The Mancave: On Isolation, Fellowship and Accountability-A Conversation with Toby Morrell of Emery

Toby Morrell a worship director and small groups pastor at his home church, in addition to fronting his bands, Emery and Matt and Toby.  He is also one of the funniest guys I have talked to in recent history.  There was no shortage of laughter during our conversation about guys and isolation.  But what I loved most about our chat was Toby’s desire to be genuine, beyond the typical, Christianese “authenticity.”  I think he was definitely the right guy for the subject at hand.  And what exactly is that subject?  Well, the fact that so many of us guys exist in a state of giving the Heisman to all those around us, in the spiritual sense.  We don’t let others in on who we really are, our true selves, warts and all.  This has left a great many of us in horrible spiritual states. The fact is, we need help from our brothers, and consistent vulnerability in connection with fellow Christians, in order to maintain our faith.  This conversation should help anyone dealing with isolation or looking to deepen their friendships with their brothers…

Schwab: Give our readers a little bit of your spiritual background.

Morrell: My grandfather was the pastor of a very small group/church/demonization called the church of God in prophecy.  It was hyper southern Baptist, in the sense it was very legalistic.  Women didn’t wear jeans.  We couldn’t go the movies.  There wasn’t any jewelry. It was very works-based.  The message of most sermons was, essentially, you’d better be careful, or you are going to go hell.  At the same time, it was very charismatic.  There would be people speaking in tongues and passing out laying on top of pews and placing their hands on hot stoves to prove God’s power, etc.  It was a wild time.  But after a certain point I was just resigned to going to hell, or at least I thought, good Lord, you have beaten all of this into my head and it sounds like I don’t have a chance of getting into heaven.  Finally, I was like…okay I give up!  I’m going to hell!  (laughing)

But there was a lack of authenticity there, because under the surface people just kind of did what they wanted.  My family would sneak into the movies on a regular basis.  It was basically…don’t get caught, hide your sin. By the time I reached high school my dad and our whole family got burned out on church.  And at that point I started doing my own thing.  I became a pretty hardcore party-er…smoking weed, drinking, etc.

I didn’t have a plan for college, but it just so happened I went to visit a friend at his school, and he invited me to talk to a guidance counselor.  They told me to apply.  So I did it, and I got in.  It was very spontaneous.  I partied my first year, but my second year I had a core group of friends who were praying for me without my knowledge.  The same guy who originally invited me to apply to school invited me to an event-to hear an evangelist speak on campus.  At the time I had quit smoking pot and drinking and I was trying to quit smoking.  My approach was super works-based (still), so I thought, hey, the more bad things I can give up, the closer I will be to God (laughing)

Now, we just went to go see our friend who was playing worship.  I had no intention of being ministered to.  But God has a sense of humor-the theme of the night was smashing your “secular” CDs!

Schwab: (laughing).

Morrell: So, here’s what happened, no joke.  Everyone brought their CDs.  There was this gigantic pile in front of the stage and everyone jumped on them together.  I rolled my eyes, made fun of everyone, and was ready to leave, when the speaker said, “someone here is trying to quit smoking.”  I thought to myself, I know this drill.  He’s going to tell me to stand up, then he is going to pressure me to come to the front of the stage.  I stood up anyway because I really wanted to quit smoking, and sure enough he invited everyone standing down there.  And the only way I can describe it…it was as if two handlebars were on my chest and I was being pulled toward the stage.  I said, Lord, I can’t do this…But then I felt like I was being told, Come.  Now.  This is it.

So there I am standing amidst unbelievable amounts of smashed cd cases, getting saved.

Schwab: (laughing hysterically)

It was just a hilarious moment.  I would have loved seeing my own face looking down and around me, getting saved.  Then, the speaker said, “The Lord is telling me something.”  Then, he pointed right at me.  There were twenty-five people or so standing there.  He singled me out and said, “Tonight the decision you made is wonderful and you are going to see thousands of people saved.”  And I said to myself Good Lord, I was just trying to quit smoking!

