ME: I would assume things are going well in the life of Matthew Paul Turner these days…
MATTHEW: Haha. I think things are going ok. Life has changed quite a bit in the last few months. My wife and I had our first baby in July. We’ve become very cheesy proud parents. We feel very honored to be apart of little Elias’s life. So yeah, life is good.
ME: My wife and I have a 6 month old beautiful baby girl and I think we fall into the “cheesy proud” category as well. ME: I saw Churched hit Amazons top 1000 yesterday. That’s pretty impressive bro. Did you expect a response like that so quickly?
MATTHEW: Well, I hoped it was possible. But I had my doubts. I had a lot of friends who helped me push the book’s release date. So when it got up into the 600s I was ecstatic. I’ve never had a book of mine go anywhere close to that number. Viral marketing is crazy. ME: Isn’t it though? The internet has totally changed the face of marketing for good! MATTHEW: It really has. It’s a powerful thing to be able to spread one message to thousands in a matter of minutes. ME: I actually attended the Echo Conference this past August at which you were a guest speaker. I know there is some history behind the initial difficulty you had getting “Churched” published. Can you explain some of that?
MATTHEW: Sure. I had written a book of satire called Jesus Needs New PR. My publisher was very excited about it and loved that it was very different from what they had published before. However, the head guy read it and decided it was too controversial. Which was a huge blow. I took it to 5 different publishers and they all declined. All saying it was too controversial for them. I had been working on my memoir, which was supposed to be the follow-up to Jesus Needs New PR, and so I presented that idea to WaterBrook Press, and they loved the idea. I salvaged as much of JNNPR as I could for Churched, which wasn’t much, and just began writing a new book. More than likely, Jesus Needs New PR won’t ever see the light of day. Which is OK. ME: Even this book doesn’t leave much on the shelf in the way of controversy. I know with all the personal stories you have there had to be one you wanted to include but had to remove. Care to share? MATTHEW: Yeah, there were a few edits. But usually the edits aren’t so much stories, but how you share the story. There were a few humor lines that got taken out. Like in the story about my clip-on tie, the one that my kid-like brain imagined licking my neck, I referred to the tie as a pedophile that had been manufactured into polyester. That didn’t make it in the book. There were a few instances like that. It’s sometimes a little hard being a humorist in the Christian publishing world. But I try to learn from the suggested changes and I normally don’t let them keep me from pushing the line. My editor for Churched was awesome. And with this book, the controversy isn’t so much in the stories I share, but in the subtext of the stories… ME: I was surprised “joygasm” made the cut but I laughed my head off about that one for at least a full day MATTHEW: Yeah, my editor was willing to take a few chances on some of the humor lines. And I couldn’t think of a better word to describe sitting in that church service and staring at all of the lights. ME: Speaking of that story and the lights…did your pastor actually have an annual boxing match with satan?
MATTHEW: Yes. ME: I thought for sure you had to be adding that one for laughs. I would’ve paid good money to see that so consider yourself blessed! MATTHEW: All of the stories are true. The only fiction in this book is the way some of the stories have been layered on top of each other. I had to slice timelines for the sake of story. MATTHEW: My church was certainly odd. And in order to make sure I was sharing accurate experiences, I let a couple friends who had been raised in the exact same denomination read the book. And they were like, “Yep, that’s what I experienced.” ME: This book is very personal and many of the stories feature members of your family, which don’t always paint them in a positive light. How did they feel about the book or even your feelings towards your past? MATTHEW: Well, anytime you write down a truthful version of your childhood story, there’s always going to be moments when the people in your life–even if it’s your family–will do or say or believe something that isn’t exactly kind or good. Sometimes my parents have had a hard time dealing with my perception of our church. They’ve had regrets, for sure. But they believed they were doing the right thing, and doing it for my good. I didn’t let my mother and father read the book until I got it in hardback. I wanted to maintain the truthfulness and didn’t want a bunch of, “I didn’t say it like that” conversations. When they read it, they loved it. Both of my parents laughed and cried all the way through. So I think it was sort of healing for them too. ME: So does anyone from your family still go to the church referenced in the book or one like it?
