Shauna Pilgreen: Love Listens

Interview by Jessica Hanewinckel

When Shauna Pilgreen and her husband Ben moved from the Bible Belt to San Francisco 13 years ago, they sought to plant a church. But before they planted Epic Church, a multiethnic congregation in the heart of the city that they continue to co-lead today, they took time to understand the community they aimed to reach. Pilgreen, who is also a network director for Alpha USA, says her years in San Francisco have shaped her understanding of what it means to effectively share her faith.

In Translating Jesus: How to Share Your Faith in Language Today’s Culture Can Understand (Revell), she covers the breadth and depth of what she’s learned over that time. Here, she shares the fruit that has come from always listening first, engaging with each person as a unique individual, and becoming a culturally bilingual Christian who speaks biblical truth in a way the culture can understand. And she explains how Christians anywhere can use the same techniques to lovingly share the gospel with the people in their own neighborhoods.

San Francisco is possibly one of the hardest places in the U.S. to share the gospel. What has sharing Jesus in that context taught you?

Yes, it’s hard. But we’re called here, so that makes the hard easier.

I grew up in an amazing Christian home in Georgia. The gospel is still the same all over the globe, so I believe I learned some things [about sharing my faith] growing up in the Bible Belt. But I’ve gotten a whole lot of practice in San Francisco that looks very different than it did in my growing up years.

I’m passionate about how Paul would go into a [place] and learn the culture before he tried to reach [it]. And that’s really what life looked like our first few years here. I was under the assumption that you would speak about Jesus in San Francisco like you would speak about him in Africa—especially [since in] Georgia and San Francisco we all speak English, right? But I think I had to unlearn that, and learn that Jesus relates to every one of us differently.

He’s so good at taking our personal stories and our past, how we’ve been raised, what we’ve been exposed to, the things we’ve been taught, and he meets us right there. So as best as we’ve known how, we’ve tried to learn people’s backstories, what they’ve grown up with, and what they’ve heard about Jesus or not heard about Jesus. We’ve taken into consideration their viewpoints and their questions in order to better relate to them and to introduce them to Jesus. Because San Francisco is a global city, we can’t just come in and expect everyone to have the same upbringing and culture. Every single person has a unique story, so in order to reach them, you have to start off by listening.

And we come to know one another by translating Jesus in a way the culture can understand, because it means I’m breaking things down for both me and you. The more that happens, the more I come to know about Jesus. Becoming bilingual is when I can look at Jesus, and other people come to my mind. I also can look at other people and see Jesus. It’s not just one way; it’s both.

What’s happening right now that calls for us to take a fresh look at how we share Jesus?

I do believe that what starts here in San Francisco has a ripple effect across the globe, so I think what Ben and I have been experiencing, maybe even our whole time here, is now everywhere. The pandemic caused everyone to move to new places, and technology is causing people to be able to work remotely from anywhere, so now many cities are global cities because people are living everywhere now. I think because of that, sharing Christ has gotten more personal. So instead of someone addressing a room of 100, I now just need to go and meet my neighbor, or I need to have a conversation with my co-worker, or I need to try to better understand my child’s teacher. I just keep going back to the way Jesus modeled it. He did address the crowd, but he had a whole lot of one-on-one conversations. 

We see so much polarization in our culture, inside and outside of the church. What should we be doing to bridge differences?

We’ve got to do life differently. What I mean by that is, we often set up our lives so that they revolve around us, and we take care of ourselves first, although we probably wouldn’t say it that way. And then we’ll get around to other people or have people over or take time to listen to people’s stories. We assume things about other people. If instead of assuming, I got to know those people I would realize we’re not that different. We’ve got something in common. If I actually listen, that helps with polarization. Now, in the same amount of time we spend talking about the polarization, we could actually go and have a five-minute conversation or do a five-minute act of love toward someone. God can do wonders with that, but he’s not going to do a whole lot with us just talking about it.

In your book, you write, “Let not the church be your excuse for not talking about your Christ. The point of outreach is not to grow your church but to introduce people to Jesus.” Can you unpack that?

This is kind of a hot topic for me, because I think some of us don’t feel comfortable enough with our church to invite someone to church. We think, While I might love them, the people in the church might not love them, so therefore we don’t say anything, because we already know, If I brought them to church, I don’t know how they’re going to be treated or welcomed or received. But while the church is the bride of Christ, the goal is not to introduce them to church. The goal is to introduce them to Jesus. And Jesus actually can heal many wounds. He can do far more abundantly than anything that can be found in the church. Just because the church sometimes isn’t receptive doesn’t mean Jesus isn’t receptive. 

What’s the best advice you can offer pastors to cultivate a congregational culture that’s welcoming of all, and that freely shares its faith?

Pastors have to tell personal stories from the platform about how they are doing life in the community and getting to know people—and not just people like them, but people who are different from them. The senior pastor and the pastoral team need to be cultivating a bilingual lifestyle where they are getting to know people outside of the church. Pastors should have a number of people who are not believers who they are engaging with. I know that’s asking a whole lot, because so much of their work goes into the church, but I would challenge pastors. They need to have non-Christian friends they are doing life with, and it probably means they’re going to have to go to the gym or engage in conversations at the grocery store. They need to do something outside of a ministry bubble in order for that to happen. 

Part of that is also keeping the fire of a passionate faith lit among mature Christians, right? What can pastors do to nurture that in the people they shepherd?

We need to reconnect with our story, to be reminded of what Jesus has done for us and of the joy we felt when we first became Christians. Even if you feel like you don’t know how to reconnect, I think a simple prayer of, Jesus, restore to me the joy of my salvation would be a good place to start. Then you imagine what it would be like for someone you know to connect with that same Jesus. The Jesus who has saved you can also save the people in your life who seem far from him, so as you reconnect with your story, imagine if they were to connect to that very same Jesus.

For some, it could be that in trying to reconnect with their story they realize they don’t have a story. They don’t have that moment when they truly surrendered their lives to Jesus. I think for others it’s also being reminded of the love God has for us. It’s not restricted to people who have the same values as we do. Love is for everyone, and we don’t need to be restrictive in giving it away either. As if Jesus can only love certain people or only love people who do life a certain way or have certain values. God loves the people we don’t get along with, and he loves the people who do life differently from us. I think that right there could be enough to change how we reach out to and care for other people.

Any final thoughts?

There are three sentences I use that I really see as translatable to almost anyone: Jesus loves you. Love him back. Love one another. I think we can do a lot with those three statements as we engage with our culture and with people who have yet to put their faith in him. For the skeptic, for the atheist, for the person who has been hurt by the church or other Christians, just let them know Jesus loves them. They can love him back, and he wants them to love him back. That just looks like giving your life to him, following him, doing life his way, and loving one another. And that means I get to love everybody, because I don’t pick and choose who I love. We’re called to love one another. What would happen if my neighbor, who has yet to believe, and I both came to believe that together? I think there’s a lot of gospel in those three sentences.