John: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. So up until your most recent book, they tended to cover topics from the deeper end of the theological pool (so to speak), but your new book is about marriage. What influenced that transition?
Mark: Yeah, I started the church when I was 25, so I’ve been pastoring Mars Hill for 15 years now. I was still a new Christian, still figuring out where I was at on a whole lot of issues. I didn’t become a Christian until I was 19 and I didn’t actually go to seminary and get a formal theological education until our church was quite large. So for those early years it was a lot of work, preaching, teaching, trying to study on my own and figure out just what I thought about things; to come to my own conclusions. So yeah, my writing reflected that. Also early-on, I was part of a young leaders movement that then morphed into the emerging church and such and I didn’t agree theologically with some things that were happening there, so I felt I needed to clarify: I love these people, but I disagree on these issues. Where I’m at right now is I’m still a pastor and I love being a pastor. I intend to spend my whole ministry career preaching and teaching in the local church. Most of my time is not spent untying theological knots [though], it’s spent helping hurting people. And so with [Real Marriage] I kinda said what I believe and then I wanted to talk about how those beliefs apply to life, making that theology really practical. So the marriage book was the first venture in that direction. I’m actually working on my next book which is going to be on identity in Christ. [It will address] who we are in Christ, how that impacts our relationships with God and people, and how we view ourselves and our sin. So my writing for the foreseeable future is still going to be rooted in deep theological convictions, but super, super practical, more like counseling sessions that I’d have with people.
JOHN: The books that you’ve written in the past have been welcomed with open arms by many, but have also brought some criticism to you as a pastor and author. How have you dealt with that?
Mark: I think for me the point of the book is to help people, so that’s why Grace and I wrote it. We’re really encouraged by the feedback that we’re getting: that it is practical and helpful. Like I said, there’s still a lot of Jesus, Bible and theology in there. I’m willing to endure some criticism from those who wish it was a theology of marriage. But I think there already are some really good books on a theology of marriage, so I didn’t feel that there was a need for another one of those. Quite frankly, there are also some good books on practical issues regarding marriage, and so we felt there was a need to contribute on some more modern issues, things that younger people are asking, also helping singles to think through their future. Ya know, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life trying to win arguments with my critics, I’m an evangelist at heart. I want to see people meet Jesus. I want to see lives get changed. I want to see families be helped, marriages be saved. That’s why I’m still a local church pastor. I kind of expected [the criticism] to be honest with you. I think anytime you’re talking about gender and sex you’re really putting the hose on the bees’ nest to some degree. No matter what you say, there’s going to be some real controversy around that. But I think overall it’s been healthy and good. It’s forced discussion around certain things. [I’m] just trying to focus on reaching people, serving people, helping people – that’s really where the bulk of the energy’s gone. So I’m not reading a bunch of my critics or trying to respond to them. Trying not to get obsessed with that.
JOHN: Because this topic is different than what you’ve explored in the past, did you feel different while writing it? Obviously this was the first book you’ve written with Grace…
Mark: Yeah, it felt a little more… vulnerable. I think it’s easier for me to make a point and tell you what I believe, then not have to talk about who I am, sins I’ve committed, things I’m working through, ways I need to be sanctified by God’s grace. It’s a little more honest, humbling, risk-taking. I definitely felt that writing with Grace. She’s really brave in the book – sharing parts of her story that were difficult. Particularly when it’s your wife and you’re working with her – exposing her to criticism and the nit-picking of some – there’s some stress with that for sure.
JOHN: Were either of you surprised by the other one during this process – how you tackled certain topics? Or was it more like ‘we’ve encountered this in our marriage and practically written this book as we went along’ and now this was just the actual physical product?
Mark: [The two of us] had talked and worked through issues for a number of years, and then through counseling other people and helping (especially) ministry leaders, families, marriages… It felt like we’ve said this enough privately, it’s probably time to write it down publicly. But as we were working on the book the one thing that kinda snuck up on us – that we weren’t expecting – was the whole big idea of friendship. Once we hit that it was a really big concept for us – it’s been super helpful and really transforming in our marriage. That was the one thing we didn’t necessarily have nailed down as we sat down to write, it just kinda happened as we were hanging out, talking, praying and working on the project together. That big idea just kind of exploded: the idea of friendship in marriage.
