The Bestsellers
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.

Crazy Love by Francis Chan

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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.

Sales & Lasting Impact

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.

Since the Award

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.

A Personal Perspective

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.

 

The-Bestsellers-Cover1Here 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.

Jesus Calling by Sarah Young

ljesus-calling-119195560017700_2Compared 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.

Sales & Lasting Impact

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.

Since the Award

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.

A Personal Perspective

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.

The Bestsellers

A short time ago I launched a new series called “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 Joel Osteen (Your Best Life Now) and Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez). Today we look at one of the bestselling Christian novels of all time and one of the very few books to receive the Diamond Award.

The Shack by William Paul Young

lthe-shack_2William Paul Young was born on May 11, 1955, in Grande Prairie, Alberta (Canada). However, he spent most of his younger years in Netherlands New Guinea where his parents served as missionaries among the Dani, a stone-age people group. He later said, “These became my family and as the first white child and outsider who ever spoke their language, I was granted unusual access into their culture and community. Although at times a fierce warring people, steeped in the worship of spirits and even occasionally practicing ritualistic cannibalism, they also provided a deep sense of identity that remains an indelible element of my character and person.” When he was six he was sent to boarding school, but soon thereafter his family left the mission field and his father returned to Canada where he pastored a series of small churches. Later Young would tell how he suffered abuse both at the hands of tribespeople and at the hands of those at the boarding school—abuse that shaped and scarred him.

Young attended Warner Pacific College in Portland, Oregon where he earned a degree in religion. Shortly after his graduation he married his wife, Kim, and began seminary training while also working at a church. In the years that followed he held a variety of jobs, ranging from sales to janitorial.

When he was thirty-eight Young engaged in an extramarital affair. His marriage survived, but he was forced to think hard about who God is and what he expects of his people. He says that by 2004 he had come to a place of “peace with myself and peace with my sense of who I believe God to be.” But even then he was in a difficult financial situation after a series of bad monetary decisions. In 2005 he was working three jobs and had lost his home.

It was in this context that Young decided to write about his evolving understanding of God in the form of a story, thinking it might be of interest to his children. He called it The Shack. After he sent the manuscript to his children, he began hearing from them and from others that he ought to consider publishing his work. He forwarded a copy to Wayne Jacobsen who offered it to twenty-six different publishers. After the book was rejected by every one of those publishers, Jacobsen and his colleage Brad Cummings created Windblown Media and published it themselves. In 2007 they printed 11,000 copies. Little did they know that the book would go on to sell 20 million.

The Shack is a book that seeks to provide answers to the always timely question “Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?”. It is a tale that revolves around Mack (Mackenzie) Philips. Four years before the story begins, Mack’s young daughter, Missy, was abducted during a family vacation. Though her body was never found, the police did find evidence in an abandoned shack to prove that she had been brutally murdered by a notorious serial killer who preyed on young girls. As the story begins, Mack, who has been living in the shadow of his Great Sadness, receives a note from God (known in this story as Papa). Papa invites Mack to return to this shack for a time together. Though uncertain of what to expect, Mack visits the scene of the crime and there experiences a weekend-long encounter with God, or, more properly, with the Godhead.

Each of the members of the Trinity is present and each appears in bodily form. Papa, whose actual name is Elousia (which is Greek for tenderness) appears in the form of a large, matronly African-American woman. Jesus is a middle-aged man of Middle-Eastern descent while the Holy Spirit is played by Sarayu (Sanskrit for air or wind), a small, delicate and eclectic woman of Asian descent.

The reader learns that Mack has been given this opportunity to meet with God so he can learn to deal with his Great Sadness—the overwhelming pain and anger resulting from the death of his daughter. There is very little action in The Shack and the bulk of the book is dialog. The majority of the dialog occurs as the members of the Trinity communicate with Mack, though occasionally the author offers glimpses into their unique relationships with one another.

As the weekend progresses Mack participates in lengthy and impactful discussions with each member of the Trinity. Topics range from the cross to the Trinity and from forgiveness to free will. He finds his understanding of God and his relationship with God radically and irrevocably altered. His faith is dismantled piece by piece and then put back together. As the reader would expect, he leaves the cabin a changed man.