Schwab: (Laughing again).  That’s amazing. And interesting.  You touched on something there that I can definitely relate to.  I think so much of the way our generation defines ourselves in the context of Christianity has to do with the way we react to the church of our parents’ generation.  My story is similar to yours in so far as I was raised in the church, only it was the Catholic church.  I was made to go to mass until I was in high school, but I thought it was completely lame, boring, and stale.  I didn’t see God in any of it.  I viewed it as a ritual that got in the way of my Sunday mornings, and even my Saturday nights.  It wasn’t until later when the seeds that were planted (especially by my grandmother, who was very devout) took root, and a group of peers presented Christianity to me in a form I could relate to (at a home bible study).  It’s funny, the scripture that says (this is a loose paraphrase), “Raise your children in the ways of the Lord and when they become adults they will not turn from it,” is very true.

Talk a little bit about your role at Mars Hill, your recent move, and your current role in your church.

Morrell: We were living in Charleston, and my wife was working at a large megachurch.  She was an administrator and I was doing Emery, when she found out she was pregnant with our second kid.  That’s when we decided to leave Charleston and move to Missouri to be near her family.  Within a week of moving to Missouri a buddy of mine who was head of music at Mars Hill in Seattle approached me to be a worship leader.  I really didn’t think I could do worship.  I never really related to worship music, or much of Christian music in general.  But my friend was persistent and told me I should really pray about it.  My wife said the same thing.  So I prayed and even fasted for a couple days.  After that, I was sitting in my room talking to God and I said, I can’t go do this.  I am not that good of a musician and I am just going to let them down.  It’s going to be terrible. AND At the time I was very close to leaving proper church in favor of a house church.  I had been reading some books that had me leading strongly in that direction. So, I felt like taking this job would be hypocritical.  Then, in a voice that was nearly audible, I hear, it doesn’t matter if you are the worst worship leader on earth, you are to go to Seattle and do this.” 

So we moved.  And we were there for a year, and I thought we were going to be there for awhile.  It was an amazing time.  It challenged me.  I definitely changed my perspective on orthodox, proper church.   I see the value, call, vision, and importance of Sunday morning, traditional church.  I learned to value the need for teaching, for the gospel to be preached, and the reach that church has.  Also, there were many church elders that spoke into my life.  Then, my wife got pregnant again, and this one was a total surprise.  We felt, from a financial, as well as a family standpoint, it would be the best thing for us to move back to Missouri.  That would enable my wife to be a mother full time, and for me to focus on Emery and my other band, Matt and Toby.  Then, out of the blue, a buddy of mine called me about a position at his church back in Charleston.  The position was worship director and small groups pastor–the exact two things I had been “learning” about previously!  I got the job, and we were able to move back to Charleston.

Schwab:  That’s quite a journey to lead you back to the same place.  The next logical question is this:  One of the general sentiments of emerging generations is a general disconnection with the corporate church of our parents.  A large segment of our generation, while professing belief, have formed theologies and even churches in reaction to the previous one.  Why do you think this is, and how had this disconnection contributed to isolation in young adult men?

Morrell: I think “attractional church,” while doing some amazing things, has let down the individual Christian by doing everything for us I mean, everything is taken care of.  You come into the foyer, get your coffee, see a few people, come to your seat, and it’s going to be comfortable.  There is air conditioning and perfect lighting.  There is a killer band with music played by great musicians with great voices.  The music is easy to listen to.  There is a dynamic speaker that is amazing.  He gives you some scripture, and also some stuff that is applicable to your life.  He makes you feel a little better, and tells you God loves you.  And you don’t have to do one single thing but (barely) show up.  So, if you want to dig deeper, you go to small groups.  But that is just a little version of the main service.  No one is challenging you.  No one is truly being vulnerable.  The best speaker dominates the conversation.  But, where is the authenticity?  Where is the accountability?  Where is the point of connection?  Where is the vulnerability?

