I discovered Jen Hatmaker in the Christian section of Barnes & Noble, when the singular symbol 7 – my favorite number – caught my attention. Having never heard of the book before, I was immediately intrigued when I realized it was a story about how a woman and her family attempted to simplify their life and reduce their consumerism by limiting themselves to seven items each month (food, clothes, places to shop, etc.). This was an area of my life with Rich that we’ve been addressing off and on over the past few years. We’ve sold albums, books, TVs, CD, DVDs and anything we didn’t mind parting with for a few bucks, partly to try and pay off debt so we can eventually be “cash-only” people and partly so we would just have less stuff weighing us down, and time, space and money to focus on more important things.
The book, 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, had such a strong impact on me; I’ve already pawned it off on a friend and have told several others about the project. I was especially inspired by Jen’s ability to wear seven pieces of clothing over the course of a month. After spending way too much on clothes last year, I decided this year to place a moratorium on buying any new clothes unless it’s absolutely necessary (such as replacing worn out shoes).
Next up on my reading list was one of her previous books, Interrupted: An Adventure in Relearning the Essentials of Faith, about how she and her husband started a missional outreach church in Austin, TX.
However, it’s impossible to read Interrupted and fully experience its intended impact without also reading Barefoot Church: Serving the Least in a Consumer Culture, written by Jen’s husband and the pastor of Austin New Church (ANC), Brandon Hatmaker. Although Brandon is the pastor, Jen is an influential church leader in her own right, having published several successful bible studies aimed at women.
The books work as two independent accounts of a time period in Brandon and Jen’s lives during which they planted a new church in Texas, yet the books seem to interweave with mutual points of interest. Brandon wrote some sections in Interrupted to bring his perspective to Jen’s story, but Barefoot Church is all Brandon.
Both books focus on what “church” should look like in today’s day and age, based on the model as established by Jesus himself. They also both focus on how “serving the least of these” is essential to following Jesus Christ and being the Church. However, the books are separate in tone and purpose, specifically when it comes to the authors’ unique experiences. Particular attention should be paid to this section of the ANC vision statement:
We see a church that cares passionately for the oppressed, the abandoned, the helpless, and those in spiritual, relational, emotional, and physical need. We believe it is the church’s responsibility to lead this movement both in our community and throughout the world.
One common event they each discuss is when they both felt called (during the same church service) to give up their most prized possession, very expensive cowboy boots, to help the homeless. It was in this moment that Jen in particular felt the call from God to pursue something deeper and more meaningful. Brandon was also affected by this service, and felt the initial call towards a “Barefoot Church,” but it was Jen’s heart that had been opened up months earlier by the Holy Spirit, which pushed the couple towards agreeing that this was a call they should answer.
In Interrupted, Jen explores how she was personally affected by this new mission God was calling them to. She details the hard facts about poverty and consumerism around the globe, and how the local church has a responsibility in addressing those inequities. (The one that hit home for me personally, as Rich and I consider adoption, is that over 143 million children in the world have been orphaned or abandoned.) Jen and Brandon have since adopted two children from Ethiopia, an experience that Jen discusses in 7.
Barefoot Church focuses more on the practitioner side, particularly for pastors and church leaders. Brandon provides specific strategies for how to plant or reinvent already established churches in the vein of ANC, where there is an outward, relational focus. Sometimes, however, strategy takes a backseat and the role of the church just sort of falls into place. During Hurricane Ike in 2008, ANC was asked to take in a Spanish-speaking family from Houston, and the family turned out to have 82 members. Brandon explains how people from ANC and all throughout the community pitched in to fill a real need, buying sleeping bags, planning for food and events for the children. Subsequently, the next Sunday ANC had an amazing worship service with everyone involved.
Over the past few months, while slowly devouring the Hatmakers’ spirit-filled wisdom, I’ve been trying to figure out what next steps Rich and I should take in finding a new church home. Through my church hopping experiences and even my experiences in settling down at several churches that I’ve since left, I’ve become slightly uncertain that I will find the type of church that I feel God wants me to serve in. But I find a bright glimmer of hope in the Hatmakers’ story. Jen states, “If people around me aren’t moved by my Christ or my church, then I must be doing a miserable job of representing them both.” Jen and Brandon are both strong believers in the responsibility of Christians to make the Church what God originally intended it to be so that others will see the light of Christ through them by “…creating a place to belong before people are expected to behave or even believe.”
Jen hits the nail on the head when she speaks of the modern church leaders who, especially over the past three decades, have worked diligently at teaching what’s right and wrong, but have failed to address the fact that people will not choose to follow and obey Jesus until they see His light and love in others. If Christians continue to focus on sin and behavior (right vs. wrong), and maintaining the lie of a perfect, sinless Christian sub-culture, they will continue to push people away from Jesus. No one wants to be told they are wrong. They want to be told they are loved, and this is what Jesus has called us to do. Jen describes this major dilemma in the church perfectly:
When believers sequester from culture, it’s like recruiting a group of traveling salesmen and discovering all they do is stay together at the office. Sure, they enjoy each other’s company and share strong feelings for the product, but they’re doing nothing to increase the fan base or generate new business. They’ve missed the whole point of their role.
Brandon offers the following appeal to the Church, “I’m not convinced we even know what it means to love our neighbor. I’m not convinced we care. I’m not convinced because if we did, it would change the way we live.” He sees Isaiah 1:17 as the hope of the church, where God calls on His people to serve others:
“Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
Plead the case of the widow.”
Both Jen and Brandon speak to the importance of creating a relationally focused congregation by reaching out to the community. ANC is centered on community groups that not only learn together, but also, and more often, serve together. Service is such a huge part of ANC’s purpose that every fifth Sunday the congregation does a service project instead of meeting for Sunday service. Brandon explains:
“…filling seats one day a week is not what the Kingdom is all about. We do Jesus an injustice by reducing His life and ministry to such a sad story as church attendance and membership roles. The measure of the church’s influence is found in society — on the streets, not in the pews.”
Interrupted and Barefoot Church provide strong examples to both “regular” Christians and church leaders looking to reimagine how Church is done: to reach and serve people through unconditional love. It all comes down to building relationships for the sake of building relationships, without ulterior motives.
In one week, I will be attending the Justice Conference in Philadelphia, where a diverse group of Christians will be discussing how to live out a life of biblical justice. I’m excited to build on the inspiration I’ve gained from both Interrupted and Barefoot Church, and listen for the Holy Spirit to lead me towards my next step in how to truly love and serve others. The key for me is to establish action steps towards a tangible goal.
There’s so much more I could say about these books, but it comes down to this: If you are looking for inspiration and strategies on how to put your first foot forward, get out in your community, and love others unconditionally in the name of Jesus Christ, I would highly recommend both these books.