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Kyle Idleman: Grace Is Greater—Part 1

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As teaching pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, one of the largest churches in the nation, Kyle Idleman often tells stories of beautiful collisions that happen when desperate, messed-up people meet Jesus.

Idleman has come to see how redemptive stories ride on grace.

Take one of his favorite stories: Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant. It serves as a framework for outreach at Southeast Christian.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him 10,000 bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.” (Matt. 18:23-27)

In the beginning of the story, you are led to believe the servant, having experienced extravagant grace, might be eager to share it with others.

In an interview with Outreach magazine, Idleman sat down to explore how stories take strange turns, bringing together such diverse realities as Taco Hut toilets, drunk drivers and outreach in the center of God’s grace.

Growing up, what did you learn about grace?

I grew up with my dad as a seminary president. I grew up seeing grace modeled in my home and my family, but the emphasis was often heavy on academia. The longer I am in ministry, I have discovered the need to not just explain grace but experience it. I grew up being taught that forgiveness was based on the other person doing something to make it right. Whenever I offended one of my siblings, my parents would say, “You need to make that right.” Now that’s a good thing for a parent to teach, but what I inferred from that is that you give grace when the other person makes it right. By definition grace does not work that way. Grace is what God does for us and it’s not based on the fact that we made it right.

Did you always dream of becoming a pastor?

I really didn’t have any idea of what I wanted to be. When I was 19 years old I started to preach at a church with about 20 people, mostly because nobody else was available and I was a freshman at a Bible college. I don’t know how to say this in a way I will feel good about in print, but I don’t do well in large groups of people. I thought that was required for a pastor, so I just did not think that was what I wanted to do. I was interested in counseling or psychology. I preached at that church maybe five or six times and then realized this is really what I wanted to do. God kind of tricked me into it; he had me doing it before he asked.

When did you begin to experience grace yourself?

After graduating from college, I wanted to preach somewhere but nobody was interested. I was 21 and I can’t blame anyone for not responding to my résumé. I knew God was calling me to preach so my wife and I decided to help plant a church in Valencia, California. As I was leading it, I became very aware of my inadequacies and weaknesses and I was feeling overwhelmed. We started the church in a movie theater and, maybe a month into it, attendance had dropped quite a bit from opening weekend. I remember sitting in the empty theater at 5:30 in the morning before setting up for the service. I told God, “I just can’t do this.” I pleaded for his help. In that moment, I experienced God’s grace in a profound way. God wasn’t telling me everything was going to turn out great. He was telling me he was with me and his grace was sufficient. Even if it didn’t turn out OK, it was OK.

Can you tell me about the connection between a Taco Hut toilet and your current job as pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville?

[Laughing] You’ve picked up on the one story that no one else has had the courage to ask me about. I’m having trouble recalling the details.

I’ll be patient. I really want to hear you tell that story.

[Still Laughing] The first thing I would like to say is that I don’t mean to throw all Taco Hut bathrooms under the bus. Then I would tell you I think you‘d be better off with the written version.

In Grace is Greater, Idleman writes:

I’m at my dream job because of a disgusting toilet.

Not long after getting my driver’s license, I borrowed my mom’s car to drive to Taco Hut. After eating at Taco Hut, I ran into the house. I came out a little later and saw my mom’s car had rolled down the driveway and smashed through the mailbox. The reason the car rolled down the hill is because I forgot to put it in park because there was no way I was going to use the bathroom at Taco Hut.

The car had significant damage, so I got a job to pay for the repair.

I got a job at the Precious Moments Chapel as a tour guide.

Then one week a small church in town was desperate for a preacher. The reason I felt comfortable preaching that first weekend was because of that job I got when I was 16.

Are you still with me? The reason I have my dream job preaching at an amazing church is because the bathroom of Taco Hut was disgusting.

The significance of the Taco Hut toilet is to show that grace is unpredictable, right?

I was trying to show how God reverse-engineers grace. You don’t realize it until you look back that all these things that seem so messed up, you can really draw a line from there to the good that God was accomplishing. Sometimes we look back and realize we were complaining about a blessing. God’s grace was at work in our lives, but we were too busy grumbling to be grateful for it. It also shows in my own life how God used unexpected and often confusing circumstances to bring me to where I am at now.

OK, other than the Taco Hut toilet, what else brought you to Southeast?

With the church plant in California, I could see some of the challenges ahead in terms of facilities and endless Los Angeles County meetings trying to get land. I knew that was going to be something that I wasn’t gifted to do. I had done an internship at Southeast after graduating college. I knew the culture and sensed the role of teaching pastor would be a good fit. So we came to Louisville 13 years ago.

In your book Grace is Greater, you write that stories are the best way to communicate grace. Why do you say that?

Story captures grace in a way that explanation can’t. The genre of story matches up with the experience of the idea. In the Gospels, Jesus doesn’t teach on the word grace specifically but we see grace in stories of beautiful collisions—the places where desperate, messed-up people meet the person of Jesus. Stories allow us to connect powerfully to the experience of grace.

The subtitle of your book includes the phrase, Rewrite Your Story. How does grace do this?

A popular phrase you hear these days is the idea of flipping the script. The story looks like it is going one way and then, unexpectedly, it goes in another. I think grace is not just the idea of erasing the past, it’s starting over. Rewriting a story is even more powerful than starting a new story. He doesn’t take the things that are broken away, but he takes those broken pieces and turns it into something that is beautiful. God’s grace rewrites our lives.

Practically, how does Southeast circulate these stories of grace?

We learn and tell stories strategically and corporately. In our church we do that during baptism most weekends. We get a little peek into a person’s story. We do that with communion and we talk about what God has given us that we don’t deserve. Every week we meet with a small number of people who are new to the church and say, “Hey, how did you end up here?” As leaders, we connect with our people’s stories. One of things we do as elders is gather together every Tuesday morning, and we pray together for people who are struggling in various ways. We learn their stories. As we pray together for God’s redeeming work or conviction or repentance, it aligns our hearts with grace. It almost forces grace front and center.

Read part 2 of the interview »

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