Another Conversation With Jim Henderson (Aug 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Fred Peatross

A Conversation With Jim Henderson” in 2007. A lot has happened since then. But here’s a bio to catch you up on who he is:

Jim Henderson was first exposed to Christianity as a young adult. His only goal in life upon exiting high school was to be a jazz/rock musician. He sang in bands, played the flute and electric bass. Music was his life until he ran into Jesus.

Jim once led “Off The Map,” a community of spiritual anthropologists dedicated to spreading Otherlyness the spirituality of serving. “Off The Map” started in the garage of Jim’s brain in 2000. Their first project led to a book called Evangelism Without Additives and an organization called “Doable Evangelism.”

Jim was confused by the fact that sinners seemed to like Jesus but didn’t like his people, so he decided to ask why. This led to him paying outsiders to come to church and offer their critique. A friend who was aware of Jim’s odd habit noticed that an atheist was “selling his soul on eBay” and encouraged Jim to get in on the bidding. “Off The Map” won that auction for $504.

Jim and Casper Go to Church was published in 2007 and Jim and Matt Casper began speaking about and explaining their unusual project and friendship. Jim lives in the Seattle area with Barbara to whom he’s grateful for staying married to him for a really long time.

Fred: Jim, can you tell the readers a little about your newest passion “Jim Henderson Presents?

Jim: What led me into this passion? My parents were musicians. My dad was a band leader in the Navy. My mom was a singer. I grew up around music. My natural home is in the entertainment world. In the way that some people’s home is in the church, I feel culturally comfortable in entertainment environments. Bars and clubs, and large venues, and events, and backstage, and the whole sort of shtick that goes on with musicians and artists.

In the same way that people feel about Sunday school and church camp, and looking up to pastors. I would’ve looked up to performers like Ella Fitzgerald or Otis Redding, or Aretha Franklin, or B.B. King, or Albert King, or Jimi Hendrix. I always aspired to express myself musically which I pursued up until the time I became a Christian when I was 21. At that point the message was clear that you couldn’t sing in bars and serve Jesus. So I quit singing in bars just as my nascent career was taking off.

As the church culture changed I ended up doing some performing in church with bands. We ended up starting one of the first Christian rock bands in the United States in 1969. There was no money. There was no market at that point. There was no CCM or contemporary Christian radio. So I just always treated music as a hobby when it probably would have been my lifestyle but that’s all fine because God saved me from a lot of stupidity that was attached to that world as well (although the church provided its own set of unintended consequences for me).

Nevertheless as the saying goes “you take the person out of the ghetto but you can’t take the ghetto out of the person” — consequently I’ve always thought of myself as an entertainer. In fact, I realize that I treated church kind of like a production. My strongest gift in church was putting on the event, the Sunday morning service, usually with great music. That, and then working with leaders behind the scenes. My least favorite thing was preaching, not that I’m not good at it, it’s just that it was work I didn’t enjoy.

But as you know talking is what churches pay the most money for so if you don’t talk then you have to do other things. After I pastored for 25 years I started Off the Map. When I started Off the Map I started producing large events. I realized that producing felt comfortable and familiar. For me entertainment is live story telling. It’s really no different that what you do on Sunday morning with liturgy or preaching and how you package the singing and all that, or how movies are made, or how plays are performed, or how books are written. It’s just another form of moving people through entertainment. Entertainers are just better at capturing the myth and the narrative of life of people.

I think what finally triggered my migration back into entertainment was the observation that I noticed that people mark time through music. They would talk about a certain concert or gig they went to with an “I cant wait to do that again” kind of enthusiasm.

I realized music does something different to people that triggers their emotional memory. Music bonds people to an experience; it makes the experience memorable and sticky. Black churches have got this one dialed in, but white churches have a long, long way to go.

So I began to think again about focusing my energies on the entertainment production business. Which ultimately led me to start my own company, Jim Henderson Presents. At the same time I felt it was important to “retire” “Off The Map.” It may have been more of a message to myself than anyone else. “Off the Map” was a non-profit and I realized I didn’t enjoy running a non-profit. Because you have to basically do a lot of sucking up to donors and you spend a great deal of your time doing things that I can’t imagine Jesus being interested in us doing and I certainly didn’t observe him doing.

Of course he didn’t sing in bars either, so the argument could be made … what’s the difference? Nevertheless that’s how I moved from pastoring to “Off the Map” and then eventually to Jim Henderson Presents. Those are the passions that led me to go in that direction.

Fred: I’ve known you for a long time, Jim, and was always amazed with your simple ideas in “Doable Evangelism” years and your “Off the Map” ideas. Can you talk a little about effective means of reaching people today? Maybe you can also talk about some of your history? Mix that up in the context of you’re former life – part of an organized church, paid to be a Christian, and then you blow all that up and take a 180 degree departure. Can you give us your thoughts and feelings on all this?

