In a world that seeks to define everything through categories, labels and marketable bylines, artistry often takes a backseat to homogeny. Not so for Erwin McManus, a successful author and pastor, who has been instrumental in breaking out of homogenized Christianity and cultivating spiritual creativity in the city of Los Angeles.
McManus is the lead pastor and cultural architect for Mosaic—a community of Jesus followers who are committed to live by faith, speak about hope and be known by love. Author of books like Seizing Your Divine Moment and The Barbarian Way, McManus is as much a jazz musician as he is a preacher. Having studied and digested the past theology and doctrines of the Christian faith like a familiar song, he is free to improvise new melodies against the old structures.
Fortunately for RELEVANT, we were able to catch up with McManus for a bit of a jam session where he talked at length about some of the thinking behind his provocative insights, how Christianity should be like an independent film and accessing the Scriptures in a smoky room.
RELEVANT Magazine: What are some of your thoughts on your most recent book The Barbarian Way?
Erwin McManus: The Barbarian Way was, in some sense, trying to create a volatile fuel to get people to step out and act. It’s pretty hard to get a whole group of people moving together as individuals who are stepping into a more mystical, faith-oriented, dynamic kind of experience with Christ. So, I think Barbarian Way was my attempt to say, “Look, underneath what looks like invention, innovation and creativity is really a core mysticism that hears from God, and what is fueling this is something really ancient.” That’s what was really the core of The Barbarian Way.
My next book deals with the intrinsic evidences of God, which is something I’ve been dealing with since the moment I came to faith in Jesus Christ. I kept thinking to myself, it seems that contemporary Christianity doesn’t really get it: a person isn’t brought to Jesus through the weight of evidence. God has leveraged the human spirit to move in His direction, and all the material we need to bring a person to the realization that they were created by God actually already exists inside that person.
RM: When did you start thinking differently about church and the individual?
EM: Well, for one thing, I didn’t grow up churched. I was a good solid pagan. So, I didn’t have to rethink my Christianity. But … when I came to Christ, it seemed to me that a lot of Christians were out of touch with reality. There would be all these beliefs that were stated as if they were objective realities that no one could argue with, and I’m looking at it going, "You’ve got to be kidding me."
Seminary, if anything, didn’t cause me to move in this new direction. I didn’t find seminary to be the positive training environment that other people talk about; I found a few professors who were extraordinary, and I’m really grateful to them, and they had a huge impact on my life. But overall, the constructs that I learned in seminary are not only irrelevant to ministry, but they’re irrelevant to reality.
RM: You once said, "The Gospel needs to be an underground movement. It needs to read like an independent film." I really connect with this statement. Could you elaborate on this idea?
EM: I think that’s a part of what motivates me in my teaching and writing. Once the Gospel feels mainstream and becomes a nicely organized, orchestrated belief system, frankly, I don’t think there is even an attraction to the human spirit. I live in L.A., and if you want to impress the movie industry, you make a blockbuster movie that makes $200 million. If you want to reach the artist, you create a story that speaks to the human spirit.
Unfortunately, I think the Gospel in America is like a blockbuster, $200 million, Star Wars kind of thing. The irony is that Star Wars has made more than $360 million so far, but I don’t know how many people would say it’s a truly great story. For a lot of us, people are running into our megachurches, and we’re building these massive buildings and we say, “Look! The Gospel’s a hit!” What we’re not realizing is that yes, people are going to see the blockbuster, but they’re not really buying the story.
RM: How do you think we arrived at this “blockbuster” style of the Gospel and megachurches?
EM: Well, I have less concern about the megachurch and more concern for the media church—how Christianity is depicted and expressed through television and radio, mostly television. I think in the ’80s, Christianity just decided, "Hey, we have enough people to shape American history and shape America’s future through political means" rather than through the spread of the Gospel. That’s where I think we became the blockbuster, when we became the moral majority and we began to leverage things more politically than we did spiritually. I don’t know if we’ve actually recovered from shifting from a spiritual voice in culture to a "moral voice" in culture. I know it sounds crazy, but as soon as Christians start telling non-Christians how to live their lives, we’ve lost the Christian faith.
