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Here is another entry in a series I am calling “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I am looking at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We have encountered books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris (I Kissed Dating Goodbye) and Randy Alcorn (The Treasure Principle) all the way to Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez) and Paul Young (The Shack). Today we look at the only bestselling book written by a alumnus of John MacArthur’s college and seminary.
Francis Chan was born in San Francisco in 1967, the son of Chinese immigrants. After professing faith at a young age, he attended The Master’s College and The Master’s Seminary, graduating with Bachelor of Arts and Master of Divinity degrees. In 1994, he and his wife Lisa founded Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California. Though the church began with only thirty people, it grew quickly and within six years numbered over 1,500.
In 2005 Chan released a video titled Just Stop and Think that quickly went viral while also setting him up for the release of his first book: Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God. Published in 2008, the book is a call for Christians to live an authentic faith, and it was marketed behind language like this: “Does something deep inside your heart long to break free from the status quo? Are you hungry for an authentic faith that addresses the problems of our world with tangible, even radical, solutions? God is calling you to a passionate love relationship with Himself. Because the answer to religious complacency isn’t working harder at a list of do’s and don’ts — it’s falling in love with God. And once you encounter His love, as Francis describes it, you will never be the same.”
Chan develops two substantial themes. The first is a painstaking self-examination to determine if the reader is truly saved. “A lukewarm Christian is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing. To put it plainly, churchgoers who are ‘lukewarm’ are not Christians. We will not see them in heaven.” The second theme is a radical obedience concerned more for future rewards than present comfort or prosperity. “God doesn’t call us to be comfortable. He calls us to trust Him so completely that we are unafraid to put ourselves in situations where we will be in trouble if He doesn’t come through.”
What may sound cliché after nearly ten years and a host of imitators was fresh in its time. “This book is written for those who want more Jesus. It is for those who are bored with what American Christianity offers. It is for those who don’t want to plateau, who would rather die before their convictions do.” At the time Chan was writing, many Christian leaders seemed to be leading people away from the centrality of the local church. Chan, though, wished to express his love for the church and wanted to draw people back to it. In an interview after the book’s publication he said
As a pastor I hear a lot of emergent leaders talk about what is wrong with the church. It comes across as someone who doesn’t love the church. I’m a pastor first and foremost, and I’m trying to offer a solution or a model of what church should look like. I’m going back to scripture and seeing what the church was in its simplest form and trying to recreate that in my own church. I’m not coming up with anything new. I’m calling people to go back to the way it was. I’m not bashing the church. I’m loving it.
Crazy Love served as a call for young Christians to live obediently rather than safely. It was a message that resonated with an entire generation.
By 2009 Crazy Love had sold 500,000 copies and was awarded the Gold Book Award; the following year it crossed the 1 million threshold and was awarded the Platinum Book Award. To date it has sold more than 2 million copies. It is now clear that Crazy Love was responsible, at least in part, for kick-starting an entire theme in the Christian world—the theme of living radically, but doing so while being grounded in the gospel. Bestselling books like Radical and Jesus > Religion develop the same topics, though with different emphases.
In 2010 Chan announced to his congregation (which now numbered several thousand) that the Lord was leading him in a new direction, though he was not yet certain what it was. He explained that he was weary of being an Evangelical celebrity and that he was concerned that within his church he heard the words “Francis Chan” more often and with greater excitement than “Holy Spirit.” After his resignation he spent several months in Asia before relocating to San Francisco where he founded a church planting movement geared specifically to the city’s poor. He continues that work today.
Chan followed Crazy Love with Forgotten God, a book about the Holy Spirit, and then with Erasing Hell, a response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. In 2012 he teamed up with David Platt to write Multiply and to launch a discipleship movement. He has also written several books for children and travels extensively to speak at conferences and other events. While his influence crosses many demographics, his greatest popularity is among teens and young adults.
