Chris Seay is the church planter and pastor of Ecclesia in Houston and a widely known author. He has written a number of books, including The Gospel According to Lost, The Gospel According to Tony Soprano and the recently released The Gospel According to Jesus. He recently visited with Preaching editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: After writing The Gospel According to Tony Soprano, you’ve now written The Gospel According to Jesus. It appears that you are moving in the right direction!
Seay: It’s a major improvement over Tony Soprano, let’s just say! I love writing those books, too; and I get to connect with a different audience. My dad was not a fan at first when I wrote The Gospel According to Tony Soprano. He is in the very best way a pragmatic Baptist, so we always believe that if one person came to faith that it was all worth it. We had a mobster come to faith as a result of The Gospel According Tony Soprano, so in the end he was very pleased.
Preaching: What led you to this latest book?
Seay: When I first started to study Greek and Hebrew, the preacher-storyteller within me was dissatisfied with the way we bring out the literary uniqueness in each of the books. Modern Bible translation has thought that we ought to make all the books sound the same so the Bible feels like it’s one book, which ultimately makes it feel less diverse in the literary sense. It doesn’t accentuate the uniqueness of the Psalms and the Hebrew poetry, the very different style of apocalyptic literature, and I thought someone really needs to do that.
I ultimately ended up working with Thomas Nelson to lead a translation project called The Voice that tries to bring out the unique artistic and literary qualities in the original text. In the process of leading that, there’s nothing like spending the last seven years totally immersed in the scriptures and engaging in sometimes very interesting dialogue between artists, writers and biblical scholars.
What we tried to do was spend extra time on the really key phrases. For instance, I would ask people what they thought Christ means. It’s astounding how many people who go to church really believe Christ is Jesus’ last name. It’s a bit depressing for those of us who are pastors and preachers, whose job is to inspire, motivate and teach people and call them to follow Christ.
Some of those places were the Greek and Hebrew terms that we most often translate as “righteousness.” So I started asking people what they believe righteousness to mean, and I was bothered by what I heard. Most of it was a really individualistic understanding of personal piety or morality—trying to be good, do good or do the right thing. That’s a long way from the biblical understanding of righteousness.
So really the birth of the book was formed in those conversations in saying, “What would happen if we misunderstood this key word?” that’s obviously so important in the New Testament. What would we end up with? My conclusion is we end up with a different gospel. So I spend time exegeting those texts. We hired the Barna Group to do some surveys for the book that are on one side depressing and on the other side make a lot of sense—that we’ve ended up where we are given our misunderstanding of key biblical truths.
Preaching: Were there any specific surveys that particularly startled you?
Seay: What startled me the most was that most folks didn’t understand a historic view of this word righteousness and what it means. I thought there would be a tremendous disparity or at least a significant gap between people who go to church on a regular basis and those who do not. I had them segment the folks who go to church once a week and there was almost no difference. We have a startling number of people who said right off the bat, “I have no idea what the term means. I never could attempt to even define it.” Then the folks who try to define it—maybe that’s even the harder part—when you think you know what it means and realize, “Wow, I’m a pretty good ways off.”
Preaching: One of your chapters is called “What Is the Gospel?” How would you describe the gospel—perhaps in a way you would communicate with the audience that comes to Ecclesia?
Seay: A part of what I encourage people to do in the book is just that. I think that’s probably the best thing we can all do—take some time and really ask that question: What does the gospel mean? If we do that well, we’re a good ways down the road of being able to do the job of preaching.
I tell people in that chapter you can’t go out and write a book called The Gospel According to Tony Soprano if you don’t know the gospel according to Jesus. If you can’t lay that out, then we’re going to be in really, really big trouble. My encouragement is for people to come up with their own definition in some way. I go through several different key definitions in that process and ask people to consider those.
I normally have mine put to memory: “The gospel is the good news that God is calling out all people to be redeemed by the power residing in the life, death and ultimate resurrection of Jesus, the liberating King. These called out ones—all of us—are rescued from a life of slavery, sin and failure to become emissaries (as Paul puts it in
I don’t hold up my definition to be a perfect one, but I find the exercise of trying to discern your definition as being helpful. Obviously it always has to center in Christ and what He’s done, but the exercise is really fruitful.
Preaching: This is a particular theological book. What do you as a pastor see as the interaction of preaching and theology?
Seay: I think ultimately as pastors, this is our burden to bear. Again I say burden, as Jesus calls it in
We hear the Sermon on the Mount and hear Jesus say, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” and many folks think the kingdom of God is heaven. They forget Jesus was preaching a declaration of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven and that His righteousness was about morality.
