How to Save the Church: Leadership Lessons from St. Francis of Assisi

I am blogging from Atlanta, Georgia at the 2014 Catalyst Conference. I have the honor of joining the Catalyst Blogger Team and, I’m publishing live notes and key insights on the speaker sessions. Speaker lineups include, Andy Stanley, Tim Keller, Christine Caine, Matt Chandler, Charles Duhigg and many more. I hope these insights will help you empower you to rise to the top.

About the Speaker: Ian Cron is an author, speaker, Episcopal priest, psychotherapist, and retreat guide. In addition to writing, facilitating retreats, and speaking around the country, Ian is an adjunct priest at Christ Episcopal Church I Greenwich, Connecticut where he curates the Conversations in Courage and Faith and Series. He is also a student at Fordham University where he is completing his doctoral work in Christian spirituality. He is the author of Chasing Francis and Jesus, My Father, The CIA and Me.

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Someone gave me G.K. Chesterton’s book on St. Francis of Assisi. I read this book on a rock looking over a beautiful landscape during a crisis and it completely revolutionized what it means to be a Christian. I read it three times.

Time Magazine listed St. Francis of Assisi as the top ten list of the most important person in the last 2000 years yet most Protestants never heard of him. Historians of every stripe would agree that Francis rescued the Christian church in the medieval ages which was in the brink of utter collapse.

Here’s several things I’ve learned from the life of St. Francis of Assisi that I believe has relevance in our lives today.

  • Francis radically identified himself with the poor. He married lady poverty. Before his conversion Francis was likened as Paris Hilton of his time. He was rich and born in a wealthy family. He was the consummate playboy. After his conversion, he completely left all the consumerism and pleasures of the world. He embraced poverty as a way of life. He practiced the “arithmetic of Subtraction.” In other words, less really is more in the calculus of religion. In the contemporary age where the world is jaded from Christianity, the credibility gap in the American culture has become a chasm. We are known as judgmental, unkind, lacking compassion etc. This world we live in today is very much like the day Francis lived. The faith that does not speak out again the sickness of our culture is not faith at all.
  • He built his ministry with the whole idea of peace-making. This has become a distinct feature of his entire ministry. He knew there was difference between peace lover and peace maker. Francis led the first Trans-Atlantic peace treaty. We have to be the voices peace and making peace not just loving peace. He demilitarized the civilian population by saying Jesus wouldn’t do that. It makes me wonder why the church is so silent about gun violence in the back yard. Francis turned the whole culture around by making peace-making a value.
  • Francis articulated a theology of creation. Francis talked to birds. Francis understood if everything is connected and interdependent. For Francis, the world was brimming and teeming with God’s presence. Everything was a reflection of God’s image. What’s distressing to me is the current conversations of climate change when I look at the world today. The conversation about climate change is not political as much as it is theological.
  • The superiority of beauty over scholarship. Francis was not a scholar. In fact, he didn’t like books. He thought the study of theology got in the way of getting away of his spiritual life. He believed the best way to mediate others to know Christ was through beauty. He was a singer, not a scholar, a poet not a statistician. If you want to win people, you need their imagination. In the imagination is where faith happens. In the moments exposed through beauty, it arouses and awakens us a homesickness for God. Something rises in you when you see great piece of masterpiece. We need to re-enchant the world through beauty. We should experience as a portal way to the heart of God. All art ultimately is speaking in tongues. When human language collapses under the weight of spiritual truths it must default to beauty. I know of no better way to present the gospel through aesthetics.

Francis is a mystic and we have no mystics today. In the contemporary church, we are deeply in trouble because we don’t have mystics. A mystic is someone whose focus of their lives is acquiring the knowledge of God and become one with Him. We have great intellects and great thinkers but we don’t have any who has the sacramental imagination like the life of Francis today. We need awakeners not just teachers.