“Let your speech always be gracious and seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
I don’t tweet. I never have. I hesitate to say, “I never will,” because who knows what the future holds. I was a hold-out on texting until long after it had caught on pretty widely and my lack of texting was actually causing frustration for people close to me. Now I send dozens, if not hundreds, of texts a day. But tweeting is different to me. I understand you’re not limited to 70 or even 140 characters any longer, but it is intended to be a short-form type of communication. I don’t really do short-form communication. Especially when it’s digital. The risk of being misunderstood or misinterpreted or taken out of context is just too great. Even when I text, I use full sentences and punctuation, and my texts tend to have more words than fewer. Also, I write like I talk, and I don’t talk in soundbites. But I am aware that tweeting is pretty popular, that some tweets generate multiple responses, and that sometimes, to be engaged culturally, you have to at least be aware of Twitter. With that in mind, I recently saw a tweet to which someone responded publicly, and this response generated quite a few comments. Normally I don’t give much credence to that kind of thing, but for some reason this one caught my eye…and what I saw bothered me. What bothered me was not so much that I disagreed with the response to the tweet along with most of the comments, but rather that they were generally posted by people I know and respect. Still, jumping into a comment-train is a little like jumping into a swimming pool filled with concrete – there’s no good way to swim across it, and eventually you get stuck without accomplishing very much – so, I held my digital tongue. But as I’ve continued to process the whole thing, I feel like I need to respond. This may or may not advance the conversation, but I am going to be as clear as I can, as charitable as I can, and thorough (remember: I don’t do short-form communication). Here goes.
Andy Stanley doesn’t need me to defend him. He’s a big boy and can fairly well do that on his own. Given the veritable tsunami of criticism he probably receives on a daily basis given his very public, very large platform, my raising my voice to try likely doesn’t even amount to a drop in the bucket. He’s been at his craft for a long time and is probably pretty confident in what he believes and thinks as well, so he doesn’t really need a boost from me.
That being said, Andy does tweet and does so on purpose. He understands the power of that particular format and apparently uses it pretty frequently. As for how effectively he does so, I can’t comment on that because, again, I don’t tweet. Tweeting inherently brings with it the risk of being misunderstood and criticized pretty vigorously based on those misunderstandings, but I suspect Andy is fully aware of that and uses it anyway because he knows that a certain percentage of the audience he is trying to reach with the Gospel will be reached by that platform more effectively than any other platform he could use. Well, last week he apparently sent out a tweet that said this: “The Christian faith doesn’t rise and fall on the accuracy of 66 ancient documents. It rises and falls on the identity of a single individual: Jesus of Nazareth.”
Andy has been saying things like that for years. I’ve been listening to his preaching for more than ten years. It hasn’t necessarily been filled with statements like that, but I have listened as he gradually began changing the way he talked about the Scriptures. From what I have observed over the course of hundreds of sermons, multiple different books (including his most recent book – at least until May – titled Irresistible, in which he unpacks his thinking on Scripture more fully than just about anywhere else), and listening to him give more than one talk on the subject in person, his actual position on the reliability and authority of the Scripture hasn’t changed. But the way he talks about it has.
I’ve listened to his explaining the fact of this change and the reason for it multiple times as well. One of the driving forces in this shift in language has been his intentional and deep engagement with the new atheists and their followers. The reason he has done this is that Andy is a different kind of pastor who is intentionally leading a different kind of church.
Let me let you in on a secret about churches that not many churches are even aware of and fewer still would admit to being true. Most churches are set up and designed to reach already-churched people with a Gospel message they’ve already heard. They are designed to see nominal believers who professed faith at some point in the past and haven’t ever really left that confession behind, but who have nonetheless not been living out their confession very faithfully, become re-enlivened to their former faith. In other words, they are designed to help already-saved people act like they are followers of Jesus. Now, this doesn’t mean unbelievers aren’t still being led to Christ by the ministry of churches across the country. But the vast majority of people who walk in the doors of a church for the first time, at least in my neck of the woods (which isn’t all that culturally dissimilar to Andy’s), are neither committed to a position of unbelief, nor are they particularly unchurched. They’re simply lapsed.
But, given that churches are supposed to be the Gospel-advancing engine of God’s kingdom, admitting they are failing at a pretty significant level isn’t necessarily an idea with which they want to reckon. Now, we do occasionally stare this truth in the face. The result of these encounters is usually a new program or emphasis on evangelism sweeping across a particular denomination (especially my home Southern Baptist Convention). But the trouble with these kinds of emphases is that in spite of the genuineness and sincerity of the folks who conceive of and develop them is that they are being pitched to churches who only really know how to talk about their faith with people who already share it. They don’t know many unbelievers and don’t like many of those kinds of folks anyway. What’s more, they not only don’t share the same worldview as the so-called “nones” in their neighborhood, they don’t begin to understand their worldview. As a result, they – we – will get all fired up to redouble our efforts at evangelism and march out like a herd of bulls at a China shop convention. Some of us manage to make it all the way through to the checkout counter without breaking anything and new salvations are the happy result, but most of us just make a lot of noise and a lot of mess and don’t typically stay around to help clean it up when we’re done.
