Above: Adrian Plass, doing what he does best. Photo credit: Greenbelt Festival
Kindness is the most powerful ingredient in sharing your faith, says Christian author, speaker and humourist Adrian Plass. That, and vulnerability.
The UK-based writer, best known for his Sacred Diaries of Adrian Plass book series, has just completed two months of travelling and speaking in churches around Australia, encouraging people to be real with God and each other.
With his unique blend of comedy and ministry, he gave talks and led weekend retreats with titles like ‘Laughter and Tears’, ‘Where is the Love’, ‘Humour, Wholeness and Healing’, ‘Clearing Away the Rubbish’, and ‘View From a Bouncy Castle’.
Plass is famous for his facetious yet gentle way of poking fun at Christian life and church culture, and unveiling its sacred cows. So when Hope 103.2’s David Reay caught up with him mid-tour, he asked the writer how believers can share their faith, without resembling the embarrassing and grating characters of his books.
Vulnerability Is What Draws People To God
Ever the story-teller, Plass began with a tale—about what what not to do. He recalled the day he turned up at a church to preach, only to be accosted and ‘Bible-bashed’ outside the church door by a woman who thought he was a first-time visitor. The experience left him uptight.
“I find that blind, non-engaging type of outreach very, very difficult,” he said.
Instead of sticking to a worn-out gospel script, Plass says the best way to help people meet God, is to employ simple qualities like honesty and kindness.
“For my wife Bridget and I, over the last 30 years, two things seem to have either brought people back to a place in Christ or nudged them nearer to it,” he said. “One is vulnerability. Joining people in the ditch, one foot on the bank, one foot in the ditch, so they feel safe. And the other is the truth about God.”
He believes transparency is far more powerful than a veneer of ‘having it all together’.
“There is a sense in which people feel Christian speakers only have problems in the past, which is really ridiculous,” he said. “If you try to match your message, it’s just fake. So I think being who you are, telling the truth, and perhaps, above anything else, being kind [are the keys]. Be kind to people.”
Lessons Learnt During An Emotional Breakdown
Kindness is something Plass thought about a lot, when he was in the depths of an emotional breakdown during his 30s. He learnt that kindness is one of God’s standout characteristics.
“I had a stress illness, 30-odd years ago,” he explained. “It was horrible, of course. And I spent a lot of time in our upstairs sitting room, and led a very simple life. I said a couple of prayers from the Anglican prayer book, I listened to some music, I bought a bike, and I rode the bike around the village where we lived.
“And I think I learned what it was like to have God sitting on the front step or the back step, with you cycling in a circle in front of Him, no need for conversation, just a relearning of the fact that God is very nice and He likes me.”
Meet The God Who Is ‘Nice’
While Plass has been criticised at times for describing God as “nice”, it’s a word he believes can communicate far more about the Creator than loftier terms.
“Some people have said to me, ‘Don’t you think that’s a very weak word to use about God, that he’s nice?’ But actually in the church, we major on saying God is awesome and wonderful and great, and we don’t know what we’re talking about really.
“The God who became man, the Father who runs down the road to throw his arms around this oik of a boy [from the Prodigal Son parable], who’s just decided to come home because he’s hungry – that God is the one we are allowed to know.”
Trusting God In The Messiness of Life
The Anglican writer’s breakdown taught him that often there aren’t any neat answers to life’s mysteries.
“Oh, it is a mess,” he said, “and there are times when everything that happens to you looks random. And people are saying to you, ‘Well, God is here’, and ‘When you look back’, and all these other little soundbites, but I mean, our very close friend in London died last year, after a long chemotherapy. A great man, a wonderful asset to the kingdom and to the church. And we all prayed and he died, and other people live. And there is no way of understanding all that.
“But every day is a succession of little Gethsemane’s, where you say, ‘I would like this, but—fair enough, Your will be done’.”
Ministering To The Broken
Raw honesty is a quality that has opened the door for Plass and his wife to minister into many broken lives.
As part of the Scargill Movement, a community at Scargill House aligned with the ‘new monasticism’ movement, they help people who are dealing with life’s disappointments—and those who are “hanging onto faith by their fingernails”.
“At Scargill we pray with lots and lots of people,” he said, “and one of the great things about that environment is that it has become a safe place to say dangerous things—which is rare.
“People are often very disappointed with God, with the church, with themselves. And when you poke down into the very heart, the very centre of what’s going on in them, usually it’s the same question: ‘Does God love me?’
“You can’t take the answer to that out of your pocket and give it to them, but you can love them.
Friendship And Love The Secret Ingredients
If you want help those who are broken, the secret is not to try and solve their problems, but to walk alongside them in their journey, says Plass.
“A lot of people need long-term love and support when they’re in that situation,” he said. “If you’re going to minister to someone, if you’re going to help them, don’t look for an answer. Look for them. Look for who they are. Look for what’s happening in their hearts and try and help that. That’s what we try to do.”
He quotes Paul the Apostle’s challenge to ‘make real friends with the poor’ (from the Jerusalem Bible, Romans 12:16), and says long term friendship is far more effective than an alienating prescription of advice.
“It’s like inviting people to dinner and you say, ‘Right, time to eat.’ You sit down and there’s a recipe in each place, and they all say, ‘Well, where’s the food?’ And you say, ‘Well, these are excellent recipes. Take them home’.”
Plass concludes his quirky parable by saying, “People need the food, not the recipe.”
Proof That Kindness Works
By using the genuine-friendship approach in their ministry, Adrian and Bridget Plass have encouraged many—and, at times, witnessed unusual little miracles.
“Sometimes wonderful things happen,” he said. “We had a lady came in once and she said to Bridget and I, ‘I just want a friend. That’s all I want. I want a friend.’ So we prayed for a friend. It was very simple.
“She walked out the door and a man came up with a little folded piece of paper. On the paper it said, ‘Will you be my friend?’ And they married a year after that, which is absolutely wonderful. Those things do happen.
“But also we have people who are totally devastated. We had someone recently who was like that. Both Bridget and I felt totally lost. We had nothing to say to her. We were barren of anything.
“I found her afterwards and I said, ‘I just want to tell you that when we were praying, I was in despair for you and for me and for the universe’. And she said, ‘Oh, thank you for being in it with me and telling me that.’ So many people are trying to change things for her. She wants change, but sometimes you’ve just got to be with people in it.”
When Church Culture Harms More Than It Heals
Often the Plasses meet people who have been scarred by church cultures of legalism and guilt, or who have taken a walk through the wilds of extreme theology. It’s a topic he satirises in The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, when the main character yells at a paperclip in an attempt to move it across the desk by faith.
Despite the parody, it’s a topic he takes seriously, and he often encourages those who have been wounded, to listen more to the voice of God in their heart, than to man.
“One of the things people have to do is to trust their own passion sometimes,” he said. “I’ll give you an example. A lady knocked on our door not long ago. She said, ‘My son lives in Australia, and he’s gay. And he’s going to get married, and I want to go to his wedding. And the people in my church say I can’t go because I will be tacitly approving of the gay lifestyle.’
“I said to her, ‘If you don’t go, Jesus isn’t going. So you go.’ And she rang up her son and got his partner on the phone. He burst into tears and said, ‘It’s so wonderful that you’re going to come even though you disapprove of our relationship. It means so much to me.’
“That impulse in her to do the loving thing, that God has put in her, is very dependable.”