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Interview with Dan Kimball: Preaching to People Who Don't Like the Church

  • Michael Duduit
  • 2009 7 Jan
Interview with Dan Kimball: Preaching to People Who Don't Like the Church

Dan Kimball is pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, Calif., and one of the key thinkers and leaders among young evangelical pastors. His newest book is

They Like Jesus But Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations (Zondervan). He recently visited with Preaching editor Michael Duduit about what he is learning about how people today view Jesus and the church—and what we can do about that.

Preaching: Your most recent book tells us that people today like Jesus, but they don’t like the church. What is it that they don’t like about the church?

Kimball: What I discovered was that—as many church leaders know and realize—there is an increasing number of people, especially under the age 35, who are part of a mass group that is leaving the church. And it got me really wondering why this is happening. I started hearing, “I’m spiritual but not religious” a lot. I wanted to know what that meant, so I started talking to people in the Santa Cruz County area in northern California where I’m from.

And I started hearing patterns of “Yes, I respect what I know of the person of Jesus, but I don’t like church.” And then I would ask, “Can you define who you mean by ‘Jesus’?” And often it was Jesus as more like a Gandhi figure or a Martin Luther King Jr., figure—a spiritual figurehead, not a divine Jesus who will be our judge and Savior.

Preaching: They have a cultural image of Jesus.

Kimball: Yes, And then I started asking, “Well, what about the church?” Instantly there were these words: judgmental, homophobic, oppresses women, male dominated, boys club, arrogant about other world religions and fundamentalists. It was funny because several said, “I know the Bible more than those Christians do that are in universities studying the Bible in their English Lit classes, etc.” And so I started hearing these patterns.

It was really mind and heart opening to me because I started understanding that there’s validity to what they’re saying. The reason there’s validity is because most of them hadn’t known too many Christians, or the ones they did see generally were aggressive street evangelists; or they were making opinions about Christians by those in the media. So I just started seeing this dichotomy of liking Jesus but not the church.

Then there’s a book that came out six months after They Like Jesus But Not the Church. It was by Dave Kinnaman and is called UnChristian. What I love about that book was that it was backing up what I was saying with statistics. It was almost the same exact thing. And then I got an e-mail from Ed Stetzer, right when the article in USA Today came out about young adults and leaving the church, and he just goes, “You’re right.” (Laughter) He was talking about the same thing. The more studies ... that’s what’s happening out there today.

Preaching: To add to the data—I read something Thom Rainer wrote recently that said 70 percent of those between 18 and 22 are leaving our churches. He was pointing out the reality that young people grow up in our churches, but it makes so little connection with them—for whatever reasons—that when they become independent, they walk away from church. Statistically it doesn’t matter whether they go away to college or not—the numbers are almost the same.

Kimball: Yeah, I wouldn’t doubt that.

Preaching: Although you started your questioning in northern California, this is something that’s happening really across the culture, isn’t it?

Kimball: It’s at a national level. I think there are some parts of the country that are maybe not quite at that place yet. Maybe they are a little more conservative—there’s still a very strong church.

Preaching: There’s a bit of the Bible Belt still left.

Kimball: Right, but then they’re dealing with other issues—is church simply a social thing that people go to and grow out of? But as UnChristian is showing, it’s a national trend. That survey was national, not just in one place.

Preaching: As you’re talking with people, one thing you note is that often it’s not the real Jesus they say they like. It’s a caricature of Jesus. When people encounter the real Jesus, how different is the response?

Kimball: The messenger about Jesus [can’t just say], “Well, you’ve got Jesus wrong. He ain’t like Gandhi. That’s offensive. He’s the Son of God!” That can shut people out. A lot of preaching forms have been more like that.

But if they trust the messenger, you can do a lot with asking questions, dialoguing more. Where they trust me or whoever it might be, then you start saying, “Well, you know, Jesus taught this,” because then if you show His words about things from the Scriptures they might say, “Oh, I didn’t realize He said that. What do you mean by that?” So it’s an entry point.

I actually don’t mind at all that they might have a Gandhi-like opinion of Jesus to start because that is the entry point into talking further about it. And it’s just like you’re getting to know someone. I’d get to know you if we started hanging out. Our conversations would start getting deeper and deeper, and they may also get deeper and deeper about what you know about Jesus. Not everybody will believe—some people reject the gospel when they hear it. They’ll say, “I don’t want it; I don’t believe that about Jesus.” But then others don’t. They’ve just never heard it like that. That’s why I have so much optimism about what’s going on.

