Judah Smith speaks with a slight drawl and a charismatic rhythm that draws listeners in. The first thing he tells me, as he sits down for our interview, is that he’s addicted to hand sanitizer. He produces a bottle of Purell from his vest pock and squeezes a generous amount into his hands. I ask the obvious follow-up: “Are you a bit of a germaphobe, Judah?” To which he responds, “Germ conscious, Michael. Germ conscious.” That’s how our interview starts, and the path of our conversation remains fairly tangential from beginning to end—we talk about art, our favourite standup comedians, the church he pastors, his passion for sports, and his most recently published book, Life is ______ .
Where did the fill-in-the-blank idea for your books come from?
It started with the first project Jesus is ______ . I had this idea that I shared with our creative team at City Church. I said, “We should do a citywide campaign just to let the city know that Jesus loves them.” And they were like, “okay cool.” So then I said, “What if we made it Jesus loves Seattle, and did like billboards and bumper stickers? Not with our church name or anything, but just the phrase.” And then they were like, “Uhhh… that’s kind of cheesy.” But then one of our creative guys, Sean Spurte said, “What if we left it blank and let people fill it in however they want?” So it’s gone from there and has created this awesome dialogue. It’s really engaged people in a pretty important conversation about God and Jesus, and now, a conversation about life.
So it flowed out of the ministry you’re doing as a pastor at City Church?
Yeah. We committed in this journey that any resource we put out would come out of the life of our community and what we’re doing. I believe in co-op, and I believe that that’s the way Jesus designed us. So these books really reflect a journey that our communities are on in Seattle, and LA, and Guadalajara. I think the pages probably mean the most to our community because the stuff that I’m trying to articulate speaks to what we’re journeying
through as a community. It comes across as genuine—at least I hope it does.
It seems like you’re trying to create a conversation with these books as compared to just telling people who Jesus is or what the meaning of life is. Is that the case?
I think we all agree that people of faith are more known for their monologues and not so much for their dialogues. And we kind of realized that from the inception. Our desire is to say that meeting Jesus starts with thinking about him, and that something as small and simple as conversation is where the journey begins. We never want to undermine or overlook that, I guess.
Love seems to be a big theme in your speaking and writing. Is that a conscious decision?
Yeah, it is. I think love, particularly agape love, is a love that originates in God, and it’s a love with no conditions, no prerequisites. It is completely illogical and completely outside the realm of cause and effect. You can’t cause it. It’s just there and effective. And so I think the only thing that sets us apart as Jesus worshippers and Jesus followers is actually not our dress, our doctrine, our dogma, our delivery, or any of those things. It’s this agape love; the fact that we claim to be recipients of a love with no conditions and no prerequisites, and now, we are commissioned by this same God that so freely gives this love with no conditions to be dispensers of this love. To be storytellers. To be those that tell this story about how this creator God has always and always will love us. If you take love out of the Biblical narrative it absolutely falls flat. The story completely falls apart. So it’s imperative that we tell the story of the scripture; of God’s love from the beginning of time to today.
You mentioned “story.” Would you consider yourself a storyteller?
I like stories. My brain thinks in colours, stories, and shapes. So yeah, stories engage me. And I think they engage most people. For me, the Bible is a multi-layered love story that we have to let be what, in fact, it is: the story of this perfect, glorious, loving God, who works with damaged goods and broken people, but does these extraordinary supernatural things that he’s still doing today. This is what resonates with me. I think God’s a storyteller and that he has a sense of humour. I really do. And I think he’s the greatest artist of all time. So if that makes me a storyteller, so be it. Guilty as charged.
Your creative output is significant both as a speaker and a writer. Plus, you’re the lead pastor of a large church. Where does all the creative inspiration and the energy come from?
A lot of it comes from my family. That’s probably the number one story I tell. Something that happened with the kids or my wife. It varies, though. I love art. I love painting. I love entertainment like good movies and TV shows. But I really enjoy comedy. I personally think the greatest communicators on the planet are standup comedians. I just think how they communicate, their rhythm, their cadence, their verbiage, their punchlines, all that to me is so fascinating. It’s tough sometimes to find—how should I say—edifying comedy these days, but I’ll go see guys like Jim Gaffigan live. And you’ll see that come out in my preaching. And then of course great preachers are a big influence as well.
You’ve made some significant connections and have experienced what a lot of people in both Christian and non-Christian circles would call “success.” How do you navigate that?
I’d say that nobody ever told me success—however we define that—oftentimes feels like fear. What I mean by that is all of a sudden people say you’re successful, so you have to continue to be successful. Whatever that means. And it’s amazing how much expectation you feel and start putting on yourself. And if you’re not careful and deliberate and surrounding yourself with great people, it can change you as a person. It can change your values, your perspectives, how you are as a friend, and a dad, and a husband. I don’t want to go there. I think part of the fear that I feel sometimes are the expectations. The demands. The requests. The living up to peoples’ perceptions, which can get you anxious and can ruin you. So, I just say I never want to get to where I want to be, but not be the person I wanted to be. Like, what does it matter if you arrive in the place you wanted but aren’t the person you want to be? So I think success is ridiculously overrated, and success to me, is being faithful.
Where did the idea for Life is _ form?
The idea was almost a prequel to Jesus is ______ . I think sometimes even the name “Jesus” and a book about Jesus is a little bit intimidating to people who maybe consider themselves not religious or not really into Christianity or any world religion. So giving that first book to a friend who’s not familiar with the Bible or Jesus might be a little bit like whoa, a whole book about Jesus? That’s probably not for me. So the idea was, well what if we had a book before that book that was a prequel to say, if Jesus is ______ is not up your alley, or a little overwhelming, or just disinteresting, let’s just talk about why you’re sucking oxygen on planet earth? Because we’re all together here right now in this moment, and I think it’s imperative that we all press pause on our fast paced high octane lives and ask the all important question: what am I doing here and what is the point of it all?
What’s your hope for this book?
It’s not dissimilar to the Jesus is _ approach. The point of this book is not that every single word must be read and studied. I think it’s more of a conversation piece. It exists to get people in a space where you’re around people you love and appreciate, and you start talking a little bit and asking questions like: what is life about? I hope this book works it’s way through all of the fluff, and all of the stuff that really is passing, and fickle, and meaningless, and gets you in this space in your mind and your heart, going: what is going to matter when all is said is done? Can we have peace? Is there a God and can we know him?