Grace Is Greater
Rob Wilkens, Outreach Magazine
pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky,
one of the largest churches in the nation, Kyle Idleman often
tells stories of beautiful collisions that happen when
desperate, messed-up people meet Jesus.
Idleman has come to see how redemptive stories ride on grace.
Take one of his favorite stories: Jesus' parable of the
unmerciful servant. It serves as a framework for outreach at
"The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle
accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man
who owed him 10,000 bags of gold was brought to him. Since he
was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and
his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At
this the servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with
me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's
master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go."
In the beginning of the story, you are led to believe the
servant, having experienced extravagant grace, might be eager to
share it with others.
In an interview with Outreach magazine, Idleman sat down to
explore how stories take strange turns, bringing together such
diverse realities as Taco Hut toilets, drunk drivers and
outreach in the center of God's grace.
Growing up, what did you learn about grace?
I grew up with my dad as a seminary president. I grew up seeing
grace modeled in my home and my family, but the emphasis was
often heavy on academia. The longer I am in ministry, I have
discovered the need to not just explain grace but experience it.
I grew up being taught that forgiveness was based on the other
person doing something to make it right. Whenever I offended one
of my siblings, my parents would say, "You need to make that
Now that's a good thing for a parent to teach, but what
I inferred from that is that you give grace when the other
person makes it right. By definition grace does not work that
way. Grace is what God does for us and it's not based on the
fact that we made it right.
Did you always dream of becoming a pastor?
I really didn't have any idea of what I wanted to be. When I was
19 years old I started to preach at a church with about 20
people, mostly because nobody else was available and I was a
freshman at a Bible college. I don't know how to say this in a
way I will feel good about in print, but I don't do well in
large groups of people. I thought that was required for a
pastor, so I just did not think that was what I wanted to do. I
was interested in counseling or psychology. I preached at that
church maybe five or six times and then realized this is really
what I wanted to do. God kind of tricked me into it; He had me
doing it before He asked.
When did you begin to experience grace yourself?
After graduating from college, I wanted to preach somewhere but
nobody was interested. I was 21 and I can't blame anyone for not
responding to my resume. I knew God was calling me to preach so
my wife and I decided to help plant a church in Valencia,
As I was leading it, I became very aware of my
inadequacies and weaknesses and I was feeling overwhelmed. We
started the church in a movie theater and, maybe a month into
it, attendance had dropped quite a bit from opening weekend. I
remember sitting in the empty theater at 5:30 in the morning
before setting up for the service. I told God, "I just can't do
this." I pleaded for his help. In that moment, I experienced
God's grace in a profound way. God wasn't telling me everything
was going to turn out great. He was telling me He was with me
and His grace was sufficient. Even if it didn't turn out OK, it
Can you tell me about the connection between a Taco Hut toilet
and your current job as pastor of Southeast Christian Church in
[Laughing] You've picked up on the one story that no one else
has had the courage to ask me about. I'm having trouble
recalling the details.
I'll be patient. I really want to hear you
tell that story.
[Still Laughing] The first thing I would like to say is that I
don't mean to throw all Taco Hut bathrooms under the bus. Then I
would tell you I think you'd be better off with the written
In Grace is Greater, Idleman writes:
I'm at my dream job because of a disgusting toilet.
Not long after getting my driver's license, I borrowed my mom's
car to drive to Taco Hut. After eating at Taco Hut, I ran into
the house. I came out a little later and saw my mom's car had
rolled down the driveway and smashed through the mailbox. The
reason the car rolled down the hill is because I forgot to put
it in park because there was no way I was going to use the
bathroom at Taco Hut.
The car had significant damage, so I got a job to pay for the
I got a job at the Precious Moments Chapel as a tour guide.
Then one week a small church in town was desperate for a
preacher. The reason I felt comfortable preaching that first
weekend was because of that job I got when I was 16.
Are you still with me? The reason I have my dream job preaching
at an amazing church is because the bathroom of Taco Hut was
The significance of the Taco Hut toilet is to show that grace is
I was trying to show how God reverse-engineers grace. You don't
realize it until you look back that all these things that seem
so messed up, you can really draw a line from there to the good
that God was accomplishing. Sometimes we look back and realize
we were complaining about a blessing. God's grace was at work in
our lives, but we were too busy grumbling to be grateful for it.
