John Pavlovitz: Bringing people to the table with honest talk about tough topics

Photo courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press

A hugely popular Christian author talks about why he feels moved to break open the conversation in church circles by writing about progressive politics and social issues in his blog Stuff That Needs To Be Said.

John Pavlovitz was an unemployed megachurch pastor in 2014 when one of the posts on his personal blog -- in which he wrote that he’d support his children if they were gay -- went viral.

Being fired from the church where he worked in Raleigh, North Carolina, was devastating, to be sure. But it opened him up to a new vocation, and allowed him to start new conversations about things that many Christians were afraid to talk about -- the presidential election, politics, gay rights, gun control and other taboo topics.

His popularity quickly spread, and today he has millions of readers for his blog, Stuff That Needs To Be Said, and nearly 100,000 followers on Twitter.

“Once I could write freely from that place and speak freely from that place, that’s when the audience found the writing,” he said. “That validated for me how many people -- whether they agree with your theological conclusions or not -- want that authenticity from the people in the pulpit or leading churches.”

Pavlovitz grew up Catholic but has served Methodist churches after going to seminary at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

He spoke to Faith & Leadership about his writing and his new book, “A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authenic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community.” The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What is it that you want to do with your ministry and writing?

Primarily, my goal is to be a conversation starter about conversations that haven’t really happened in organized Christianity very often.

The word I hear often from people is “permission.” They say, “I finally feel like I have permission to ask certain questions or to talk about certain issues in the church.”

We know the things that are difficult to talk about and the things that frankly we often just aren’t able to, and the writing has just allowed that.

Q: Do you feel like your job is to talk about the elephant in the room? Do you see yourself as a provocateur?

I don’t see myself as that, but I know that just by the nature of the things that I’m talking about, those are going to be sources of passionate conversation from either side. It comes with the territory of having those conversations.

Q: Other progressive Christians also are writing about politics and social issues, and yet you hit a nerve that other people don’t. Why?

I’ve never quite put my finger on that. When I first wrote a post called “If I Have Gay Children” and it was a viral experience, the [thing] that my wife and I talked about was, “Well, this isn’t really anything revolutionary that I’m saying.” But for some reason it gained a lot of attention.

My job as a writer is to ask many of the same questions but in a different way -- so that it reaches someone in a different doorway to that conversation. I happen to have been fortunate to tap into the right sensibility to reach a large number of people.

Q: You also got a boost from Katy Perry for your post about the 2016 presidential election, “Here’s Why We Grieve Today,” right?

Her father is a pastor, and she was part of the Christian music industry before she became a pop singer, so I think that affinity was really strong.

Q: And yet that one viral hit doesn’t necessarily keep people coming back. But they are coming back to your writing, so there is something more there than just a one-hit wonder.

I had always written about a diverse group of topics -- I was writing about grief, writing about the church, writing about parenting. The top five most widely read posts of mine a couple of years ago were all on different topics.

That helped me cultivate a really diverse group of people, which has been, I think, the greatest blessing in this.

Q: A metaphor you often use is the table -- cultivating a new community, cultivating diversity. Talk a little bit about that metaphor, both theologically and how it might be put into practice.

I think the idea of the table for me was twofold. It was really just a natural byproduct of growing up in a big Italian family. I always tell people we had a house but we didn’t need a house. The house was just an expensive, elaborate covering for the kitchen. Around that table is where we really were a family. That’s where I found my place of belonging and community.

As I reflected back on the things that grieved me about the church, it was the lack of hospitality -- the way that the church tends to shrink the table, especially around doctrine, because doctrine is always going to be by some nature exclusionary.

In trying to figure out whether we could create a spiritual community that would really be large enough for everyone, it had to be centered around something other than strict doctrine.

So I started looking at what I call the “table ministry of Jesus” throughout the stories in the Gospels, the way that he gathered for meals with people and broke bread with them, and the very disparate group of people that he dined with.

That’s the undergirding of the idea of what it would mean for me to make a bigger table -- to let people all have their inherent worth recognized. Jesus meets with the priests and with the prostitutes and the street people and the religious elite, and somehow he’s able to show them dignity. And, I think, that’s the goal. How can we create communities that do that?

Q: And when you write about your four core values -- radical hospitality, total authenticity, true diversity and agenda-free community -- how do you put those into practice?

Well, it’s messy, for sure. You begin by trying to figure out how to let people who gather see the inherent value of the person across from them, which can be really difficult.

So how do you do that? I think what you do is try to see if you can get people together, without an agenda to fix or change anyone, but to simply listen to their story. We’re all a product of our stories -- the places we were raised and the families that we are a part of and the teachers who taught us and whether or not we were in a local church and what that local church was like.

Can we sit with people and hear those individual stories and not try to see them as a group or as part of a system or a category? That’s really where it has to start.

When I look back to Jesus’ table ministry, we see the religious people saying, “Why does Jesus dine with the tax collectors and the sinners?” It’s not specifically mentioned in the Scriptures, but I can’t imagine that the people in the street weren’t asking, “Well, Jesus, why are you dining with our oppressors and the people who are doing damage to us?”

