When Lou Huesmann came to Grace Long Beach 24 years ago, the historic church had known the heights of success and the challenges of decline. Some were expecting Huesmann to preach the church back to its former glory. Instead, God began to transform the church's definition of success as well as Huesmann's vision for pastoral ministry. Leadership Journal's editors spoke with Huesmann about how embracing the full narrative of Scripture convinced him to change his ministry scorecard. (To watch a video of Huesmann discussing this topic, click here.)
Why did you become a pastor?
My dream for ministry was pretty simple. I just wanted to help people. In my own life, I had experienced the reality of Christ through a church. I went from microbiology to ministry because I wanted to bring something to people that would have a lasting impact on their lives.
How did seminary equip you to do that?
It equipped me to understand the text of Scripture so I could preach it. At the time I went to seminary, the emphasis was on preaching. In fact, it was all about preaching. The assumption was that if you preach well and you have confidence in God's Word, it would change everyone's life. Good preaching could take care of everything.
You sound unconvinced.
At that time there was a tremendous dualism. Culture was viewed with suspicion. You preach the Word to help Christians be more Christian, not to help them engage the culture. A pastor's job was to work hard at understanding the Scripture, not to work hard at understanding the culture or understanding what people are doing in the world.
So what did your ministry look like early on?
I wanted to see people's lives changed, and early on I understood that to mean getting more people involved in Bible studies and the church. Looking back, I see that it was a very narrow and somewhat naive view.
Narrow in what way?
There is a narrative of success in American churches that celebrates size and programs, budgets and buildings. We celebrate what we value: how many people are coming? How big is the building? These things may not be spoken, but that is the scorecard.
That puts immense pressure on pastors to keep things at church growing. It also puts tremendous internal focus on sustaining the church. I was never taught in my training to focus on those things, but it didn't take me very long to pick up the message that church activity was the scorecard. So my own ministry became about getting people involved in the church to grow it.
Was that true when you came to Grace Long Beach?
When I came here in 1990, this church was almost 80 years old. It had a giant footprint, and a historic presence in Long Beach. What was communicated to me was that if I preach well, then I will fill up this building, and we will all feel successful again.
I felt this great tension in preaching. Why was I doing it? To prove that I could keep the legacy of this church going? So that people would celebrate me as a hero? Was preaching how to make the church great, or my name great? I had to sort through a lot of motives and it didn't happen instantaneously. A lot of these motives can be masked as spiritual. We can convince ourselves and others that we're doing it for Jesus, when the reality is we are self-serving. It's very possible for us to deceive ourselves.
So the temptation is to build our kingdom rather than God's?
Right. But that began changing for me when I started facing the reality of what God was doing in the world. As I read the Scripture, I don't see where God is concerned with church buildings or even the size of a congregation. I see God wanting to do something in the world. That began to shift my thinking and the way that I see people.
Were they just here to serve the church? Maybe my vision, my agenda for what we were to be about, was too narrow. I realized I was taking my scorecard and imposing it on these people. I was telling them that what you do for the church really matters, but not what you're doing the other six days of the week. Seeing God's larger work in the world brought clarity to me. We began saying to people, "Yes, it really does matter what you're doing the other six days of the week. In fact, you're responsible to step into that work, embrace it, and see it in light of the larger trajectory of what God is doing in the world."
That message became transformative around here. It also allowed me to release people to what God was calling them to be about rather than trying to get them to make church the highest priorty in their lives.
What triggered this shift in perspective for you?
It was born out of reading the Scriptures narratively. Some talk about the narrative having four chapters: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. As I began to see this grand narrative I realized that where you start really affects where you end up, and where you end up really affects the way that you live today. That's what began to transform my ministry. I began to see how this narrative shapes the way I live, the way that I see the world, and the way I pastor other people to see the world.
In the church we began to talk a lot about the narrative of Scripture. We wanted everyone to see the basic story, to see that this narrative begins in creation, it ends in new creation, and there's something that God wants to do in that middle that involves us. We are to be signposts that reveal what the world will be like when God is finally in charge. I tell them we're like Costco food samples. Through us others get a little taste of the new creation so that they'll want more.
I want them to imagine engaging their vocations, their parenting, and their marriages as signposts for the new creation. As people encounter us, they should get a sample, a taste, of something different—of a world that they really long for that they didn't think was possible.
How did this call to be "signposts" change your ministry scorecard?
How do you define success now?
It's a more difficult scorecard to measure. What makes the old scorecard so appealing is that it's very tangible and concrete. You can objectify buildings and budgets. You can give reports to your board on those things, and they can give you a raise. This new scorecard is really in the hands of the Spirit. You have to trust God to be the one who gives the final score.
Even more difficult was how this new scorecard challenged me personally. When you release the scorecard of the externals, the tangible ministry assets, there is a cost. There are going to be people who want you to build the giant program, the huge edifice. I think it's because Christians often feel insecure in the culture. They feel like a minority that lacks credibility, so we feel the need to show the culture we can be successful too. We can match the culture in crowds and buildings, piece for piece, and feel good about ourselves.
Jesus never called us to do that. In fact, he calls us to the place of weakness. By letting go of that old scorecard, I had to ask myself, "Am I willing to face anonymity? Am I willing to never have a larger building? Am I okay with not being noticed? Could I give my life away to bring life to others, so that they in turn could bring life to others?"
That's my ambition now. That's what changed for me. It's not less ambition than before, but a redirected ambition.
How did all this change your preaching?
I began preaching about vocational stewardship—the idea that God calls us to our work and cares about what we are doing the other six days of the week. I had people say to me, "I've never heard anybody talk about work." Usually the only thing affirmed about work is that it allows people to give money to the church, or that it allows them to provide for their families. But that's it.
