NEW YORK — Pastor Judah Smith of The City Church in Seattle recently celebrated the release of his new book, Jesus Is: Find a New Way to Be Human, and spoke with The Christian Post about his excitement for the book, how things have changed since he took over leadership of the megachurch previously led by his parents, and what he believes is the biggest challenge facing believers today.
Jesus Is: Find a New Way to Be Human was officially released Tuesday, Feb. 26, but made a splash days before in pre-sales due to a special nod from Justin Bieber, who endorsed the book via his social media accounts to millions of followers. Pastor Smith, who shared that he's known the 19-year-old singer for about three years, has explained that he hopes more than anything that Jesus Is: Find a New Way to Be Human sparks dialogue and gets people thinking about "the most formidable figure in human history."
Below is an edited transcript of Smith's interview with The Christian Post, in which the Seattle megachurch pastor tells why he believes Jesus is the answer to everything and why the Christian Church needs to be honest with itself in order to survive.
CP: You share in Jesus Is that you felt God spoke to you "almost audibly" on Oct. 27, 2007, and said "grace grows the church." How has that experience affected your approach to ministry, in writing this book, and so forth?
Smith: At first obviously I didn't know what I was hearing from the Lord; ... at the time I think grace was simply a principle to me. It was a biblical concept but it wasn't really the Person of Jesus. You end up in John 1:17 [which says] the law came through Moses but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ – so this idea that Jesus Christ is the embodiment of both grace and truth. I think probably more than anything else it was a correcting moment in my life in terms of centering myself again on the supremacy of Christ, his sufficiency [and] his sovereignty that I think kind of sum up my journey, and for that matter probably the journey of our whole church. It may be a little embarrassing to admit, but I think we had gotten pretty – at least personally – a lot about principles and maybe not as much about a Person and that Person being Jesus. That's kind of these last several years, the journey has been seeing Jesus really as the point of it all and center of it all. Rather than pursuing principles, concepts, or even good character qualities, really seeing my ultimate goal, pursuit and focus as the Person of Jesus.
CP: In Jesus Is you are quite open and honest about your own downfalls. The book is undoubtedly written for others, but how did the process of writing the book actually help you?
Smith: I think the teacher always learns more than the student, so I think it help me probably more than it'll ever help anybody. I think the journey of writing, too, is so introspective. It's a very challenging process of thinking through and trying to be as honest as I could in those pages. I think a little bit of it was probably some self-discovery ... and I think some people will no doubt read the book and in some sections they'll be like "wow, Judah didn't know that before?" Maybe it's not that I didn't know, but I certainly had missed it and either forgotten it or not really considered it. There's no doubt that my life has been changed in the writing process. It's been very revealing. I'm grateful. I guess I want to be one of those guys who disagrees with himself down the road and is willing to say "I don't know" and also "I don't agree anymore with myself," because I want to – first off, I don't think we can ever know it all, certainly not about God, that's for sure. We're all on a journey, we're all going to change. That's the goal, right? To become more and more like Jesus?
CP: How important is it to be honest and authentic, not only with yourself, but for the sake of those watching you?
Smith: I think there's a real desire, particularly in kind of a new era, a new generation, for transparency, authenticity, honesty – and I'm sure there always has been in every generation. But I think in the media age, social media – and we've just been so inundated – the world's become smaller, we have so much information, so much distraction. There's so many media productions and screens, it's tough to know what's real and what's not any more. When it comes to the Gospel we've got to be as real as we possibly can by the grace of God, or I think we end up becoming white noise and we just kind of find our place among all the other bright, shining lights and flashing memos and emails and Twitters and Instagrams and Facebooks.