RM: Has this made people resistant to the Gospel?
EM: No, what you don’t want to assume is that people don’t want guidance. In a recent series, I just dealt with abuse of power, defiance, lust, violence and hatred. I’ve been dealing with really hard-core subjects, as intrusive as possible. The difference is that I’m saying, "Look, you can lead any kind of life you want to, but this is where this kind of life and these kind of choices will take you.”
What I’m trying to get across [at Mosaic] is, “This is what God is saying about who you are, how God has created the cosmos and how life is to be lived out.” It’s very practical. Ironically, we probably talk more about the character of God than most congregations. We connect everything. Whether it’s homosexuality, lying, stealing—we connect everything to the character of God in that human beings were created to reflect the character of God. We function in the most healthy, powerful and vibrant way when we reflect the character of God.
It’s hard to image, but the heart of God is liberty and freedom for the human spirit. We [Mosaic] are deeply and unashamedly mystical. We’re really about connecting on a deeply mystical level with the Creator of the universe. Seeing the invisible, hearing the inaudible and living a life that cannot be explained. I love that because I didn’t become a Christian because I thought, “Oh now I can pass the God test when I get to heaven.” I became a Christian because I met God.
RM: How do we begin to move toward living a life that reflects God’s character? What are some practical ways?
EM: There are no practical ways. It’s all about love. I know that there are disciplines and all that, but if you’ve got to be a highly disciplined person to get this thing … man, I’m going to hell … (laughs)
To me, it’s all about love. I don’t know my wife Kim because I sat down and interviewed her. I’ve come to know Kim in the context of pain, sorrow, joy and laughter—it comes in the experience of relationship and love. That’s how I know my wife, that’s how I know my kids.
Knowing God, knowing His heart, knowing His character is really about falling passionately in love with God and experiencing His love. Of course, there are dynamics to that: the Scriptures are essential. God speaks through the cosmos, God speaks through creation, God speaks through human experience and conscience, God speaks through everything, yes—but I do see the Scriptures as the primary access, a portal into God’s presence. I began to have a clear sense of God’s voice in my life through reading the Scriptures and hearing God’s voice through the Scriptures.
RM: You’ve said in the past that "Scripture is God through the improvisation of people’s lives."
EM: Well, I build my life not on the Word of God, but the voice of God. The Scriptures are to me the instrument that God has placed in history for me to learn the voice of God. I treasure the Scriptures.
RM: Like a jazz musician, you have to master the technical side of playing your instrument—reading the Scriptures, so to speak. However, you can’t stay in the practice room for too long. Eventually, you have to apply your skills, play a gig or go to a jam session. Does that make sense?
EM: Absolutely, and I think you can take that one step further. To know how to build the flute is not to know how to play it.
Unfortunately, I think seminaries teach us how the drum is built, how to take it apart and rebuild it; but how to play it, how to hear it, how to learn meter and rhythm … that sometimes seems like a lost art.
In the modern world a great preacher was a person who could teach you the information of the Bible. Now people want to know, has that book taken you anywhere where you’ve met and experienced God? It’s different. It’s really sharing your life through the Scriptures that becomes a part of what people hunger for—and people do hunger for it.
RM: The only reason I learned how to play jazz music is because one of my teachers actually took me to experience it live in a smoky jazz club. After that, I was hungry to learn more and practice.
EM:That’s exactly the point. People are coming, and they learn how to hear from God and how to access the Scriptures by being in that—if you could say that—in that smoky room. It’s a great analogy. That’s the way I learned how to water-ski. They tried to teach me how by putting me in the back of a boat, and I almost drowned. I couldn’t quite understand what they were saying while drinking water at 50 mph. Then I worked SeaWorld—at the ski show—selling Coke, and every day I watched these professional skiers. The next time I tried it—two months later—I could slalom, simply from watching them all summer long. I somehow learned the rhythms and movements of what was going on, and I absorbed it into my being more than I even knew.