Listening In: Derwin Gray


WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith. And today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with pastor, author, apologist, and former NFL player, Derwin Gray.

Derwin Gray has taken an unlikely road to become the pastor of one of the largest and most ethnically diverse evangelical churches in Charlotte, North Carolina, a place known as a city of churches. To begin with he grew up in humble circumstances in Texas with no father in his life. Many of his family members, if they had any religious faith at all, were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Also, when Derwin Gray was a child, his speech was punctuated by a pretty serious stutter. In college, when his football prowess attracted the attention of the media interviews were often a real struggle for him. Also, the college he went to—Brigham Young University—is a stronghold of the Mormon faith. Again, not an environment from which you’d think an evangelical pastor might grow. But as you’ll hear in my conversation with Derwin Gray, he did in fact come to faith in Christ when he was in his twenties during his six year career in the NFL.

And perhaps because of his background, he was attracted to Christian apologetics, eventually earning a degree from Southern Evangelical Seminary, a school known for its apologetics training. One of his mentors was Norman Geisler, who many considered to be the grandfather of modern Christian apologetics. 

All of these experiences are recounted in Derwin Gray’s new book, The Good Life, which is both a personal testimony and an extended exposition of the beatitudes of Matthew 5. And even though Derwin Gray and I both live in Charlotte, during this time of social distancing, we had to have this conversation in separate places. I was in my home studio in Charlotte, and he spoke to me from his church—Transformation Church—which is on the other side of town.

Derwin Gray, welcome to the program. Gosh, I’m just trying to figure out when the first time you and I met. But I think it was when we had lunch together with Norman Geisler, it must have been 10 or 15 years ago.

DERWIN GRAY, GUEST: Yep. That sounds like something that Dr. G and I would have done. And I do remember that time and I miss my mentor and friend deeply. He’s a good man.

SMITH: Yeah. He certainly was. Passed away not long ago. I was at the—I think you were at the memorial service as well, if I’m remembering right. But we didn’t get to chat then. Were you at the service? I don’t remember.

GRAY: You know what, oh gosh, I can’t even—my head’s spinning so fast. I believe I was, but if I wasn’t, we spent a lot of time together, a lot of time talking. And so I’m thankful that I got to speak to him before he went to see the Lord and it was a tremendous blessing.

SMITH: Yeah, Norman Geisler, of course, sort of the grandfather of Christian apologetics. And you, as you said, studied under him, he was one of your mentors, one of your various mentors. And, you know, I can kind of see some of that coming out in your new book The Good Life: What Jesus Teaches About Finding True Happiness. And you depend very heavily on the beatitudes in this book. I mean, it really is a deep dive into the fifth chapter of Matthew.

GRAY: Yeah, it is. Back in 2015, we did a sermon series here at Transformation Church and it was because of whether people were believers or unbelievers, new Christians, old Christians, regardless of ethnicity and class, people were just not happy. And so the Christian and unchristian were both looking for happiness through status, through money, through position, through power. And I said, well, let’s go back to Jesus because Jesus was the happiest person to have ever lived. And so happiness, as I define it, is not always smiling. It’s a quiet confidence that in the arena of life, God will never leave you nor forsake you. God’s purposes and his grace is fulfilled in your life and through your life so that his kingdom will come. Well, Jesus, in his humanity, embodied that. And so in the beatitudes, Matthew chapter 5:3-12, he starts with “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” And he goes through nine other characteristics of the blessed life. But that word blessed in Greek is the Greek word, makarios. And that word literally means happy. And so in essence, a happy person is a person who’s been formed into a holy person. In other words, Jesus is inviting us into a happiness that is not dependent upon circumstances or happening. It’s dependent and contingent upon the work of Christ and as Christ forms us and shapes us into people who embody his kingdom here on earth. And so the good life is allowing the good God to make you into a good person who reflects his kingdom here on earth.

SMITH: Yeah. You know, Derwin, I’m going to read something to you from your book that I think relates a bit to what you said. And I’ll ask you to say a little bit more about it. And this is actually from page 105 in your book. “Often God will take our deepest sin, forgive us, renovate our hearts, and give us a ministry to serve along those who are in the same dark places we were. This is what the good life looks like. It is a life of repentance, forgiveness, mercy, and serving the hurting. God will take unrighteous people and make them righteous through the blood of Christ so they can express his righteousness.” So, again, that happiness—and these are your words—I found them very powerful. This happiness is not sort of a happy clappy feel good, walk around with a smile on your face, kind of a thing, but it is the life of someone who knows he’s a sinner, who knows he’s been redeemed from much, and is being transformed to serve other people and to share that good news with them.

