“Christianity has become more tribal. It’s challenging to shepherd people from so many different viewpoints, but it’s also beautiful.”
Eric Geiger is the senior pastor of Mariners Church in Irvine, California (Fastest, No. 19; Largest, No. 16). Before moving to Southern California, he served as senior vice president for LifeWay Christian Resources.
He has authored or co-authored several books including the bestselling Simple Church. With the significant challenges that recent months have posed for churches, Outreach editor-at-large Paul J. Pastor caught up with Geiger to cover a variety of topics, including his recent succession after the long tenure of Kenton Beshore, a snapshot of the state of the American megachurch, the impact of the global heath crisis and social turmoil, and how to find the opportunities present in limitation.
Briefly catch us up with your story. What came before your succession to the pastorate of Mariners?
I came to faith in Christ my senior year of high school. I was a pretty rough teen, and my new faith changed everything for me, from my lifestyle to the focus of my life. Early in college—I was 18 or 19—I was asked to be a youth pastor at a small church.
I wasn’t thinking about lifelong vocational ministry at that point. I just wanted to make an impact with my life in that moment.
That moment seems to have stretched out.
It sure has. The Lord used that experience to pull me into local church ministry. I did youth ministry for about nine years, then went to Miami, Florida, to serve as executive pastor of a church that became Christ Fellowship Miami. From there I was asked to go to LifeWay Christian Resources.
I had written a book with Thom Rainer called Simple Church, and we had stayed in contact since then. After Thom became the CEO of LifeWay, he asked me to serve on his executive team. I was there for seven years. I loved the experience, but I found myself missing the local church really badly. I began teaching frequently as a bivocational pastor and serving as interim pastor at three different churches. In hindsight, I was just throwing myself into the local church still because I missed going deep with one church.
And then the transition to Mariners. We really sensed the hand of the Lord leading us here, and I began my role two years ago.
You succeeded Kenton Beshore, who remains as pastor emeritus. As that leadership transition fades in the rearview mirror, what are your reflections about the succession process? What would you tell yourself if you could send an email back in time?
Honestly, I’d confirm everything Mariners did and reassure myself that it was done well. Now that I’m on the other side, I realize how important it was for Mariners to be prepared for Kenton to help a new leader succeed. I didn’t know to ask all the questions I needed to ask. When I got here, I’m really glad I didn’t have to ask those key questions, because Mariners had done all of that hard work to prepare.
I was given the gift of a remarkable opportunity and the gift of a great relationship with Kenton. Leaders in the church had prayed through this process for a long time. The staff was mature enough to live with two emotions at the same time: grief that they were saying good-bye to Kenton as their leader and excitement about the future. We were able to articulate that being excited about me joining wasn’t being dismissive of Kenton, and that being sad about the relationship with Kenton changing didn’t mean they weren’t passionate about me being here.
You mentioned “living with two emotions.” I imagine that’s true for everyone involved in a succession—leaders, staff, congregation. What have you learned about living in that space?
It’s true for everyone. I felt it first. There was grief about leaving a team that I had built and worked with closely for seven years. All of a sudden, I didn’t have anybody around that I hired. There’s nobody on my team who’s someone I brought on or brought up. You lose a sense of safety and familiarity with that.
Of course, I was also super excited for the future. So you’re right—each person in the church, to a differing level, held two emotions. Life is often holding two emotions. Those who have had the maturity or been sanctified in their life to recognize that, helped lead the way. They held room for it to be complex but not contradictory.
Painting with a broad stroke, we’re about 30 to 40 years into the American megachurch experiment. What are some of the unique challenges you see as you lead a church the size of Mariners today?
One key challenge is that America—and the world—is more polarized. Christianity has become more tribal. That is challenging. Anytime you gather a large number of people, you’re going to have many perspectives on our world and on every single issue that happens in it.
It’s challenging to shepherd people from so many different viewpoints, but it’s also beautiful. It’s a blessing to be forced outside of your echo chamber and be constantly confronted with the differing perspectives and struggles that people have in their everyday life. You aren’t just hearing from one slice of the culture.
What have you learned about speaking to such a diverse “room”?
The Christian faith transcends a lot of different viewpoints. There’s so much about the gospel that transcends and unites people from all different walks and backgrounds. Teaching the Scripture, lifting Jesus high, bringing the gospel to bear on everyday life—that really is uniting in many ways in divisive times.