Jim: I think one of the first things we have to own is that we want to reach people. Quite honestly, while I might not be the most conservative Christian theologically or culturally, I sometimes think the people who claim that theological and moral high ground act as if they’re completely disinterested in whether people become Christians or not. I know they want them to join their church but seem unconcerned about whether or not they join Christ.

The way that I came to Christ was that I ended up being taken to church through a close friend of mine with whom I was doing drugs and playing in bands. He was in trouble. As I went to these church services, or charismatic church services in an Episcopal church in the late 60’s, I had no context for any of this. But as people worshiped I felt the Holy Spirit drawing me and pulling me into a place of openness and brokenness.

I explain it this way: ”Jesus invited me into his heart and I said, “Yes.” It was really through worship that the Holy Spirit wooed me and drew me into a relationship with Jesus.

So by the time I said yes to Jesus, which took a couple of months counting the cost, I thought I was joining a movement. My perception was I’m joining a mission to help people encounter God. That was my understanding. But unbeknownst to me, I was also joining this thing called the Church. I was joining the Bible. I was joining Christians. I had no idea that they were connected which sounds funny to people who were raised in church because those are the things that principally sit in front of them. The bible, Christians, and church, and then sometimes Jesus tags along if they’d happened to have had an experience with Him. For me it was just the opposite. The notion of being on a mission was absolutely appealing to me which happens to be the thing that many Christians who grow up in church find most unappealing.

Jesus is all about God coming to earth and hiding himself. For the first 30 years of his life his plan was apparently to do nothing. He only got busy in his last three and a half years. We completely ignore this 90% of Jesus’ life. We don’t know what to say about because it’s not written down, but the movie speaks volumes because it’s really saying just that God hid himself in ordinary humanity so that we could never say to him when we meet him, “You don’t get me.” No, he totally gets us. That’s the good news, but we don’t translate that for normal people. We have to tell them it’s good news because it doesn’t feel like good news. There are some things good you don’t have to tell people, “Oh that’s good.” We should just say, “It’s good for you. It feels like crap but it’s good for you.” That’s what we do with religion. It feels like crap, but it’s good for you.

That’s why I think the key issue is power and that followers of Jesus ought to lead this conversation. If we did it would be an even more, powerful evangelistic opportunity. That we are a people who’re determined to hide ourselves in our humanity, and we are people determined to give power away, not control it. It doesn’t mean that we don’t hold power, but it means we are busy giving it away. When it comes to money, Christians love to say you can’t out give God. The same is true with power and even more biblical! You can’t out-give God. As soon as you start giving it away, he’s going to give you more. I just think that that power resides behind the systemic and personal problems we encounter. It’s deeply seated and it’s core. It’s always about power. Everything else is smokescreen or surface.

Thomas Friedman said, “People with power never think about it. People without power think about it all the time.” That’s pretty much how I view things now.

Something else you should know is that I no longer believe in religion. I think religion in general and Christianity, in particular, is just a series of miscalculations, as historian Barbara Tuchman likes  to say. I believe that since around the time of Constantine, we inherited a bastardized version of the movement Jesus started which is now called Christianity.

Also, missional theologian David Bosch and colleague of Lesslie Newbigin, in Transforming Mission, pointed out that around the time of Constantine what was emerging was a conflict between whether the movement would go in the direction of a settled ministry of bishops or the evangelists and prophets. Obviously, we know that they chose the settled ministry of bishops again because you can consolidate power in that model and secure a spot for yourself and enrich yourself financially all in the name of God! So, the model that we’ve inherited and accepted is profoundly unbiblical.

Consequently, our leadership model is that of lawyers and doctors rather than artists and musicians. Now, fortunately that’s beginning to unravel because many institutions are losing market share. The behavior of the Pope recently with the nuns is indicative of the fact that power is shifting.

Religion itself has nothing to do with Jesus.

I no longer believe that God has ever, could ever, or will ever pay one second of attention to any religious ritual. Imagine being able to create a tree and then trying to be the least bit interested in a religious ritual, weekly meeting, preaching, sticking a piece of bread in the air or kneeling down. The only traditions Jesus appears to have encouraged his followers to repeat were the communion and baptism. Let’s do those and forget everything else.

Religion has nothing to do with God and what does he doesn’t do with the church. It’s all accidental and incidental. It has nothing to do with the heroes we look back on, like Luther and Whitefield. The Catholics have their own versions. These are people that many of them are genuine followers of Jesus that broke out of the pack. Then, they were eventually compromised and consolidated into their institutions. But they’re just people and the fact that we make them sacred, what Luther said or what this person said, or the fathers of the church, whatever. It’s just they’re good people that tried and said a lot of stupid thing, too, but we don’t market that stuff. We don’t present their “anti-“ résumés.