Meanwhile, the culture around us is turning increasingly away from whatever worldview connections we may have once shared, to a way of thinking about the world and about the Christian faith in particular that results in more than a few points of dramatic misunderstanding. The result is that if you go talk about the Christian faith with someone who is genuinely unbelieving and unchurched nowadays, you’re not likely to make a lot of headway unless and until you learn to speak their language.
This is simply where the culture is, and no amount of complaining about it or refusing to accept it on our part is going to make any difference. This brings me back to Andy Stanley and his tweet. Andy pastors a church called North Point Community Church. Their intentional aim as a church is to be a church that unchurched people love to attend. In other words, unlike most of the churches around them – especially when they were first launched more than 20 years ago – their target audience was unchurched people. This was their target audience not simply in word, but in deed. Through a lot of careful study and excellent leadership, they’ve become really good at achieving their goal. As a result, they are one of the largest churches in the country. Rather than resting on their laurels and enjoying their great success as many churches would be tempted to do in their position, though, they have continued to ask themselves over the years a series of questions to keep them on track with their founding ideal. Who are the unchurched? Where are they? What is their cultural language and how can we translate the Gospel into that?
Well, one of the things that Andy has been personally intentional about doing over the past several years to aid in these efforts is learning how someone who is unbelieving and unchurched thinks. He’s done this by going directly to the kinds of writers and thinkers who are their primary sources of influence and reading everything they have to say about the world and how it works and the Christian faith. The result has been this gradual shift in language when he talks about the Bible. But – and this is important to say – to the extent I’ve been able to discern after listening to every sermon he’s preached over the last several years, his actual position on the Scriptures is just as conservative as it was when he walked away with his degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (an institution that is decidedly orthodox in their theology, especially when it comes to the Bible).
He has made this shift in language (with the blessing of evangelical, theologically conservative, defenders of historical orthodoxy like Norman Geisler) so that when he talks about the Bible, he’s doing so in a way that won’t automatically turn off the average unchurched person he’s trying to reach. The challenge with this is that most of the rest of the evangelical world hasn’t made a similar shift in language. As a result, when Andy says something about the Bible that he has intentionally spoken in an unchurched language, evangelicals who assume he’s speaking the same language they’ve always been trained to hear and understand, don’t understand him. Andy will say things that look and sound to the average evangelical like he’s somehow going soft on Scripture or becoming more progressive in his theology or trying to be relevant at the expense of the Gospel or some criticism along those lines, and they’ll blow him up over it. Now, on occasion he’s said something in a way he later had to come back around and clarify, but not very often because the average evangelical isn’t who he’s talking to.
At long last, then, let’s come back around to his tweet. When an unchurched person – but especially an unchurched person who has some background with the church and intentionally chose to leave it for one reason or another – hears a Christian talk about the Bible, they automatically load a whole series of assumptions into their mind that renders making much spiritual headway really difficult. They’ve probably been taught to think like you have that the Bible is a single book rather than a collection of documents. And, perhaps like you have been as well, they’ve been taught to think that if one part of it can be somehow proven false, the whole thing can be discredited as false. What this means is that if they can come up with one mark against some hard story in the Old Testament – be that an historical mark, a critical mark, a reliability mark, a moral mark, a social mark, and so on – then they can continue in their rejection of Jesus as Lord.
What this does is to put the believer trying sincerely to do evangelism with them on the defensive. You are now responsible for being able to answer every single criticism they have about the Bible before you can even get to talking about Jesus. In this way, rather than the Bible serving as your most critical ally in your attempts to share the Gospel, it has actually become an impediment. None of this has anything to do your beliefs about it. You may check off all the right boxes to have a perfectly orthodox position on it. It has everything to do with their beliefs about it. What this means, though, is that as long as you keep trying to talk to them about the Bible and about the whole of the Christian faith in your native spiritual tongue, your progress is going to be slow at best.