Sales & Lasting Impact

In 2008 The Shack surpassed one million copies sold and was awarded the Platinum Book Award. By 2009 it had sold over 10 million copies and had achieved Diamond status. It will soon be awarded a double-diamond. Along the way Windblow Media sold the book’s rights to Hachette Book Group.

The Shack was widely criticized by conservative Christians based on a number of doctrinal concerns. Though it is fiction, it is fiction with a purpose—doctrine wrapped in narrative. Most critics focused on Young’s understanding of the Trinity and his understanding of what God accomplishes in salvation, even going so far as to suggest Young is outright heretical in some of what he teaches.

Young proves to have an inadequate and often-unbiblical understanding of the Trinity. While granting that the Trinity is a very difficult topic to understand and one that we cannot know fully, he often blurs the distinct persons of the Trinity along with their roles and their unique attributes. He even goes so far as to say that God submits to human beings. Al Mohler says, “The theorized submission of the Trinity to a human being—or to all human beings—is a theological innovation of the most extreme and dangerous sort. The essence of idolatry is self-worship, and this notion of the Trinity submitted (in any sense) to humanity is inescapably idolatrous.”

Though the cross is central to the Bible and central to the Christian faith, it appears only sparingly in The Shack. A person who is unfamiliar with the Christian faith is unlikely to glean from it a biblical understanding of what the cross was for and what Jesus’ death accomplished. Nor would he understand how God saves us and what He saves us from. Of greater concern is a thread of universalism in which God states that “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions.” Jesus says, “I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, my Beloved.”

Since the Award

The success of The Shack propelled Young into the public eye. He was soon able to stop other work and focus on writing and public speaking. In 2010 Young appeared in the news when the Los Angeles Times reported that he was embroiled in a series of lawsuits between himself and the men behind Windblow Media; Young believed he was owed some $8 million. The case was eventually settled and dismissed. More recently, rumors have surfaced that Forest Whitacker will direct and star in a film adaptation of The Shack which will also star Oprah Winfrey (presumably playing the character of Papa). Young travels extensively and continues to write. In 2012 FaithWords published his second novel, Cross Roads.

Today Young lives in Happy Valley, Oregon with his wife and children. Notably, he and his co-publishers no longer attend church for, as he told WORLD magazine, “[The institutional church] doesn’t work for those of us who are hurt and those of us who are damaged.”

A Personal Perspective

I ignored The Shack for a time since I read very little fiction, but received many requests to review it and eventually did so. Many who read this site today first encountered it when they looked for a review of The Shack. I eventually expanded my concerns into a lengthy PDF document which was downloaded hundreds of thousands of times and remains available today. The Shack remains a fascinating phenomenon which exposed just how hungry Christians are for an intimate, personal relationship with God; it is sad that Young’s answers were not more faithfully grounded in Scripture.

 

The Bestsellers

A short time ago I launched a new series called “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 will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. Today we look at a bestseller that impacted me deeply.

The Treasure Principle by Randy Alcorn

The Treasure Principle: Unlocking the Secret of Joyful Giving (LifeChange Books)
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Randy Alcorn was born on June 23, 1954, in Portland, Oregon. His father owned a tavern and supplied amusement machines to other local taverns while his mother chose to stay home with the children. Randy grew up without any Christian background and first attended church as a teenager, primarily to pursue a young lady. It was at that church and at its youth group that he first heard the gospel. He became a Christian in 1969 and later married the girl he had followed to church. Very quickly he knew that he wanted to go to Bible college to study God’s Word and then to become a missionary. However, he soon found himself co-founding and pastoring Good Shepherd Community Church in Boring, Oregon, the church he continues to attend today. He pastored for thirteen years before an event that forever changed his life and ministry.

