Living in rural Tasmania for the last eight years has been a wonderful experience – character building, invigorating, inspirational, isolating and also communal. It is fascinating to be an insider in this rural culture that is so rich with generations of family life, and so diverse with a multitude of migrants and mainlanders. One aspect of rural life that has been quite pronounced is the desire for an egalitarian ethos in all that is said and done. To hold a position of influence in these communities is extremely difficult, being held to the highest account by a wide variety of people whom you live closely alongside.
One of my favourite Australian bands from my youth, The Simpletons, had put this observation of rural life in Lismore, into a song called ‘Tall Poppies’.
‘Please help me cut the tall poppies down… they’ve grown too high… let’s cut ‘em down and watch ’em die!’ – Cheyne Gelagin.
It was their most popular song, perhaps because it struck a chord with the Australian ethos and our lived experience, it is possible that this is derived from our past as a penal settlement. Aside from this cultural analysis of rural Australia, this is not meant to be a judgement on our rural neighbours – who are, in fact, wonderfully hospitable, generous and hard-working.
Instead, I have been examining this Tall Poppies syndrome in light of Scripture and wanted to set out some suggestions as to how Christians, both as members and leaders of their community, can be inclusive of all people and encourage one another to prosper in the life of the church and the local community.
Many local churches have a strong shared oral history among the congregation and their long list of leaders are painted in gold on an honour board and remembered by long-serving members. This signifies that endurance in the faith is demonstrated and honoured through long tenure, stability, commitment and endurance in a particular place, position or role. It has been noted by cultural commentators that rural churches (arguably the majority of churches in Tasmania due to our small population size) operate in a similar way to a ‘Country Club’. The longest-serving and most dedicated members are given positions of influence and newcomers are given ‘L’ plates for a considerable time or prevented from serving at all, unless they have a strong connection with the leadership through social circles, family or work relationships.
This experience is a stark contrast to serving in a church elsewhere, where all members, whether new or long-serving, feel an ownership to welcome and encourage all new people to serve in the capacity that God is calling them toward. Once, upon walking into a church service for the first time in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, my husband and I had arrived early and were the only ones sitting in the pews. The youth leader stood up the front and called out to us, ‘does anyone know how to play drums?’ I raised my hand and was inducted into the music team immediately upon first meeting; this church became our beloved spiritual home for the next three years and nourished our faith and desire to serve God both as leaders and members of our church. Such fond memories of being openly welcomed into a church family upon first meeting have remained with me the past 18 years, as I have since served in eight churches in three states, and attended dozens more as a visitor, with mixed experiences.
We are in an age where people live transitory lives moving from place to place to find work, affordable real estate, a new start, education, a place to raise a family. The church must seek to become a spiritual haven for newcomers and strangers, or as one Chaplain put it:
Jesus came for ‘the last, the lost and the least’. – Luke Campton
All people who claim Christ as their personal saviour are part of God’s plan and purpose to build up His church.
Inclusive church practices. From my positive experiences – there will usually be a conversation between the newcomers (as individuals, couples, or families) and the leadership, usually at the Minister’s home or a home visit is made, or for larger churches a welcoming session is held where each person is encouraged and the particular values and goals of that church are shared. This welcoming ritual is not just a tool for ensuring greater numbers attending a church; or for sussing out their theology and making an assessment of their suitability to become a serving member. It is not an appropriate time to assert the leaders’ authority or try to find out the state of their marriage, mental health, financial status, or employment prospects.
We must lovingly welcome others into the wider church family to love and serve God and one another.
Offer newcomers an opportunity to be known and loved by God and His people in your place. Validate and encourage that person’s journey of faith, their gifting, stage of life, opportunities and willingness to grow and learn in the Body of Christ.
Pray with them. Christians should pray with and for all members of their church community to shine the light of Christ in all aspects of their life. If Christians do not pray together regularly, the Body is not communicating with the ‘brain’ who holds us together.
Ask them what God is doing in their life. God is the author of our salvation and is also the director for all our lives. Avoid imposing pre-conceived ideas upon a person about how they should or should not serve based upon their ‘newness’, age, stage of life, or denominational background.
Church leaders spend a considerable amount of time inspiring passion in others to serve God in their community. Yet those who are passionate to serve can sometimes be viewed as over-zealous or disrespectful of church authority for seeking to do a work that was not authorised at the last Synod, Parish Council or elders meeting. Passion to serve God is like a fire that cannot be quenched, if you try to control or suppress someone’s desire to serve in a capacity, it will likely consume them – they will seek to serve elsewhere to follow God’s leading. Consider the ways that each person can serve based on mutual prayer, discussion, and openness to the many ways that God’s word can be proclaimed.
The people are not pegs, and the ministries are not ‘holes’. The Body of Christ is a living being that has many parts and must be joined in unity to the head, which is Christ.
Discipleship involves journeying with a person in prayer and searching the Scriptures so that we might model ourselves on the champions of the faith. Self-sacrifice in the church is giving up our own selfish desires to serve God and others and proclaim God’s word in our area of influence. Self-sacrifice is not about giving up a ‘calling’ or work because it does not ‘fit in’ with the plans or programs of the institution. The limiting nature of Tall Poppies syndrome chokes the opportunities for new ministries, the raising up of new leaders, missionaries, influencers, teachers, encouragers, evangelists.
Jesus himself was seen to be a Tall Poppy threatening the long-standing values and cultural practices of the Pharisees and paid the ultimate price for it, for our sake and for our salvation. We must keep our eyes open to the mercies of God in His provision of people, gifts, resources, and opportunities in our community – without choking out new ideas because we ourselves did not conceive them, or they were not considered a priority by the ‘board’. For surely, God is able to do much more than we can ask or imagine, and He graciously gives His people the desire and capability to serve Him in ways and means that we would not consider possible.
Tertullian famously said, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of church’. The martyrs of the early church gave their lives for the proclamation of God’s word, they were cut down in their life and ministry by those who would persecute and oppress Christians, because they did not obey the governing authorities. Let us not cut one another down, like a house divided against itself, but let’s water and nourish the seed of faith, growing a ripe harvest for God.
As we venture into another year of our lives, consider what direction God is calling you toward. We need to make time to reflect and pray each day to consider His word and His work around us, and ask for His grace, mercy and forgiveness to allow us to be open to His divine work within us and in our midst.
‘to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.’ – Jude 1:25