Interview: Max Lucado on Storytelling, the Church, and Politics

Max Lucado is a New York Times bestselling author, a megachurch pastor, and has sold more than 100 million products, including 80 million books. But you wouldn’t know that talking to him. Lucado seemed humble, thoughtful, at peace with himself, yet passionate about his ministry during a recent chat with The Christian Post.

Lucado during the interview spoke about his new book, God’s Story Your Story: When His Becomes Yours, about storytelling in communist China, the biggest challenge to the church today, and why he isn’t linked to politics.

The following are excerpts from the interview.

CP: What prompted you to write God’s Story Your Story? What’s the story behind the story?

Lucado: Well, this book does have an interesting ancestry. I’m a pastor in San Antonio, Texas. I actually, these days, share the preaching with a friend, Randy Frazee. About three years ago, Randy came up with the idea of taking the church through the whole Bible in less than a year with the purpose being of giving the church the big picture, what Randy calls the upper story of the Bible.

I told him I didn’t like that idea. I thought it was crazy because nobody was going to be interested in a yearlong study through the Bible, and most people like shorter series anyways. But he convinced me and he was going to do the Old Testament and I was going to do the New [Testament].

The result of it was our attendance jumped 26 percent during that year. What we realize is number one, people want to know what the Bible says. In their heart, they want to know the Bible but it is just hard to understand the big picture of it. And number two, they want to know where they plug in. Is there something about God’s story that influences our personal story?

So when we saw how impactful it was in people’s lives, it just made sense to turn it into a published form. So this is what this is. My book centers in on the New Testament, the goal being to help a person who wants to understand the Bible to see how what God did as revealed in the New Testament will reveal to them their own personal story.

CP: What is the main message you want readers to take away?

Lucado: Well, I think the main message is there is more to your story. There is more than what happens between the crib and the grave, and that is what I am really trying to speak to, this idea that all of life is this life and that there is nothing more than what we see and experience right here on this earth.

I’m convinced that the Christian claim is really true, that this is just a warm up to the big event. That this is just the appetizer to the feast, and if we can plug into that and understand that this part of our story is just the introduction, it is not even the first line of the first paragraph, it’s just the first letter or first word. We are just getting started. Once we discover that, everything changes. If we think that this life is all there is to life, then there is no interpretation of our problems, our pain, not even of our privileges. But everything changes when we open up to the possibility that God’s story is really our story too.

CP: With all you have studied about the Christian faith, do you feel closer or farther from understanding Christianity?  

Lucado: Oh, I really feel much closer. Initially, when I first became a Christian and got into ministry, my thought was that God existed to make my life better and to take me to heaven. Now I realize that it is not about me at all. It is all about God and that He did this to display His plan to restore the earth to the Garden of Eden state. This sounds so wacko; it sounds so crazy, but I firmly believe that the purpose of life is not this life. It is to equip us, whatever our role is going to be in the next life. And understanding God’s story is really where I find the significance and purpose in my own story.

My favorite way to illustrate this is something that happened to me when I was 10 years old. I was munchkin in the play Wizard of Oz. I was in a boys’ choir and the boys’ choir was asked to be the munchkin in the Wizard of Oz. Well, everybody assumed that all of us had seen the movie or at least knew the story. But I did not. I didn’t see the movie and I didn’t know the story. I knew my song and my parts, but I didn’t know the story. And as a result, I freaked out on dress rehearsal night and ran off the stage because I saw witches, I saw funny costumed people and I thought we were under attack.

That is where a lot of people are in life. They don’t know the whole story. They just know they have been given a song or something to do, but they don’t back away and look at the big picture. The Bible is that script. What I wrote in the book is to help people to get the big point in the New Testament, an itinerary if you will, to help them see the story that God is writing.

CP: How has being a storyteller opened up opportunities for you to share the Gospel with people that do not want to hear a sermon?

Lucado: One of my favorite books that I ever wrote has really wide distribution in China and in other communist countries, where traditionally the Bible is not taught. That is the story called You Are Special. It is a children’s book. It never uses the name God and it never uses any scriptural references. It is just a parable about a woodcutter who creates wooden pieces and how one of the wooden pieces discovers its maker.

So that has opened up doors. There is a ministry in China that exists to distribute that book. I didn’t even start that ministry, but it is distributed throughout the provinces of China in orphanages to children who are born without any awareness of who their parents are and what their purpose is. We have gotten reports, and one of my favorites is the story of the book being read in a school for orphans and how the children began to cry at the discovery of a maker. The thought that they have a maker. Being a storyteller opened that door and I think stories have that kind of impact on people.

CP: In your opinion, what is the church’s biggest challenge today?

Lucado: Oh, how much time do you have? (laughs) I think keeping our focus on the message. The message is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and keeping our focus on the uniqueness of Christ and the power of the story of the Gospel to change lives. It is really easy to get distracted.

We can’t afford to get distracted because there are so many conflicting messages. The messages that somebody in my church hears all week long is you are what you have – whether you have possessions or good looks or power. The Gospel says you are whose you are, you belong to God and that is where our identity is.

I get one hour, really 25 minutes in a sermon on a weekend, to combat all the hours of the week that people are told you are what you have through billboards, commercials, and sitcoms, and so forth.

CP: How would you answer the question, is the Church really losing its influence?

Lucado: I don’t think it ever will, because the influence of the Church does not depend on the Church, it depends on the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit will never lose its influence. He is God and He is influencing society. There are times in which the influence of the Church will wane or appear to go underground, but while it seems less in the United States, it is exploding in China, South Korea, and India.

