Judah Smith is lead pastor of The City Church in Seattle, Washington. City Church is a fast-growing, multi-site church, and is well known for its cultural relevance and a commitment to biblical integrity and biblical faith. Judah is a popular conference speaker and author of a number of books, including his New York Times bestseller, Jesus Is____. His most recent book is Life Is_____, published by Thomas Nelson. He recently visited with Executive Editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: Your most recent book is called Life Is ____. So, to quote from your introduction, “What is life, and what are we here for”?
Judah: I think it all starts for me in the idea that life is to be loved and life is to love. I anchor that in the idea of God and God’s illogical love and God’s agape love. That is love without conditions or prerequisites, which is always toward us and for us; and that’s the greatest challenge of the human existence. Can we receive this love that actually doesn’t fit in the box of, let’s say, cause and effect? It’s just effect. It is just there. We didn’t cause it, earn it or deserve it. It’s always there. For God so agape, so loved the world without conditions and prerequisites.
There’s this idea that God loves damaged goods and broken people, so can I accept that and receive that no matter my performance or what I’ve done that God loves me? That’s a challenge, but that’s really where the experience on earth truly begins.
Preaching: Why do you think people struggle with the idea of God loving us?
Judah: I think because we live in a setting and context where love is something that is earned and deserved and is only placed on someone, almost like an award. You have been rewarded. For instance, take marriage, and take a wedding. I’ve done a few weddings, and I’ve been married now for 15 years. A wedding is two people coming together, and it is an idea of that love that has been reciprocated.
We agree on reciprocation: I love you and you love me; and then the families all get together, and the pastor is there, and it’s basically kind of a “speak now or forever hold your peace.” You commit, and this person commits; it’s two people standing there saying, “I love you, and you love me, right? You promise?”
“OK, give me a ring, and let’s commit publicly in front of family and friends that you do love me, and I love you.”
That’s how we see love. Love on this earth is an awesome marriage, a beautiful romance and all the movies with these cool weddings and happily-ever-after; but God’s love is completely outside this context. It is not at all like our love. His is unconditional in nature, always for us and toward us and relentless. It’s this ancient word agape, as opposed to the ancient world phileo, both of which are in Scripture. Phileo is the romantic love, the love all the pop songs are about; but agape is this love that is exclusive to God. He shares it with the world, and (for us) it’s simply receiving and accepting it. We become His sons and daughters and followers, and that’s where I truly believe life begins.
Preaching: So many young adults are hungry to find some meaning in their lives today. As millennials are searching for this meaning in life, why do you think so many are looking away from the church?
Judah: Probably because they have been there, done that, heard about that. I think we have a challenge in front of us as the Jesus community on earth. People connect us to codes and customs, commandments, ethics, morals, rules, external formation, and everyone has to fit in a particular box. We can bemoan, begrudge and argue that, or we can accept that there is some of that in our history. Throughout church history, there are some moments that are very embarrassing, moments when we as a community have hurt people and tried to control people. I’m not here to point fingers and say that we are all in on that or that all of our ancestors were or that is all of our legacy or story.
All of us have to make sure we steward our own generation by the grace of God and get out the story of Jesus. All of this makes the life of Jesus revolutionary, and the Bible bottom lines it, doesn’t it? It says God is agape. God is love. His essence is love, and I think His story begins and ends with this romance, the love. If you look at the beginning of the narrative, the beginning of the whole story, the Bible is a story. It’s a love story.
It starts with God orchestrating and organizing this opulent, beautiful garden, this paradise for the centerpiece of His creation, this human being to enjoy and exist where He can just lavish His love on the human being. You can see from the outset that God had a passion to have this loving and incredible, intimate relationship with the human being. I think that’s our story. We have to get this story out, of how Jesus really has brought us back to the garden, and through His redemption we can have a relationship and connection with God.
We have our work cut out for us. We have to stay committed to the main thing of our narrative of our story, which I believe is love.
Preaching: City Church obviously is reaching lots of young adults in what is one of the most secular cities in America. What is it you’re doing that connects with those young adults?
Judah: That is a difficult question because if I’m really honest, my first response is that I absolutely do not know. I know who my personality is and who God has called me to be and our amazing team of approximately 45 pastors on staff. I sometimes answer the question this way: I know my dad taught me at a young age that people often relate to your weakness more than your strength. I think our community is the most authentic, genuine, gracious collection of people on the planet; and they’ve really urged me as pastor not just to be the pastor but to be someone who benefits from the community.
I think leaders forget we are not just leading, but we are actually participants in it, and I think the church is comfortable with me bleeding in front of them and sharing my shortcomings and weaknesses. I think maybe whoever is there, a genuine sense comes out; hopefully people identify with that. Ultimately, I think the grace of God is overwhelming, and it’s inexplicable. I don’t understand it, and I have overwhelming gratitude for the ability right now, and the grace, that’s on our community to reach out and love people, really to see their lives being transformed by God’s power. So, I’m not entirely sure, but I am certainly grateful.
