By Ronald E. Keener
John Ortberg: Senior Pastor, Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, Menlo Park, CA
Pastor for eight years at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the San Francisco Bay Area, John Ortberg observes, “There’s a very strong performance culture out here, but that includes a terrific amount of pressure to maintain an image, and so there are vast amounts of anxiety, addictions, difficulties, emptiness, exhaustion, just about an inch under the surface.”
“The biggest misconception that people have of the Silicon Valley is that people have their lives together and don’t really need God,” Ortberg, 54, says.
It’s been said that the Bay Area is 90 percent unchurched, de-churched, or anti-church. How does a church engage a culture like that?
One of the ways that our church is seeking to reach the Bay Area has been by opening up different venues and sites so that we can try to penetrate more areas. We’re also working very hard on a project called Catalyst, which is looking at how do we unleash rather than bottleneck folks in ministry.
We have a terrific team of people who are doing research and looking at the whole area of mission shaped communities, and strategies to tap into the innate motivations, passions, and gifts of people.
Who was the pastor of your youth and what is your conversion experience?
When I was growing up in Rockford, IL the pastor of our church was Harold Christensen. His wife Evelyn Christensen recently passed away at about the age of 90. She wrote a book called, What Happens When Women Pray. I grew up in a Christian family and accepted
Christ when I was a seven-year-old boy, and it’s still a very vivid memory for me.
If you had not chosen ministry, what might your profession have been?
If I had not gone into pastoral ministry, I probably would have gone into something in the field of psychology. I received my M.Div. from Fuller Seminary and a PhD in Clinical Psychology, but it turns out I’m a really bad therapist. However, I’m very interested in teaching and writing, and I probably would have gone in that direction.
What is it like living in such an affluent area?
The Bay Area is a very stimulating place. There are lots of things going on educationally with Stanford University next door, in terms of business with Silicon Valley, and a tremendous amount of ethnic diversity. And also there’s a fair amount of spiritual resistance to institutional Christianity, particularly as you get close to the city of San Francisco.
What do you think is your calling to address this population?
My preaching has probably moved in the direction of being somewhat more oriented towards an intellectual approach to the faith, simply because education tends to be such a kind of prominent aspect of life out here.
Did you ever meet Steve Jobs or interact with his staff?
I never did meet with Steve Jobs. Ron Johnson, who reported to Steve and is a guy who launched and led the Apple Store movement, and is now the CEO of JC Penney, attends our church and is a good friend and remarkable leader and great Christian.
Your wife Nancy is nearly as well known as you are. Have you ever thought of yourself as a “celebrity” pastor?
Nancy Ortberg is a force of nature in her own right. I think that in general our culture tends to be celebrity oriented in ways that are pretty negative and unfortunately the church always wrestles with mirroring its culture too much. Political issues are very important but when the church narrows its appeal or identifies too heavily with one political party or ideology it can make people close the door to Jesus who otherwise would leave it open.
I was always confused about the circumstances of your coming to Menlo Park. Were you the senior pastor or was there a transition of sorts?
Circumstances of my coming to Menlo Park were a bit complex because of Presbyterian polity. I initially came as a teaching pastor, and there were three or four transitional steps to becoming senior pastor, which is my current role.
I’ve been fascinated with what is called nominal Christianity — people who love the label but don’t wish to live the life. What do you make of nominal Christians?
Nominal Christianity is a great problem in our day and certainly in our area. If you think about the early century of the church, there was no such thing as a nominal Christian because the cost of becoming a Christian was so high.
And then, after the conversion of Constantine when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the cost for becoming a pagan actually became higher than the cost of being a Christian, so then you get a lot of nominal Christianity. That still is a problem in our culture and one of the great challenges is how we clarify the cost of following Jesus without giving into legalism or spiritual elitism.
Menlo Park is now multi-site; what have you learned from going with this approach?
We actually had long conversations this last week about how concretely we move forward as one movement with different expressions, trying to do the dance of independence, autonomy, togetherness, unity, and relational connectedness, which is a very complex one and is a constant learning process. Probably my most recent learning is a re-appreciation for the importance of relational connectedness, particularly for leaders.
What is the importance of training leadership?
Leadership is hugely important. We were talking about Nancy a moment ago, and developing and training and raising up leaders is one of her great passions. Helping people who have leadership gifts in recognizing their giftedness, and embrace them and use them in the service of Christ, is one of the great needs of our day. I think generally churches are becoming more aware of the need for leadership identification, recruitment and training.
How do you get your inspiration for your books?
I would say that writing for me flows very much out of doing church ministry. People ask me, from time to time, do you ever think about not working as a pastor at a church and just speaking and writing. For me, the discipline of regular sermon preparation, the creation of fresh material, being part of a community, helps me to stay learning and refreshing myself, and I think that informs my thinking and my communicating.
So there’s a close connection between preaching and writing. Preaching also gives me a feedback loop. If I just write something, I might think it’s good, and it’s really only the caffeine. When you have to stand up in front of a group of people and say stuff you find out from their faces and bodies if it’s actually connecting, or if it’s not being helpful at all.
That actually helps a lot when it comes to sitting and writing material. I’m actually just in the process of finishing a book about the impact Jesus has had on history. Its been a wonderful project and a different one, kind of a stretch for me.
Who are your favorite authors when you read for pleasure?
I love to read C.S. Lewis and I love the writings of Frederick Buechner. Dallas Willard has influenced me more than any other single human author or thinker. Richard Foster, Henry Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Ken Bailey and N.T. Wright would also be on that list.
How do you manage your time, and discipline your life?
Saying “no” is one of the most important disciplines in my life. I have regular meetings with Linda Barker, who works with me administratively, and with my wife, to go over schedule commitments and most of that involves saying “no.” I fight my own optimism when I’m in a good mood and I fight guilt when I say too many “no’s.”
What does the near future look like for the Ortbergs?
For Nancy and me, the next five to 10 years we hope will involve being right here in Menlo Park and serving at our church, growing in love for God, and each other, and our community, and being able to serve the broader church together. We have also, over this last year, gotten into surfing so we’re hoping to do more of that and not get eaten by a shark. www.MPPC.org
Spiritual formation through Monvee
Monvee is an attempt to leverage technology to do spiritual formation. It’s a way for people to assess what their own spiritual wiring is, their spiritual temperament, pathway, signature sin, learning styles, and so on, so they can know better how to grow spiritually.
It really grew out of Heartland Community Church, a group of folks that I know in my old hometown of Rockford, IL. It can be helpful for churches in a single site or multi-site because it’s really geared towards helping people get a roadmap of their individual spiritual lives.
I think that spiritual formation and church growth or evangelism are really connected with each other. Jesus is the most spiritually mature person who ever lived and he’s also the most evangelistically effective person who ever lived.
I think sometimes we confuse spiritual formation with “churchliness” and sometimes we confuse church growth or evangelism with sheer numbers. Either of those problems will get us off track, but if we’re growing closer to God it will make our lives more winsome to those around us. Of course some people will always be turned off by the actual Gospel itself, but I want to make sure it’s the Gospel that’s turning them off and not me. — JO www.monvee.com