In 1989 Alcorn participated in some nonviolent rescues at abortion clinics. Like many others, he was arrested a number of times and spent a few days in jail. But one of those clinics won a judgment against him that required him to pay a hefty fine. Alcorn told the judge he would pay anything he owed, but he would not give a penny to people who would use that money to abort babies. In early 1990 he learned that his church would be forced to pay one forth of his wages each month to that abortion clinic. He immediately resigned his position. In fact, the only way he could avoid paying money to that clinic was to ensure that he did not earn more than minimum wage. It was at this point that he founded Eternal Perspectives Ministries. (Consider reading the full story.)

Since that day Alcorn has never earned more than minimum wage. All of his book royalties have gone to Eternal Perspectives Ministries and used to support missions, pro-life work, and other Christian causes.

Since 1985 Alcorn has written many books, but none have been more popular than The Treasure Principle which was published in 2001. Released with little fanfare and with only three brief endorsements (including John Piper’s who says, “Supercharged with stunning, divine truth! Lightning struck over and over as I read it.”) the book claims to “unlock the secret of joyful giving.” The “treasure principle” is this: You can’t take it with you—but you can send it on ahead. Alcorn says, “If we give instead of keep, if we invest in the eternal instead of in the temporal, we store up treasures in heaven that will never stop paying dividends. Whatever we store up on earth will be left behind when we leave. Whatever treasures we store up in heaven will be waiting for us when we arrive.”

Along with the principle he offers six keys:

  • Principle #1 – God owns everything. I’m His money manager.
  • Principle #2 – My heart always goes where I put God’s money.
  • Principle #3 – Heaven, not earth, is my home.
  • Principle #4- I should live for the dot but for the line [not for this short life on earth but for eternity]
  • Principle #5 – Giving is the only antidote to materialism.
  • Principle #6 – God prospers me not to raise my standard of living, but to raise my standard of giving.

A simple book, and a short one, spanning only 120 small pages, the book is the very opposite of The Prayer of Jabez and so many other books on giving and prosperity. He teaches the importance and the sheer joy of giving consistently and generously to the Lord’s work, all the while giving up treasures on earth in order to store up treasures in heaven.

Sales & Lasting Impact

Where many other books have seen explosive sales, The Treasure Principle has sold steadily over the past thirteen years. It took four years to sell its first 500,000 copies (it received the Gold Book Award in 2005) and another three years to reach one million copies, receiving the Platinum Book Award in 2008. Notably, 2008 was also the year another of Alcorn’s books, Heaven, attained Gold status. While these sales are not exactly slow compared to most other Christian books, they are slow when compared to other books that have attained Platinum status.

Alcorn’s book was well received by Evangelicals and has been used to help form many people’s theology and philosophy of money, possessions and giving. Many have remembered the simple phrase at the heart of the book: You can’t take it with you—but you can send it on ahead.

Since the Award

Since the award, Alcorn has written many books, the most noteworthy of which is Heaven which received the Gold Book Award in 2008 and the Platinum Book Award in 2014. He has written two other books on the subject of money: Money, Possessions, and Eternity and Managing God’s Money.

A Personal Perspective

Few authors have had a greater impact on my day-to-day living than Randy Alcorn. I have never met him, though we spoke on the phone once when I was wrestling with a particular issue. I have never deliberately thought about imitating him or trying to do it, but in some ways I do. Managing God’s Money (and The Treasure Principle) were foundational to my understanding of money. His emphasis on heaven and eternity have helped me be more heavenly-minded. His love for unborn life has shown me how important it is that we do not grow weary in that fight and I have since found myself speaking at pro-life events and serving on the board of a pregnancy care centre. His writing has been instrumental in teaching me how to put theology into practice. When I look at my life, I see his influence through his books, and for that I am grateful.

 

The Bestsellers

A short time ago I launched a new series called “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 will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. Today we look at a surprise bestseller that is one of the very few to have sold more than ten million copies.

The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson

prayer-of-jabezBruce Wilkinson earned advanced theological degrees at several Christian seminaries and for a time served as a professor at Multnomah Bible College in Portland, Oregon. In 1976, he began Walk Thru the Bible, a worldwide ministry that provides seminars and conferences to teach biblical doctrine. He remained at the helm from 1976 until 2003 when he was succeeded by Chip Ingram.