Preaching: As you look back, was there a time in your ministry when you said, “This is not going to be church as usual? God is doing something unique here”? Was there any kind of turning point?
Judah: You know, there actually was. Three years ago, while I was in Orange County teaching at a conference, a friend asked me to come to his house the night before and do a Bible study for seven or eight of his friends. There might have been 10 people there. We can’t quite remember the numbers, but it is Jason Kennedy—he’s on "E!News" and he’s a great host. I said, “Yeah, I will come.” I came and told the story of Jesus and His love, and we talked about the prodigal son. I think about five, six people there in his living room decided to become Jesus followers. It was an amazing night. The next day, I went to the conference and kind of moved on [from the experience].
Jason called me back, and said, “Hey, you’re in town in a couple of months. Can we do that again, because those people want to bring their friends.” Suddenly, before I knew it, I had been there four or five times, and we had 75 people in his living room. Then there were a hundred, and people from the [entertainment] industry. There are actors and actresses and friends…and someone raised a hand, and said, “I’ve got a connection to a hotel ballroom in Beverly Hills. Maybe we can move there.” (The neighborhood association was kicking us out!)
It was in that living room when I sat there and realized, “I don’t think God intended this to be church as normal or for me to lead His church as normal.”
So we still have Wednesday night services, which have grown considerably. We still use this particular ballroom where we meet. It’s not church as normal. I get up, and right at the beginning begin talking. I preach for 45 minutes, and we sing a couple songs, and that’s church for us in Los Angeles. It changed how we do church in Seattle and Guadalajara. That was a defining moment in my friend’s living room in Hollywood Hills.
Preaching: If you were to sit down and talk to another pastor who was struggling to try to reach the millennial generation, what kind of counsel would you give about their preaching to help them reach young adults?
Judah: It’s so hard. Preaching is so hard and so personal. It has to come from your heart, so I’m always a little hesitant in terms of “Hey, try this approach, or try this tool,” because I think preaching has to be something that burns in you; it’s something that oozes out of your heart, soul and relationship with Jesus.
I do know, obviously, stories are important. You can see this played out in mass media that we all connect with stories, and here we have in our hands—via 44 authors, 66 books—the greatest story ever told. I would urge friends and fellow preachers everywhere: Let the story be told in it’s raw, beautiful story form. We have the stories of people who are so broken: broken people who are raw, dusty, dirty and very human. In it is this supernatural intervention of this beautiful, perfect God who is the Superhero and Savior. I think if we can stick to the narrative and let the story come out, I think we see it.
We see it in the shows coming out, the faith concept that is garnering such an extraordinary audience. I believe with all my heart that millennials and young people want to hear the story—if we can let the story come out and stick to it without turning it into success, codes, morals and ethics. That’s all in there, but in its raw form, it’s a beautiful love story. I think our culture is absolutely desperate to hear the greatest story every told.
Preaching: The last time we spoke, you mentioned that you primarily preach in series. What series are you in now, and what’s coming up next?
Judah: Right now, we actually just stopped midstream in a verse-by-verse series in First Corinthians 13, the love chapter as it’s called, and that’s been really fun. We just put that on pause. We are doing six weeks around the project Life Is____. So, as a community we have got several hundred groups meeting all the over L.A., Guadalajara and Seattle; we are having actual conversations about how to fill in the blank. We have some companion DVDs and study guides to facilitate, but all that can get the conversation started. We always say we are a small church with a lot of people, and the way we stay small is by making sure individuals feel engaged. That happens through our groups. So these six weeks, I am preaching on the idea of “Life Is ______,” filling in that blank, sharing stories, and then picking particular portions of Scripture that paint the picture of life. We will do that for six weeks and then literally pick up again in First Corinthians 13. We have three more sermons to go through before moving into some other things.
Preaching: You speak in Seattle and L.A., and you mentioned Guadalajara. Do you speak there, or do you have a Spanish-speaking campus pastor? How do you operate that site?
Judah: We have a campus pastor. He and his wife grew up in Mexico, and they live there. They were on our staff in Seattle for seven years, and he’s helped me with all my writing. He’s a genius. He is bilingual, and right now, we have a Spanish-speaking service, and we are going to do both. We are going to do DVDs where I speak, obviously in English, and it’s actually in a really cool club-restaurant there in Guadalajara. It’s an authentic, genuine community, and I love the people; I love the city. It’s new and organic, and growing—it’s really special to have.
Preaching: Judah, who have been the influencers in your ministry life?