My first exposure to Chan, at least to my recollection, was his “Just Stop and Think” video. I reviewed Crazy Love in 2008, shortly after its release, and expressed gratitude for it. Though I still think we need to focus on being ordinary Christians as much as we focus on being radical Christians, I understand how and why his book had such massive appeal, and especially among young people. While I have been a little bit concerned by some of the things Chan has said and done over the past few years, I appreciate his generosity (To my knowledge he has given away all or most of his book royalties which would now number in the millions of dollars) and his desire to escape the Evangelical celebrity culture.
Is this “eye of a needle” reference literal? Or a term for something else?
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There are certain topics I return to on a regular basis and, if you are a regular reader of this site, you know that one of those topics is pornography. I return to it again and again because I see the damage it is doing and I see the despair of those who are caught up in it. My goal for today is simple: I want to give you 7 good reasons you need to stop looking at porn right now.
I want to begin here: With the cost to your soul. If you are consumed with pornography and unwilling to put this sin to death, you have every reason to be concerned with the state of your soul. God promises that if he has saved us we will gain new passions and new affections. We will have not only the ability but also the desire to replace sin with holiness, to replace immorality with sexual purity. If you have no sorrow for sin, if you have no real desire for victory, if time and again you recklessly choose your sin over your Savior, you need to ask yourself this: Do I love pornography enough to go to hell for it? If this sin continues to dominate your life, it may stand as proof that you do not have a saving, sin-slaying faith. For the sake of your soul, stop looking at pornography.
Even those who know next-to-nothing about the Christian faith know this: Christians are commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Just like Jesus, Christians are to esteem others higher than themselves and to place the concerns of other people ahead of their own. Of all people, Christians should know that pornography exacts a high cost of those who create it—the cost to their bodies, to their souls, to their mental well-being, to their dignity, to their future. A vast amount of the pornography you enjoy is created by people against their wills. The simple fact is, by watching porn, you are watching rape and deriving pleasure from it. You become a willing participant in sexual violence and you allow that actor on the screen to suffer for your pleasure. For the sake of your neighbor, stop looking at pornography.
At a time when the Christian church is crying out for more and better leaders, an entire generation of young men and women are infantilizing themselves by their dedication to pornography. They are in perpetual pornolesence, that period between the conviction of sin and the determination to do anything to stop it. In this time they constantly choose sexual immorality over God and their spiritual growth is stunted. For the sake of your church, stop looking at pornography.
There is scarcely a pastor ministering today who has not seen a family crumble and fall under the weight of pornographic addiction. Men are tearing apart their families for the sake of illicit pleasures; women are shunning the attention of their husbands in order to read or to watch what is forbidden and what seems to promise greater and easier satisfaction. Children are being exposed to pornography through the trails their parents leave behind. Fathers are inviting Satan into the home by their commitment to what God forbids and what Satan loves. For the sake of your family, stop looking at pornography.
The Lord’s commission is an urgent commission because it is a matter of eternal life and death. Time is short and hell is forever, which makes the Christian’s business an urgent business. And yet so many Christians are distracted by something as evil and as wasteful as pornography. Their attention is arrested, their energy depleted, their usefulness undermined. Don Whitney says it well: “If there are any regrets in Heaven, they will only be that we did not use our earthly time more for the glory of God and for growth in His grace. If this is so, this may be Heaven’s only similarity with hell, which will be filled with agonizing laments over time so foolishly squandered.” For the sake of your mission, stop looking at pornography.
Christians are called to be different, to stand out from the rest of the world by their desires and by their behavior. Christians are to put sin to death and to display the power of God in removing and destroying all competitors. And yet so many Christians have had their witness shattered when the sordid truth comes out and when others learn that they profess faith in Christ on the one hand, and are consumed with lust on the other. Parents undermine the gospel they have been telling their children, pastors undermine the gospel they have been preaching to their congregations. For the sake of your witness, stop looking at pornography.
By making light of pornography you are making light of the death of Jesus Christ. If you are a Christian, you acknowledge in your profession of faith that the cost of forgiveness was nothing less than the death of God’s beloved Son. Jesus suffered and died for your sin. How can you, as a Christian, then toy with your sin and take it lightly? How can you cling to it? As Spurgeon says with his customary eloquence, “Sin has been pardoned at such a price that we cannot henceforth trifle with it.” For God’s sake, stop looking at pornography.