That tension was something that was real in the life of Jesus, and it has to be real in the life of the church if we’re to be as hospitable and diverse as we’re supposed to be.

That’s the challenge. The challenge is weathering some of that initial chaos that’s going to be caused when you actually ask people to live this way.

Q: One of the moments for you in your journey was finding out that your brother was gay.

It was, but it was also -- I was probably a fully affirming Christian before that. It just clarified my theology further.

Q: So it wasn’t an earthquake that completely changed your thinking.

It really wasn’t. It was sort of a surprise, but it was just, for me, further confirmation that this is the road that I wanted to be walking and this is the work I wanted to be doing.

Q: But there was an earthquake moment in your story, which was when you got fired from your job. Talk a little bit about how that changed you.

Once you begin serving in a local community, on some level you have to represent that community or that denomination, and you become beholden to those things in a different way, because you no longer represent only yourself.

As I tried to live more fully into my personally authentic spiritual life, that was where the tension came in my career. When I was ultimately fired, it was devastating, of course, but also, as I talk about in my book, I realized that I could now ask anything and say everything. I didn’t have to represent anyone else’s theological convictions.

Once I could write freely from that place and speak freely from that place, that’s when the audience found the writing. That validated for me how many people -- whether they agree with your theological conclusions or not -- want that authenticity from the people in the pulpit or leading churches.

Because they want to have permission just to be real and to wrestle with the stuff that we all do. I talk about this conspiracy of silence or conspiracy of pretending that churches engage in, often because the leaders think their congregation wants them to be perfect.

No one actually says, “Hey, I’m a mess, and here is what I’m struggling with.” That was the gift of the firing.

Q: You write about #MeToo. You write about the election and other issues. When did you move into more social and political commentary?

Interspersed in my writing, certainly, were different things, like the Stanford rape case. But the presidential campaign was the beginning of being more overt about the way that faith crosses over into politics. Because more than ever, that line started to get blurred between what was Christianity and what was a political party, or how these issues of faith have to be political.

To Jesus, there was no separation between spiritual life and the rest of life. It became sort of an organic way of expressing faith and not being afraid to name something that someone might label “politics.”

Q: What more have you learned as your public audience has continued to expand?

The growth of the blog -- I often tell people I don’t tie that to my writing. I wasn’t less of a writer a year ago or two years ago. It just happened to be that people are now finding the writing and saying, “This is my heart; this is where I am.”

What I’ve learned is the number of people who have these tensions and are asking these questions. They may be fully entrenched in a local faith community, but they still may be having the misgivings or the apprehension.

I’m also finding the number of people who are no longer a part of organized religion but still have this deep desire to keep going on that journey. Maybe the blog gives them a way that they feel like they can do that.

I offer online, virtual community, but it’s always going to have a limitation. So my goal is always to get people to a physical, tangible, geographical community somewhere.

The writing serves as a way for people to begin walking down that road, connecting with other people and then finding a place where they can belong.

Q: Several articles about you, including one in Salon, put you in a category with reformers attempting change within evangelicalism. They put you with Tony Campolo, Rachel Held Evans, Rob Bell -- do you see yourself in that category?

I don’t claim to speak for evangelicals, or for any group of people. I’m just an individual human being trying to figure this out and asking these questions very publicly.

I just know that those people who find affinity in the writing, they are going to gravitate toward it. The writing becomes a place around which people gather to talk about these ideas.

Q: Do you consider yourself an evangelical?

I’m a transitioning evangelical, so I’ve been a part of that world, but I’m gradually finding an expression of Christianity that is diverging from that or somewhat in tension with that.

Those labels in themselves are kind of what I recoil against in writing. I often look back to those original stories in the Scripture, and I see Jesus leading on this hillside, and it’s just simply a gathering of humanity who are listening to his teachings. And that’s enough for me.

Q: Is there anything that I haven’t asked you about that you would want to add?

There’s a section in my book [that says,] “Pastor, be brave” (and I would include whatever titles people identify with). That’s what I’m calling people to do, to really be brave in openly dealing with their struggles and their doubts and just letting as much open conversation happen as we can.

I think it’s going to be medicinal for the church. These questions are not a problem to God. They’re not threatening to God, and they shouldn’t be to us.

Q: People may be afraid: What if people are angry? What if people reject me? What if I’m [not ready] to be vulnerable like that in speaking out? So I wonder, how has that been for you? I’m sure you’ve gotten a fair amount of pushback, given what you’re writing about.

Obviously, getting fired and then the disconnection from many people who are part of a more rigid orthodoxy, a more traditional Christian worldview -- that’s the collateral damage of what I’m doing.

But the upside, again, is that there’s no pretending, there’s no couching of what I believe, and there’s no guilt for what I may not currently believe.

So the freedom that comes with it is invaluable, and I would like that for more people. I don’t want people to ask these questions so that they’ll abandon their faith tradition or that they’ll become heretics or whatever.

I do it because I wish everyone felt as comfortable in their spiritual skin as I do. Because when you do, it’s just -- that kind of community is life-giving.

I don’t hate the church; I love the church. It’s because I’ve seen things that I celebrate and things that I grieve that I do this work.