Chris Seay is pastor of Ecclesia, a Christian community in Houston recognized for exploring spiritual questions of culture and breaking new ground in art, music and film. Seay is the author of The Gospel According to Tony Soprano (Relevant), The Tao of Enron (NavPress) and The Gospel Reloaded (Pinon). He and his family live in Houston.
You’ve been a pastor for 15 years. Based on what you’re seeing at Ecclesia and throughout the culture, what is the current state of outreach in America today?
I think we’re in big trouble. We’re still expecting people to come to us based on our terms. We’re beating people with propositions and in turn we’ve limited our understanding of truth. In Scripture, Christ talks about two kinds of truth. He speaks truth, but He also says, “I am the truth.” We’ve got to embody truth as a community. Instead, we’re using it as a beating stick.
We assume people know enough of the story, and all we need to do is fill in the highlights (i.e., Roman Road or the Four Spiritual Laws). But a lot of people I’m dealing with don’t know the story of God.
How has the worldview of today’s Church changed?
I think we had what we thought was a Christian worldview, but I’m not so sure it really was. I think it’s more often about Western modernity than it is about Christ. We have to ask ourselves, “What does Christianity really look like if we strip away the Western ideals that we’ve inherited since the Reformation?”
We’re in love with our methods right now, and the reality is that good evangelism and good outreach are always going to be missional, local and contextual, which means we all have to be thinkers and missiologists—every one of us.
If you boil it down, Christianity is all about incarnation. God became man to draw close to us and then left the body of Christ/the Church to embrace creation with His redeeming love. We are doing a lousy job when it comes to living incarnationally. A recent survey listed evangelical Christians as the third most hated people group in the United States. The culture perceives us as dogmatic and unloving. That is not what the Gospel is about.
How have you seen the use of pop culture and cultural context provide a platform for engaging people spiritually?
I received a letter from a guy in the mafia who came across my book, The Gospel According to Tony Soprano (Relevant). He had read it four times. He said, “Everywhere I’ve looked, I’ve seen no hope. For my kind, I feel like the only choice is a one-way Cadillac ride to hell.” I sent him a Bible, and he has read the Gospel of John several times. He’s still living that life, but we’re in constant communication.
Still, some pastors ask me how I could write a book about “The Sopranos,” saying there’s nothing about God in that show. But I see God all over it every time I watch it. The main character is searching for faith and meaning. He thinks he’s God, and he’s not, just like the man who sent me that letter, and just like a lot of us.
I bump into people everywhere that followed the implosion of Enron, or loved the “Matrix” films. I get to casually introduce the spiritual things I learned from the film or by interviewing key people at Enron. I hand them a book, and the conversation blossoms over e-mail and phone calls.
My biggest prayer for church leaders is that they would have eyes to see where the story of redemption is beginning to play out.
At Ecclesia, what does salvation look like?
It never looks exactly the same. I can tell you what it doesn’t look like. It’s not strictly about cognitive belief. Assenting to the cognitive truths of Christianity is not the same thing as being a Christian. I believe that if we know Christ in this form, in this day and age, we have to know His body. It’s always communal with a cognitive element.
Do you talk about sin?
Yes. Every week. I tell people that regardless of whether you’re in the faith or you’re coming to faith, if you skip this process of repentance, you get nowhere.
Do you have invitations or altar calls? Do you operate with a point of conversion at your church?
Not as a prayer or an altar call. When Scripture says, “If you confess with your mouth … ,” I don’t believe that’s just about saying or repeating words. I think it means that truth is always flowing out of who we are and what we do. So usually conversion comes at a different point.
Again, it’s always communal. Someone might begin to say, “You know what, I took communion tonight.” And we say, “What does that mean to you?” I’ve heard people respond, “I’m really at this place of saying God’s doing something with me.” That’s when we might say, “You’ve crossed the threshold of the faith.”
What do you identify as the greatest obstacle to reaching this generation?
We don’t really know what Christianity is. We’re selling something that’s not real. I’m afraid that we’re still in some ways “pimping” a gospel that’s not the real Gospel.
What is the greatest opportunity?
To embrace our creative calling. Whatever creative call God has given us, we need to begin to tell the story of God with our mouths and with things we can touch, taste and see. If we do that, I think we’re going to see the Gospel in its fullness instead of in this narrow slice that people often see. The common perception of people is that they see us coming and we’re saying, “We’re coming to rescue you.” And they say, “It looks like you’re coming to hit or attack me!”
How do you keep the “fire” of outreach lit in your own heart?
Every time I tell the story of God, I realize I want to keep telling the story better and better. Seeing someone so far from faith begin to hear the story of Christ is a beautiful thing—there’s just nothing like it. Some of us have let the fire go out because we’re not engaging culture. Yet God has created us all imago dei (in His image), and part of that is about having to tell His story. For me, it’s about seeing people like a guy in the mafia—people who aren’t going to pick up the latest Christian living book—engage the story of God. That’s what I get fired up about.