Whether from the pulpit to the pew, we need a real awareness of our weaknesses and our inabilities. That's the beauty of the Gospel – it's not that we're sufficient by any means, but that his grace is and that Jesus is. No doubt, I think people relate to our weaknesses far more than to our strengths. I think that's always been true. I'm excited. I feel like, from my limited vantage point and my limited exposure, there seems to be a global awakening in the Church, in terms of not only in terms of leaders and pastors getting very honest with themselves, but I think community and churches allowing their spiritual leaders to do that, and in some cases publicly, with wisdom and discretion. Being able to say "hey, I'm bleeding here, I'm hurting here," but God's grace is sufficient. For the next generation to really pick up and receive the all-important Gospel, I think this trend has to continue.
CP: When it comes to defining who Jesus is, what would you say are the three most important things to consider?
Smith: Starting in John 1, Jesus is grace and truth. Grace is always first in the biblical order, and obviously I'm one of those guys that believe that even the order of the wording in Scripture is completely inspired and divine. I think first and foremost, Jesus is grace, Jesus is truth and Jesus is love. Obviously, there's so much in there to unpack, but grace is always first.
CP: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about Jesus, among both Christians and outside of the Church?
Smith: Probably that Jesus is truth, before grace. I think sometimes we're very busy defending God, which is really comical and ironic, that we would defend the Almighty God. I think sometimes we do, we feel like if our message gets too good, if it gets too gracious and too loving, people might sin. The reality is people are sinning anyways, whether you preach heavy grace or heavy truth, the point is people are sinning. Ultimately, the only antidote to people's sin is the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
The reason grace is always first is it's this overwhelming sense that with Jesus I belong, even before I believe or behave. I think the idea that the Church oftentimes has been an organization or a community where it's like "once you believe and definitely behave, then we will welcome you." Yet in the life and ministry of Jesus we see his scandalous inclusion of pretty bad guys. Jesus of course didn't grant them salvation as it were until there was genuine, authentic faith. But in terms of friendship and relationship, Jesus opened his arms widely to people who were far from actual trust in him as the Son of God. I think as the Church we are bound to the same model and the same spirit and compassion. I think the biggest misnomer and probably the biggest hurdle we'll face in the Church outside the Church and in mission, is ensuring that the people's portrait of God is first grace. When you see that, when you really encounter grace, your heart opens up to the truth of who in fact our God is.
CP: You mention in the book that "Jesus is the answer to everything." Obviously, as a Christian, that's your experience, but some people don't see at all how Jesus is relevant to anything in their lives. How do you respond to a statement like that?
Smith: Obviously, I'm slanted there's no doubt about that – Jesus has changed my life, [he's] my personal Lord and Savior. First of all, intellectually, Jesus is arguably the most considerable figure in human history. … If you're a thinking person, you have to admit that this man from the ancient world in the Middle East who, in terms of worldly success as it's defined, was reasonably minimal in terms of his outward, physical accomplishments. Yet he is still capturing the attention of people all over this planet. ... He wasn't wealthy as it were, he wasn't a political figure [although] he obviously influenced politics, but you have to ask yourself as a thinking person "who is Jesus and why is he so compelling to so many people? Why do billions of people claim him to be a deity?" I would say you've got to start there. … I think therein lies the beginnings of a conversation, of a dialogue. …
Other great writers and thinkers, such as Josh McDowell, have coined it well – you really as a thinking person have to come to the conclusion. Either this man Jesus, who is so considerable in human history, is in fact who he says he is, or he's really out to lunch, he's really a lunatic. He's a liar, as it's been said, or of course he's God, he's king, he's Lord.
That's where I think probably the misconception is, people think like "I can just think of Jesus as a nice guy." Not really, because he walked around for three years claiming he was God in bodily form. In today's terms, you either are that, or you probably need to be in a straight jacket. I think no matter who you are, you have to make a decision about this Person who has separated human history as we know it.
