Becoming a Healing Community
An Interview with Jen Hatmaker
By C. Christopher Smith
ERB: How then do we make the kind of shift that you are describing, to empower ordinary members of our churches to take ownership of the life of the church?
JH: In For the Love, I wrote a chapter on this, called “Dear Church.” One part of the chapter is directed to pastors and the other to ordinary church people. The focus on the spiritual and emotional health of most pastors is abysmal, and one thing that pastors are saying en masse is, “We can’t do it all. We can’t keep everyone happy. We’re working 80 hours a week, and how do we just stop it?” This is a terrible approach. I don’t know whoever told pastors that they are supposed to meet everyone’s spiritual needs! All this does is create Christian consumers, Christians who say “Feed me; meet my needs or if you don’t, I will move churches.” My advice to pastors and to church staff in general is to offer less. If you are trying to meet the needs of everybody all the time, and if you imagine that every single issue needs a church program or a staff member to oversee it, then we are creating a culture that is set up to fail.
I’m a big fan of simple church. This is just my preference and I know that church can be beautiful in a billion expressions. The church is the people. Our church is not a program-driven church. We hardly have any programs, and focus on empowering our people to live on mission in really ordinary ways. This is not fancy, it’s plain and simple. It’s not hard, it just requires time, and that’s our hottest commodity. If church programs are taking up all the church members’ time, with five different programs that every member is supposed to be a part of, then when are they every going to live on mission [among their neighbors]. It’s not that they don’t want to, they just don’t have any time left. We tell church leaders to validate ministry. When we tell our church members that having your neighbors over for hamburgers and baked beans for three hours on a Friday night counts as the work of the kingdom, it really starts to turn the tide.
ERB: YES! You mentioned the “Dear Church” chapter, and there was a quote in there that really stood out to me, and I love to get you to comment on it:
Let’s make our faith communities beautiful again using the unsexy, ordinary tools that have always worked: truth, confession, humility and prayer. They are surely not fancy, but they save and heal.
JH: In our Western, evangelical culture – and I can’t speak for the whole world because the church looks so different elsewhere – we’ve reached the limits of all the pizzazz we can muster. What else can we do? We’ve added all the cool we can. We’ve added all the wow factor. We’ve added all the entertainment options that we could imagine. We’ve made it as appealing as it possibly could be, and we’re still losing 50, 000 people a week [from our churches]. I think that maybe the answer is for us to stop trying to be so fancy, and stop being so amazing and so appealing, and go back to those ordinary tools of the kingdom that God gave us in the first place: humility and transparency and community and unity. It’s so ordinary and so regular, but these are the things that save and transform. These are the tools that can invite lonely and brokenhearted people into the family of God. We are committed to spending most of our energy using these tools, instead of trying to out-entertain the world – because we will never be able to do that.
ERB: Definitely! We need to get back to the basics.
JH: Yes, and the basics are amazing! They are transformation and they do the work. They invite the presence of the Holy Spirit, and they change lives. Take our church, for instance, we meet in the crappiest middle school cafetorium that you’ve ever seen in your life, and we still see lives changed constantly, and our people are so faithful, living on mission in powerful ways. I believe in the Gospel and I don’t think that we have to add a lot to it to see its power come.
ERB: Amen! Shifting gears a little, one other part of the book that really stood out to me was in the early part of the book, where you say that our theology should be true everywhere, if it is true anywhere. You ask the question, would our theology be true for a poor, single Christian mom in Haiti? I’m fascinated by this idea and would love to hear you say a little bit more about it.
JH: I’ve developed this idea over the last few years, as God has expanded our exposure to the rest of the world. For the longest time, my theology was one that basically just kept me safe and comfortable and secure. You can see this brand of theology all over the place. The idea that if we are faithful, God will bless us with health and wealth and security seemed fine to me for many years because that was my experience and my exposure. As we started looking out into the world, and reaching out into the world, this theology was incredibly rattled, because what we found obedient, faithful, God-honoring, God-loving people, both out in other places in the world and here domestically in different environments. We saw people who were poor, who struggled and who endured unimaginable loss. I thought at that point, if [the prosperity gospel] is my theology, then God is a terrible god. He is doing a terrible job at being god because he is refusing to keep all these obedient believers safe and comfortable. [After this realization], I went through a painful process of deconstruction. I know now that this is not how God works. God’s presence doesn’t always look like security and safety and comfort. Anything that teaches us about who God is or how God operates, as I talk about in the book, if it isn’t also true for a poor, single Christian mom in Haiti, then it’s not true! This has really changed the way that I talk about God, and how I think about God, and I’m no longer making promises for God all the time like I once was. I put a lot of words in God’s mouth; I was just trying to help him out. Now I think that a faithful life looks a lot different, and I hold all my theology up to this standard, [if it is not true everywhere, then it simply isn’t true.]
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