A few months ago I began a short series called “The False Teachers.” I wanted to look back through church history to meet some of the people who have undermined the church at various points. We looked at historical figures like Joseph Smith who founded Mormonism and Ellen G. White who led the Seventh Day Adventists into prominence, and we looked at contemporary figures like Benny Hinn, the prominent faith healer, and T.D. Jakes, who has tampered with the doctrine of the Trinity.
I will soon be starting a new series looking at The Defenders, Christians known for defending the church against a certain theological challenge or a specific false teaching. I will be focusing on modern times and modern issues such as inerrancy and Open Theism. But before I do that, I wanted to reflect on some of what I’ve learned as I’ve spent time considering false teachers and false teaching. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from false teachers.
The first and most fundamental thing I learned about false teachers is that we ought to expect them and be on the lookout for them. They are common in every era of church history. This should not surprise us, since the Bible warns that we are on war footing in this world, and that Satan is on full-out offensive against God and his people. And sure enough, history shows that whenever the gospel advances, error follows in its wake. When and where there are teachers of truth, there will necessarily be teachers of error. Perhaps the most surprising thing about false teachers is that we continue to be surprised by them.
False teachers are deceptive. They do not announce themselves as false teachers, but proclaim themselves angels of light, people who have access to wisdom others have missed or misplaced. As Denny Burk says, “False teachers typically won’t show up to your church wearing a sandwich board saying, ‘I am a false teacher’.” Instead they begin within the bounds of orthodoxy and announce themselves only slowly and through their subtly-twisted doctrine. They turn away from orthodoxy one step at a time rather than all at once.
False teachers are dangerous, and part of what makes them so dangerous is that they will affirm so much that is good and true. They will not deny all of the doctrines upon which the Christian faith stands or falls, but only select parts of it. They draw in the unsuspecting with all they affirm and only later destroy them with all they deny. There is an important lesson: We only know a person when he understand both what he affirms and what he denies.
False teachers cause division within the church and often cause division even among true Christians. Because false teachers tend to remain within the church, and because they claim to be honoring the Bible, they confuse true believers and drive wedges between them. Amazingly, it is often those who stand fast against falsehood who get labeled as divisive. The church often trusts a smiling false teacher ahead of a frowning defender.
As Paul wrote his final letter to Timothy he warned that the time was coming when people would not endure sound teaching (and hence, sound teachers) but instead they would have itching ears and demand teachers who would satisfy this itch. False teachers do this very thing. Their concern is not for what people truly need, but for what people want. The concern of the Christian is the exact opposite—the gospel does not address what we want, but what we need!
False teachers know they are false teachers. This may not be true all the time, and perhaps some false teachers deceive themselves before they deceive others. But I believe most know who and what they are; in fact, I believe most know and delight in who and what they are. They are not naive people who have taken a wrong turn in their theology, but evil people who are out to destroy others. Their attack on truth is far more brazen than we may like to think.
False teachers simply cannot tolerate the gospel. At some level and in some way, they will always add to or subtract from the pure and sweet gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. They may affirm the Trinity or inerrancy or the deity of Jesus Christ, but they will never fully affirm the gospel of the Bible.
