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Profile: Judah Smith
In a confessional interview, Judah Smith talks to Justin Brierley about celebrity, significance and pastoring Justin Bieber.
If church pastors could ‘trend’, then #JudahSmith would probably be at the top of the list right now.
The über-cool US pastor from Seattle is an aficionado of social media (he has more than 250,000 followers on Twitter) who regularly posts pictures of himself with celebrity friends such as Justin Bieber and pro golfer Bubba Watson.
Smith readily admits he is probably too attached to Twitter and Instagram. ‘I’m checking them before even reading scripture or engaging with God,’ he candidly confesses. Pastors of an older generation might be scandalised at the admission, but 34-year-old Smith is at the forefront of a new wave of young church leaders who have grown up alongside a digital revolution where it’s ok to be human.
When his father passed away in 2009, Smith took over leadership of The City Church, Seattle. With Judah and wife Chelsea at the helm, the church immediately began to experience unprecedented growth. There are now more than 7,000 in attendance across several locations.
It’s not hard to see why. His preaching is passionate, funny and has the pulse of the culture. His book Jesus Is____ (Thomas Nelson) has also become a bestseller. Before he took over as senior leader he was the youth pastor, and the subsequent growth has predominantly been among 20 and 30-somethings.
In person, Judah Smith is casual and talkative with a self-deprecating sense of humour that frequently punctuates his serious moments. A sports fanatic, he is crazy about golf and makes a point of praying for his local football team, the Seattle Seahawks, at every service. There is a southern twang in his voice which ratchets up into full-blooded gospel preacher mode when his sermons get animated (which is often). What’s more, he carries off the trendy-oversized-glasses-and-buttoned-up-to-the-collar-shirt look with hipster ease. In the same get-up Nicky Gumbel would look weird. Smith just looks, well, cool.
But there is substance as well as style to this pastor. He’s a firm charismatic ‐ a prophetic experience in his teens set him on a course for preaching ministry, and his meaty sermons always put Jesus at the centre. In recent years Smith has appeared at both Hillsong and HTB conferences in the UK. His church runs the Alpha course and he claims a special affinity for Britain, having spent part of his early life in London.
I love hanging out with young guys who have a desire to follow Jesus. Justin Bieber just happens to be one of the most famous human beings on the planet
Smith may have wide appeal, but his own circles of friendship are surprisingly broad too. Influential pastor pals include Mark Driscoll and Joel Osteen ‐ two names you wouldn’t normally put together. Driscoll is a pull-no-punches Calvinist who hasrebuked Osteen from the pulpit for his feel-good ‘health and wealth’ message. But Judah Smith has preached at both their churches and describes Driscoll as a ‘big brother’ while Osteen is ‘the single most Christlike person I’ve ever spent time with’
With Smith’s global influence now on a par with both those leaders, he is choosing to draw ‘circles of love’ instead of lines of division. ‘I want to be a big person, not a small person,’ he says. ‘I don’t mean that in terms of influence or prominence, I mean that in terms of heart and soul and character and love.’
Your father, Wendell, was a big influence on you, wasn’t he?
I’m a seventh generation preacher, so it’s quite a legacy. Dad started the church 20 years ago, with about 20 people in a ballroom of a hotel. It’s grown considerably since then. Watching my dad preach was pretty special. I always wanted to be like my dad ‐ he was probably a better man outside the pulpit than he was in ‐ and he was a great preacher.
So was it a big responsibility when you took over The City Church in 2009?
Yes, I partly felt tricked into it! Dad was battling cancer, and so they asked me to be the preaching pastor. Little did I knowthat was just a set-up to take the leadership of the church. I’d pastored young people for 12 years, but adults are very complicated and dramatic.
In the fast-paced media world, is there still a place for preaching sermons?
I’m there preaching up to 50 minutes. I think much of society is exasperated by fast-paced images and media, and would probably like to push pause on life. I’m a little bit of a throwback in that I can get quite emotional with my sermons. But I think it’s the most important thing in the world to tell people about Jesus, so I get pretty pumped about it.
You are co-pastor with your wife, Chelsea. What are some of the challenges when you’re both involved in the ministry?
I think date nights (which we have once a week) can be a little like ‘business night’, where we’re talking through details of the church and doing calendar work. That’s when we have to make a deliberate decision to say, ‘We’re going to put that aside.’ But for the most part it’s a total joy, and what we do, we do together. It’s the way I was raised.
Growing up, was there a defining moment when faith became real for you?
Yes. At nine years old, I had a real sense of God telling me that I was going to preach, then at 16 I had a real supernatural encounter with God. At the risk of sounding incredibly spiritual, I saw things in a dream state, visions, some of which have come to pass in my life.
We often seem to be answering questions no one's asking
We had a pastor friend of ours praying for me. All I remember is that I woke up, probably 45 minutes later, and knew that I had seen scenes in my mind. It was me preaching and leading and teaching. At the time I just wanted to be a basketball player. That didn’t pan out, but I guess the preaching is what God wanted me to do.
You aren’t the only influential pastor in Seattle. You are friends with Mark Driscoll. What do you both have in common?
First of all, a passion for Jesus. We want to be good missionaries, and Mark has modelled that so well. He’s passionate about the Bible, passionate about God, his presence, the Holy Spirit. Mark is amazing that way.
