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Embracing Love

Editor’s Note: A portion of this interview ran in this week’s 850 Words of RELEVANT newsletter. To subscribe to The 850, you can go here.

Eric Bryant serves as an elder, speaker and navigator overseeing the leadership team at Mosaic in Los Angeles. While attending Mosaic’s Origins Conference, an annual leadership conference held in Los Angeles, RELEVANT had the opportunity to sit down with Bryant and talk with him about his new book, Peppermint-Filled Piñatas: Breaking Through Tolerance and Embracing Love, (Zondervan). Bryant’s first book is an honest reflection of his ongoing pursuit to live his life incarnationally, with friends and with strangers. In person, Eric is humorous and thoughtful, taking the same kind of tone readers will find in his book. This conversational, practical and down-to-earth approach helps Christians to see the opportunities available for them in re-establishing what it means to be ‘the salt and light’ in their daily surroundings.

What would you say is the inspiration for this book?

My inspiration would be my friends who have felt rejected by Christians; that could be friends that live across the street or friends that I’ve worked with in the past. To me, the inspiration is wanting to help my friends that rejected Christianity because of the way they were treated by Christians—help them see that Jesus offers them love and that we, as followers of Christ, can do a better job of embracing them no matter where they’re at.

Explain “party theology.”

Every year at Mosaic, Erwin (McManus) does a message on what we call “party theology.” It’s basically looking at Levi (his name later became Matthew). Not knowing any better, after becoming a follower of Jesus, Levi decided to throw a big party and invited all of his friends who happened to be tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. Upon the invitation, Jesus went. In turn, Jesus had a horrible reputation because He went to this party; He was known as a drunkard, a glutton, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Although Jesus was neither a drunkard nor a glutton, He was willing to ruin His reputation on behalf of befriending people whom He disagreed with and who weren’t honoring to Him. More so, He didn’t expect people who did not know God to live like they did.

And so for us at Mosaic, every year we would hear about this “party theology,” and we started putting it into practice. It’s simply inviting people into your home whom you would normally never invite. It’s canceling your small group so that you can attend a play because someone in the small group—who does not know God—is in the play. Rather than expecting them to always come to us, we go to them. Party theology is putting the needs of others before our own, in the context of relationship.

What do you hope people will take away from this book?

My hope is that as someone reads this book they will become more likeable, more accessible and more in love with their family, their neighbors, their friends, their co-workers and, in general, people who do not know Christ. That they would become more intentional about befriending people that they disagree with, people they dislike and people they disregard. In the midst of this, my hope is that there will be people who are connected to God, connected to a spiritual community of followers of Jesus Christ as a result of someone who in the past overlooked them is now reaching out and loving them.

Why is “love the new apologetic?” And why hasn’t this been the apologetic all along? Was “love” ever a part of the definition of apologetics?

In Acts 2 it says that the followers of Jesus Christ curried the favor—actually gained the favor—of the people. If you think about it, back then they were considered a sect and a cult. This is a very odd group that was talking about death and Jesus’ blood; yet, they still gained favor among the people. I imagine it was because not only were the needs of those in the spiritual community being met by each other, these early followers of Christ, but as they—this new spiritual community—rubbed shoulders with those in the surrounding community that did not know God, there needs were being met as well. This new spiritual community was selling houses, meeting the needs of the poor—they were really likeable people. Of course, they suffered great persecution, and there were many martyrs along the way, but I think the early church understood that how we live effects what people think about not just us, but about Jesus.

I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere along the way apologetics turned into arguing with people, trying to convince them intellectually that our way is the right way. What I’ve discovered in my conversations with people is that although I’m not a great debater, and I’m not a great theologian in that sense, if I allow someone the context to honestly seek God, they will discover His name is Jesus. They will be shocked. It’s a supernatural, mystical and powerful experience where Jesus becomes real to them. I can’t hit them over the head with enough facts to get them to that point. There are some people who move in that intellectual world, but I think a lot more of us are changed because we encountered Jesus, and we can’t explain how that happened.

We can prove who God is by allowing God to be God in these people’s lives as we are great representatives of Him. This means being real, honest and being a friend. These are people with needs and with a longing to connect deeply with other human beings. For them and this party that I attended, I was just able to be a friend. If I had introduced myself as “Pastor Eric” they probably wouldn’t have let me come into the house. However, after spending the evening at the party and getting to know each other, I developed a friendship such that when there was an openness, I could influence them; but otherwise, when we discard people because we disagree so quickly—all of a sudden we don’t have even a context for a conversation.

While writing about the fading influence of Christianity, you pose the question, "Why does it seem that so many are rejecting Christianity and wanting nothing to do with Christians while maintaining a high level of respect for Jesus?” Our question is: How are they maintaining a high level of respect for Jesus while rejecting His Church?

I think what people are rejecting is what they have heard about, or they reject what they see on TV. They reject the judgmental hypocrisy. They hear stories about fallen preachers, and they hear stories about churches splitting, and they’re not interested in that. They have enough problems of their own in their own life. But they love the idea of Jesus.

Even from a strictly historical perspective there is a real desire to learn how the Son of a carpenter could start a religious movement that would change history and shape so much. I think people are very interested in Jesus. If you read the stories of Jesus and read Jesus’ words, you realize that He’s so loving, He’s so kind, He’s so winsome and such a beautiful person. The catch is, people associate the desire and idea of changing their life—they connect it to the Church, the “to-do” list.

