as passionate about discipleship, just as humbled by the love of God and just as enthusiastic about mission as he seems to be online.
As he spoke, he kept pointing back to God’s outrageous love for us and how it leaves us with no option but to respond radically to him. If we reject him, it’s a radical (and dangerous) response to the all-powerful God of the universe. If we choose to follow him, our lives will be counter-cultural lives of devotion to a good God. Either way, life will never be “normal” again.
Even though my story makes it sound like I’ve made some radical decisions, the decision to resign from a job that compromised my faith is nothing on the decision to follow Jesus authentically. Francis Chan’s ability to focus people on the person of Jesus is a far greater challenge.