You do have your differences, though. Unlike Driscoll, you’re comfortable with women in leadership, aren’t you?
Yes. Sometimes it seems a bit like semantics. I know that Mars Hill [Driscoll’s church] will allow women to share, or do teaching of some kind, but it’s put in terms of ‘exhortation’, and this and that. In our church, we just tend to call it preaching. My wife’s function is as the pastor. She’s up there in front of people, and it’s not just announcements ‐ it’s Bible teaching.
You’re quite broad in terms of the people you are friends with. You’ve preached at Lakewood, Houston, the church of Joel Osteen.
Pastor Joel is probably the single most Christlike person I’ve ever spent time with. He is the most caring, considerate, compassionate, loving person you’ll ever meet. And that is just flat convicting to me personally ‐ how much he seems to be like Jesus. I can imagine hanging out with Jesus would be a lot like hanging out with pastor Joel Osteen. Honestly, it really is amazing ‐ and he’s like that all the time. Ask his wife and his kids, and his son Jonathan, who’s a great friend of mine.
So you reject some people’s cynical attitude towards his ‘health and wealth’ message?
You can’t go through your life drawing lines of division. I think you’ve got to draw circles of love. I do know that God’s love is expansive and amazing, and I’ve seen a lot of people get saved at Lakewood Church and through pastor Joel Osteen’s preaching.
You have a book and DVD series called Jesus Is _____. You left a blank space. What kind of responses did you get?
I live in one of the more unreached, un-churched cities in America. We’ve got to start a dialogue and that’s the heart around the project.
We had major atheist sites take notice. We had porn sites take notice. They seemed to just engage and jump right into it. To me, that’s what was so exciting ‐ and it gets messy, and it gets dirty, and it gets confusing at times. But I think the times necessitate that we engage lost people who haven’t met Jesus.
I think it keeps us really honest as Christians, particularly as preachers. We often seem to be answering questions no one’s asking. But when you really get into the trenches with humanity, you recognise that people are desperate and hurting and broken, and what they really need is a simple and clear message of Jesus and the fact that he does love humanity.
You are pastor to the pop star Justin Bieber. How did your friendship begin?
Let this be a lesson to everyone, everywhere, who preaches ‐ you never know who’s listening. His mom came to a conference and heard me speak. She got a couple of my cassette tapes, and would play them for him while he fell asleep at night. When we first met several years ago, he said, ‘You used to put me to sleep with your preaching.’ I said, ‘Justin, that’s not what preachers want to hear. This relationship is not getting off on the right foot here!’
What input have you had in his life?
I’d say we’re very close. I love him dearly, and we talk nearly every week. I’ve learned a lot from going on this journey with Justin and being with him on certain tour stops. I love hanging out with young guys who have a desire to follow Jesus. This young man just happens to be one of the most famous human beings on the planet. That creates a unique approach to his existence.
Often the media focus on negative things going on in his life. But would you say he’s still going strong in his faith?
Absolutely. I think he legitimately loves Jesus and wants to follow him in an authentic way. It’s just processing through the unique context he finds himself in, which ‐ gosh, it’s not easy.
Celebrity culture is so pervasive now. People are measured by the number of Twitter followers they have…
There’s a scoreboard!
Exactly. Is there a danger of Christians buying into that culture of popularity?
Yes, I think I can speak from personal experience. I grew up playing sports where there’s a scoreboard. But now there’s a scoreboard every day of my life. How many likes and how many friends and how many followers ‐ even the terms are hilarious. Yet I find myself at times aspiring to gain in those categories ‐ why does that add value to my life?
We have a brand new challenge on our hands as Jesus’ followers, called to serve first and not be served, called to be like Jesus and think of others before ourselves ‐ yet we have these vehicles now that breed a small form of narcissism.
I speak from my own glaring shortcomings and weaknesses ‐ getting up in the morning, my knee-jerk reaction is to go and check Twitter and Instagram before even reading scripture or engaging with God.
What does Jesus have to say to all that?
You look at the life and ministry of Jesus, and his knee-jerk reaction was others, it was service. When Jesus met a person socially, his first thought would be how he could add value to them and serve them.
It seems like these media have created a bit of a reaction in my life that’s a little bit more me-centred. I find myself sometimes on emotional waves ‐ this is so embarrassing to admit ‐ that are actually connected to photos or tweets that I post. I’m internally thinking ‘What is wrong with me right now? If people only knew!’
I think taking time away from them ‐ shutting down the phone at times ‐ has brought a little bit more Jesus focus, and in some cases a little more sanity, and a little bit more emotional stability.
I guess you’re human, like the rest of us! What advice do you have to those who are trying to be faithful to Christ, with all the pressures of modern life?
The scripture I just love is Matthew 11 where Jesus gives this extraordinary invitation to a new existence, a new world order, a new creation. ‘Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden’. If you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, and religion’s burned you out, ‘Come to me and I will give you rest for your soul.’
I find myself on emotional waves that are connected to tweets that I post
For me, it’s about wanting to practically ‐ literally every day ‐ discover what it means to live from a rested soul. Maybe social media and everything else in our society promote the opposite. But somehow, in the eye of the storm, can we find a true sense of worth and rest and love and peace? In Jesus, we’re home ‐ wherever we are, we’re always home in our soul.