I was listeing to a great podcast the other day, and the woman was talking about vulnerability from a completely secular perspective.  People don’t put themselves out there because of shame.  And fear.  If I come to you and say “Hey, Andrew, there is something going on in my life, and here it is.”  For me to do that, there has to be risk.  There is the possibility you could reject me.  So, because of the fear of shame and rejection, we avoid it.  But that actually has a numbing affect on us in every area of our lives.  When we push vulnerability away in relationship we also dull/push away our emotions, our potential joy, and all the other peaks and potential valleys in our lives.  We essentially mute everythingI think this also happens as a result of the way we do church today, in many ways.

Many Christians and Christian leaders are not open about who we truly are.  That’s the disconnect.  Why can’t we tell the whole truth?  The non-Christian doesn’t usually have much to hide.  They say, yeah I went out and got drunk last night.  And you think…at least I know who I am dealing with.  Which one do you choose?  The one where you know what you are getting, or the guy who plays bass in the church band or who is an un usher, but is doing sinful things in secret?  And this is a big reason why many of us have a hard time connecting with church, truly.  We would rather know who we are dealing with up front!

Schwab:  Authenticity is something that we all crave.  That’s not just in terms of spirituality, but it’s also in terms of life.  We all want the real deal.  Our souls will not be satisfied with anything less.  We are talking about being a reactionary generation, it’s easy to turn into the hipsters at the coffee shop who are criticizing everyone for not being “authentic” like they are.  It’s easy to use the flawed form that is the previous generation’s church as an excuse to not adamantly pursue your relationship with God in the context of community. On that note, one of the biggest frustrations I hear from guys these days-including guys who are actually trying to connect, trying to find authentic community-is a difficulty in finding other guys who want to do the same.  It’s almost guaranteed that once you start getting “real” you are going to find yourself in the minority.  I know many guys who are on full-time staff at churches, yet don’t have any brothers who will “walk with them.”  Do you have any insight or advice for guys who fall into this category? 

Morrell: The current church I attend has an organic, family-oriented fee, which I am so thankful for!  The small group structure is great, in so far as they don’t build it up to be too idealistic.  They encourage everyone to be ok with joining a small group with people you don’t necessarily view as lifelong friends.  That is key!  It’s difficult at best to build those close relationships within the church, but we have to prioritize our expectations.  We have to get over the initial discomfort.  It’s ok to be in a group with guys who dress differently or who are into different music than you are or who are maybe a little older or younger!  And we have to get over the initial awkwardness of vulnerability.  That’s the only way small groups will work.  In fact, that’s the only way Christianity works.  Finally, if we are going to truly follow in Jesus’ footsteps, we have to be available, even if it’s a situation you would normally avoid.  For example, recently I had to get my taxes done.  It took a long time, to the tune of four hours.  And I had to sit in the room with the guy who was preparing my return.  He was in his 50’s, and all I wanted to do was get back home to my family or get back to church to finish working.  And amidst that, I felt the Lord convicting me about engaging this guy.  And we just started talking.  And for that moment I ended up having fellowship and community with this guy, and God showed up in the middle of it!  My advice would be don’t miss opportunities for fellowship, even if you think it might be crappy.  Because you know what?  A good percentage of the time it might be-and God will STILL use it in your life!

Schwab:  You touched on something very important, and that is you don’t have to have a group of guys who share every common interest in order to connect in Christ.  There is no reason why one guy who wears skinny jeans and another who wears baggy jeans can’t find common ground in Jesus.  I’d say the points in my life where I have had the most vibrant fellowship are with those with whom my primary connection was Jesus, not necessarily our common tastes or interests.  A diverse group is a good thing!  I hosted a tin Soldiers event in Denver recently and we had a very diverse group…different ages, tastes in music, etc.  At first, I have to be honest, I thought to myself how is this going to work?  But once we got rolling it was fantastic.  We have so much more in common as believers and as men in faith than we do differences.  We have more in common than we think on the issues that matter.  And on a related note…The concept of accountability is fundamental to vulnerable fellowship.  But this concept is a controversial one for us as guys, if we are honest. Some of us have been burned by churches who try to control our lives when we give people too much personal information.  I think most of us would rather go it alone than open ourselves up to unhealthy input from others.  What do you think is a healthy, Biblical approach to accountability?