What mattered most to Jesus was people, and I think if we can just be more about who Jesus was and what He taught and just being honest—we are hypocrites; we’re hypocrites in transition. We’re trying not to be, you know? We are absolutely judgmental, but so are people who don’t follow God. We need to be careful about what we’re judging and not expect people who don’t have a relationship with Jesus to live as if they did—when even we are having trouble doing that.

What would you say is the biggest barrier in creating healthy community in metropolitan areas?

One of the things is there are so many people that we assume someone else is taking care of that person. We’re so busy, and we get caught up in our own little world not realizing how lonely people can become. In fact, what we really encourage people in our community to do is not convert people, but try to look for people who are searching, look for people who need love, and love them—help them discover the hope that you find in Jesus.

If you go out, and you’re trying to convert people, you’re going to lose your audience very quickly. I read a book about Los Angeles when I first moved here, and it talked about how people could live in the same house for 10 years and never know their neighbors. The interesting thing about that is the book was written in 1930. This has been true in metropolitan settings for years that you can live in a spot and never know the people around you, and it’s because we’re selfish. People, in general, are selfish. We can only maintain a certain number of friendships.

But, if we can create a community—and this is our goal at Mosaic—where each person is interacting and connecting with people who are lonely, you have this exponential way of touching the city. Here’s the irony: If we’re all looking to meet the needs of others, we discover in that context that our needs are met. That’s what Jesus said. If you lose your life in serving others, that’s where you find your life. So we are constantly encouraging people to start serving. Not because we need them, but because they need to serve. In doing so, more people’s needs are being met. In the midst of loving and building real relationships, it is amazing how many people choose to begin a new relationship with Christ.

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Why do more and more people see Christianity as part of their past rather than a guiding force for their future?

I think a big part of it is that as kids, we didn’t see people being truly transformed by the message of Jesus. We get connected more to the religious aspect of Christianity rather than the genuine relationship with Jesus, which is transformative. When you grow up, and you don’t see changes, and your parents may take you to Sunday school but they’re yelling at you on Monday, you just end up being inoculated. You have just enough of Christianity to know you don’t want anymore of it. What people need to see is a genuine life transformation in relationship with God that does permeate every aspect of life. That is something that people long for. That is what will draw people into a relationship with Jesus. It’s not based on “do’s and don’ts” but based on a real relationship where you want to change because you are so in love with the God who loves you.

In the wave of church planting that has inundated America, I found this statement of yours interesting: "People who are not interested in something in general are rarely interested in a new version of it." Elaborate on this.

In that case, I was actually talking about a friend of mine I met in Seattle who is Muslim. For him, doing something new at church wasn’t enough to get him to come because he had no interest in church at all. What he was interested in, as a 14-year-old boy from Eritrea, a country next to Ethiopia, was friendship; he was desperate for friendship. In the end, he would come to church, youth group or whatever we were doing because he wanted a friend. He ended up inviting more people to our youth group in Seattle than any of the other kids. He found something real there, and it was relationship.

As the church, I think part of our struggle has been that we do things that we like, and the longer that you are in the church, the less friends you have outside of the church. Eventually, we just become our own little club and people (from the outside) don’t know how to speak the language, they don’t know how to fit in, they don’t know how to get connected. Erwin uses a great analogy; he says that it’s like watching two people French kiss. You know it’s intimate, but you don’t feel like you belong. That’s kind of what our churches are like.

We have a better understanding of the word "fellowship" because of the movie Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Fellowship isn’t what Christians can do for each other. Fellowship really means partnership with a cause. It’s the idea that we actually come together on a mission together. The Church needs to be on mission. We need to be out changing the world around us; that will attract people. Instead of an environment of, “I want to come and watch” or “I want to come and listen,” we have an environment of, “I want to come and be a part of a community that’s making a difference in the world.” I think that’s how we can be more relevant to what people are longing for. They want to see that their life matters.

For us, relevance isn’t trying to be hip or cool or connect with what’s popular in secular culture. It’s actually about showing how real God is in our life. It’s about being authentic. It’s that Jesus really makes a difference in my life. It’s that connecting to God and connecting to a spiritual community really transforms who I am and gives me a place to serve. For us, relevance really is about not copying what the world does, but creating a future that is better than the present or the past.

Talking about the church plants that are being started, I think we need more churches. There are a ton of churches that are dying, denominations are shrinking and the church in general is losing its influence in the culture so we need new churches that are fresh, unique and different in every place because they are reflecting the community they are trying to reach. Every church in every city needs to address the question: What are the barriers that we are creating that are keeping people who don’t know Christ from this community? What are the barriers that are keeping people from being honest about where they are with God? What can we do to help them get past that?

So, at Mosaic, are you all defining relevancy as "felt needs" and style or as substance? My reason for asking this is because I sense that, in general, this is what we (American churches) have deemed the definition of "relevancy."

To be relevant does not mean to act as the world acts. What was amazing about Jesus was that He went into the world and yet maintained this unbelievably remarkable character. People trusted Him, and people knew He was different. We can actually go into the world, love people in the world even when we disagree with them—even when we don’t give into the lifestyle that they may be living. What relevance truly is—is a relationship with Jesus that changes my life. What’s more important is that Jesus is relevant to my life. Then, I’m connecting, being real and loving to people but that doesn’t mean that I’m becoming more like them it means that I’m becoming more like Jesus and they are drawn to the Jesus that I’m following.

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