GRAY: Absolutely. I think that we, as American Christians, in many ways have imported the so called American dream—meaning, you know, wealth and status and power—into Christianity. Whereas I think Jesus wants us to hear him afresh and that there’s nothing greater than seeing God pull you out of your mess. And then send you into other people’s messes to pull them out. And the good life is being God-centered and other-centered because Christ met us in the center of our mess. And so Jesus is calling people into a deeper happiness that transcends, you know, the giddiness and the smiling and all that. That’s a part of it, but there’s something richer and more beautiful about “Happy are the peacemakers for they will be called sons and daughters of God.” That us making peace, reconciling, being hope in hopelessness, being a form of unity in the midst of a world filled with such division, That’s what peace is and happiness. So, often grown up as a kid, I grew up very poor. Football was my way out. I went to the NFL and I said, okay, so the new Lexus is gonna make me happy and it did, but it wore off. Okay, the new wife is gonna make me happy, but then I realized, oh my gosh, I don’t even love myself, how am I going to love her? And so power, status, all the things that were told to me that I should be happy were more fleeting feelings. But when I met Jesus, he began to form a happiness in me that was not based on fleeting feelings, but based on his eternal, internal work of grace. And so happiness is not about status or accomplishing. Happiness is about becoming who God has created us to be. That’s the good life. That’s the happiness that we’re searching for. And it’s rooted in Jesus. And so happiness and holiness are two sides of the same coin.

SMITH: Well, Derwin, since you brought up football and some of your life there, I want to ask you to drill down just a little bit more deeply into that for some of our listeners that might not know that whole story. You were a high school star. You went off to college at Brigham Young University, a predominantly Mormon school, not exactly the school from which you would expect a Christian apologist and evangelical pastor to come from. And maybe we can talk a little about that in a minute. But you went off to BYU and, you know, so you went from being a big fish in a small pond in high school to being a small fish in a much bigger pond in college. But over the course of four years, you grew and matured and you were one of the stars not only of the team, but of college football by your senior year. And you went off to the NFL and had a career there. And, you know, you said you had the Lexus, the wife—you met your wife at BYU. But it didn’t really satisfy. What was that moment in your life? You talk about it early in your book about a game against the New Orleans Saints that was kind of a turning point for you. Would you talk about that a little bit?

GRAY: Yeah. So, actually in high school, I wasn’t a star. I only started one year, my senior year. And from that year, that’s where I became first team, all state. And so like, I was one of the better players, but I wasn’t a star. When I got to BYU, growing up in Texas, and the competition I played with—there were four guys from my high school team that went on to play in the NFL. So when I got to BYU—from a competition perspective—to play, it was actually harder in high school than it was in college. But I had also matured. But in the midst of this, I wasn’t a believer. If you’d have said, Derwin, are you a Christian? I probably would have said, yeah, but I didn’t know what that meant. Football was my god. So at BYU, I had a great career, considered perhaps the best defensive back to ever play there. And then I got drafted to the NFL. And by my third year, you know, I’m a team captain. I’m flourishing. I’m married. Everything external. But on the inside, I couldn’t forgive myself. Like I said, I couldn’t love my wife. I live with fear because NFL stands for not for long. So who would I be when I couldn’t play? There were a lot of hurts and brokenness. And so I knew something was deeply wrong. We played the New Orleans Saints. I was a team captain. I got called for two penalties late in the game. One them was real. The other one was a joke. I’m still mad about that. Anyway. I felt like in my mind that I made us lose the game, which of course, no one person makes you lose the game. Anyway, this is before Christ. I got drunk on the plane. When we landed, we went to a restaurant, I got drunk. One of my teammates literally had to carry me into the house. And at that time, my wife was pregnant. And when she’s pregnant, she goes through a condition called hyperemesis gravidarum, which is a Latin word for throw up all day, everyday. And she literally threw up for nine months. It was like her having the flu for nine months. And so as soon as I get in the bedroom, you know, we didn’t have cell phones back then. So she’s like, where have you been? And I opened my mouth and I vomit everywhere. So, I find myself crying in vomit saying, I let my team down. I let you down. I let our baby down. I let everybody down. I’m going to get fired. They’re going to cut me off the team.

And the next morning, when I woke up, I looked in a mirror and I said, something is wrong. And that it was almost—well not almost—the Lord brought me to rock bottom. And that’s when I began to see that Jesus was the rock, that I didn’t come to faith at the bottom of life. I was at the top of the mountain and when I looked over, I didn’t see the satisfaction that I thought life could be even though everybody told me that that’s what it was. But I had a teammate named Steve Grant. His nickname was the naked preacher. And every day after practice, he’d take a shower, dry off, wrap a towel around his waist, and share Christ. And so for five years, he shared Christ with me. And on August 2nd, 1997 in a small dorm room in Anderson, Indiana, my fifth year in NFL, I called my wife and I said, “I want to be more committed to you. And I want to be committed to Christ.” And I literally felt a bodily change. It was very much like John Wesley’s Warming of the Heart. I felt the change and I cried for three days. And that began my journey with Jesus and ultimately to being an apologist and a pastor and the author. And so in The Good Life, I share that story. But I really want people to understand that the beatitudes—nine different characteristics of a happy person—is what Jesus wants to form us into because the reality is Jesus embodies the beatitudes. And so the goal of God, the Holy Spirit is always to conform God’s people through Christ into the image of Christ. And so God is trying to make a people fit for the new heavens and new earth as they live and participate in Christ on earth.