Judah: Probably goes back a little bit, but certain writers: Martin Lloyd Jones, Gordon Fee, John Piper and his writings, C.S. Lewis. Then there are other modern writers. There’s certainly Billy Graham and his commitment to character and being a man of integrity. My dad is the ultimate influence in my life and my hero.
Pastor Brian Houston from Hillsong Church is my pastor. I believe pastors need pastors, so that’s a real relationship for me—and Pastor Frank Damezio in Portland and Pastor Ken Wilde. If you’re looking for someone surrounded by pastors, I am the poster child. I am committed to being accountable, and accountability to me is not those men calling me every day; it is me calling them and staying connected and committed to being a man of character.
I have a team surrounding me and men of God who are influential in my life. I’m grateful to sit here and say, yes, I am a pastor; but I have pastors who pastor me, and they often help me in very difficult challenging moments for sure.
Preaching: That is a good model for pastors to have those other pastors you can call. Are there preachers you listen to on a regular basis?
Judah: Well, I just left Catalyst west coast, and Catalyst is a great organization and a great family to me. There’s Craig Groeschel and Andy Stanley. I consider them to be voices in my life that I can go to, and I am so mesmerized by Andy Stanley; the profound clarity and practicality with which he talks is just riveting. I always have been moved by Craig Groeschel, and he has one of the most brilliant minds in Christendom. I love listening to him, and I love listening to Pastor Brian; any chance I get, I am downloading podcasts and listening. One of my best friends is Carl Lentz. Anytime I can hear Carl speak, I always am encouraged by his heart for people.
I love preaching. I love listening to preachers who maybe many people wouldn’t know, but I love listening. The list goes on…Louis Giglio is ridiculous. I listen to Louis, and I love listening to other great preachers.
Preaching: What are you learning about preaching these days? Is there some area in which you would like to grow?
Judah: Yeah, I grew up using a lot of metaphors. My tradition is charismatic—I would consider myself somewhere in the middle now—but I am still charismatic. We preach a lot of metaphors and a lot of allegorical sermonizing, which I still love; but I can see that in my journey God has added so much more. I love verse-by-verse, and I love unpacking and explaining the text in its literal, contextual state. I really enjoy that. I guess my personal journey has led me to appreciate both approaches. I heard Eugene Peterson talk about having “a concrete commitment to the text,” as opposed to the allegorical approach. I love both approaches, and I am always challenging myself.
I listen to my sermons at least once after preaching them if not two, three or four times. I think we are living in a day and age when we can’t make assumptions. This is a focus for me right now: Assumptions can cost you, and we can’t make any. I have been guilty of assuming everybody in the room gets it and knows the Bible study and knows the biblical character, or they know the life and ministry of Jesus, they know His birth, and they know He started around age 30. They don’t. They actually don’t. We are dealing with an era and generation of people who don’t know. They don’t know the Bible is worth reading or worthwhile, so this is how L.A. has changed me.
Each time I get up in front of our community, I quickly give a little synopsis of the validity of Scripture and why we are going there, why we read it, and we aren’t going to read the whole book today, and here’s the context and the portion we are reading. Here are the players involved and the city the letter was being written coming to or whatever. No assumptions allowed. I’ve encouraged all the teachers in our community that they are not allowed to make assumptions. They need to explain themselves and unpack the text, and bring everybody onto the same page and along the journey so no one is left behind. They’ve taken time to go to the building and sit there; they want to hear what you have to say.
I don’t think people are checking out because they’re selfish and mean. I think they check out during the sermons because they don’t get it. They actually don’t get the assumptions you’re making. They’ve dropped off; they don’t know why this should matter or that they should listen. I’m really challenging myself to whatever approach I am taking, allegorical or whatever, that I make sure there are no assumptions. I am explaining and unpacking everything for the array of people who might be there on any particular day in the community.
Preaching: One last question: If an angel showed up on your doorstep one day and said, “Judah, this Sunday is going to be your last sermon,” what would you want it to be?
Judah: The love of God. I would do my best. It would be a long sermon! I must admit, it would be a solid hour; if they gave me two, I’d take them! I would do everything within my grace to explain one last time—probably with a lot of tears and a lot of laughter and a lot of emotion—the extraordinary, expensive and relentless, unconditional love of God, which has changed my existence.
I think it is the most formidable powerful force in the universe. Our God is agape. He is the personification of unconditional love, and it is His essence. If you remove agape from our story and narrative, it literally is hollow. It falls flat and is empty. I would do everything in my power to preach that one last time.
My friend Carl Lentz and I have a motto: Preach as if it’s your last time; and if it doesn’t burn in you, it won’t burn in others. John Wesley said if you burn, people will come from all over to watch you burn with that passion and love for God and that relationship with Jesus.