It also shows in my own life how God used unexpected and often
confusing circumstances to bring me to where I am at now.
OK, other than the Taco Hut toilet,
what else brought you to
With the church plant in California, I could see some of the
challenges ahead in terms of facilities and endless Los Angeles
County meetings trying to get land. I knew that was going to be
something that I wasn't gifted to do. I had done an internship
at Southeast after graduating college. I knew the culture and
sensed the role of teaching pastor would be a good fit. So we
came to Louisville 13 years ago.
In your book Grace is Greater, you write that stories are the
best way to communicate grace. Why do you say that?
Story captures grace in a way that explanation can't. The genre
of story matches up with the experience of the idea. In the
Gospels, Jesus doesn't teach on the word grace specifically but
we see grace in stories of beautiful collisions-the places where
desperate, messed-up people meet the person of Jesus. Stories
allow us to connect powerfully to the experience of grace.
The subtitle of your book includes the phrase, Rewrite Your
Story. How does grace do this?
A popular phrase you hear these days is the idea of flipping the
script. The story looks like it is going one way and then,
unexpectedly, it goes in another. I think grace is not just the
idea of erasing the past, it's starting over. Rewriting a story
is even more powerful than starting a new story. He doesn't take
the things that are broken away, but he takes those broken
pieces and turns it into something that is beautiful. God's
grace rewrites our lives.
Practically, how does Southeast circulate
these stories of
We learn and tell stories strategically and corporately. In our
church we do that during baptism most weekends. We get a little
peek into a person's story. We do that with communion and we
talk about what God has given us that we don't deserve.
week we meet with a small number of people who are new to the
church and say, "Hey, how did you end up here?" As leaders, we
connect with our people's stories.
One of the things we do as elders
is gather together every Tuesday morning, and we pray together
for people who are struggling in various ways. We learn their
stories. As we pray together for God's redeeming work or
conviction or repentance, it aligns our hearts with grace. It
almost forces grace front and center.
Do you think all great stories
find their center in grace?
When you hear someone else's story about receiving or giving
forgiveness, it automatically triggers a personal connection. I
believe it's true with almost any redemptive story that it can't
help but engage others.
On Dateline, 20/20 and 60 Minutes you often
see the story of a person extending forgiveness to someone who
doesn't deserve it. When I hear the background it almost always
reveals someone who has experienced the grace of God. They are
giving what they have received. That is, by definition, grace. It
flows. You receive it and you give it.
How do you empower a community
to tell honest stories?
In the last 15 years, a key word in the church has been
authenticity. I think vulnerability is probably a little bit deeper.
The more vulnerable people are in telling their stories, the more
powerful the potential.
In Grace Is Greater, Idleman tells an embarrassing story about
It was Thursday morning and I was lying in bed next to my wife. She
had fallen asleep but I was awake, staring at the ceiling and
thinking about my sermon for the weekend. The focus on my message
was on learning to live with regrets. I suddenly heard a crash come
from our bathroom. I hopped out of bed and ran in, and saw that the
full-length mirror that had been hanging on our closet door had
fallen off and was in pieces on the floor. When that mirror fell, it
exposed something that I deeply regretted.
How did the closet door end up with a hole in it? I got into an
argument with my wife. To be honest I don't even remember what it
was about. But I got angry, lost my temper, and punched a hole in
the closet door.
After the mirror fell and broke, I stood there and looked at the
hole in the door and then down at the floor. I could see my
reflection in the broken shards.
You shared that story the following Sunday during your sermon. Why
tell a story about
punching a hole in a door?
I know, you're already thinking, the guy who punches a hole in the
wall, you don't want to be that guy. But that was the point: I was
that guy. I felt like God wanted me to share it. It also fit
perfectly with my sermon about regret.
What was the reaction to you
sharing the story?
The power of sharing was really surprising to me. People lined up
after the services and they were saying, "Me too." So many guys came
up to say, "I've never told this to anyone, but I've done that." By
being vulnerable it created a greater culture of grace with one
another in our community. It was safe for people to be vulnerable
themselves. When I was vulnerable, I repented and discovered grace
and other people did too.
This is what I mean by a culture of
vulnerability where it's safe to be honest. Instead of pointing a
finger, the church raises a hand and says, "Me too."
But it makes you look bad.