In 2000, Wilkinson teamed up with Multnomah Publishers to release The Prayer of Jabez : Breaking Through to the Blessed Life and almost from the moment of release, it left an indelible mark on Christian publishing. The book is based on two verses from 1 Chronicles 4: “Jabez was more honorable than his brothers; and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, ‘Because I bore him in pain.’ Jabez called upon the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!’ And God granted what he asked.”

In the introduction Wilkinson says, “I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers. It is brief—only one sentence with four parts—and tucked away in the Bible, but I believe it contains they key to a life of extraordinary favor with God. This petition has radically changed what I expect from God and what I experience every day by His power.” The first chapter begins with these words: “The little book you’re holding is about what happens when ordinary Christians decide to reach for an extraordinary life—which, as it turns out, is exactly the kind God promises.” Moving to biography, he tells how thirty years earlier he had discovered that small prayer spoken to Jabez and had prayed it on a daily basis ever since. “In the pages of this little book, I want to introduce you to the amazing truths in Jabez’s prayer for blessing and prepare you to expect God’s astounding answers as a regular part of your life experience.”

Through the book he teaches Christians that if they repeat Jabez’s prayer and make it an integral part of their devotional life, they will experience God’s favor in new and remarkable ways. “I challenge you to make the Jabez prayer for blessing part of the daily fabric of your life. To do that, I encourage you to follow unwaveringly the plan outlined here for the next thirty days. By the end of that time, you’ll be noticing significant changes in your life, and the prayer will be on its way to becoming a treasured, lifelong habit.”

The rest of the book simply teaches Wilkinson’s interpretation of the prayer and his guidance on praying it most effectively.

Sales & Lasting Impact

The Prayer of Jabez was an immediate bestseller and, according to some sources, became the fastest-selling book to that point in history. By 2001 the book had sold nearly two million copies and was awarded the Platinum Book Award. A whole industry of peripheral products grew up around it and many of them also earned awards: The Prayer of Jabez Devotional and The Prayer of Jabez for Teens both received the Gold Book Award that year. In 2003 The Prayer of Jabez for Kids and The Prayer of Jabez for Teens were both awarded the Platinum Book Award while The Prayer of Jabez for Women and The Prayer of Jabez Bible Study attained Gold status. In 2008 The Prayer of Jabez crossed the 10 million threshold and received the Diamond Book Award, putting it in the rarest of company. Only four other Christian books before or since have surpassed ten million sold.

While the book met with enthusiastic reception among many Christians, it also met significant criticism. Many believers expressed concern that Wilkinson presumes upon God by saying that God promises to always answer this prayer. It was also criticized for being an example of the “vain repetitions” Jesus forbids in his most explicit teaching on prayer. In short, the book contradicts what the Bible teaches and models in prayer. A review at Grace to You highlights another area of concern. The book “paints an inconsistent picture of the Christian life. Wilkinson asserts that praying Jabez’s prayer leads to a life of incredible blessing and ever-increasing ministry opportunities—a life that sounds almost like a fairy-tale. However, little reference is ever made to the reality of genuine difficulties in life, and the necessity of sincere prayer to face those difficulties in a God-honoring way.” Continue reading to see why this becomes especially important.

In the wake of the success of The Prayer of Jabez, several authors penned book-length responses and many of these sold in large numbers. Derek Webb said that his song “Wedding Dress” was based on the book.

Since the Award

Wilkinson has since written a number of other books. While none have approximated the success of The Prayer of Jabez, several have sold in significant numbers, with Secrets of the Vine selling over two million copies, A Life God Rewards selling over one million, and The Dream Giver selling over a half million.

One interesting episode in Wilkinson’s life merits mention for the way it so clearly contradicts his own teaching. In 2005 and 2006 both the Wall Street Journal and Christianity Today reported on Wilkinson’s broken dream for Africa. In 2002, at the heart of the success of The Prayer of Jabez, Wilkinson traveled through Africa and later told Christianity Today, “God ripped open our chest, took out our heart, dug a hole in Africa, put it in, covered it with soil and said, ‘Now, follow your heart and move down to Africa’.” Wilkinson soon launched Dream for Africa and announced that he was moving to Africa to save one million AIDS orphans. He would begin his work in the small nation of Swaziland.