SMITH: Derwin, I’d like to pivot a little bit in our conversation and, you know, we’ll come back to the book and say a little bit more about the book later, but you have said a few things that cause me to—I can’t resist asking—well, what happened next? So, this was in 1995, that moment in that New Orleans Saints game. It took a little while, but you became a Christian, I believe in ‘97. Is that right? A couple of years later. What happened next? I mean, you’re a guy that said he was a Christian, but you went to a Mormon school. You were coming to the Lord—I don’t want to say late in life because you were a young man, but there are a lot of statistics that say that if you don’t come to the Lord when you’re a teenager, you probably won’t. So the fact that you are coming to the Lord in your late twenties—

GRAY: I was 26. 

SMITH: Yeah, a little unusual. And then you’ve gone on and had this tremendous theological education as well. Walk me through a little of that.

SMITH: Yeah. So when I was at BYU, you have to take 15 hours of religion classes from a Mormon perspective. And so at that time, I just took the classes. I wanted to get good grades. I wasn’t concerned about becoming Mormon or anything. Football was fully doing what I needed to do in my life. I didn’t see a need for forgiveness. I was not pursuing the Lord. I would take the classes from a Mormon perspective just to pass. But when I became a follower of Jesus and the Holy Spirit opened my eyes, and I developed a passion for theology and the Bible, my grandmother, who had a Jehovah’s Witness background and my Mormon family and friends, because half of my wife’s family is Mormon, they would tell my wife and I, “Well, you guys are wrong.” And so as a football player, you studied a playbook to play good. I knew, well, if I had a playbook, as a football player, God must have a playbook and that’s the Bible. And so that’s what developed my heart for apologetics and theology is it was mere—it was survival. I had to know what I believed and why. And as we studied theology, as we studied apologetics, both my wife and I began to grow in our faith. And one of the things that we noticed early is that a lot of Christians didn’t know what they believed or why they believed it.

SMITH: And so that birthed in you ultimately this strong love for apologetics. And you ended up studying under Norman Geisler, who as I’ve already said is sort of the grandfather of apologetics.

GRAY: Yeah. Yeah. So, in 1998, I came to the Carolina Panthers as a free agent in ‘99. My wife and I became a part of a local church. And the pastor introduced me to Dr. Geisler. And we sat down over lunch for like three or four hours. And I had read some of his work and just connected with him. And eventually I ended up getting my masters from Southern Evangelical Seminary. And then I went on to get a doctorate in New Testament from Northern Seminary in Chicago. And so I view myself first and foremost as a disciple of Christ, but also as a pastor, theologian, apologist. I believe that it’s important to equip the church to understand what they believe and why they believe it, not to win arguments, but to display love and be a part of the kingdom of God on earth.

SMITH: Well, Derwin, I want to talk about Transformation Church. Because Transformation Church in some ways is the redemption of all of that into a church that displays the body of Christ in ways that I think is pretty unique. Certainly in the Charlotte area and maybe even in the country.

GRAY: Yeah. So like I said, my wife and I didn’t grow up in church and about 2005 we had an itinerant ministry and we just got frustrated with, man, when we were not Christians, we would go to the nightclub and it was very diverse. But when we go to Jesus’s club to church, it’s not. And as we read the Bible, we see that Paul’s church has had Jews and Gentiles. Jews were ethnically Jewish people and Gentiles was the rest of the world. He planted multi-ethnic churches. As a result of God making a covenant with Abraham. God said to Abraham, “Through you, I’m going to bless all the nations.” Galatians 3:8, the gospel was preached beforehand to Abraham. And so the work of Christ, his life substitutionary atonement on the cross, his resurrection was not just so people could be forgiven. That’s a big part of it, but so people could become family across cross-cultural. That every nation, tribe, and tongue could be unified in Christ to show the non-believing world this is what love looks like. And we said, okay, where’s a church like that in this area, and there was Still Creek Church, Central Church. And then God was like, I want you guys to do it. And so we planted Transformation Church. And the vision of Transformation Church is rooted in the great commandment: Love God, love your neighbor as yourself. The great commission: Go make disciples of all ethnic groups. That’s not just across the sea, but across the street. We believe that ethnic diversity is the overflow and outflow of the work of Christ. Because think about it. When people who look like you and think like, you love you, that doesn’t require a whole bunch. But to begin to love people who don’t think like you, who don’t look like you, who are from a different culture and class, now we’re starting to look like the early church. And I think I’m right on this: America can use more gospel-centered, Jesus-loving, multiethnic churches that display the unity and justice that our world so desperately needs. And so we have seen thousands of people come to faith. Thousands of people, baptized. We’ve seen incredible things, but we’ve also in the last 10 years have made 143,000 backpack meals for kids in our communities with our partner public schools to have food over the weekend to eat. The last two years, we’ve made nearly 300,000 meals for the poor. We have a strong pro-life ministry for the unborn. And so we believe that evangelism and justice go hand in hand.