Preaching: How can churches and church leaders respond to this reality?

Kimball: I think the biggest thing a church leader can do is see himself and his church as a missional training center. We’ve got to start thinking, “If our church and our leaders were lifted from whatever town we’re in and put in rural China or somewhere else, we’d probably go about things differently because then all of a sudden we are all missionaries in this foreign culture.”

You would study the people there. You’d study what their values are. You’d study what their religious beliefs are. All of that is very accepted. You probably wouldn’t send people into the streets to start yelling out bad things about Buddha or Mohammad. Most of the ways missionaries work is through relationships. They start praying for someone, meet with someone and start talking.

I think as a church leader, the primary thing we can do is start seeing the people of our churches like missionaries. They need preaching and teaching to equip them and to build them up as believers. They need strong communities so that they’re cared for and they’re prayed for and they have each other for support. But when you train them, that that’s not the end. Our purpose is to be out in the world so that all these perceptions of “not liking the church” can start being broken and the stereotypes can be changed. It’s us getting Christians—who are living out Galatians 5 “fruit of the spirit” lives—out into the world so that people start learning not all Christians are like the stereotypes they have. That’s the most primary thing a church leader can do.

Preaching: Specifically in terms of preaching, how do you see that attitude impact preaching style or content?

Kimball: My first several years in preaching, I mimicked what I was modeled. It wasn’t until I started rethinking things, asking “What does preaching mean?” The word means to proclaim or to herald. Yes, you proclaim and herald with words, but what are other ways? Then I started studying learning styles. If you are a preacher or teacher who wants people to learn, there are a diversity of learning styles out there. Yet we tend to preach only with words, and auditory learning is not for everyone—only 20 percent of people learn best through words only. So as the preacher I started saying, “All right, how can I also incorporate visuals as I am teaching with words? It’s hard in a large worship gathering, but how can I also stop and even have some type of quick input questions? How can we set up alternative places so when the music is going on after the teaching, those that may learn kinesthetically will then be able to go and even interact with some prayer stations about what we’ve just taught?”

I wanted to then expand the approach—how you can proclaim and herald what you’re preaching in the Scriptures for more impactful learning. It’s just studying culture, looking at how people learn, and then expanding things and not being afraid to break out of the systems of preaching we’ve been locked into before.

Preaching: A few years ago we talked about your own church, Vintage Faith, and some of the things you were trying to do in terms of preaching and worship there. You were talking about using the arts as a teaching tool, for example, in supplementing a preaching model that is significant in terms of solid teaching material and then kind of accented it with some of these other areas. How has that continued to develop?

Kimball: We still have the sermons that are usually 35 to 40 minutes, sometimes 45. I’m trying to keep it at 35 minutes, but they seem to always go long! Our biggest change since I talked to you last is that we’ve switched buildings, into more of a Presbyterian building—all pews, stage up in the front. It’s drastically changed the flexibility and freedom of what we had to do. We were going to be taking out all the pews and redoing where the stage is and everything in the summer. We’ve actually been hindered in some of the expression due to the room environment. But any time possible we will still be using different expressions to do teaching.

At Easter, everyone’s hand is going to get stamped with the word hope when they leave, so people will be walking around Easter brunch and all afternoon with this big word hope on their hands to remember a little bit longer. We’re going to set up the room and have the word everywhere—just thematically. We’re going to have them write something out that will be getting posted on the walls so for the next series, so that what they have created in the gathering, will then be up on the walls for the next five weeks. We continue to think through things to encompass different ways people learn, express, worship and can remember. So it keeps going. I can’t wait until we get to remodel the space because that will really help us.

Preaching: How would you say sermons you do in your congregation vary from what you would see in a more traditional evangelical church?

Kimball: I didn’t grow up with sermons; I grew up outside of the church. However, when I was in the Bible church there was excellent preaching—I mean, it was top-notch preaching. However, what I found was a lot of times the sermon was all wrapped up with some sort of summary and ending: here are three things to do as a result, three application steps. I think what was so traditional for me in contemporary preaching was that there are three steps to solve everything! I don’t want to say I don’t do application, but maybe it’s not quite as tidy.

Or when I’ve been to the older church and listened to the pastor, the language was different. It almost felt like he was becoming a different person. He got up and would go like (voice deepens), “Brothers and sisters, let us...” I’d say, “Hey! Stop! What are you doing? That’s not you anymore! Who are you becoming?”

He’s such a wonderful guy. He’d say, “But that’s the way I was trained.” And I’m like, “But then you become somebody else. Just be yourself and communicate.” That’s when he’s doing best.