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Making decisions is one of the most difficult things we do. If it is that hard to choose between the mint chocolate chip and the rocky road, how much more do we agonize over this church or that church, this school or that school, this job or that job, this person or that person? We pray, we sweat, we weep, we read, we toss, we turn. Why this fear? Why this agony? Why these sleepless nights? It is the uncertainty of it, I’m sure. It is the uncertainty of where our choices may lead. When it comes to making decisions, we have this desire to protect ourselves from the wrong decisions or, more properly, from the consequences of the wrong decisions. I don’t want to make an educational choice that imperils my child’s soul; I don’t want to make a dating choice that leads me to marital misery; I don’t want to make a vocational choice that leads me to unemployment. I don’t…I don’t want to be unhappy, and want to ensure that my choices don’t lead me there. What I really want when I make a decision is to see the future. I don’t only want to see the options before me, but the result of each of those options. If I could gaze into the future and see my child as a growing, thriving, Christ-honoring adult, it would make choosing this school that much easier. If I could gaze into the future and see myself hand-in-hand with that woman sixty years from now, I would know that she will make a fine choice for a wife. If I could only see the end, I would know. If only I had access to the future. But the thing we want is a thing God does not give us. He is far too wise for that, and does not give us that view of the finish line, that sneak peak of the future. He could, of course. After all, he is the one who declares, “the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose…’ (Isaiah 46:10).” As the one who declares it and will bring it to pass, he is also the one who could display it in advance. But he doesn’t. Instead, he does something far better: He gives us a view of himself. We don’t need to know the future when we know the one who holds the future. God does not want us to put our hope in a future outcome, but in him. We don’t ground our faith in a result, but in a Person. If we could see the future we would take our eyes off him. If we could see the future, our faith would be in the future. But when all we see is God, our trust must be in him.
God doesn’t comfort us by showing us the future, but by showing us himself. He shows himself as the all-powerful, all-knowing God who is for us, not against us. He shows himself as being far more committed to us than we are to him. He promises that he will never leave us nor forsake us, that he will work all things for good, that he will hold us firm to the end. He guarantees that he has purposes in this world and that nothing can change or interrupt or thwart them. He assures us that he will be glorified. He says, “Don’t look at the future, look at me!” Decisions are difficult simply because we do not trust God with the results of our decisions. Decisions are difficult only because we are prone to misplace our comfort, to find our hope in a vision of the future more than in the one who holds the future. Your confidence in making decisions is directly related to your confidence in God himself.
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Here is another entry in a series I am calling “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I am looking at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We have encountered books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris (I Kissed Dating Goodbye) and Randy Alcorn (The Treasure Principle) all the way to Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez) and Paul Young (The Shack). Today we look at a controversial devotional work that has left an indelible mark on Christian publishing.
Compared to other bestselling authors, Sarah Young is a mysterious figure. Notoriously secretive, she has written a book that has sold in the millions, but to my knowledge has never spoken in public, has never appeared on television or radio, and has completed only the smallest handful of written interviews (and even then only through a publicist).
What we do know is that Young is American, was a 1968 graduate of Massachusetts’ Wellesley College, is married to a Presbyterian missionary, lived in Japan for many years, and has recently returned to America after living in Australia. Also, she suffers from significant health concerns related to vertigo and Lyme disease.
Thomas Nelson published Young’s first book Jesus Calling in 2004. Though sales were slow at first, the book began to hit its stride in 2008, tallying over 200,000 sales that year and growing year-over-year from there. To date it has sold over 10 million copies and has outpaced many better-known New York Times bestsellers. The Daily Beast, writing for their non-Christian audience, rightly referred to it as “The Evangelical Bestseller You’ve Never Heard Of.”
Jesus Calling is a daily devotional that contains a year’s worth of reflections on the Christian faith. What sets it apart from the thousands of other devotional works is not what Young says as much as the claim behind it. She claims that as she listens, Jesus speaks to her, and that these devotionals are his more than they are hers. Through them she promises a closer relationship with Jesus and a more tangible sense of his presence.
The first editions of Jesus Calling reference her indebtedness to A.J. Russell’s 1932 work God Calling which Russell claimed was prepared by two “Listeners,” women who received and recorded messages directly from God. This book was unorthodox both in its writing and in its content and in many ways more closely resembles the New Age movement than orthodox Christianity. Still, Young says it “became a treasure to me,” and that as she read it over and over
I began to wonder if I, too, could receive messages during my times of communing with God. I had been writing in prayer journals for years, but that was one-way communication: I did all the talking. I knew that God communicated with me through the Bible, but I yearned for more. Increasingly, I wanted to hear what God had to say to me personally on a given day. I decided to listen to God with pen in hand, writing down whatever I believe He was saying. I felt awkward the first time I tried this, but I received a message. It was short, biblical, and appropriate. It addressed topics that were current in my life: trust, fear, and closeness to God. I responded by writing in my prayer journal.