The first problem he determined to solve was the problem of hunger. “Because I don’t come out of this arena of humanitarian aid, I have a fresh pair of eyes,” he said. Soon teams from America were traveling to Africa to plant vegetable gardens in yards across the nation. The next issue he would solve was the AIDS crisis, and for this reason he dispatched teams of American Bible college students and African volunteers to every high school in Swaziland where they held abstinence seminars.

In 2002 Wilkinson was granted an audience with King Mswati III and soon thereafter announced the African Dream Village. This village would be what the Wall Street Journal termed “a massive tourist-orphan-industrial complex.” The village would have homes for 10,000 orphans with each one housing twenty children and an elderly Swazi couple to serve as parents and chaperones. The houses would have a $500 per week bed and breakfast suite for tourists, allowing wealthy Western tourists to combine vacation with charity. “Fifty such homes would form a mini-village of 1,000 orphans, built around a theme — such as Wild West rodeos or Swazi village life — to entertain guests. There would also be a new luxury hotel and an 18-hole golf course. Orphans would be trained as rodeo stars and safari guides at nearby game reserves.”

Wilkinson recruited a native Swazi to help him head the project. Together they located 32,000 acres of prime land and asked the government to grant the organization a ninety-nine-year lease. Over several months they pitched the idea to various government officials and received verbal commitments. Finally Wilkinson provided a 34-page proposal and gave the Swazi government five days to approve it, threatening he would take his plan elsewhere if they did not grant immediate approval. For several months he negotiated until he realized his position was hopeless. Swazi media was mocking his plan, Swazi citizens were outraged that he planned to take children away from their clans and villages, and the king showed that he had no genuine interest.

In October Wilkinson suddenly announced his resignation, saying “With the successful launch of Dream for Africa, my family and I feel our work in Africa is complete.” An internal memo to his staff explained that, to his regret, God had told him to leave Africa and return to North America. The dream dwindled and died.

The Wall Street Journal provides a sad epilogue:

Word of Mr. Wilkinson’s decision slowly reached Swaziland, where it dismayed his followers. “I don’t know how to handle this,” said Rev. Zakes Nxumalo. “People won’t understand; to them Bruce is everything,” he added. “How can he leave everything in the middle of the road?” asked 22-year-old Gcina Mdluli, who has taken a vow of sexual abstinence and now volunteers full-time in Mr. Wilkinson’s school anti-AIDS programs.

Mr. Wilkinson says that he blames neither God nor man. He says he weeps when he thinks of his disappointed acolytes, and is trying to come to grips with a miracle that didn’t materialize despite his unceasing recitation of the Jabez prayer.

A Personal Perspective

The Prayer of Jabez came before my time as a writer and book reviewer. I knew it only as an absurd product with an entire industry surrounding it and multitudes lauding it. While I believe we can fairly understand and critique The Prayer of Jabez on its own terms, we understand it far better in the wake of the abject failure of Dream for Africa. The simple fact is: the prayer is not effective because it is not drawn faithfully from Scripture.

 

The Bestsellers

A short time ago I launched a new Sunday series called “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 will look 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 will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. So far we have looked at titles awarded Platinum status in 2005 and 2007; today we advance to 2008 and a book that served as the voice of a generation.

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

blue-like-jazz3_2Donald Miller was born in 1971 and grew up in Houston, Texas. He left home at twenty-one and traveled across the country until he ran out of money in Portland, Oregon, and decided to remain there. In 2000 Harvest House Publishers published his first book, Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance, which told the story of his cross-country journey. The book made minimal impact until it was retitled Through Painted Deserts and re-released in 2005, following the breakthrough success of his second book.

Two years after Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance, while auditing classes at Reed College in Portland, Miller wrote Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. It was published in 2003 by Thomas Nelson. Sales were slow at first, but they soon picked up, and eventually the book would make its way to the New York Times list of bestsellers. It would prove to have mass appeal both for what Miller said and for the way he said it.