Now, one final word. We’ve inherited a theological framework that attempts to make a formula out of the atonement (apparently there’s about five competing theories of the atonement that have appeared throughout history, and people adopt one or the other.) The current one in play is the penal substitutionary atonement theory, which is what modern day evangelicalism is built on. Then, we proof-text this theory out through the scriptures, out of Isaiah 53 and so on. The problem with that is that nobody can figure it figure out. Which explains why there have been numerous competing theories. While most Christians agree the cross is important and Jesus’ death meant something, what they can’t seem to agree on is what it meant. Nor can they agree on how you make it efficacious.

Those are huge arguments that have gone on for hundreds of years. It would help if Christians would be more honest and admit it. Really smart people disagree about this, and they’ve been arguing, so why should I waste my time engaging in this discussion. Apparently it’s not for me (or anyone) to know with exactness what the meaning of the atonement is. It could be universal. It might be individual. I don’t know. All I know is that Jesus death was necessary and meant something. All I know is that I need a savior. He saved me. He may have saved everybody as well but I know he saved me. What this tells me is that as it’s currently understood, Jesus-the-savior-as-the-centerpiece-of-evangelical-Christianity is not a sustainable model.

So whatever Paul meant by “I always remember the cross, the crucifixion” and all of that, it can’t mean that that was the central theological organizing point. What’s missing in our theological construct is the incarnation or Jesus the servant, which is not mysterious or difficult to understand. We can observe the incarnation in his life, his actions and what I call the movie of his life. It’s not mysterious. We saw what he did. We saw how he loved people and how he helped people, and how he gave his life away to people, and how he was constantly being otherly. We see God showing us in his life what it looks like when you’re a servant and how you hide yourself in humanity. That’s why his disciples couldn’t figure out if this was Jesus or if this was a guy, or who this was. They’d watch him do a miracle and then they would forget the next day, “Hey what are we up to?” because he was constantly hiding himself in ordinariness.

It’s what Paul said in Philippians 2. Jesus was hiding himself, making himself unknown, which – when you’re not on a power trip – you can afford to do because your personal security is not wrapped up in being known. It doesn’t mean you’re not known it does mean you don’t need to be known. It doesn’t mean that you’re not public or even famous, it just means you don’t need to be famous.

All of this is important to understand if we hope to resurrect the Jesus Movement. Jesus the Savior needs to sit inside Jesus the Servant. The servant metaphor needs to be the dominant story. The Savior needs to be subsumed by The Servant. The atonement needs to reside within the incarnation. Then followers of Jesus would be known as people who serve others and let Jesus saves all of us as we walk along and in the way. That would be good news that we wouldn’t have to try and convince people was good news.

<blockquote>A Sample of Jim Henderson

Ever heard this one? I’m spiritual but not religious!

It’s usually employed by people who’ve “had it” with institutionalized religion. They’re typically trying to distance themselves from ritual, buildings and hierarchy-patriarchy. They’ve been burned, abused or bored by the system. They believe in the Story of God/god but not in the system in which he/she’s been “located”.

One of the unintended consequences of the spiritual but not religious phrase is that it makes it sound like anyone who is religious is not spiritual. But then what do you do with The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu or Mother Teresa who in spite of being very religious are profoundly spiritual.

The second problem with this position is that many spiritual people participate in structured religious activities whenever “the spirit moves them”. They pick and choose the rituals they do like and attend church, temple or prayer services they find meaningful. They also send their seeking friends to the very same institutions they’ve left.

It seems that the whole religious – spiritual enterprise is more fluid than any of us like to admit. We all travel in and out of religious structures and spiritual experiences with far more frequency than we like to admit. We’re not only switching religious practices, we’re trying on whole new beliefs and religions. Unfortunately we’re doing much of this behind closed doors so as to avoid the gaze of our judgmental brothers and sisters.

We’ve coined the term Religious Spirituality as a way of opening up the conversation, becoming more inclusive and expressing curiosity about people’s journeys. We can’t understand how it became culturally acceptable to discuss topics like sex (quite casually it seems) and politics, but not religion. How did this happen?

We need to become more curious about others and transparent about ourselves.

We need to stop “breaking up” with each other over a difference in beliefs.

We need to “sit at one another’s feet” and listen carefully to the experiences.

We need to put practice above preaching and formation above information and text within context.

I was a failure as a pastor — I couldn’t grow a church.

I started paying people to come to church and critique me.

People heard about my strange hobby.

I bought an atheist’s soul (they don’t have a soul) on Ebay.

That was four books and numerous national newspaper articles ago.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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