We've tried to affirm work as part of God's calling for us in the world, and we try to tell stories that highlight how people see God in their vocation. Again, what you celebrate is what you value. We believe that God is active outside the church and in people's vocations. That message, told repeatedly over time, begins to shape the culture of the church.
If you're emphasizing what God is doing outside the church and in people's vocations, does that mean deemphasizing what's happening inside the church?
Yes. One way Grace Long Beach is helping people see God the other six days of the week is by not making the church the focus of attention. We purposely do not try to schedule people's lives around the church. We're in Southern California and people are busy. We've got a lot of young people here, young families, people in professional vocations. If we are continually creating a schedule and telling them, "We want you to come to this church event," then what we're really saying is that what's happening in the church building is more important than what God may be calling you to do outside it."
Then what is the purpose of church?
The church is to be a community that gathers together once a week to celebrate what's happened the other six days of the week. People know that if they come here on a Sunday, their friends will be here. They can connect with them. They can find out what's going on in their lives and work. They can share their lives together.
I believe that in sharing our lives together, the Spirit of God can show up in those conversations, and we can be encouraged. We can grow. We can be challenged. It's not just the pulpit where that is happening. We must have a high view of the priesthood of believers and recognize that the church is not the center of everything as many pastors would like to believe.
When we understanding the bigger gospel, this bigger narrative that begins at creation and ends at new creation, we see that the church is not the hub of the narrative. The hub is Jesus. It is Jesus that we orbit around as we engage our vocation, when we parent, when we interact with neighbors. And it's still about Jesus when we gather on Sundays. The community gathers to refuel and ask, "What does a Jesus-shaped life look like in this place, in this community, at this time?"
That's what has changed for us. The church plays an important role, but it's a resourcing role. It's the role of giving one another life and encouragement to stay centered on Jesus during the other six days of the week in all that we do.
Paul speaks about leaders equipping the saints in Ephesians 4. Is that what you mean by the church having a resourcing role?
Yes, but resourcing also means giving up control as a pastor. One of the things I had to come to grips with was the fact that I am not an authority on everything. Christ has called people at Grace Long Beach to all kinds of work that I know nothing about, so how could I equip them? I discovered I don't have to know all about the medical profession to speak with medical professionals. I just have to be comfortable releasing them, giving them the freedom to serve Christ there. I have to affirm what he's called them to. They know medicine far better than I do, but what I can do is challenge them to live a life, including their vocation, that orbits around Jesus.
I try to become conversant in different fields, but I also became comfortable with my limitations. If we are truly a community, then I need to release them to learn from each other and figure out the questions that apply to their own vocations. The leader's role is to get the educators together to talk about education, and the medical professionals together to talk about medicine. I needed to be willing to let that happen. I don't get any credit for it. I don't know what's going on. There's no focus on me. They may not even need me anymore because the Spirit of God is at work in their lives and they are trying to figure out how to orbit around Jesus in their vocations without me.
It's similar to parenting. Either you let your kids discover things on their own at some point or you hover around them and you smother them. Problems occur when there is no differentiation between the child and the parent. The same is true between a pastor and the people. Once I understood my calling, I could play my role and let them be who they are called to be. I didn't need them to become ministers, and I didn't have to know everything about each of their vocations. Out of that differentiating comes flourishing.
That's very different than ministry models that place the church at the center of life and focus on what people are doing in the church.
We cheer what a person is called to do outside the church. When someone starts a new business, or takes a risk, or tries something new, we're going to be interested in what they're doing, and we're going to celebrate it. I think this is why people are thriving here. They realize that we love what they are doing. We may not understand it all. I certainly don't understand all the artists who are here. They're doing some stuff that's great, but I don't get it. They love explaining it to me.
The people of Grace Long Beach know that I'm for them and I love to learn from them. I'm always asking, "Tell me about your calling. Tell me about what you're doing." They are teaching me something. I give them something, they give me something. There's mutuality and it's beautiful.
The missional church movement has been talking about engaging in evangelism seven days a week outside the church. How is what you're talking about different?
I know there are a lot of churches with signs posted as you leave that say, "You are now entering the mission field." There's an emphasis on evangelism out in the community. We certainly want people sharing the gospel Monday through Saturday, but a lot of people have a church background that told them the highest form of ministry is evangelism. So when you start talking about vocation, it's only natural for them to assume what we mean is telling your coworkers about Jesus. They think vocation is only intended to be a platform for evangelism.
What we've been trying to help people see is that it's more than just evangelism. It is about embracing the goodness of work. Work is inherently good because God is the one who has called us to it. It doesn't become more good if you use it to evangelize people. Again, we talk about being a signpost, about bearing witness to the reality of God. As we forgive, as we show mercy, as we are patient, as we are not anxious, we reveal to people what God is like. Could those conversations lead someone to faith in Jesus? Absolutely! But that's not the only scorecard we're using as we talk about vocation.
How do you respond to people who think vocational discipleship is just another passing trend in ministry?
There's always a new bandwagon. The reason vocational stewardship is not a passing fad is because it comes out of Genesis 1 and 2. You see that it's deeply rooted in what it means to be made in the image of God. That is not a fad. It is theologically robust to call people to be image bearers of God in their work. That means doing our work in reference to God, by understanding his calling on our lives, by being a steward of our work, and asking questions of our work in light of God's kingdom—ethical questions.
All of these things should be part of this conversation, and they are permanent and lasting issues. They will endure because they're firmly rooted in the text of Scripture.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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