Blue Like Jazz is a spiritual memoir, a semi-autobiographical account of Miller’s spiritual transformation. The catchy title is borrowed from the world of jazz and the characteristic freedom and ambiguity of that musical genre. “I was watching BET one night, and they were interviewing a man about jazz music. He said jazz music was invented by the first generation out of slavery. I thought that was beautiful because, while it is music, it is very hard to put on paper; it is so much more a language of the soul … The first generation out of slavery invented jazz music. It is a music birthed out of freedom. And that is the closest thing I know to Christian spirituality. A music birthed out of freedom. Everybody sings their song the way they feel it, everybody closes their eyes and lifts up their hands.”

Miller had been raised with a kind of cultural Christianity and had been tempted to walk away from it all together, thinking that Christianity was necessarily synonymous with fundamentalism and Republicanism. He had experienced the all-too-common moralistic therapeutic deism that marks so much of Evangelicalism. He had grown weary. What he comes to see is that Christianity is far wider and far better than what he had experienced as a youth. He comes to see that the Christian faith continues to be relevant even in a postmodern culture. He writes, “I don’t think any church has ever been relevant to culture, to the human struggle, unless it believed in Jesus and the power of His gospel.”

Through Miller’s time at Reed College, and through the relationships he developed there, he describes his arrival to a form of Christian spirituality that is imprecise and difficult to define, just like jazz music. Where jazz is nearly impossible to score, so the Christian faith is difficult to define, describe and limit. Where many Christians see life as a journey guided boldly by the Bible, he sees life as more of a meandering journey. “For me, the beginning of sharing my faith with people began by throwing out Christianity and embracing Christian spirituality, a nonpolitical mysterious system that can be experienced but not explained.”

This journey is told through skillful, self-deprecating writing, and an irreverent tone that draws many people, and young people in particular. In his memoir he arrives at an ambiguous relationship with many key doctrines of Christianity, with sin, with the local church. “At the end of the day, when I am lying in bed and know the chances of any of our theology being exactly right are a million to one, I need to know that God has things figured out, that if my math is wrong we are still going to be okay. And wonder is that feeling we get when we let go of our silly answers, our mapped out rules that we want God to follow. I don’t think there is any better worship than wonder.”

Sales & Lasting Impact

Sales of Blue Like Jazz began slowly, but began to increase after a couple of years. In 2007, three years after its release, the book had sold 500,000 copies and was awarded ECPA’s Gold Book Award. Just one year later it had crossed the one million threshold and was awarded the Platinum Book Award.

Blue Like Jazz was released at the dawn of what became known as the Emerging Church movement. Miller’s journey from fundamentalism to Christian spirituality quickly branded him as a leader in this movement even though he was not officially a part of any Emerging organization. His voice was a fresh and powerful one and extended through that movement and far beyond. His writing attracted many young people—primarily Gen-Xers—who were equally disaffected with the faith of their youth. In many ways, Miller became their spokesman, putting into words what many were feeling and desiring. Jonathan Leeman says it well:

I don’t have the exact quote, but Emerson said somewhere that great writers hold up a mirror to the world around them and say, “Here you are.” Blue Like Jazz holds up this mirror for the Gen X segment of 1980s and 90s evangelicalism—my own peer group. We grew up with one foot in the world of seeker-sensitive worship services and another foot in the world of MTV, shopping malls, and sitcom laugh tracks. We eventually discovered how much the first world borrowed from the second to keep us coming back. This realization in turn led us to be skeptical toward the whole Christian program, as if Jesus were just one more product. Many of us therefore left the faith, while those of us who remained insisted on something more real, more authentic, from our Christian spirituality. Often, this search led us outside the boundaries of conventional churches.