What she wrote in her prayer journal was later compiled into Jesus Calling and she makes a bold claim: “This practice of listening to God has increased my intimacy with Him more than any other spiritual discipline, so I want to share some of the messages I have received. In many parts of the world, Christians seem to be searching for a deeper experience of Jesus’ Presence and Peace. The messages that follow address that felt need.”
This excerpt from the reading for January 8 is representative of the daily devotionals:
Softly I announce my Presence. Shimmering hues of radiance tap gently at your consciousness, seeking entrance. Though I have all Power in heaven and on earth, I am infinitely tender with you. The weaker you are, the more gently I approach you. Let your weakness by a door to My Presence. Whenever you feel inadequate, remember that I am your ever-present Help.
In the first 3 years following its publication, Jesus Calling sold fewer than 60,000 copies, but then sales suddenly spiked so that it quadrupled its sales in year 4 and has nearly doubled every year since. It sold its millionth copy in 2010 and was accordingly awarded the Platinum Book Award. The publisher claims that the book has now sold more than 10 million copies in 26 languages. Not surprisingly, it has spawned many imitators which also claim to bring the voice of God to the printed page.
Despite the book’s massive success, Young has remained as mysterious as ever and has completed only a handful of interviews. She has continued to write other books, including a sequel called Jesus Today (which received ECPA’s Book of the Year award in 2013), and children’s titles Jesus Calling: 365 Devotions for Kids, and the Jesus Calling Storybook Bible. A host of gift editions, calendars and other related products have also sold in the millions.
While Jesus Calling has sold far beyond expectations and has been joyfully received by Christian readers, it has also garnered a significant amount of criticism for both its method and its message.
Not surprisingly, the primary concern relates to Young’s method and her claim that she speaks for Jesus. Many concerned Christians have pointed out that the Bible gives us no clear indicator that we can claim Jesus will speak through us (apart from the Bible) and that Jesus’ agency behind her words is unverifiable. Young implies that though the Bible is inerrant and infallible, it is insufficient. After all, it was not reading Scripture that proved her most important spiritual discipline, but this listening, this receiving of unmediated messages from the Lord. Thus the heart of the book is not the Bible, but these extra-biblical messages from Jesus. Some have pointed out with suspicion that the Jesus of Jesus Calling does not speak in the voice of the Jesus of the Bible, but in the voice of a middle-aged woman.
As for the message, Michael Horton says it can be reduced to one point: “Trust me more in daily dependence and you’ll enjoy my presence.” He goes on to point out that “Compared with the Psalms, for example, Jesus Calling is remarkably shallow. … The Psalms first place before us the mighty acts of God and then call us to respond in confession, trust, and thankfulness. But in Jesus Calling I’m repeatedly exhorted to look to Christ, rest in Christ, trust in Christ, to be thankful and long for a deeper sense of his presence, with little that might provoke any of this. Which means that I’m directed not actually to Christ but to my own inner struggle to be more trustful, restful, and thankful.” It is noteworthy that “The first mention of Christ even dying for our sins appears on February 28 (page 61). The next reference (to wearing Christ’s robe) is August 9 (p. 232). Even the December readings focus on a general presence of Jesus in our hearts and daily lives, without anchoring it in Jesus’s person and work in history.” The message of Jesus Calling is, thus, very different from the message of the Bible.
In her few interviews, Young has defended both her method and her message. Interestingly, the references to God Calling that appeared in early editions have since been removed and the word “messages” to describe the revelation she receives has been replaced with “devotionals” and other synonyms. But the book itself remains unchanged.
I reviewed Jesus Calling in 2011 after seeing it rocket up the list of bestselling Christian books and it quickly proved one of my most-read reviews. I concluded, “Jesus Calling is, in its own way, a very dangerous book. Though the theology is largely sound enough, my great concern is that it teaches that hearing words directly from Jesus and then sharing these words with others is the normal Christian experience. In fact, it elevates this experience over all others. And this is a dangerous precedent to set. I see no reason that I would ever recommend this book.” I stand by those words today and believe the success of the book says a great deal about a lack of spiritual discernment among Christians.
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