By Ronald E. Keener
Erwin McManus calls himself a cultural architect. His college major was philosophy, and he spent most of his early, secular career as a futurist working with companies and organizations — and still does as he pastors Mosaic Church in East Los Angeles. The title of cultural architect came about when he and his team were on a boat in Big Bear Lake. He told them he was writing his first book and needed a metaphor that describes in a fresh and accurate way what he actually does as a senior pastor. One of the guys said he was an architect.
“There are two sides to my job,” McManus says. “One is the engineering side; I have to find the way through the structures, systems and processes that help people get what they need.
“But I’m also an artist because I’m about creating values and culture and helping people get into something that paints a new life for them.
“An architect has both of those — the engineer and the artist. The reason we called it a cultural architect is that we’re trying to create an environment with an entirely new world. In a sense, a new future is being created, where God has a place where he can incubate what it means to really live a life that’s so with Him and so truly human.
“Some people design buildings, some people design boxes, we want to design spaces where people live the life that Jesus created us to live.” Church Executive spoke with McManus about his ministry:
Your work before the pastorate was as a futurist in your own company?
I worked as a futurist for the last 20-25 years with universities and corporations. I did so here as a volunteer. You know, I never intended to be a full-time pastor and I was a volunteer at this church. The pastor had been here 25 years and over the course of a couple years asked me if I would step in and take over. The next thing I knew I was the senior pastor of this church.
It was the First Southern Baptist Church of East Los Angeles, and people called it the Church on Brady, because it’s on a street named Brady. It became its nickname. About 10 years ago we changed the name to Mosaic and now we’re in seven locations and nine different gatherings across the city.
And you brought some change to the congregation?
The great challenge for our church was that we said all the right things: We wanted to evangelize, we wanted to reach people for Christ, but we didn’t really do the things that we said we were going to do. There was a great challenge to transition the church back to live up to its values.
Mosaic has 50 ethnicities; it’s called one of the world’s most diverse congregations.
When I came here 16 years ago the church had been plateaued for 15 years and declining for about four years. It had about 300 adults. It was a great church; it was kind of a blue collar family church but it was more known for what it was against — like the movie industry, it was hostile toward people with AIDS, it was hostile towards the gay community.
Even though we and the Southern Baptists have the same high view of Scripture we probably have a very, very different posture toward the city. So while the Southern Baptists were boycotting Disney we were doing Bible studies in Disney. While the Baptists were boycotting Universal City, I ended up going over there and making friends with people in Universal City.
I also had people come to me and say if one more Asian comes into our church, we’re leaving the church. We had maybe 10 Asians in our church and now we’re almost 50 percent Asian. We have so many people from Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Burmese backgrounds.
Now we meet in a night club downtown called the Mayan, it’s a secular night club with thousands of pagan gods carved all over the place. We rent that place on Sunday.
You don’t have a main campus?
We sold everything we had; we sold the property we owned at an undervalued price to a Spanish-speaking congregation so they could have a building because the area was Spanish-speaking. Then we just became homeless and have traveled around the city for the last 10 years.
Some of the publicity about you mentions you as an iconoclast, a comedian, an artist, a humanitarian, an entrepreneur, a visionary — is it hard to live up to those billings?
I get bored easily. I love making films, I love writing books, I love working in secular companies where I’m helping them become more humane companies. I love mobilizing people around the world where we’re solving world problems, alleviating suffering, and being Jesus in the world.
You had a staff retreat this week? What came of that?
We took our 50 staff people and we restructured our entire organization. Here’s a great question, “How many organizations of thousands of people would reorganize the entire organization and everyone have a great day and go outside and play Frisbee football and not be stressed out at all?”
So some people got new jobs, some have new bosses?
That’s right, some people who were bosses and over some people are now peers. Some people who were under others are now over others. We have an entirely non-hierarchical structure. You may be over someone this year and next year that person might be over you, if that’s what’s best for the community. God is maximizing our effectiveness and our influence in the world for Christ.
We hardly have a staff member who hasn’t been under someone else and that role has not flipped over.
You did the restructure to accomplish what goals?
Well, we didn’t expect to be in seven different locations quite this fast, with nine different gatherings, and we realized that our former structure that worked for four locations didn’t work with seven, and we’re probably going to have eight or nine.
So we wanted to make ourselves more flexible. We saw there were people who worked too closely together because they needed each other in the past. But now they’ve grown so much we’ve got to create more space so we could have more volunteers. So as people grow we have to restructure.
You didn’t grow up in the church. What’s your conversion story?
I am from Central America, my grandmother was more Roman Catholic in her background, and my grandfather was more of a humanist. He also believed in reincarnation so he taught me reincarnation. I think maybe between the ages of birth and 18, I might have gone to Roman Catholic, pre-Vatican II Mass, where everything was in Latin, maybe three times in my life.
Actually it was quite beautiful. I didn’t fully understand what was going on, but I was attracted to the spirituality of it and did have a clear sense of Jesus at the middle of the story. There was the huge symbol of Jesus being crucified, and the one thing I definitely got out of those two or three times I went to Catholic Mass was that Jesus had died for the sins of the world.