Where Miller’s diagnosis was insightful, many conservative Christians criticized his book on a number of counts, and especially for its postmodern ethos which led to a lack of grounding in the authority of Scripture. Miller often eschews firm answers to matters of life and doctrine and this concerned those who hold up Scripture as a clear and final source of authority. Miller was also critiqued for what many reviewers saw as a weak and man-centered gospel displayed in statements like this one: “I realized, after reading those Gospels, that Jesus didn’t just love me out of principle; He didn’t just love me because it was the right thing to do. Rather, there was something inside me that caused Him to love me.” Finally, many reviewers were concerned with his depiction of Jesus which emphasizes his kindness and gentleness while downplaying his justice and his wrath. Reviewers determined that while this is a Jesus Miller and his readers may want, it was not the Jesus of the whole Bible.

Parenthetically, one of Miller’s most memorable characters was “Mark the Cussing Pastor,” a Seattle-area preacher who was known for his foul mouth. One year later, this preacher—Mark Driscoll—would release a book of his own: The Radical Reformission.

Since the Award

Since Blue Like Jazz, Miller has written several books, including Searching For God Knows What, To Own a Dragon: Reflections On Growing Up Without a Father, and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Today he is Founding Director of The Burnside Writers Collective and hosts semi-annual Storyline conferences which assist people in creating life plans. He also travels widely and speaks at a variety of conferences.

In 2012 a film adaptation of Blue Like Jazz, directed by Steve Taylor, made its way to theaters. The film fared poorly at the hands of reviewers, with fewer than 40% of them reviewing it positively. It earned less than half of its production cost at the box office.

More recently Miller has ignited controversy through his admission that he no longer attends a local church and has found alternative ways to experience God.

A Personal Perspective

Ten years ago the Emerging Church and other expressions of postmodern Christianity were surfacing as significant forces in Christianity. Donald Miller served as a much-loved, widely-respected, but controversial voice. I reviewed his book in 2005, just as it began to hit its stride.

I have long believed that the church growth movement and seeker-sensitive, big-box Christianity spawned a significant kind of rebellion shortly after the dawn of the new millennium. Some gravitated toward postmodern expressions of Christianity and found a voice in Donald Miller and other emerging voices. Many of those who did not gravitate toward postmodernism discovered Reformed expressions of Christianity and found a voice in John Piper and in others like him. In this way Miller’s book was polarizing. While most appreciated the diagnosis, only some took the cure.

The Bestsellers

A short time ago I launched a new Sunday series called “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 will look 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 will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. So far we have looked at three titles that were awarded Platinum status in 2005; today we advance to 2007 and a surprise bestseller.

90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper

90-minutes-in-heaven-9780800759490_1It is not often that a book races to the top of the bestseller charts and opens up the way for a whole new genre of Christian literature. But such is the case with Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven, a book that spurred an entire genre of what I refer to as “Heaven Tourism” books.

Don Piper was involved in radio and television ministry when he determined that he had been called to be a pastor. In 1985 he was ordained as a Baptist minister and was soon serving in Houston as a minister of education and single adults. It was shortly thereafter, in 1989, that he had an experience that would forever change his life and ministry. Fifteen years later, in 2004, he would team with Cecil Murphey and Baker Publishers to release 90 Minutes in Heaven, the book in which he described his experience.

On January 18, 1989, Piper was driving through rural Texas, returning from a Christian conference that had ended a little bit earlier than expected. As he was crossing a long bridge with water on either side, an 18-wheeler owned by the Texas Department of Corrections swerved over the center line and hit his Ford Escort head-on. Piper was killed instantly. The steering wheel impaled his chest and the roof collapsed on his head. Emergency medical technicians responded and pronounced him dead, laying him on the road and covering his body with a tarp.

Dick Onarecker and his wife Anita had been at that same conference and were driving the same route. They pulled up to the scene shortly after the EMTs had declared Piper dead. Onarecker later said, “The Lord just impressed on me very emphatically very urgently that I was to pray for him.” Ninety minutes after his accident, Piper awoke to hear that pastor praying and singing.

