Eric Geiger: Pivoting to Meet People Where They Are—Part 2

“The Lord runs to the brokenhearted. So I always feel my first response needs to be to run to them too, to let my heart break with theirs.”

Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Eric Geiger talks succeeding longtime pastor Kenton Beshore at Mariners, the unique challenges of leading a megachurch in these uncertain times, and how Mariners has responded to the pandemic.

Earlier in the year, you wrote about some of the big racial issues that have been at the front of our mind this year. What are you learning about stewarding your influence well to help effect social change and bring healing into that complex conversation?

It’s super complex. But at the end of the day, the Lord runs to the brokenhearted. So I always feel my first response needs to be to run to them too, to let my own heart break with theirs. In our church, our Black brothers and sisters were and are hurting with an unusual depth of pain. As their pastor, I want them to sense and feel that their whole church is there for them, listening and valuing them.

The other responsibility is to lead a conversation. To help people understand why racial justice is an important issue to the Lord. We’re all created in his image. Any bigotry and racism is an assault on the image of God, because the image of God has been placed on all humanity.

That first response is pastoral, the second is prophetic. The first is running to those who are hurting, and the second is teaching and declaring something to be injustice and teaching why it is so. I think all of us pastors are wrestling with the ebb and flow between being prophetic and teaching and equipping people to think differently than their culture has shaped them to think. That’s our role as pastors in those moments.

We want to love the people the Lord’s called us to. But loving them doesn’t mean holding back from saying the difficult things to them. It does mean you choose to say them. But it impacts how you say the difficult things.

Many people have observed that we have entered a phase of being a “post-truth” culture. Disinformation and misinformation online are just the tip of the iceberg, and Christians are, sadly, often caught up in the confusion. What are your thoughts on cultivating truth in a congregation?

This confusing time has ironically pointed out the fact that truth is real. I see part of my role as helping people realize that everyone has a truth claim and a set of beliefs that we can discern. As far as helping people interact with the truth of the Christian faith, I’m a little old school in that I want to teach not only the Scripture but also point out some doctrinal truths along the way.

I want to model a strong theological framework paired with humility. In this cultural confusion, there’s a longing for truth to be declared—as long as it’s declared in a way that’s humble and winsome.

What are some of the key opportunities for spiritual growth right now that a lot of pastors or churches might overlook?

There’s an opportunity for helping people make sense of their experience in these times. We need to make sense of the world that we live in. This alone makes this an amazing time to be a pastor and a Christian, because people are wondering how on earth is the world this way? It’s an opportunity to point people to the good news of Jesus.

I love what C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity: “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.” The only reason we know that racial inequality is not right is because intuitively we know that there must be something called justice. The only reason we know a world where you can’t hug your neighbor is not the way it should be is because we intuitively know that we were made for human connection.

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The frustration, the angst, the sense that this isn’t how it’s supposed to be is a beautiful and glorious time to point people to the Christian story. Yes, everything got messed up, but we have a redeemer who makes us right—and one day he’s going to make everything right. The opportunity to share the gospel is huge right now.

Pair that with the opportunity for churches to engage their cities. Obviously anytime there’s a pandemic you’re going to have opportunities to practically serve your community. I’m really proud of how our church has done that this year. But these needs that have emerged will be long term. The budget cuts that cities are making because of the economic situation are going to create a new season of need, pain and struggle. Historically, this is when we Christians have always stepped in. And it’s going to give our churches an opportunity to love our cities well and serve people in the most practical ways.

Imagine—if a quarter of all small businesses go away by the end of this pandemic, or if a local community’s tax income goes down by, say, 20%, cutting social services, there will be a cultural domino effect. It’s going to give churches an opportunity to serve really well in the community.

Besides that continued city engagement, and continuing to consider how digital and physical ministry interface, what is on the horizon for Mariners?

We’re going to creatively provide different ways that people can engage our weekend services.

We expect there will be groups of people who won’t want to come back to a large gathering for a while. Our worship service has about 3,200 seats, and there will be people who won’t want to come into that environment. Instead of that being a downer, can that be a beautiful constraint? Mariners Hosted at Home will be our strategy for that—meeting in homes.

There are 34 cities in Orange County—we hope to have dozens, or even hundreds of groups where people watch our service together on a weekend. I’m not sure where that’s going to go, but it seems to be bearing fruit. We do that at our house, and we’re hanging out with our neighbors more than we’ve ever hung out with our neighbors. Even people in our neighborhood who go to Mariners but usually attend different services are now at the same service in our house. Some neighbors who weren’t at our church are at our church in my living room. I’m excited about that.

We are also starting Mariners in the Neighborhood at six different locations throughout Orange County. At this point, given the health concerns of large gatherings, there will be a ticketing system, with only 100 people per gathering for three different times. The vision is smaller neighborhood gatherings throughout Orange County.

At some point we’ll go fully back on at church, at the old-school church service. But I think it’s possible these other avenues for gathering won’t go away. They will be not just temporary steps, but ongoing ways that we engage our community. We’re open to that. We’re actually planning for them not to be temporary.

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Is that in response to a sense that some changes are here to stay?

Yes. But besides that, we’re asking how we are going to be able to engage people who may not have come to the megachurch. People who are in relationships with people in the neighborhood or have begun watching our service in a home and have become plugged into our church that way.

Obviously, there’s a lot of conversation in the business world about how consumer behavior is going to change after the virus. No one knows for sure how it’s going to change, but I have different business leaders in our church that I listen to a lot to understand our congregation better. That’s the big question companies are wrestling with right now. It’s not about what their plans are, but how the behavior of people is going to change. We must adapt our strategy, rather than try to get people to change back to how we did things before. Let’s watch. Let’s pay attention to how human behavior is going to change.

Of course, many basics won’t change. As much as people say it’s going to change forever, I can tell when we have people over in our house—it doesn’t take that long before you kind of forget you’re in a pandemic and you’re just, together, just hanging out. There will be a lot of muscle memory for gatherings, so I’m not the anti-gathering guy. But I think new approaches might give us new ways of meeting people where they are today.

Personally, what are you reading, what are you doing to relax, to restore your soul? What’s bringing life to you right now?

I’ve spent a lot of time in the Psalms. A lot.

Rest has been hard. It’s crazy. I feel in many ways like we’re working harder, even though we don’t have physical gatherings. It’s a weird paradox. My bosses—our elders—are so good at being sure that exercise and rest are part of my rhythm. Those have stayed in place, and my time with my wife has too. Rest is different, but it’s still present.

From a leadership standpoint, I recently read A Beautiful Constraint by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden (Wiley), a business leadership book trying to help us view a constraint—which we all are fully in right now in 2020—as more than something you just get through. In their view, limitations can actually cause you to do things beautifully. Constraint can help us do things we weren’t doing as an organization before. It’s been a helpful framework for me and my team to ask how our church can actually be more effective on the other side of this experience.

My hope is that at some point, we can look back and see how this challenging time accelerated things for us. Maybe even made us more effective than we ever could have been without it. Wouldn’t that be beautiful?

Irvine, California
Founded: 1963
Denomination: Nondenominational
Locations: 2
Attendance: 12,180
Growth: +1,539 (14%)
Fastest-Growing: 19
Largest: 16

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