What Andy has done that is causing such a stir is to take on the assumptions of the unchurched, unbelieving person in order to neutralize them. The argument he’s making is essentially this: Look, you don’t believe any of this stuff about the Old Testament? Fine. But whether or not someone like Moses really held up a walking stick over the Red Sea so that the entire nation of Israel could cross it on the dry sea floor before putting his hands down and allowing the two massive walls of water to crush the entire Egyptian army who had tried to cross behind them doesn’t have any bearing on the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The faith I’m inviting you into is not in something Moses may or may not have done, but in Jesus who rose from the dead. And we know He rose from the dead not because “the Bible tells us so,” but because Peter had breakfast with his Lord on the beach after having seen him dead and in a tomb and then told everyone about it when he had nothing to gain from making up such a story. We know Jesus rose from the dead not because the Israelites might have believed God created the world in six 24-hour days, but because James, Jesus’ brother, went from thinking His brother was crazy and a fraud to being the leader of the church in Jerusalem because he had a conversation with him after His resurrection. What I’m inviting you to do is to put your faith in Jesus and we can work out the rest later.
And when it comes to those hard places in the Old Testament, our tendency is to immediately launch into defense explaining why certain things happened a certain way because of this or that piece of evidence. And there is a place for that. I am a big advocate of believers studying apologetics so they can knowledgably defend their faith and give an answer to anyone who asks a for a reason for the hope they have with gentleness and respect. But when doing some initial evangelism with someone who is skeptical of the Old Testament, Andy has a remarkably disarming response that gets them to Jesus with the promise of help sorting out the tough stuff later. And while this doesn’t preclude our need for studying apologetics, it gives the average believer who hasn’t had time or interest in studying a detailed defense of the Old Testament but who is nonetheless in a Gospel crucible with an interested unbeliever a way to respond and keep the conversation moving forward. It goes like this: “That’s a really good question. I’m not sure what to make of that story either, but Jesus seemed to take it at face value, and I just go with what the guy who predicted and pulled off His own death and resurrection believes on the matter.” They don’t have to adopt Jesus’ position on the Old Testament right then. That’s not your goal. Your goal is to get them to place faith in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and to make Him the Lord of their life. The rest can fall into place later.
The result of this shift in language on his part – and my part because I think his approach is a really good one – is that he occasionally says – or tweets – things like, “The Christian faith doesn’t rise and fall on the accuracy of 66 ancient documents.” Folks who don’t understand the language he is using or the audience to whom he is addressing statements like that react strongly, sometimes viscerally. They openly criticize or even occasionally mock his view of Scripture and, accordingly, his grip on orthodoxy. But if he has left orthodoxy behind, then so I have…and I don’t think I have. The truth is that the Christian faith doesn’t rise and fall on the accuracy of 66 ancient documents. Paul made abundantly clear that our faith rises and falls on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Now, yes, we know about the resurrection from the Scriptures and so they are not unimportant. In fact, they’re absolutely vital. But they aren’t our only source of information about it. What’s more, as resurrection expert Gary Habermas has made a name for himself demonstrating, you don’t need to refer to any more than a handful of specific Scriptures, none of which are in the Old Testament and all of which are incredibly easy to demonstrate to be historically reliable, in order to build an absolutely airtight case for the resurrection. The truth is that there is no intellectual case to be made against the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. If someone rejects a belief in Jesus’ resurrection, they do so because of the moral implications of such a belief. More to the point – and Andy’s point in that tweet – if there were something found to be historically inaccurate in Joshua or one of the Kings or Isaiah, that would have absolutely no bearing on Jesus’ resurrection. I don’t think there is anything historically inaccurate in any of those places – and I haven’t seen any evidence that Andy thinks otherwise. I am absolutely committed to the inerrancy and authority of every word in the Scriptures. But whether or not there is doesn’t change the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection and poses no threat to the integrity of our faith in Him. For people who are automatically predisposed to believe the Bible is historically suspect, though, this approach gives them the cover they need to come to Jesus in spite of the unresolved problems they have with the Bible. Once they get to Jesus, the Holy Spirit and a good church family can help give them confidence about the rest of it.
If you are a follower of Jesus and you don’t believe that – that is, if your faith is first in the reliability of the Scriptures before the resurrection of Jesus from the dead – then your foundation is weak and in danger of being wiped away by a particularly clever and convincing skeptic. Worse yet, we have sent untold thousands of students out of our doors into college whose faith in Jesus is dependent on their belief in the absolute reliability and accuracy of the Bible, only to have an atheist professor or even a charismatic unbelieving friend rip their faith to pieces by pointing out what seem to be unanswerable objections to the reliability of something in the Old Testament. It shouldn’t surprise us that young people leave the church for college and don’t ever come back. We never gave them a faith that could withstand the world. We’re not going to get them back unless and until we do. And we’re never going to do that unless and until we start speaking their language when we talk about the Bible and our faith. Andy’s trying to do just that. Rather than nitpicking statements bereft of context, I would suggest we follow his example.