It was really hard, not just because it was embarrassing to me. It
was embarrassing for my wife and for my kids, but it was true. I
once read a quote from a pastor named Jean F. Larroux III: "If the
biggest sinner you know isn't you, then you don't know yourself very
When I first read that, I was a little bit defensive. Paul
says something similar in 1 Timothy 1:15: "Christ came into the
world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst."
Some people assume
Paul was talking about his past mistakes as a persecutor of saints.
But Paul doesn't use the past tense. He says am not was. When I know
myself better, I realize even the good I do is often times motivated
by my selfishness, my pride and my desire to impress other people.
What are the consequences
of not understanding the depth
of our own
In Hebrews 12:15, the author pleads: "See to it that no one falls
short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause
trouble and defile many." The idea of a bitter root is that it's a
I think that's the danger for the church. If grace is not explained,
experienced and celebrated in the church, it plants poisonous seeds,
which root and grow and things get toxic. A lot of times grace gets
put on the opposite side of sanctification, but that's not
In Scripture it's all about grace. Titus 2:11-12
says: "For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to
all people. It teaches us to say 'No' to ungodliness and worldly
passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives."
the church we want grace to be the motivation for our godliness; we
want grace to be what inspires how we treat other people.
The story of the unforgiving servant
takes a strange turn.
"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to
choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. His fellow
servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I
will pay it back.'
But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the
man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other
servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told
their master everything that had happened. Then the master called
the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that
debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy
on your fellow servant just as I had on you?'" (Matt. 18:28-33
talk about how the church should be outraged by "ungrace."
In Jesus' parable of the unmerciful servant, the guy is forgiven
this great debt, but when he refuses to forgive the debt of a fellow
servant, the rest of the servants were outraged by it. That's what
I'm talking about. In our community, the one area where we should
have some outrage when it comes to sin is when grace is being
withheld. As a church, you want to confront that.
In Grace Is Greater, Idleman shares a true story of unconditional
Elizabeth and Frank Morris' 18-year-old son, Ted, was home from
college for Christmas break. He had gotten a job to make a little
money. It was late, and Elizabeth was worried; he was supposed to be
home from work. That's when the phone rang. Elizabeth answered and
received the news no mother wants to hear.
On Ted's drive home a car
coming the other way had crossed the median and hit him head-on.
Tommy Pigage was driving the other car. He had been at a party where
he got drunk. He blacked out and never saw Ted Morris' car coming.
Tommy reached a plea-bargain that allowed him to be freed on
probation. Tommy was now free, and Elizabeth began having revenge
fantasies in which she would kill him.
But Elizabeth had a problem. She was the recipient of grace. A
Christian, Elizabeth took her pain to God and as she prayed she
realized that her heavenly Father had also had his innocent son
murdered. She knew she had to forgive Tommy as God had forgiven her.
Elizabeth went and met with Tommy. She told him she wanted to help.
Tommy came from a broken home and struggled with alcoholism. He
needed help. Elizabeth and Frank began building a relationship and
talking to him about Jesus.
One night, the Morrises and Tommy drove to their church, where Frank
Morris baptized his son's killer.
You believe reconciliation best demonstrates the love of God through
his divine grace. Why?
Grace at its deepest level - and that is what the Morrises
represent - is reconciliation. When it doesn't just end but there is
this new beginning. The church has the most potential to model the
gospel when we go to that level of grace and forgiveness. There is a
willingness not just to let go of bad feelings and the debt that is
owed, but also to actually reconcile with the person who hurt you.
Sometimes, reconciliation is not possible. You can't take it to the
next level if the other person doesn't repent. But when
reconciliation happens, it's pure grace. It's what God has done for
us. He didn't just forgive us but calls us into loving relationship.
When the church models that - whether it's in our homes, our
marriages, our neighborhoods - it is a beautiful image of the message
of the gospel and is a powerful and profound witness.
As a pastor, what have you learned
The way we word it at Southeast is: Stop thinking about what's been
done to you and start thinking about what's been done for you. It
involves taking a thought captive - Hey, this is what this person has
done to me - and replace it with a focus of what Jesus has done for
me. The experience of that kind of grace transforms our closest
relationships, either current ones or from a long time ago. When
that light goes on, and we really get hold of that, we experience
supernatural power in our lives.