Click here for General Assembly coverage

Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith beyond the Baggage of Western Culture

Mandy Smith
Brazos Press, 224 pages

Western culture, Mandy Smith says, is obsessed with productivity and is uncomfortable with human limitations. The Western church has adopted the culture’s focus on control and domination, and so “we do kingdom things in empire ways, which doesn’t look like good news.” The antidote, according to Smith, is to follow Jesus’ command to become like little children (Luke 18:16-17). When we were children, we knew how to live as our whole selves, while embracing our limitations. Since we relied on adults to provide for our needs, our posture was to “rest and receive” before responding to the world around us.

Smith writes whimsically about childlikeness and it makes for a compelling read. Some might think she romanticizes the gifts children bring to bear on the world — I’ve experienced too many temper tantrums to be completely convinced that children fully embrace their limitations! Yet, I find myself drawn to her argument, in part because she brings her own story to bear on it. She has experienced what it is like to choose a childlike posture and how it changed the way she lived and worked in the world. As a pastor who is close to burn-out after a year and a half of adapting to a global pandemic, I soaked in Smith’s exhortation to rest and receive from God.

One of the things I like most about Smith’s book is how she defines childlike receptivity against childish passivity as well as “adultish” domination against adultlike action. Too often, we face a false choice of saying either “It’s all up to God” or “It’s all up to me.” But the life of faith is a life of daily partnership with the God of the universe who is already at work in the world. It’s a way to be small without shame and powerful without oppressing. An essential part of the cycle of resting and receiving is that we recognize and respond to God’s nudges.

Smith is quick to note that responding to God’s nudges will cost us something. Sometimes it will make us uncomfortable, while, at times, others will not be receptive to those nudges. And yet, responding to the nudges that cause us discomfort can be part of our own healing. Obedience to God is an aspect of childlikeness that may make our “adultish” selves feel uneasy. Still, Smith has experienced how obeying God’s nudges has produced good fruit in her own life and in the lives of those around her. She’s seen enough of God in action to trust that God is actually at work in the discomfort. Many books have been written assessing the decline of Christianity in the Western world; what I appreciate about Smith’s approach is that she not only compellingly deconstructs the ways the Western church has been co-opted by Western values, but also offers a compelling reconstruction of the church and the gospel based on childlikeness. Resting before responding is a gift all of us can receive.