You only have 3,800 people groups left before the Gospel has been preached to every people group on the face of the earth. So while there are times where it seems like the church is losing its influence, it is losing its influence in a particular culture.

CP: Last year you said compassion is the church’s best apologetics. I never really heard you speak much on compassion until recently, and you said you woke up to it. Do you hope more Christians will wake up like you did?

Lucado: I do. I think things have changed. I will say that again. I don’t think things have changed, I think the Church has changed. I think we are waking up. The fact that we have to use our hands as much as we use our mouths. For years I thought my assignment or the Church’s assignment was to articulate the Gospel and nothing more. Now I believe that if we don’t support the verbal expression of the Gospel with physical demonstration of compassion, we are not imitating Jesus.

I don’t think I fully understood that. I am grateful, though, for people who have awakened that in my heart and the church is waking up to that.

CP: The book has a soothing tone. You talk about a 96-year-old woman’s death and described her as laughing her way into heaven. Was one of your objective in the book to remove the fear from death or did you have another goal?

Lucado: I have learned that my assignment is to write books for people who do not like to read books. I really try to connect with people who are not given to spending a lot of time with an open book. Pay day to me is when somebody comes up to me and says, “I never read books but I read yours.” I have a heart for that person.

And number two, I have a heart for people who are broken hearted, who are passing through tough times. I cannot, not speak to those people. I don’t know how to. It is just what I have always done. I’ve been at the same church now, going on 23 year. People who attended that church will always say Max just talks to broken-hearted people. It could be good or it could be bad.

There are some people that say I need to be more academic in my teaching, I need to be more disciple developing focus, probably true. But where my heart is, is with people who are just passing through difficult time. I want to put literature in a form that is accessible for people who don’t particularly read books.

Does that answer your question?

CP: Not quite, because the question was about how you just took fear away from death in many chapters of the book.

Lucado: (lauhgs) I think we live in slavery to fear. Most people don’t have an answer to the death question and really don’t even have a philosophy. That is a puzzle to me. I think even if I was not a Christian, I would want to at least have a personal solution to the death question. Otherwise, death is just a frightening thing.

My father, in the next to last letter he ever wrote me, when I was 27, said this, “I have no fear of death or eternity.” And he was sick and had been diagnosed with a terminal disease. He died just a couple of months later. And that profoundly impacted me. I mean, you can get to the point where you can be looking death in the face and say I have no fear of death or eternity. And he did. And I think I am there, to be honest.

I have been tested in this way. I think that if you told me today that I was dying tomorrow, I think I love my family and say boy I am going to miss you, but I’m really generally excited about what is going to happen next.

CP: Among the books that you wrote, what gets the most response?

Lucado: Oh, that’s a good way of putting that question. I wrote a book about two or three years ago called Fearless, in which we discuss what you and I just talked about, of fear and not just death. That seemed to have really struck a chord. Many places I travel, if I were to look through the comments that people made, they’re mostly about how can I face my fears or what do I do with my fear.

I would say that topic, at least in the last few years, has been the most wanted.

CP: Why don’t we see you much in the public sphere in terms of social issues, politics?

Lucado: I think it is a full-time job pastoring this church in San Antonio. In fact, it is two of us senior pastors, 8,000 member church. My first call is to them. I try to be at home as much as I can. Then I try to write a book a year. Between those two things, I don’t seem to have that much left over.

CP: The question is more about if you try to actively stay away from getting involved in politics. if you don’t think that is part of your ministry.

Lucado: I don’t feel like I have a lot to offer in terms of an authoritative voice on a lot of political issue. I don’t know how to fix the economy, or how to increase the number of jobs. That is not where I spent my life and thought and meditation. I guess I would like to think that the topics that I am discussing – the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins and the defeat of death – goes up river to all problem. That if we could solve the problem of who we are and where we are going, that it would have a huge impact on the culture and waterfall in on some of these practical and social issues.

Maybe I am a bit presumptuous to think that I am going symptomatically to the root of the problem as our identity with that.

CP: How has your increasing success and prominence in Christian literature changed your life? Has it presented any challenges?

Lucado: Mainly time management issues. I am trying to stay focus on what I really love to do, and that is work with the church. I found it difficult to stay involved in some of the things that I used to do as a pastor. I don’t visit many people in the hospital anymore. I haven’t done a wedding in a couple of years. We have people on our staff that do that, it’s not that they are not getting done, it is just I don’t do them anymore. I kind of miss it, to be honest.

When I got into ministry, I was a missionary in Brazil with a church of about 60 people. I really enjoyed having a church where I knew everybody and they all knew me and we were all kind of living life together. That part I miss that, but there is not any way I can do it. I guess you can say that I’ve become sort of a specialist. There is family doctor and I’m a specialist, focusing on messages. (laughs)

CP: Is there anything you want to add?

Lucado: I don’t know if I ever have been asked that political question before, why I’m not more involved in politics. I know Governor Perry; I know George W. Bush; I know John Cornyn our senator and Kay Bailey Hutchison. It is not that I don’t know politicians, I never really never stayed away from politics, it is just I never ended up there somehow.

CP: It is interesting that you know all these people but never got pulled into it. Politicians love endorsements.

Lucado: Yeah, at our church I do not endorse politicians publicly. Because I am afraid that if I endorse one candidate, it would keep somebody from coming to our church. So I made one exception one time to put one bumper sticker on my car, but I don’t ever do it anymore.

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