Kyle Idleman, as teaching pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote Not a Fan (Zondervan, 2011), a book that has gained wide circulation among Evangelical Christians.
Kyle, what possessed you to write a book?
It came out of my personal journey. In Not a Fan, I detail a personal transformation moment when I sat in our sanctuary before Easter, thinking about how to have a message that would be attractive to the thousands who will fill the room like a big stadium. A conviction came over me: All too easily the church could be a stadium full of fans, rather than a sanctuary full of followers of Christ.
But your journey didn’t start there, right?
When I was about 21, I went to plant a church in Southern California. It’s fair to say I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I settled on using business methods—strategic planning, entrepreneurial thinking—and without realizing it, I was treating the gospel as a product to be sold, and church members were customers. If people come to church, then we have a successful church “business.” Here is the question that convicted me: What was I more concerned about?—preaching gospel truth or getting people to come back to church? Jesus did it differently. He risked alienating the crowds, caring more about the level of commitment than the size of the crowd. He told people what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear.
Where did that go for you?
My Easter sermon started with an apology for viewing the church as a stadium full of fans. I challenged them to be more than a crowd that gives a weekly cheer for Jesus before returning to their everyday lives. God calls us to be committed followers of Jesus who live out our faith all week long. The church really latched onto that message—we felt a movement developing as the church fed the idea, leading to a preaching series, and things kind of went from there.
So the church coauthored the book?
Absolutely! The stories in the book emerged from the Southeast church family and the 40,000 people in our international Facebook community. Real people living out Jesus’ Luke 9:23 challenge to take up his cross . . . these stories bring the message of the book home. The stories of these people put skin on the gospel.
Back to you, it sounds like you have had a midlife shift in your own pilgrimage.
Christianity was modeled for me as I grew up in a wonderful Christian home. I tried to follow Jesus in word and deed, but God still had to awaken me to a more personal side of discipleship.
This faith transition came after a decade of leadership in a leading church?
I don’t know of any Christian leader who either has not or does not need to go through that transition. We need always to be in a deepening process. And I don’t think the Holy Spirit is through with me. Look for plenty more conviction and repentance in the future.
Can you tell us more about your ministry trek? What did you experience in the transition from California church planting to the preaching team at Southeast?
You may think it’s an apples-and-oranges comparison, but the life stories of people are the same in California or Kentucky. I’ve loved ministry in both settings, even if they feel different from each other. I love being part of what God is doing at Southeast, but he was also clearly at work in the California church.
I’ve heard you refer to the “intimacy” where you knew everybody in the audience.
Obviously that cannot happen with more than 20,000 people, but there are exciting stories, and that’s how Not a Fan got fleshed out. The ministry team shares the stories and we see God personally at work in so many lives. We have to be intentional in not isolating ourselves from the people.
How do you do that?
Remember the bleeding woman who was healed by touching Jesus’ robe? Scripture says she saw that she could not go unnoticed. Jesus was on his way to minister to a high-profile family, but he attended to this woman who thought she was a nobody. I tell our staff, “I don’t want numbers; I want a name and a story.” If we reflect Christ’s ministry, we keep serving real people.
How do you describe your assignment in the ministry at Southeast?
I preach about half the time and share the leadership responsibilities. My primary focus and energy go to study and prayer, and as an elder, doing the work of oversight and leadership.
Is the book changing your ministry?
Not really. It reflects changes that are already taking place in our ministry. Not a Fan calls for a movement. From the beginning we prayed that the book would not become an end in itself. I sat down with our church to make sure the book is not just information to pass along. If there is not some kind of movement going on with it, then we missed the point entirely.
What is the ongoing impact of the book?
It helps us to keep focused in our ministry. I challenge our church people to do more than just watch, listen, and commit. They need to have stories to tell and make sure there is a clear point to it. I love seeing how the book is impacting different denominations. It’s a great encouragement to hear from Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists who have been going through the book in their churches. I keep praying that Not a Fan will not be an informational message, but a movement!
Are you saying the information does not matter?
Most fans of Jesus have plenty of information. The challenge is not just to learn, but to follow. That’s why I love to hear stories of people waking up to what it means to follow Jesus completely and say with absolute surrender, “I am not a fan.”
Paul Boatman is chaplain of Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.