Then I went off to college and became a philosophy major. I was pretty much a mystic who probably from most people’s descriptions would not have a view of a personal God. I wasn’t anti-religious; I was oblivious to the existence of people who were religious. If you had asked me I would have told you that I was spiritual. If you had asked me about Jesus, I would have told you, you know, great guy. If you had asked me about Buddha, I would have told you the same thing.
My roommate was a pretty devout Roman Catholic in college and he would go to these university-based events and I went a few times. But when a nun came up to me and asked me to hold the Bible, I told her to keep that book away from me, I wanted to have nothing to do with it.
Your mother had an influence on your conversion?
During that time my mom became a pretty passionate follower of Christ; she called me up at college and said she’d become a Christian. I had no idea what she meant. I never heard that phrase in my whole life, but she seemed really happy, so I was happy for her.
We’d been through a couple of family crises. My mom had been through two divorces, pretty painful, and so she was now going through this divorce and she was looking for some kind of meaning and peace in her life and stumbled into a Methodist church where there was a Baptist speaker. His name was Jim Henry and he was a pastor at that time at the First Baptist Church of Orlando, FL. She heard the message of Jesus in a way she’d never heard it. It was really compelling and at the age of 40 my mom became a follower of Christ.
My older brother and I were now both in college, and he was a hardcore atheist. Ironically, he was the one who first responded to Christ. I was a mystic who really was a humanitarian; I wanted to make the world a better place. I wanted to do something that would make a difference for the greater good of humanity, and I thought because of it I was easier to convert. I thought my brother was going to be the hard guy. But in the end he was easier, because he was a thousand light years away from having any sense of spirituality.
He started going to church because a guy told him it had great volleyball and beautiful girls. That’s why he started going, and then he started reading the Bible and I asked him why. He said it is easier to make a decision for Christ, it would be an intellectual decision not an emotional one.
I got a little nervous. If they can convert my mom and my two sisters, and now my brother who’s an atheist and a pretty hardened guy, who’s safe from this religion?
He had a faith in Christ and I was watching the whole family turn to Jesus — and I was the outsider.
And who was the major influence on these people?
My mom was saved first, and the person who led her to Christ was Jim Henry. But so many people from that church surrounded my family, they just loved us and cared for us all the time. They invited us to parties and events and they were fun. To be honest with you, they were the most enjoyable, likeable people we ever met in our lives. Not thinking of themselves, but thinking about others. We never experienced people like that.
So I remember the evening, it was August 20, 1978, I just told God you know if this is real, if you can do something with me then I want to do it. It was one of those life-changing moments for me, where everything changed on a dime.
What is your brother doing today?
Alex was a key leader here at Mosaic for several years. In 2004 he launched the International Mentoring Network [theimn.com] to discover, develop and deploy leaders. He describes his work as being part social network, part cyber-seminary and part idea studio.
You left seminary and what was your first assignment?
I went to seminary for a semester and dropped out. It really seemed incredibly outdated and antiquated and irrelevant to the culture that I knew. Because of my faith I had such a high view of the Scripture, really the seminary didn’t have as high view of Scripture as I did. They kept bringing up theories that would question the Scriptures.
I’d been in a secular university studying the Bible under an orthodox Jewish professor who had a higher view of the Old Testament. So it was kind of a curious thing for me. I started multiple churches among the poor or homeless or prostitutes or drug dealers or drug addicts. So I spent my time reaching the community that I felt Jesus cared about.
And so for 10 years I focused my life working with the urban poor and during that time I had a friend who was inviting me to be a part of something in Los Angeles. I felt that L.A. was the epicenter of the world, that the face of the future of culture was being shaped and defined in Los Angeles, and I wanted to be wherever I could have the greatest effect on the world.
On the first page in the introduction of your book Wide Awake, you say “for years I woke each day with a sadness I couldn’t shake and then more sadness at the moment I crawled out of bed.” What are you talking about there?
I spent so much of my life here growing up with the sense I had no idea why I was in this world. I had no idea if I could accomplish anything meaningful with my life. I think there are a lot of people out there who just wonder if their life is a waste. There are Christians wondering if God has called other people to do meaningful things, but the rest of us are just the backdrop. I woke up with that kind of sadness every day, it was real.
In your teen years?
Yes, my teen years were pretty discouraging. In fact, as a result I was already in a psychiatric chair. So I was a pretty depressed kid. I know a person can be depressed and now live in an incredibly optimistic, hopeful life.
The last sentence of the last page of the book is more upbeat: “So when the morning comes, after you have hit the alarm and transition from sleep to consciousness, don’t forget to live and to dream wide awake.” That’s the other side?
It is, it is. And you know I really am passionate about provoking every person to live a life. When Jesus said I come to give you life and give you life in abundance, I don’t think he was just being playful with words. I think he’s saying to us, look, what you think is life is just existence. If you could step into me what I would help you experience is so extraordinary, you don’t even have a language for it.
I mean I want to provoke people to wake up every morning knowing that something amazing is going to happen, knowing that God is awaiting them to do something beautiful. And it doesn’t have to be something so dramatic that you one day are with Gandhi or Mandela. It can be small, incremental, a touch of compassion and mercy of courage and faith, where you know the world has been made different though your small act of living for your life.
Wide Awake: The Future is Waiting Within You, Erwin McManus’ book from Thomas Nelson Publishers and the 53-minute DVD from Lionsgate, detailing the eight attributes for living an inspired life.