So tradition in that sense can be artificial, you know what I mean? Younger people in particular are saying, “Don’t be artificial. Speak real and don’t be afraid to tackle the hard things. And sometimes don’t have the application points if there aren’t any.” A lot of that, I’d say, is different from maybe some traditional preaching.

Preaching: You’ve also written a lot in the area of the emerging church, which has been an ongoing conversation and a source of interest and even fascination to people not only inside that movement but also those standing on the outside. A lot of pastors are trying to figure out what’s going on and trying to understand the emergent conversation that’s taking place. What are some of the directions in which you see that movement going?

Kimball: In the beginning, probably in like the mid-’90s, the topic that got us all together was mainly, “Where’s Gen X?” That was the term that was used. “Where are the Baby Busters?” And that was the common point of connection for those who got involved in this. The term emerging church simply meant “those who are trying to be missional and thinking about evangelism and what are we doing for emerging generations in our emerging culture.” And that was kind of somewhat generic and somewhat open. Through the past 10 years it’s become different—theological definitions and distinctions are becoming more emphasized than evangelism and “Where’s the 18- to 35- year-olds?” As a result, I think the conversation was once evangelism-driven and is now theological.

Ed Stetzer has probably done a good job in the wording of the primary divisions. There’s a group he calls the Relevants—those who are basically evangelicals who are passionate about evangelism and not afraid to break tradition or change forms and expression of ministry, how people learn, or even ecclesiology in the sense of “What does leadership look like? What does community look like?” I would personally fit in that particular realm—I don’t like the word relevant, but that’s that.

Then there’s the group that he called the Reformers who committed to Calvinism basically—and that’s a major part of my identity and all of the theology that goes with that—but committed very much to evangelism and breaking forms of tradition for the sake of the mission. And that’s the Acts 29 Network, Mark Driscoll and those kind of guys.

Then there’s the Revisionist group, ones who are rethinking theology and possibly even repeating the patterns of the past of starting in one strain and shifting into something more like mainline type of churches.

You know, the warning is always, “What about those Revisionists?” And even then there is such diversity that it’s hard to say, “Oh, Revisionists are heading down this bad, ultra-liberal path...” It’s not true for all of them. Some of them maybe, but not all of them. You really have to look at individual churches. I am personally not comfortable at all with some of the things that are being done or talked about with some of the emerging or emergent leaders. And so that’s why I don’t see myself in the same grouping as some of them theologically.

With the emerging church, they may look different and have different theology. So it’s hard to categorize. There is no one “all emerging churches are like this.” That’s when the criticism becomes invalid—when you read critics who will say, “The emerging church is...” and they start saying these things. They’re usually talking more about the extreme liberal, to use that word, branches or streams of it. I would actually even say that’s probably the smaller percentage.

The important thing is: Are you a missional church in what you’re doing? The best thing the emerging church has done, in my opinion, is to say to the church at large, “Let’s not forget about people outside the church. Let’s be sharper in our theology. We can’t just go around and assume—let’s be more theologically thinking, not necessarily changing your theology, but let’s teach about it more. Let’s not just be so surface. And for the sake of the mission of Jesus and the gospel, let’s not be afraid to break some traditions and forms of ministry that are not effective anymore in our culture. Don’t change the gospel, but don’t be afraid.” I think that’s the refreshing part of what’s going on.

Preaching: I think there is some solid, biblical preaching and teaching going on on within many of the churches that would self-describe themselves as emerging.

Kimball: Absolutely. I mean, there are some very passionate people. I’ve been speaking with a couple of leaders lately—we’re talking about this a lot. There are a lot of us who are very passionate and have a high commitment to Scripture and the authority of the Scripture, a very high commitment to evangelism, and that’s kind of uniting us. When you get criticized about forms—I get asked, “Are you New Age ’cause you’re doing all that stuff?”—I’m just trying to help people learn the Scriptures better by allowing some other forms of teaching.

Now, there is valid criticism—there’s very valid criticism. I am in absolute disagreement with some of the theology and things going on out there among some. But one doesn’t represent the other. I wish the critics would understand that more and back it up by names rather than just saying generic statements.

I would just love to keep my passion. I say, “Let’s be worshipers of God on this mission in community and theologians and to be training people and multiplying leaders.” I think that’s why preaching is still so important—because it is how so many people do hear. So I think preaching is critical, and multiplying preachers and leaders is critical. Let’s keep continuing the mission but not get led astray, especially being in the culture that we’re in.