JOHN: What is the main thing that you’re hoping people will walk away with from this book?
Mark: Well, for those who are single, we want them to take their singleness seriously and not settle for somebody who is not appropriate to be married to; not to settle for sin. Also, to look at their parents’ marriage – family of origin stuff – see if there’s anything that they need to learn from or reconsider, that has negatively affected them before they get into marriage. For those who are married, Grace and I really wanted couples to have deep, ongoing, grace-centered, loving conversations, and not to just settle for a functional marriage – ya know – good enough but not great. Our real goal was just to get couples to talk. Bloggers and critics and book reviewers can talk to one another, [but] really the goal is that husbands and wives would be the ones having the conversations.
JOHN: That’s awesome. Alright, we’re going to ask you some really personal questions now… What movie have you seen recently purely for entertainment, or because it had a really great message?
Mark: Oh boy, I’ve been so busy lately I haven’t seen a lot of films!
JOHN: …But you are the pastor that always talks about movies! Have you been watching less?
Mark: Oh no, I have two DVRs, so I watch a ton of TV. (Probably more TV than I should.) Ya know, Grace and I went to see (this is going to sound a little cheesy maybe, but) Courageous because she wanted to go see it. I liked the big idea of the movie, man, guys loving their families and standing up for justice. Even though it was a little predictable [of a] plotline I liked it, I thought it was cool. So there ya go, there’s the big shout out for Courageous. We went and saw the recent Mission Impossible movie too… It’s really time to put that series to rest (laughs) – they’ve cut everything they can out of it. I saw Moneyball on a flight recently and I really liked that because I’m a huge baseball fan. I thought it was one of the best baseball movies I’ve ever seen. [SPOILER] I liked the fact that he turned down the money to go to Boston so that he could stay near his daughter. I thought that was awesome.
JOHN: Music, what are you listening to?
Mark: Um, what am I listening to lately…? Hmmm… The Decemberists, old Social Distortion, let me pull up my iTunes player right here and I’ll tell you what’s recent. Interpol, Jimmy Eat World, some old Smiths (I guess I’m getting old), The Killers – but that’s my kids more. It’s always hard, ya know, my kids play all of this music too so I end up listening to theirs… I like The Forecast – this little band out of Chicago, I’ve been listening to them a lot.
JOHN: How old are your kids?
Mark: Five kids: 3 boys, 2 girls: ages kindergarten to freshman in high school… (pauses, still thinking about music). Ya know I’m also listening to a lot of the bands in Mars Hill. A lot of the stuff’s indy rock around here man, it’s all Death Cab for Cutie, Decemberists, Dustin Kensrue goes to the church so I end up listening to a lot of Thrice – I love Dustin a lot.
JOHN: We have reason to remember quite a few mentions in past sermons that you were “jacked up on Red Bull.” Is that still part of your repertoire?
Mark: I am aging in dog years – I mean, it’s brutal. At certain times in the church’s history I would preach 7 times a Sunday, across three locations. You know, I’d go for an hour and ten minutes a pop, really high velocity, and then we cut it down to 4 or 5 [services]. So I would leave the house Sunday morning at 7 AM and not get home until about 10 or 11 PM and then stay up until about 2 AM – and I did that for 15 years. To be honest with you, physically, that is not a good idea (laughs). So you start using caffeine and energy drinks to push you through. But then you start breaking your adrenal glands and your neurotransmitters, at least that’s what I found so, man, I have made some pretty serious dietary changes and [started] watching those energy levels. I’m 41; I don’t want to be one of those guys that burns himself out too early. So yeah, I’ve pulled back quite a bit. I preach twice usually on the Sundays I preach, and I’ve not touched an energy drink in a couple of years now.
JOHN: Good for you. Alright, one more question, what do you and Grace do to relax?
Mark: Ya know, this is going to sound simple, but I like to hold my wife’s hand, go for a walk and just visit with her. We do date night, we go out to dinner and we get our time together. Last week we were doing an event down in Orange County, so we went over to LA and spent a full day there – I took her shopping and we stayed overnight. So we do that kinda stuff, but I like just hanging out with Grace. Man, if I can just hold her hand and go for a walk for an hour, see how she’s doing… I’m enjoying that for sure.
JOHN: Mark, thanks so much for your time – it’s honestly so great talking with you.
Mark: No problem, thanks.