Kyle Idleman: Grace Is Greater—Part 1

As teaching pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, one of the largest churches in the nation, Kyle Idleman often tells stories of beautiful collisions that happen when desperate, messed-up people meet Jesus.

Idleman has come to see how redemptive stories ride on grace.

Take one of his favorite stories: Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant. It serves as a framework for outreach at Southeast Christian.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him 10,000 bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.” (Matt. 18:23-27)

In the beginning of the story, you are led to believe the servant, having experienced extravagant grace, might be eager to share it with others.

In an interview with Outreach magazine, Idleman sat down to explore how stories take strange turns, bringing together such diverse realities as Taco Hut toilets, drunk drivers and outreach in the center of God’s grace.

Growing up, what did you learn about grace?

I grew up with my dad as a seminary president. I grew up seeing grace modeled in my home and my family, but the emphasis was often heavy on academia. The longer I am in ministry, I have discovered the need to not just explain grace but experience it. I grew up being taught that forgiveness was based on the other person doing something to make it right. Whenever I offended one of my siblings, my parents would say, “You need to make that right.” Now that’s a good thing for a parent to teach, but what I inferred from that is that you give grace when the other person makes it right. By definition grace does not work that way. Grace is what God does for us and it’s not based on the fact that we made it right.

Did you always dream of becoming a pastor?

I really didn’t have any idea of what I wanted to be. When I was 19 years old I started to preach at a church with about 20 people, mostly because nobody else was available and I was a freshman at a Bible college. I don’t know how to say this in a way I will feel good about in print, but I don’t do well in large groups of people. I thought that was required for a pastor, so I just did not think that was what I wanted to do. I was interested in counseling or psychology. I preached at that church maybe five or six times and then realized this is really what I wanted to do. God kind of tricked me into it; he had me doing it before he asked.

When did you begin to experience grace yourself?

After graduating from college, I wanted to preach somewhere but nobody was interested. I was 21 and I can’t blame anyone for not responding to my résumé. I knew God was calling me to preach so my wife and I decided to help plant a church in Valencia, California. As I was leading it, I became very aware of my inadequacies and weaknesses and I was feeling overwhelmed. We started the church in a movie theater and, maybe a month into it, attendance had dropped quite a bit from opening weekend. I remember sitting in the empty theater at 5:30 in the morning before setting up for the service. I told God, “I just can’t do this.” I pleaded for his help. In that moment, I experienced God’s grace in a profound way. God wasn’t telling me everything was going to turn out great. He was telling me he was with me and his grace was sufficient. Even if it didn’t turn out OK, it was OK.

Can you tell me about the connection between a Taco Hut toilet and your current job as pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville?

[Laughing] You’ve picked up on the one story that no one else has had the courage to ask me about. I’m having trouble recalling the details.