Urban Faith’s Jelani Greenidge sat down for a wide-ranging phone conversation with Eugene Cho, founder of One Day’s Wages, pastor of Quest Church in Seattle, and the recent author of “OVERRATED: Are We More In Love With the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World.” In the first half of the conversation, they talked about tunnel vision and the value of hard work.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
In one of the chapters you talked a lot about having more depth than 140 characters and being an expert… I wonder if you could speak to this idea of specialization. In the evangelical church, a lot of our ministries have become specialized to the point where we have youth pastors, pastors of young adult ministries, pastors for every grade level in children’s ministry, pastors for seniors… I don’t necessarily think all that is bad, but where do you draw the line between being specialized and being well rounded enough to have an overall kingdom mindset that ministry is ministry?
EC: Well, I kind of feel like you just answered the question for me. Ultimately, we have to have kingdom mindedness about anything and everything, we can’t allow our particular specialties to hijack us to the point where it becomes the only banner that we wave. Even good things that we’re called to, if we’re not careful, if it’s not a response to the gospel, it can become idolatrous. This question is an important critique to our culture. We can become so specialized that our worldviews in ministry can become compartmentalized. I tell my pastors at our church, despite the fact that they have certain titles and adjectives that describe what they’re doing, the most important word is “pastor” – they are there to pastor the church, you’re not just a compassion-and-justice pastor, you’re not just a music pastor. You’re called and given the burden and privilege to care and teach and lead. And I share that with all of our staff.
But having said that, I do think that there’s a balance. We understand the bigger picture or narrative, but if you’re called to something and feel convicted about it, we owe it to ourselves and to the Holy Spirit convicting us to get more substantive and deep and committed so that we’re able, in that season of our life. I was a youth pastor, and way back then, that’s what I was called to, to go deep into those friendships and relationships in my pastoring and my caring, in addition to things that would help me contextualize the way I do leadership.
Also, I think about urban ministry, and we don’t want to absolutely segregate everything, but I think it’s absolutely true that there are certain dynamics that are different in an urban context versus a suburban context. So for a suburbanite to say, “hey, I feel called to urban ministry,” but to take no time to invest in friendships and relationships and being in situations where they could be mentored and listened to and read books… for that person NOT to do those things, it’s insulting to the work. So that’s what I mean, I think there is a balance. I think sometimes we can become enamored by an idea and not end up doing the hard work, digging into whatever conviction that might be.
JG: I noticed in a CT cover story that you’re featured in, you mention that at Quest Church, you emphasize race and ethnicity as an important part of identity and how it relates to the gospel. When you talk to people outside of your community, do you find that they’re surprised that you have such a focus on race?
EC: It depends on who I’m speaking to. You and I both know that the conversation about race and racism or racialization, depending on who we’re speaking to, can be a very, very different conversation.
JG (laughing) Uh, yeah.
EC: I think there are those, because of social media and being sort of a mini public figure, I hear from people who are disturbed, they say there’s only one race, the human race, and we shouldn’t be talking about race or racism. And then there are those on the other side, there are those who are encouraged by it, and surprised that there are evangelical churches out there that are willing to engage this issue. There are those who are surprised that a multiethnic church is being led by an Asian-American. And I’m someone who finds a lot of joy in knowing that this is who God created me to be, and I’m not afraid or timid to talk about my ethnic heritage and my experiences as an immigrant as I minister in my church.
But… there are two extremes that I try to address, that concern me.
One extreme is those who say that issues of race have nothing to do with the gospel. That’s a huge concern for me. I explain to people that we don’t talk about race and racism for the sake of talking about it. I mean, I don’t enjoy talking about it, I’m not a sociologist, they’re intense, and they can be difficult. For me, I’m compelled by the gospel. The gospel informs and transforms everything we do. It’s that huge. I don’t ever want Quest Church to be known or hijacked by any issue – even if it’s important, even if it’s true – I don’t want anything to supersede the “why” of gospel. The gospel is so magnanimous, it’s so beautiful, it’s not this one-dimensional thing where you just get to get into heaven. Talking about race gives us the opportunity to illuminate the depth, the breadth, the absolutely scandalous nature of the gospel, and why Jesus Christ came, not just merely for a foundation but for the whole process of reconciliation.
