Jeff Lucas on faith, doubt and why the idea of the Christian celebrity is 'dreadful'
International speaker, author and pastor Jeff Lucas is famed for his honest take on faith, life and Christian culture. We asked him about depression, the differences between UK and US church, and why thinks 'Christian celebrity' is just silly.
CT: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to faith.
JL: I became a Christian at the age of 17, around 40 years ago, and I hadn't been raised in a Christian home at all but quickly felt called into leadership. I planted my first church at the age of 21 in Cambridgeshire, and now I'm married with two children and two grandchildren, and a teaching pastor at Timberline church in Colorado. I split my time between speaking, writing, travelling, doing a bit of radio and coaching. It's a portfolio lifestyle, but rooted in the local church.
CT: What's the most important thing about your faith to you?
JL: The most important thing about my faith is that it enables me to have a relationship with God, and be open to his direction and intervention, but also that it is authentic. I think we often describe our faith in a Disney-esque way that makes it sound like God is really chatty and we experience 40,000 miracles a day, but real faith just isn't like that. I want to be vulnerable and honest with my faith.
CT: Your new book 'Faith in the Fog' touches on those ideas, can you explain more?
JL: 'Faith in the Fog' is about depression, doubt and burnout. I wanted to be very real about my own journey, but also give people who struggle with those things a vocabulary for their own. So often Christians feel bad about feeling bad, and are made to feel like they are second rate if they struggle, but the Bible is loaded with major heavy weights – Elijah, Paul and, I believe, Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane – who battled depression and sadness, and those things are a part of life. We're not promised that we'll be endlessly ecstatic, but the book is about helping people to count themselves in when their emotions make them want to count themselves out.
CT: Even people who have been Christians for years have doubts. Why is that? Is it a bad thing?
JL: It's not a bad thing, it's a normal thing, though it can definitely develop into being unhealthy – scripture makes clear that doubt can cause a double mindedness which in turn creates instability. I was asked recently if I'm ever in the fog these days, and my answer was that when it comes to faith I'm always in the fog! The Bible makes it clear that we don't have 20/20 vision right now, so we don't see with total clarity, but it promises that one day we will.
So I don't think that doubts are abnormal; in fact, doubt is a sign that you're taking your faith seriously, and not just accepting a hand-me-down faith or swallowing a load of slogans. You're wrestling it into something substantial and robust. Doubt doesn't have to be dehabilitating, and you don't need to be afraid of it, it's a very normal part of life and not some terrible, embarrassing disease.
CT: So what would your advice be to those who are having doubts about their faith?
JL: I would say keep going; be honest and keep asking questions. Questions are not discouraged for the Christian, in fact they're encouraged. Use doubt as a pathway to something more substantial in terms of faith; cut through the slogans and the clichés, but doubt with God.
In the Psalms, for example, you see the psalmist yelling, shouting and struggling, but bringing those doubts to God. Prayer is not just about making a speech of faith; often it's about screaming blue murder about struggles and fears. In that sense, don't allow doubt to distance you from God but instead make it part of your relationship with him.
CT: You work both in the UK and the US, how would you say the Christian culture is different in each country?
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JL: There are lots more people proportionally in the US who would identify themselves as Christian. I see strengths and weaknesses on both sides – in America I love the Church's ability to see a vision and go for it. To completely sacrifice for it and get stuck into the job.
When I come back I love the level of engagement with community in the British Church; with foodbanks and street pastors and all kinds of other cooperative services where the Church is engaging with serving its community – it's stunning. Often Americans come over to the UK and marvel at the level of service. We're sometimes not very good at encouraging ourselves in Britain, but I think we need to cheer up a bit, and be grateful for the massive amount of work that's quietly being done.
CT: From your experience, what are the challenges or tensions of leading a church?
JL: I think there are challenges of wanting to make sure that we're currently fulfilling our mission rather than living on the good of what we've done before. The Bible says human beings are like sheep, and sheep aren't all that bright, which includes the vicars as well as the congregation!
A lot of people come to church with unrealistic expectations; they think that everyone is beautiful and perfect, when the real reason we're all together is that we're the ones who know we're messed up and need to get sorted! People get disappointed by that, and I think as well there's this belief that all leaders have a private plot of domination to take over the world, when most of us are just doing our best as ordinary people to help people become followers of Jesus. God only uses ordinary people anyway – there's no one else available.
I have said that there are some leaders who would be more suitable to a totalitarian regime, but it's not as prevalent as we might think. Spiritual abuse is a real problem, but more leaders are just ordinary people trying to make a difference.
CT: You're pretty well known in the Christian world, what are the pressures of having a large following as a pastor?
JL: There can be pressures, and if you are more in the public eye then it means you can be a target – which is sometimes justified, sometimes unjustified. Criticism is hurtful. But I don't buy into this Christian celebrity idea; I think it's dreadful to be honest. What we tend to do in the British church is take someone who is well known, who tends to be so because they've been used and blessed by God, and we slap them – call them superficial, which I think is some kind of cheap stunt really. Rather than being grateful that God has used them to impact lives, we kick them, and there's something sad about that.
If someone is acting like a celebrity, then someone needs to tell them to grow up, but it's all a bit silly to talk about 'Christian celebrities'. If you are so-called famous in the Church, then it's like being a tiny goldfish not even in a goldfish bowl; but one of those tiny plastic bags you get at the fair. It's a very small world.
CT: And finally, what are you working on at the moment?
JL: I'm doing a tour in November with SearchLight theatre company; an 18 night tour based around 'Faith in the Fog'. It'll be an evening of music, conversation and theatre. I'm also writing another book with Adrian Plass, and a novel based in Australia in a lighthouse community. That's not specifically a Christian book, but I want to provoke though and questions about those who lose their faith completely. Then I'm also continuing to write daily Bible reading notes, and writing a book on Barnabas about friendship, and of course I'm starting to write for Christian Today. It's busy but I'm grateful, it's very exciting.
Find out more about 'Faith in the Fog' and about Jeff here. Jeff's first column for Christian Today will be published next week.