MATTHEW: Yes. They all do. ME: Wow! Is it still the same? MATTHEW: It’s changed to some degree. At least, in their minds it has. But really, it hasn’t. It was hard going back home for a while because of that. But I’ve worked through it. ME: There’s no denying that your past history with the church impacted your faith later in life. You openly admit in your book that it took a while to find a church where you really felt like you could be yourself and grow spiritually. Do you still struggle with the issues of your “churched” past even in the authentic and open community of faith you and your wife are now in? MATTHEW: I do. Anytime I’m thrown into an overly churchy environment, whether a church or a radio station or live event, I sometimes struggle to give those people a chance. Which is my problem, one that I continue to work through. I instantly think all of the stereotypes. And that’s not fair either. That’s just as bad as being a Christian fundamentalist and thinking you’re right about everything regarding God. It’s judgment. But I am comfortable in my own skin now. I know now that I don’t need those people’s approval, something that I spent a long time earning when I was a kid. And so while it’s still a struggle to be around some Christians, I believe Jesus redeems fundamentalism just like he redeems other issues we humans encounter in this life. ME: I struggle with finding that same balance in my own life as a pastor of a young adult community. We are progressive and different than most churches but in our uniqueness it is easy to get self-righteous and become just like the Pharisees or in this case other judgmental churches we have tried to move away from. MATTHEW: Exactly. ME: I know you talk about a rather profound experience in the 10th grad with Mr. Shenmeister and it got me to thinking…When did your view of God move from judging and fearful to loving and compassionate?
MATTHEW: It’s been a process for sure. Even after my family left the church (for like ten years and then they returned later), I still thought I knew everything about God. But over the years through a lot of prayer, counseling, meditation, conversations with people, experiences where I believe I encountered God, and a clearer understanding of scripture, I’ve been able to muster up enough freedom to experience the God of love, humilitiy, peace, compassion, etc. ME: As a pastor I can’t help but think churches with a “churched” mentality like the one you grew up in, have caused many people to run away from the Christian faith. From someone with firsthand experience how do we change a perception that is so ingrained in people’s minds? MATTHEW: Many of the people I went to church and school with have either walked away from God, or they’ve just stopped engaging his story. I could be wrong, of course, but I’m inclined to think more people stop engaging God because of churches and so-called Christians than any other reason. The people who I meet who have walked away from experiencing faith have usually done so because they can’t live up to the “church protocol” or because they know they will eventually be judged or ridiculed if their “true story” ever comes out. And the sad thing is, most of us in churches have a “real story” that we fear, if ever “released to the public,” would ruin us. Changing somebody’s perspective about the stereotypes won’t be a quick fix, it won’t be solved by a six-week sermon series, or with a clever “cool” gimmick. Now, let me preface my answer with this: I am one flawed person and this is my flawed opinion. But I think Christians need to stop focusing their faith on the need to be “right,” as in “correct” not political. Because our need to be “right” has surpassed in importance to love God and people. At the core of culture’s stereotypes regarding Christianity, church, and Christians is our blatant obsession about “being right.” “We” think we’re right about everything regarding God. “We” think we’re right about how the world will end. “We” think we are right about who to vote for. But I tend to think that, if God could be completely and utterly figured out, we would no longer be pursuing faith, we could call it science. And while it’s cool to learn about gravity or the Law of Thermodynamics, not very many people want to sit around in a small group and discuss it. From my vantage point, far too many churches pursue doing “church” like scientists pursue doing science or salesmen pursue doing business. Like it’s something that can be measured and laid out in an Excel spreadsheet. That it can be added or subtracted or turned into a fraction. But that’s not any Christian faith that I know. And I believe that, if we were to allow freedom and doubt and questions and hope and compassion and acceptance become commonplace within the church’s discussion and pursuance of faith, slowly over time the stereotypes would breakdown. But again, that isn’t going to happen because I spent time writing this answer out or because you preached a good sermon. Sure, a few people might realize the shift right away, but this isn’t simply a shift that I’m talking about, it’s a completely different (not new) manner in which to celebrate God and his people. Because the truth is, while we might eloquently write or passionately proclaim with authority something we believe to be ABSOLUTELY TRUE about God, but in the end, that doesn’t make it any more true. And for me, faith in some ways begins or at least becomes alive when we’re okay with that. ME: What an amazing answer to a deep and tough question! It is so difficult to stay humble and admit we don’t have it all figured out but it’s exactly what Christ called us to do. If we simply Love God first and then love the people and the world around else everything else will follow. Such a simple, yet challenging thought. ME: Thanks again for the opportunity to help you promote your book. I have no doubt there are bigger things still in your future as an author and speaker. I truly appreciate your honesty and insight into the realities and perceptions of church I see so many people dealing with today. Thanks again for what your doing. The world needs it!