Dr. Palmer Chinchen is pastor of The Grove church in Chandler, Arizona, where he puts not only his advanced training in intercultural studies to use, but also the lessons he learned as a missionary kid growing up in Liberia. Chandler holds a doctorate in educational studies and is author of two books: True Religion and God Can’t Sleep: Waiting for Daylight on Life’s Dark Nights. UrbanFaith talked to Chinchen about his ministry values and about God Can’t Sleep. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: What is your primary calling as a pastor?
Palmer Chinchen: First, it’s to lead our people to know God and to know him deeply and intimately, and to have a rich, authentic relationship with him. With that comes the challenge to inspire them, lead them, and equip them to take his message of hope and to give our lives away to change what’s not right in this world, to love people that hurt in places that are broken.
What is the greatest challenge that you face in your ministry?
The biggest challenge right now is that I’m feeling like Christians in this country have historically and up to the present made our spirituality very personal. We talk about it in those terms as though it’s a private, inner relationship with God that happens on the inside. We limit it sometimes to our soul or to our mindset; it’s something cognitive. What I’m challenged with is trying to get people to see that when Jesus was here, he meant for us to live out the kingdom of God. Our lives are meant to be his vessels for changing not just what people believe, but changing the circumstances in which they live.
What sustains you spiritually, emotionally, and physically?
My wife, first of all. Walking with God with her is maybe the only way I’ve been able to do what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years. Getting to know the pieces of the Bible that I missed early in my life has given me new energy and inspired me in new ways. In particular, exploring Jesus’ teachings around his kingdom and the “nowness” of that this last year has been absolutely reenergizing for me. And then, the people that I work with have had a profound influence in keeping me encouraged. I have a great staff at The Grove of other pastors and leaders.
How do you protect yourself, your time, and your family from the unique temptations that ministry families face?
I have four sons: a junior higher, a high schooler, and two in college so I feel like my time is always in demand. When my garage door opens at the end of the day when I come home, my cell phone goes off. I don’t take any calls on my cell phone over the weekend. I do not allow church emails to be forwarded to my home or to my phone. I only answer them in my office. And so, when I get home I want to be free of everything that happens at church. Another practical, simple thing I do is I take Fridays off. I like having Friday and Saturday back-to-back off, so all of my sermon prep work, all of our prep for Sunday as a staff is done on Thursday..
Your parents have been missionaries in Africa since 1970. How has their ministry influenced yours?
Lawrence Richard called it social learning theory. Just by being near people, you learn a lot. So just being around my dad and my mother, the first thing I learned was to live with great faith. When you spend 40 years in Africa, you realize quickly the only way you’re going to make it to the next day is to have a lot of faith and so I try to share that passion with the people that I lead and we talk a lot about faith. We take a lot of risk. I learned to take risk from my father and to not be afraid of failing.
How did growing up and then living in Africa inform your ministry perspective?
Growing up in Africa showed me how simple, and yet how powerful church can be. It doesn’t have to be about a staff and a building and payrolls. My church has a building so I’m a bit of a hypocrite, but we try to do it as simply as possible. To be honest, I think we have far too many ministries. I think we need to empower our people to meet each other’s needs, period, and stop paying so many people to do the things that people who call themselves Christians should be doing.
What influence is there from your training in intercultural studies?
We live in a globalized world and for me that’s an important part our church identity. I keep trying to tell our people that heaven is not just going to be filled with people like us. It’s going to be filled with people from every race and every tribe and every ethnicity. We can’t separate who we are as Christians from being a global people. I use that from my background to encourage people to live comfortably, to be moved towards people who are different in any way. I challenge our people that I speak to to include “the other” and to celebrate our differences, whether it be by language or skin color, or even denominations.
Is racial reconciliation formally a part of your ministry?
I haven’t termed it racial reconciliation. What we do at The Grove is racial celebration. We do all we can to make everything we do inclusive of the other and so we don’t want to be color blind. We want to celebrate those differences.
Your new book, God Can’t Sleep: Waiting for Daylight on Life’s Dark Nights, is full of stories of profound suffering. What inspired you to write it?
When I lived in Malawi, I got tired of doing funerals for babies who died of AIDS because their mothers had AIDS. I taught a class at a Christian university that I titled “A Theology of Suffering” that started with a Malawian perspective on suffering. I realized that this is the world’s common language, so it went from there.
A lot of times as Christians, we don’t have answers to life’s most difficult problems and to the problem of pain and we end up saying really cheap things like, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” That’s not even in the Bible, and the truth is we often end up in situations when on that week, for that moment, in that year, it feels like far more than anyone can handle and it is.
I talk about where God is and the things that happen in those dark times. I don’t want to oversimplify it, but there’s often a kind of spiritual change or growth that only happens on the most dark nights of our lives. If you think of anyone you would consider a mature Christian, I can almost promise you that person has been through some pain. God makes us deeper, wiser, more gentle people full of grace and mercy through it and we understand and we walk maybe a little closer to God.