The other extreme that I’m concerned about concerning racism… and this is a very sensitive issue, I know a lot of people push back at me, even at my church… when you talk about Ferguson, when you talk about Trayvon Martin, as complex as those issues are, it’s important for us to call upon our larger society and culture for justice, it’s a critical part of the entire process. There are some people who clamor too easily toward reconciliation without understanding the important necessity of justice. But I would also caution people — even though that’s absolutely true, the opposite is also as true. As we rightfully clamor for justice, that we should always have reconciliation in mind as well. Both of those are really essential, and we should never highlight one over the other.
JG: You talked earlier about the value of hard work, and you know as a pastor that people in ministry always have to work hard to ensure we have good boundaries, so that we’re living well balanced lives. So I ask you what I ask a lot of people in ministry – what do you do for fun? How are you checking off your “fun” box?
EC: Well, I’m a big sports fan. I love playing and watching sports, both of those are challenging, since we cut the cable, we don’t have a TV at home.
JG: Oh, wow.
EC: Yeah, and I ruptured my Achilles tendon playing basketball 6 or 7 years ago, so I’m not able to execute my slashing, penetrating game, or talk trash like I used to – well, I still talk trash.
JG: (laughing) You just can’t back it up anymore.
EC: Those things are important to me, I love the outdoors, which is why I love living in Seattle. I love hiking, fishing is a very life-giving aspect of my life. Every year, I take two weeks off to go fishing ten hours a day in the Midwest, and I love fishing for salmon here.
The older I get, the more I realize how important friendships and relationships are. I can just come out and say it in public – I’m a recovering workaholic, pretty much my whole life. Some years ago, I learned, it’s best not to hide it but just to name it and be mindful of it. My wife, who happens to be a therapist, figured that out a long time ago. So I take a sabbatical every three years. I mean, I used to actually feel guilty about resting. And now I see it as an important part of how God designed not just me, but actually all of humanity. The Sabbath is a really critical thing for me to embrace so that I can remember that it’s not about me and that things don’t revolve around me. It’s not fancy or glamorous, but it’s me.
JG: Okay, you ready for the speed round?
EC: Yeah, let’s go.
JG: Okay, we’re gonna play “Overrated, Underrated or Properly Rated?” Here we go.
JG: “The Lego Movie.” Overrated, underrated, or properly rated?
EC: Haven’t seen it.
JG: The Ice Bucket Challenge.
EC: Properly rated.
JG: iPhone 6.
JG: Xbox One.
JG: Aunt Viv from Fresh Prince, or Claire Huxtable from The Cosby Show?
EC: Gotta go with The Fresh Prince.
JG: Biggest guilty pleasure, junk food or junk television?
EC: Man, I’d go with junk food.
JG: I guess not having the TV helps there. Favorite kind of vacation spot, beaches, mountains, or somewhere else?
EC: Beaches, for sure.
JG: If you had to pick only one sport to follow for the rest of your life, between NBA, NFL or MLB… what is it?
EC: Oh wow… that’s tough. I would have to go NBA.
JG: Yes! (laughing) That is correct. Nice job with the speed round.
Okay, final question… if there were to be a new Blue Thunder in a few years… (the baby blue Miata referred to in the book that he needed to sell)… what kind of car would it be?
EC: Oh, man… this is not good… wow… umm…
JG: Do you need to plead the Fifth?
EC: No, I’ll answer the question… I guess, actually, it probably wouldn’t be a Blue Thunder, it would probably end up being an RV.
EC: Yeah, maybe it’s the post-midlife crisis I’m going through, but yeah, just coasting around in a nice RV with my wife… just thinking about having as much time with my kids, in seven years, my youngest will be off to college, so that’s probably the best move.
Eugene Cho’s first book OVERRATED is published by David C. Cook, and is available at both internet and brick-and-mortar retailers nationwide.