CP: You write in the book on pages 27-28 that due to a conversation you once had about not knowing any crackheads, prostitutes or exotic dancers, that you have been determined to open yourself up to people whose lives are morally different from yours. Why is that important, not just for yourself, but for all Christians? (watch Smith's response to this question in the video on the left)
Smith: I think the short answer is I want to be more and more like Jesus. I think there was a shocking disconnect in my life between the Gospel that I was committed to and in some cases preaching, and then what I was living. I'm a big proponent of spiritual disciplines and devotions and moral character and these things that all of us hold dear, and absolutely should, it's very clear in Scripture. I think part of what I missed was compassion, empathy, love. I think inadvertently I had probably built a lot of walls, rather than bridges, with people who were fundamentally different, theologically, philosophically or morally.
That was alarming. Just going through the Gospel and looking at the life and ministry of Jesus, it was shocking, challenging and humbling when the pastor friend asked me that question. My initial reaction when he asked "do you know any prostitutes, do you know any drug addicts, gang members, exotic dancers and other individuals?" I immediately said "no, not at all." That's when he said "me neither, and I think that's part of the problem."
The conversation ended and I think he walked off, and it was like a bomb went off in my heart. I'm so worried about getting dirty, or my sparkling reputation tarnished. It was really thought-provoking and personally challenging for me. I think obviously there's discretion and there's wisdom in all of this and there's obviously a line where you cross it and it's hard to justify that I'm in some areas and situations that are only not beneficial for me, they really wouldn't be beneficial for anyone to be in.
The point is not that we subject ourselves to things Scripture says we are to avoid, but the point is that we do subject ourselves to people who really need the Gospel. Not as a project, I don't think people are projects. I think that's insulting. But a real love and a heart for people who are away from God, who in some cases have no idea who Jesus is, don't know any better. Or they were brutalized by someone in the name of Jesus.
I'm passionate about it, it's something that's very emotional and very deep to me, that we are people that are passionate about building bridges and not walls. Loving the people that Jesus loved, as simple and as cliché as that my sound. I think not only is that something we should do, I think it's something that we're bound to do, according to Scriptures and our mandate and our mission as believers, not pastors and leaders and book writers, that's got nothing to do with it. Just as Jesus followers. The ultimate point is that we're like Jesus, and it's very apparent in Scripture that Jesus befriended people such as these.
CP: What's the mature, Christian outlook on sin and grace – that is, how does one avoid indulging in sin and abusing grace?
Smith: I think the key really comes down to "is grace a principle to us, or is it a person to us?" My wife, Chelsea, we've been married for 13 and a half years and she's a way better spouse than me. She's exceptional, she's way more spiritual, she's up every morning reading her Bible and praying, while I'm sleeping in. Chelsea's just the most incredible, considerate, compassionate, loving, gracious spouse, she's a lot like Jesus.
In the 13 and a half years of her loving me and serving me and being so kind and committed, faithful and loyal, I've never had the thought "because she's loving, gracious, kind and faithful, I could cheat on her and get away with. In fact, I could do it multiple times." I've never planned to cheat on her, by the grace of God I haven't at all. Because the exact opposite desire and emotion are conjured up due to her love and grace and faithfulness.
I think when grace is merely a principle and a biblical concept – if it's just the favor of God, or the forgiveness of God or the love of God, it's easily abused. But when grace is a person, when he has beautiful eyes of love and compassion and mercy and we fall in love with this incredible savior and his grace and his mercy pours over our lives, the ultimate result is not "gosh, I can get away with sin." … Quite the opposite happens really.
So people who say "I've heard the grace message and people are abusing it," well, they've not encountered grace. They've encountered a concept and a principle. It's more of a mental agreement that they're having. When you encounter the person of grace, it's amazing how it transforms your life, behavior, speech, your thought process. So personally I believe the Person of grace, the Person of Jesus is the great catalyst to all of spiritual devotions, holiness and these things that we desire.
