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Who is the most incredible Christian ever?

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Detail of restored "Cycle of Saint Francis of Assisi" by Italian Renaissance artist Benozzo Gozzoli, Montefalco, Italy (AP)

Who, in your estimation wins the all-time, “most incredible Christian in history” prize?

Call me crazy, but I vote for the guy who holds birdbaths up in people’s gardens—St Francis of Assisi.  

I knew zero about St Francis until I went through a spiritual crisis a few years ago. I was burnt out on ministry, disillusioned with church, fed up with evangelical subculture, and tired of not being able to voice my spiritual doubts and questions without being labeled a ‘backslider.’

At the height of my faith meltdown a friend invited me to visit him at his home in Bermuda to pray about whether to remain in ministry or not. While packing I saw an unread copy of G.K. Chesterton’s St Francis of Assisi on my bookshelf, and without thinking I threw it in my bag.

Francis began a movement that restored people’s love for the person and message of Jesus.

Over the course of the next week, I devoured it three times. 

It was a game changer. 

St. Francis helped me realize how narrow my vision of Christianity had been. The more I read about him the more I thought, “If this is what being a Christian in ministry looks like, count me in.” 

More importantly, his life gave me a vision for how we might reverse our culture’s increasing disdain for Christianity, and inspired me to write the book "Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale" to share that vision with others.

So who was this gadfly saint Time magazine ranked 9th on the list of the most important people of the last millennia, whom Jack Kerouac dubbed the patron saint of the Beat Generation, and historian Sir Kenneth Clark called “Europe’s greatest religious genius?” What made him so extraordinary?

He rescued the Church from collapsing. That’s not an opinion. It’s a historically recognized fact.  

Scandals wracked the church in the 13th Century. Sexual misbehavior and shamefully lavish lifestyles among clergy were commonplace. 

Christian leaders made the name of Jesus into a brand that helped move lucrative products (e.g. indulgences, relics, etc.), corrupt involvement in power politics, and encouraging people to kill Muslims to secure their salvation, led people to distrust the church, and by association, the gospel itself.  

In response, Francis began a movement that restored people’s love for the person and message of Jesus, gave people reason to trust the church again, and brought a revival to Europe, the effects of which lasted more than 500 years.

How’d he do it? By more nearly mirroring the life of Jesus than anyone since New Testament days.

What would Francis tell us to do if we wanted to overcome the jaded impression our culture has of Christianity and the church? Here are five things:

1. Extravagant Love for the Poor

Francis and his followers were renowned for radically identifying with the plight of the poor. Their willingness to step into their world silenced critics of the church and the gospel.

When it comes to materialistic lifestyles, Christians and non-Christians are hard to tell apart these days. Why would anyone believe “Jesus is enough” when they see us “mall trawling” like everyone else; hoping some new purchase will fill our spiritual dis-ease?

If we want the contemporary church to flourish, Francis would tell us what he told his fellow friars, “It is faster to get to heaven from a hut than a palace.”  

2. Peacemaking

Francis recovered the early church’s commitment to non-violence.

He traveled to Egypt hoping to forge a truce between Christian Crusaders and Muslims. Francis made the refusal to bear arms a condition of membership in his Order, a move that dramatically reduced domestic crime in the Europe of his day.

Do we want to restore the credibility of the gospel in a culture that ‘s increasingly cynical toward our message? If so, Francis would tell us to turn our attention back to the early churches ministry of reconciliation, and make peacemaking at home and abroad a priority.

3. Love for Creation

Francis knew from scripture that all of creation, not just human beings, was waiting, groaning in expectation for the restoration of all things. This is why we hear one wild story after another about his beautiful, personal interactions with animals, how he preached birds, and befriended wolves. Whether these stories are factual or not is immaterial, they reveal an amazing theology of creation.

How might adopting Francis’ understanding of our relationship to the natural world reduce people’s impression that we are apathetic toward climate change, which is arguably the greatest crisis we face at the moment?

4. Contemplative Spirituality

Okay, here’s where I get in trouble.

One of the contemporary church’s problems is its rejection of Christianity’s contemplative heritage. As vital as a rich intellectual life and the study of theology are to our faith, information alone cannot yield produce transformation. Fortunately, our tradition brims with the wisdom of contemplatives and, dare I say mystics, who wrote about the why’s and how’s of spiritual union with God.  

Francis, a mystic himself, would advise the present-day church to revisit the practices and teachings of John Cassian, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, Brother Lawrence, Jean Pierre de Caussade, Simone Weil and Evelyn Underhill, among others. People are hungry not only for good biblical teaching but for rich experiential encounters with the living God. Are we ready to lay aside our prejudice against the teachings of our contemplative mothers and fathers?

5. “Rebuild My Church!”

St Francis of Assisi’s ministry began when he heard Jesus say to him, “Francis, rebuild my church, don’t you see it’s in disrepair?” I would argue Jesus is saying the same today.

We are living in a kairos moment; a time when our culture is facing many of the same challenges St Francis faced in his era. Is it time we stopped thinking about what new, hip gimmick will reverse the momentum of our demise and look back to someone who succeeded in doing it? 

As my friend Bob Webber said before his death, “The road to the future runs through the past.” Maybe it’s time to read a few pages from Francis’ playbook.

Ian Morgan Cron is the bestselling author "Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me…A Memoir…of Sorts." His latest release is "Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale."

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