Ultimately as pastors, we bear that burden. It’s our job; it’s our joy; it’s our privilege to bring good theology to the church. Martin Luther would say in terms of his understanding of righteousness, of justification, that we can tell in our understanding of it, from a theological perspective, whether the church was rising or falling. I think he’s right. Luther was right about a lot of things, and this was one of them.
As pastors begin to teach good theology from the pulpit, it doesn’t get us all the way there, but it’s a big step in the right direction. So part of our encouragement—and part of what we appreciate about what you do at Preaching—is just encouraging people to contemplate what good preaching is.
For us, we think that means we have to use a lot of biblical text. At Ecclesia, we’ve got to try to get through a whole chapter in the course of a week. We may not exegete significantly every verse in that chapter, but we need some context for what we’re talking about. I hope that in the next decade, part of what our churches would be marked by—and what really would spur the transformation of culture and the world that we live in—really would begin in the pulpit.
Preaching: If someone was to be a part of Ecclesia, what’s the role of Scripture and the study of Scripture in the life of that church?
Seay: We’re a unique place because we’re in a challenging area of Houston, an area where evangelical churches typically haven’t thrived. Our church is unique in that we’re on a corner surrounded by probably 60 gay bars. It’s kind of the area where people get in trouble, yet we’re these people with a very high view of Scripture. We teach the Scripture often, and hopefully we teach it well.
Our encouragement to people is to read Scripture often. We try to resist jumping around in the Bible when we’re preaching because it’s just too tempting to proof text in that place. We really struggle in some ways for people to understand well what it looks like to be these people who are very open, loving and grace-oriented.
Yet as James reminds us at the end of
People in the pews are a little different. They tend to come at it like, “Well I like this part of the Bible, but I don’t really like that part. So I’m going to take this, and I’m not going to take that.” To read Scripture well, we say the Bible has to stand over us, that it really is exegeting us and our lives. It’s doing that function of looking at our lives and saying, “This isn’t right, and you need more of this. Turn up the volume on this, and have less of it over here.” Hopefully if we’re reading Scripture well, the Scripture is exegeting our lives as families, individuals and communities.
Preaching: You mentioned that in this process you’ve been in you’ve spent seven years immersed in Scripture. How has that process affected your preaching?
Seay: In a lot of beautiful ways. Part of my journey with this entire project—The Voice project that’s published with Thomas Nelson—is that I began trying to be a narrative preacher. I would take a passage, a chapter or a few chapters—I think the first time I did it was when I was preaching through Genesis. I just began to focus on the dialogue points where God would speak and Adam would speak and Eve would speak. I tried to lay it out in Scripture like it was a screen play and think through it as a narrative.
Especially early on I used to say, “Who does Abraham look like to me?” If I was going to be a storyteller of this text, then my imagination had to come alive. So I would begin to picture that Abraham was an older Alan Alda—that was just the face that would come to mind. I forget who I thought Sarah was. We could call her today an Eva Longoria. I would just begin to picture them—who are these people and how are they interacting in the text and how do I really pull out the narrative and the beauty of what is taking place here?
After seven years, we’re close to finishing the Old Testament. I think I see better than ever an overarching story of the Scripture. I think it’s helped, especially in terms of personal evangelism, to be able to sit down with people and know what parts of Scripture to pull out—more than what I did at 25 or 30. Part of it is age and maturity, but the uniqueness of being immersed in that narrative has helped me draw from it much more easily in spontaneous moments of evangelism or in preaching—to have the narrative of all these prophets ready and laid out.
Because I lead this project, I’ve been forced just to read Scripture continually and see the story play out. There’s really no substitute for it. You can’t get it in school or a classroom. I think we have to read the Bible well outside of that context.
Preaching: As a pastor, what are you learning about preaching these days?
Seay: It’s a little bit different for me recently because we are doing so many more services than we’ve ever done. Our church goes to five services this next week. It becomes a little bit of a marathon.
I’ve learned more and more how much I love it. For many of us who get to do this work every Sunday, we realize what a privilege it is.
I also realize that my time away is more important than my study time. When I pull away with my wife and kids and I’m not studying or doing anything directly related to preaching, I’m becoming a better preacher. We’ve had a lot of tragedy and difficulty recently in our community. Last Saturday I was behind on sermon prep, but I spent the day with the family at a water park. Spending the day with the family was better for my preaching than sitting and studying. When I did sit down, I was in a more fruitful place than ever before.
We always end (our worship) with the Eucharist. We celebrate communion every week, but it’s helpful for me. I feel like along the way of maturity, I’ve become better every message, with every sermon pointing more clearly to Jesus. That unique work of dialing in directly to Jesus and His atoning work for us on the cross, that is what preaching is all about. So the weeks that I’ve failed to do that well, I think we all know what that feels like—it leaves a taste in your mouth until you get up there and correct it.