I think if we make the Christian faith about holiness or self-control or any other moral attributes or character qualities, we might miss the whole point. I think when you pursue holiness, you may live a pretty moral life. But when you pursue Jesus – in Ephesians it talks about the "fruit of the Spirit," it's not plural in any ways, it's singular. It's not the fruit of our devotion or the fruit of our church attendance or the fruit of our Bible study or the fruit of our discipline; it's the fruit of the Spirit. It comes from focusing on the Holy Spirit, Jesus himself. When we make him the focus and him the point, it's amazing how self-controlled we are. It's amazing how faithful we are, disciplined, all these character qualities that all of us desire because we see them in the life of Jesus. I would encourage people to keep Jesus as the point of it all, keep the main thing the main thing, and I think you'll be shocked to see the life that you'll be empowered to live.
CP: What do you think are some of the major issues that the Christian Church has to grapple with currently? Some might say abortion, same-sex marriage, etc. are some of these issues. What are some things you think the Church as a whole may need to confront and deal with?
Smith: I don't want to be cliché and I don't want state the obvious, but there's certainly hot topics politically, morally [and] culturally that we could get into. I tend to think the biggest hurdle and the biggest challenge is and probably always will be: do we really love people?
Freely you have received, freely give, this is love. First John 4 says, not that we loved him, but that he loved us. I think the greatest challenge is accepting first and foremost his extraordinary, unconditional love for us, and then somehow implementing that in our lives as well. To really discover what it means to love people.
I'm really good at loving people that love me, that's just a natural thing. … Agape, this love that God offers, needs no reciprocation whatsoever, it's just there, it's just love. For us as human beings to at least begin to discover that kind of love for people, that has to be transcendent above the issues. It has to be, or we end up making the issue the issue. Those political, moral culture issues are really not the issue. Jesus is the ultimate issue and the point of all existence and humanity. His love, experiencing and dispensing it is the ultimate issue of humanity. I just pray that as believers, yes, I think there are issues that we have to know what we believe...but I think ultimately the much bigger issue is the love of God. Do we know it, do we receive it, do we accept it, do we recognize we can't earn it? And are will willing to extend it to humanity?
I got a sense that if we were to walk out this kind of love, I think people would probably listen sometimes to some of our things that biblically we believe in morally, culturally and ethically. I think sometimes the reason some people react to our position that is steeped in Scripture is because they sense very little empathy, compassion, care and concern and love. I think it's always been the biggest issue and probably always will be.
CP: You took on a lead pastor role at The City Church in 2009 – how have things changed over the last three years or so?
Smith: I was a youth pastor for 10 years and that was fun. I didn't know how easy it was, because you kind of just tell people what to do. Maybe that's not a good thing, but they just do what they're told a lot of times (laughs). I've had to learn a lot about trusting God and His grace and His calling. I am by no means the smartest person in our community. I'm not even the most spiritual. I'm not even the most well-versed in Scripture. I'm way down the list if there's a ranking system. But evidently, God has called me and graced me to lead the community and to serve them, to be the first servant among them.
When you're teaching teenagers, I know the most. I'm the most informed, exposed, educated – so they have to listen to me. When I'm standing in front of adults every weekend teaching them Scripture, I'm looking at people who probably have more degrees than me. Seattle is one of the most educated cities in the United States of America, so I stand in front of people who are incredibly educated, informed in worldview, Scripture, all things going on culturally. That can be incredibly intimidating. That's taught me, and still is teaching me of course, dependence upon God. … I think a year into stepping into leadership for my Mom and Dad, it was like "Okay, I'm all out of material. That's all I've got. What do I do now?" Of course the point is, it's what I should have been doing in the first place – just trusting God and His grace to help me really serve the people and equip the saints to do the work of the ministry.
If I can unpack some of the myths about church leadership and pastoring, is that we've assumed that the pastor is the smartest, the most spiritual, and is the elite spiritual person in the room. Of course biblically that's not at all the criteria. Yes, there needs to be moral life, ethical life, things in order in terms of your family and understanding of Scripture and training. It does not include in Scripture that the pastor will be the best or brightest and that he or she is just another believer – first a sheep then a shepherd, right? I think that's probably rallied our community a little bit, like "oh gosh, our pastor definitely needs us." It's probably opened up a little more conversation and dialogue. … It's been a great learning experience for sure.