SMITH: So, what have you learned, Derwin, as a pastor, a member of the community there at Transformation Church that you wish the broader evangelical church knew?

GRAY: I would say this, I would say somehow, some way late night cable news TV—whether if it’s on the left or on the right—has discipled the church better than we have as pastors. That most Christians on the left or on the right interpret the Bible through their political lens, instead of interpreting the Bible through the gospel. And what we often say here at Transformation Church, we’re not the party of the elephant. We’re not the party of the donkey. We’re the party of the lamb. And we want people to engage Jesus on his timeframe, in his way, to be the way, the truth, and the life. That there’s so much that the church is capable of by means of loving and engaging our world, but also meeting the physical and emotional and mental health needs of our culture. So, one of the biggest things that we’ve done here at Transformation Church is we have emphasized mental health or brain health, and we’re finding people who are getting that type of help break free from addiction, break free from all types of dysfunctional behavior. And then the last thing that I would say is grace is more amazing than we realize. That not only does it meet us where we are, but it takes us where we could never go ourselves.

SMITH: Well, you know, Derwin, that’s a good word any time. But it’s probably especially relevant now during this time of COVID-19. In fact, even though you and I are both in Charlotte, we’re not able to be face to face with each other. I’m in my studio in my home, on the north side of Charlotte. And you’re in a studio down in South Charlotte because of COVID-19, because of the social distancing that is required. And so what you just said just to repeat is particularly relevant. What are you guys doing as a church to incarnate those ideas, to make them come alive?

GRAY: Yeah, well, I would say in the era of COVID, the first thing is we’re teaching our people to lament. Jesus says blessed or happy are those who mourn for they will be comforted. I think as evangelicals, we don’t do a very good job of lamenting, even though Jesus tells us we’ll be happy if we do. Lamenting simply as a holy hurt. God, we hurt that things are not the way they should and we long for them to be the way that they should. And God comforts us because God says I’m a high priest who can sympathize with you yet without sin. I’ve experienced your pain, I’m lamenting with you. But when I got on the cross and when I rose from the dead, my blood is one day going to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth unto me. And so now we’re going to lament. But resurrection hope is we are cemented deeper in God’s heart for the world. The more that I lament, the more tender I become. 

The second thing is we have opened up a mobile food pantry where we feed over 300 people per week. We also have been feeding healthcare heroes at various hospitals and our community to encourage them. And thirdly, we’re telling our congregation that loving your neighbor means staying inside, wearing a mask, washing your hands. We are in the middle of something that we have not experienced for 102 years. We are in a global pandemic that has simply taken all of our breath away. And so we mourn that over 50,000 Americans have died and many, many, many more around the world in just a few months. I mean, this is, like I said, in the last hundred years, we haven’t seen this. But also what we’re seeing here at Transformation Church is a spiritual hunger. It’s like we’ve built our lives on sand and a big wave came in called COVID and knocked it down. And I think people are saying, “Okay, I want to hear Jesus afresh. And I want to build my life on a rock.”

SMITH: Let me sort of bring our conversation to a close here by asking a pair of related questions. Number one is at the end of the day, if you could leave people with just one idea about your book, what would that be? And maybe related to that, how do you want people to remember Derwin Gray? How do you want people to think about your life and your ministry in this world that’s beautiful, this world that God made and called good, but a world that I think we have to admit, especially in an era of COVID-19, has been badly broken?

GRAY: Yeah. Well, The Good Life is simply this: It’s an invitation to sit at the feet of Jesus to see him afresh, and to allow him to shape you into the person you were created to be. And then the second question, how would I want people to see Derwin Gray? Wow. I would want people to say Derwin Gray passionately loved Jesus. He loved his wife, his family, and he loved people—even those whom he did not agree with. He was a man who loved. 

SMITH: Well, Derwin Gray, thank you so much for being on the program. Thank you for this book and for the good word that you’ve shared with us today. Look forward to the time when we can get back together face to face. 

GRAY: Hey, thanks, Warren. Keep up the great work, my friend.


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