When it’s lifted like that, the gospel can also offend widely. The Scripture can offend nearly any walk of life and every single modern viewpoint. What I’m learning is that the message has an edge to it at times, but also a beautiful uniting ability.
What are some of the unique opportunities that come with the size and reach of a megachurch right now?
Every church size has upsides and downsides. And the Lord uses all different sizes. My time at LifeWay helped me deeply appreciate the beauty of a small church. When I first started in ministry and I was at a church of 100, there were definitely upsides to that. All the kids in the youth group went to the same school. They all had my pager number—I had a pager back then! [Laughs] I could really know all of them.
Obviously, with a church the size of Mariners, you don’t have that. It’s one of the downsides of a larger church. But you can leverage significant resources in a way that can impact a city. You can specialize ministry. You can go deeper in things like recovery and marriage ministry. The megachurch provides the opportunity to offer niche ministries because of its increased resources.
Recent months have felt like somebody hit the fast-forward button on culture and life. How are you adapting your pastoral leadership to meet changing needs?
In March, when many churches had moved to online services, they were having huge numbers of people participating. There were leaders who were like, Man, this is it! I love it! But it only took a couple months before people were recognizing screen fatigue and the limits of online church. We can learn from both of those realizations. There are things we’ve been able to do with technology that we can’t do without it. And yet, we are also confronted with the limits of technology.
The learning isn’t going to stop. I expect it to accelerate. We’re in a longer time of change. We are going to see the opportunities and limitations of tech. We’ll keep being confronted with aspects of ministry that are better because of technology, and with those aspects that simply can’t be mediated by a screen.
My hope is that we can live with the pain of the shortcomings of tech in ministry, to more fully appreciate the unique beauty and importance of physical gatherings. Then, for those things that are effective digitally, let’s optimize those.
What’s been your most pressing concern as a pastor during the pandemic?
Obviously, racial tensions and injustice were a concern before, and they still are. It was early in the pandemic that we started hearing qualitative stories, followed by quantitative data, of people’s mental health deterioration while in the various lockdown experiences.
We realized earlier on that this experience was going to be a multiplier for whatever struggles were already present in a person’s life. For example, if I’m on the anxiety scale and am normally a two, then now I might be a seven with COVID-19 in the mix. It’s been a multiplier for anxiety, anger, isolated sexual temptations such as pornography, and alcohol or substance abuse. And I get it. I understand—we all so badly desire to be at peace, at rest. If someone is not yet at a place in their journey where they’re fully resting in Jesus, under stress they are going to look to other things to get them through, to help them escape. To numb the pain, you know?
My big concern as a pastor is that level of numbing going on. What are the long-term implications of that numbing at the scale we’re seeing?
It would be easy to just slap a “Jesus!” on the issue, to say, “Hope more. Pray more.” Yet easy answers fall short for many people—especially in the health, employment and political turmoil and grief they are experiencing.
I want to equip people and challenge people with what a rich hope in the Lord looks like. But I agree with you, we have to be careful that our preaching doesn’t feel trite. Coffee-cup Bible verses don’t work in a tough time. We need more.
I am doing two things. In my teaching, I am working extra hard to be raw and truly authentic. I want to tell people, “The human struggle you have is not new.” Earlier this year, we went through a series called Tough Questions, of raw and honest prayers from the Psalms: “Why do you stand far off?” “Why have you forsaken me?” “Why do I feel abandoned?” “Where is our God?”
The wrestling that you’re having is not new, and also it’s really good news that the Bible is not chlorinated. God actually put these psalms—these questions—in the Bible. He put these prayers of struggle in the Bible to let you know he knows your human experience, and he’s there. Keep struggling with him. That’s what you preach. But then you want to do more than that. That’s been probably the biggest struggle with not being able to gather physically: knowing that people really need community.
So there’s the social aspect. We must fight isolation. Hey, the Zoom group isn’t perfect, but it’s better than not being in a group. We’ve worked hard to connect new people to groups—and have had people who have never attended our church physically getting plugged in now digitally.
Yes, these digital connections are imperfect. But we want to make the most of them. Make the most of the moment.
Growth: +1,539 (14%)
In Part 2 of the interview, Eric Geiger reflects on racial justice and reconciliation efforts, the often overlooked opportunities for spiritual growth and outreach during the pandemic, and the future of Mariners Church.
Read about more Outreach 100 churches at OutreachMagazine.com/church-profiles.