Morrell: I think the idea of telling your deepest, darkest secrets is scary at first.  We all have really bad parts of us, but we are also afraid of what will happen if others see those parts.  But we shouldn’t be embarrassed because the end result of exposing ourselves, more often than not, results in great things.  One of my favorite characters in the Bible is Peter, because he wore his heart on his sleeve.  He had such a close friendship with Jesus that he wasn’t afraid to be himself.  He was always saying something wild, and even ridiculous, but he had the confidence to know that Christ loved Him despite his flaws.  That’s the great thing about the Bible-it doesn’t hold any punches in showing how crappy everyone was!  Everyone besides Jesus has real problems.  We shouldn’t be afraid of that.  But once we open that up and talk about it, it actually gets easier, and there is a trust that develops between ourselves and our brothers.  With accountability, specifically, we are telling others to get help…then once its off your chest there is SUCH freedom.  Our charge as brothers is to not judge, but to offer love and support within the context of pointing others back to Jesus.  Our leaders definitely need to model this better.  Guys have a lot on them these days.  We have to be good leaders, good with our finances, good husbands, good fathers, spiritual teachers, good multi-taskers, and so forth.  There is no way we can do it all by ourselves without support.  We each are going to have gifts in different areas that we need to share, and we each need to ask for help in our areas of weakness.  I need to be able to call on you and rely on you.  And I need to be able to be honest about my mistakes. We have a culture in the church that if someone exposes weakness, we pounce on it.  So that breeds pretend personas.  Instead, we need to build a culture of “This is where I am, for better or worse.”  I think that will go a long way to building better systems of accountability.

Schwab: One last question on the subject of accountability.  We guys love our man-caves, our personal space, the aspect of our lives that is all our own, our private selves.  But this “space” can become unhealthy, as many guys have developed evil alter egos that are filled with vices.  How can guys today navigate the need for personal, private space without leading double lives?  How can we encourage integrity and merge the public and private selves while not sacrificing our personal space?  This is the crucial part of the equation, because when we are alone, isolated, without accountability or connection, we men have a tendency to become villains.  This is unique to our gender, I believe.  How can we change this, in your opinion?

Morrell: I think when we need alone time, or to recharge, we can’t approach it selfishly.  When it becomes, “I have worked so hard, I have earned this me-time,” that is where we get into trouble.  We need to honor God even more with our private time, and approach it with the mindset of how can I bless others through these minutes?  That’s when it will actually be restful and recharging.  We need to be intentional about those times, even if it’s just sleeping or reading.  We have to say to ourselves…my alone time should be honoring to God and my familyWe are not entitled to this time, it is a gift, just like everything else in our lives.  If we do that, we will be much less likely to get sidetracked by the cheerleader photo on the ESPN website, if you know what I mean.  Instead of just surfing the web for an hour, do something specific with those minutes!

One way to maintain accountability is to let people know about your alone time so you can be more accountable and be prayed for.  For example, I can tell my wife what exactly I am planning to do with that hour or two.  Or I can let a friend know, “Hey, I am going to be updating some stuff online at 10:00 PM tonight, can you text me or pray for me during that time?”  The more you offer others insight into your private world, the less apt you are to start doing things you know you shouldn’t.  In the end, the more you offer insight into your world to those you trust, the more healthy your spiritual state will be. 

The Tin Soldiers is a book for isolated men.  It’s also a small group discussion stimulator.  It makes a great gift, even if the guy in your life doesn’t read.  Follow Toby Morrell on Twitter here.  Follow The Tin Soldiers on Twitter here.  Follow The Tin Soldiers on Facebook here. Grab a copy of the book in print here.  Grab a copy as an ebook here.

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About Andrew Schwab

Andrew Schwab is the author of five books and has written for publications which include Relevant Magazine, Time/Life, HM, CCM, and Alternative Press. He has spoken at over two hundred festivals, conferences, churches, schools, and fellowships all over the world. His band, Project 86, has sold nearly 500,000 albums worldwide.