Interview by James Long
When property acquisition and ambitious building plans were thwarted, NewSong Church in Irvine, Calif., was forced to reassess its direction. In the process it reaffirmed the call to be a Church Without Walls, in which “everyone plays,” not just paid staff. As Social Entrepreneur and Lead Pastor Dave Gibbons tells it, in a sound bite for these times of economic uncertainty: “Scarcity brings clarity.” When resources are super-abundant, you can proceed with flawed assumptions for a long, long time. In more pinched circumstances, you have to examine your true values and build on them. For NewSong, that means reaching the fringe, focusing active compassion on the most marginalized among us.
Gibbons is now convinced, had their original plans unfolded without challenge, the church would have become more inwardly focused, and valuable resources would have been squandered on overhead. Instead, NewSong decentralized and has now extended its reach from Irvine to North Orange County, Los Angeles, Dallas, Bangkok, Mexico City, London and India, with work underway in other locations. All sites share a covenant to walk together and to embrace the values and vision of NewSong’s three C’s: Christ, Community and Cause.
You say, “Questions should lead us to questions, not answers,” which makes me wonder about some of your questions, and the life experiences that triggered them.
I grew up in a Fundamentalist background. So everything was delineated in black and white. In fact, I remember asking my pastor one time, “Is everything so black and white?” And he said, “Oh, yeah.” [laughter] I said, “OK.” What I realized as time went on, of course, is there’s a lot of gray, which is not necessarily bad. But we often react against mystery instead of embracing it and enjoying it.
Was there a particular point when you woke up and said, “Hmm, it’s not an absolutist world after all”?
Well, one of the first experiences that triggered a reframing of my thoughts happened when the administration of the Fundamentalist college I attended told me I could not date Caucasians. They had a policy against interracial dating. When I pointed out I was half-white and half-Korean, they told me I’d have to choose one or the other; I couldn’t date both. I noticed there were a lot more white women. [laughter] I thought my chances were better if I said white. Besides, I’d never dated Asians. In Arizona where I grew up there were hardly any Asians.
In time, a court case came along that threatened the school’s tax-exempt status because of the policy. It had become national news and the media were coming on campus. The administration called me back in and said, “You can’t date any more Caucasians. You can only date Asians.” When I asked why, they said, “Well, you look Asian, that’s why.” There was even a suggestion that I could leave.
That experience certainly accelerated the process of reframing my thinking.
By this time you had also faced some things at home that unsettled your thinking.
My dad, who was a top leader in the church, had an affair, which was so difficult for my mom—even more so, I think, because she was immigrant Korean. Her dream had been to marry this American soldier, and they had attained everything that an upper class American family would have: boat, cars, pool, beautiful house. Then suddenly the family was destroyed by divorce.
This pristine religious world where I thought everything was nice and tidy was torn apart. So yes, the disappointment I saw it in my nuclear family was then enlarged to the Christian world when I went to school.