John Ortberg is a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, and the author of If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat (which won a CT Book Award in 2002 in the Christian Living category), The Life You've Always Wanted: Spiritual Growth for Ordinary People, and Love Beyond Reason. Dick Staub recently talked with him about his latest book, Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them, which is also reviewed today on our site.
Why is it important for people to understand that there are no normal people and that everybody's weird?
There's a deep theological issue going on. We tend to think about normal in terms of statistical averages. So if something is common, we think it's normal. But there's deep sense in which, from God's perspective because of the Fall, nobody is normal. Nobody lives up to the norms that God had in mind when he first created human beings.
And yet we still want to connect with "normal" people.
The human longings that are deep inside of us never go away. They exist across cultures; they exist throughout life. When people were first made, our deepest longing was to know and be known. And after the Fall, when we all got weird, it's still our deepest longing—but it's now also our deepest fear.
You know, the old question, How do porcupines make love? The answer is, Very carefully. People who study porcupines say that when it's their mating season—which is quite a short season—they actually do a little dance. There's a love dance of the porcupines. Even for those creatures who can easily create such hurt, it is possible to experience intimacy and community.
Was there something that triggered your desire to write about this?
I teach at a church, but my background is actually in psychology. So I have spent so much time with individuals and with the congregation talking to people about relationships, hearing the same kind of desires and frustrations over and over again.
There are people that believe that if you've found Jesus, you're going to be fixed and then you're going have community. Once God is in your midst, all is going to be well. What's wrong with that thought?
It doesn't remotely resemble reality.
Isn't there supposed to be healing when people find God?
There's supposed to be. And I think for us to pursue it and be open to it and even expect it is a good thing. But in the church, we often confuse what we aspire to with what we've actually achieved. One of the bedrock necessities for relationships is just truth. You can only love and be loved to the extent that you know and are known by somebody. And I think because we want to be and to think of ourselves as people who are more loving and more joyful, often we end up pretending and hiding more in the church than folks do outside.
There's a kind of groupthink that goes on. And that's part of why I think one of the healthiest things for a Christian community is to make sure that there are folks who are not Christians. Otherwise we talk to each other we can reinforce the same thoughts.
What do you mean by that? What are you suggesting?
Sometimes we think about evangelism as a one-way street. But in a Christian community, we can end up reinforcing prejudices and poor thinking. We start to think in black and white terms, and talk about us as the good guys and them as the bad guys.
But when there's somebody in the group who is one of "them," [we notice] this real human being. In some ways they're smarter than me and in some ways they're kinder than me. It forces us to a level of honesty and reality that otherwise we could just ignore.
So what are the implications of that for the small-group movement in churches?
That's a huge issue. One of the concerns I have about the small group movement is how often it gets talked about in terms of affinity: Find people who you like and who you are like and hang out with them. It may be from a numerical point of view that that's the quickest way to grow big numbers in a small group system (which churches sometimes kind of idolize). But the people in the groups won't grow unless they're in groups with folks who are different than them.
But we all want normal people in our lives. You know the movie As Good As It Gets? Toward the end of the movie, Helen Hunt is crying and says, "All I want is a normal boyfriend." And her mom says, "Everybody wants one of those, dear. There is no such thing."
The good news is that once you accept the fact that you're not normal and neither are other people, then authentic community really does become possible. When somebody authentically self-discloses, people are drawn to that like to a magnet. But they're defensive or closed to their weirdness, it becomes a repulsion.
But sometimes disclosure isn't advisable. What kind of limitations should we put on our authenticity?
For any church, authenticity is important because people can smell it when they come in. But there are deep levels of brokenness in everybody's life, and if I tell them to somebody else, they could use that information to hurt me, to hurt my job, to hurt my family. That's where you have to take an appropriate amount of time where I get to know they're trustworthy.
How do you know who the person is that you can trust those deepest secrets with?
You can't force it. You can open yourself up to it, but when that kind of friendship comes, there's always a gift element. There's always a risk involved, too. I always look for somebody who makes me happy when I'm around him. If I don't experience joy when I hear somebody's voice, I can love him, but I'm not going to be in a deep, trusted friendship with him.
You also have to be able to respect their character. When I make a fairly small disclosure, how do they respond? Do they rush to give me advice or do they listen patiently? Do they reciprocate? Do they disclose at an appropriate level or is it all flowing just one way? Do they gossip to other people about it? Do they get judgmental about it? And I think people need to learn to be watching and, in a sense, kind of testing all the time so they can keep moving a relationship deeper.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Visit DickStaub.com for audio and video of his radio program (4-7 p.m. PST), media reviews, and news on "where belief meets real life."
Also appearing on our site today:
Loving 'As Is' People | Everybody's Normal Till You Get To Know Them explores pursuing the dream of community with imperfect people.
PreachingTodayAudio.com, a Christianity Today sister site, offers several of Ortberg's sermons.
Ortberg's articles for Christianity Today include:
The 'Shyness' of God | Self-centeredness is cured by looking deeply within the life of the Trinity (Feb. 16, 2001)
We Can Overcome | A CT forum examines the subtle nature of the church's racial division—and offers hope. With Elward Ellis, Robert Franklin, Charles Lyons, John Ortberg, J.I. Packer, Edward Gilbreath, and Mark Galli (Sept. 29, 2000)
To the Church Which Seeks Seekers (Oct. 25, 1999)
Christendom Must Die | … for the church to live (June 16, 1997)
Do They Know Us by Our Love? | The first casualty of the culture wars is not truth (May 19, 1997)
Surprised by Zoe | Max De Pree marvels at the frailty—and wonder—of his granddaughter's life (Oct. 7, 1996)
Recent Dick Staub Interviews include:
Winning People, Not Arguments | John Stackhouse discusses the evangelistic need for humble apologetics (May 6, 2003)
Francis Schaeffer's Grandson Goes to War | Frank Schaeffer talks about how his views of his country, culture, and prayer changed as his son joined the Marines (Apr. 29, 2003)
Alistair Begg on The Beatles | The author and pastor talks about the Fab Four's cry for "Help" and why no one answered it (Apr. 22, 2003)
Robert Seiple on the War in Iraq | The founder of The Institute for Global Engagement says America suffers from an inconsistency between national values and national interests (Apr. 15, 2003)
Marcia Ford on Christian Misfits | The author of Memoir of a Misfit describes her eccentric family and her faith journey. (Apr. 8, 2003)
War Is Not a Necessary Evil | The author of When God Says War Is Right says early Christians weren't pacifists but looked at the entire Bible for advice on war. (Apr. 8, 2003)
Jim Van Yperen on Church Conflicts | The author of Making Peace: A Guide to Overcoming Church Conflict says the early church was also "full of problems." (Mar. 18, 2003)
Texas Pastor James Robison on the Life-Changing Faith of George W. Bush | The president of Life Outreach International talks about his friend's faith, the moral need of America, and his own conversion. (Mar. 11, 2003)
National Book Award Finalist Ron Hansen on Christian Fiction | It's important to instruct while entertaining, but method can be as important as message, says the author of Isn't It Romantic? and Atticus. (Mar. 4, 2003)
Gods and Generals' Director Links the Civil War with Today | Ron Maxwell talks about the role his faith plays in his career and what attracts him to the generation of the 1860s. (Feb. 25, 2003)
Why Don Richardson Says There's No 'Peace Child' for Islam | The author and missionary says he has tried to find bridge-building opportunities with Islam, but failed. (Feb. 11, 2003)