Jarrod McKenna: 'The Church is having to be born again in the UK'

One of Australia's most influential Christian leaders is speaking in the UK this weekend in a bid to help the Church to reach out to its young.

Jarrod McKenna, 34, a Christian pastor and activist who has become a leading advocate for refugees and asylum seekers in Perth, believes a fundamental realignment is needed in Britain if the Church is to take its message to where Jesus is, with the poor, the vulnerable and the disenfranchised.

"The Church is having to be born again in the UK," he told Christian Today This was because the Church was no longer meant to be at the "centre" of establishment and power. "There is this incredible opportunity to be found where Jesus is, on the margins," he said.

As a teaching pastor at Westcity Church he comes out of but is not defined wholly by the Anabaptist tradition, leaving him with a fundamental passion for social justice, community living and deep spiritual discipline.

His home in Perth is the First Home Project, a converted meth lab where he and his family live with 17 refugees, mostly Muslims. The Friday night dinners there have become the stuff of legend in Australia and are almost on their own worth a trip around the world to experience. He's also national director of Common Grace which campaigns in Australia on behalf of the "oppressed, brokenhearted and captive".

Although married, to Teresa, with a son, Tyson, he is sometimes described as an "urban monk". He is also often compared to Philadelphia's Shane Claiborne, a leader of the "new monasticism" movement such as the The Simple Way, which combats through lifestyle injustices such as homelessness and the scandal of empty homes.

"The stuff I most enjoy, that I think is most transformational, is aligning Scripture back to people where they can read it out of their own context. I love hearing what people are doing, learning from people's experience here," he said.

As a child, he knew what it was like to be on the outside looking in through struggles with dyslexia and ADHD. His own parents also were from backgrounds of poverty and persecution, his father leaving Ireland and destitution behind in 1972 to settle eventually in Australia, and his mother from a Russian Jewish background. Jarrod came to faith at 13. "It was very significant for me, deciding to follow Jesus," he said. Key to this was the commitment to non-violence. "Getting out of the waters of baptism, I realised I couldn't kick people in the head any more."

He studied fine arts and sculpure at university, and puts his creativity to use in his decision to live out his passion for Jesus as someone who witnesses for those on the edges of society. It is a form of live art, almost performance art, except for Jarrod it is not an act in the sense of acting, but as action. It is real life.

One of the topics he will be speaking to at the Youth Work Summit this weekend is the Love Makes A Way movement which is making headlines in Australia over the peaceful protests for nearly 1,000 children of asylum seekers held in detention. It has become the largest faith-based civil rights movement in Australia in recent history with more than 200 arrests already. Jarrod himself has been arrested four times, and each time he has been released almost immediately by a magistrate. He describes police officers weeping as they arrest protesting pastors, and one officer even asking if he would go to hell for making the arrest.

"Australia is a very secular place," he said. "Just eight per cent are regular church attenders. Seeing Christians risk themselves for those considered last and least in society is having a profound impact. People are coming to faith after reading in the papers about Christians putting it on the line for children in detention."

His message for the whole Church in the UK, not just the youth work scene, is invaluable because it comes at the faith not from a place of dogma, of unbending theology on issues of sexuality and marriage, but because he comes from a place of love and life. He lives out what he believes, and through this has the power to be an agent of change at the most fundamental levels of society. "I became a Christian because I realised that God loved me. To say yes to that was to say yes to living that life. My theology is still not much more complex than that. My hope is that the Church will be found in surprising places among surprising people with its sleeves rolled up, living that love we see revealed in Jesus."

No pointy hat for this man, that's pretty certain, although it is to be hoped that some of the UK's pointy hats will take the time to find out what he is saying, and why. The problems and his answers to them are not just for down under, they are universal and stand to save lives, never mind the Church.

Jarrod McKenna will be keynote speaker at tomorrow's Youth Work Summit, a youth ministry training event meeting in Tonbridge, Kent.