It was what happened in those ninety minutes that became the subject of his book. Piper claimed he was immediately transported to heaven. There he saw people he knew and loved—relatives, teachers who had gone on to glory years before, and friends who had died in high school. Each of these people was the age they had been when they died. They were joyful and welcoming and were there to help him through the gates of heaven. Ahead of him was a gate that looked as if it had been carved from a giant pearl. The streets were made of gold and beyond the gate was a light too bright to imagine and the sound of an angel choir. “In all honesty,” he said, “as awesome as the sight was, the sound was more amazing. I heard literally thousands of praise songs. They were all praise songs. I really couldn’t see anything. I was so preoccupied with the people around me, I couldn’t see anything. But you could sense this hum of wings hovering all about you, like you were being ministered to by angels, and they were observing this whole episode.”

And then he heard the sound of Onarecker singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and realized he was joining in. He was alive and was quickly transported to Herman Hospital in Houston where doctors found that his body had been completely shattered. He would have to live with chronic pain and endure an excruciating recovery that required some thirty-four medical procedures. The book documents his time in heaven in about fifteen pages and the context and recovery in about one hundred and eighty.

Sales & Lasting Impact

90 Minutes in Heaven was published in 2004. Later editions of the book contain “A Word From the Publisher” where Dwight Baker of Baker Publishing Group explains his company’s caution in accepting the book for publication. He acknowledges the unusual subject matter and expresses that since he and his team determined the book did not contain any explicitly unbiblical teaching, and since it did not contain any supposed words from Jesus meant to guide or direct others, they would accept and promote it. They began with a very small first printing of just eight thousand copies. However, the book proved a brisk seller and those copies were depleted within days. By 2006 it had surpassed one million copies sold and in 2007 it was awarded ECPA’s Platinum Book Award. To date it has sold over six million copies, has sat on the New York Times list of bestsellers for more than five years, and has been translated into forty-six languages.

The book met with criticism on a number of points. First, and most fundamentally, Piper describes an experience the Bible does not tell us we can or should expect. While the Bible certainly describes heaven and tells us that its glories await those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ, it gives no reason to believe we would ever experience those pleasures temporarily. Many were also concerned that Piper’s description of heaven seemed based more on popular conceptions of heaven than on the brief biblical descriptions. Not only that, but Piper took upon himself the task of giving others hope based on his experience. “Because I was able to experience heaven,” he says, “I was able to prepare [friends] for it. And now I am preparing you.” Some were concerned that in so doing he diminishes confidence in God’s Word and replaces it with human experience.

The popularity of his book ensured there would be many more like it and, indeed, very soon others were recounting their journeys to heaven. Each of the following also attained bestseller status: Heaven Is For Real, 23 Minutes in Hell, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, Proof of Heaven, and To Heaven and Back. Many more are sure to follow before the genre runs its course.

Since the Award

In 2007 Piper founded Don Piper Ministries and began traveling the world, referring to himself as “The Minister of Hope.” Millions have read his books and millions more have heard him speak live or through a host of television and radio interviews. He followed 90 Minutes in Heaven with Heaven Is Real and Getting to Heaven. Baker is about to release a 10th Anniversary Edition of 90 Minutes in Heaven which will contain a personal update from Piper and a handful of other new features.

A Personal Perspective

I wrote a review of 90 Minutes in Heaven just about 8 years ago—April 23, 2006—after receiving many requests from readers. At that time the book had sold 500,000 copies and was just beginning to make an impact. The heart of my concern was Piper’s Christ-less heaven, a heaven where he experienced joy and love and bliss but did not experience the presence of the Savior. I went on to review many of the other “Heaven Tourism” books and remain very concerned about their popularity. This genre can’t run its course too soon.

The Bestsellers

A short time ago I launched a new Sunday series called “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 will look 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 will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. Today we look at a book that introduced many of us to one of this generation’s most popular preachers. The book is titled Your Best Life Now.

Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen

0978044653275_500X500Joel Osteen was born on March 5, 1963, the son of John and Dolores (known as “Dodie”) Osteen. John founded Lakewood Church in Houston Texas on May 10, 1959, and pastored the church until his death in 1999. While he began his career in ministry as a Baptist, he later experienced something he believed was the baptism of the Holy Spirit and founded Lakewood as a haven for charismatic Baptists. By the 1980s John and Dodie had become well-known among their fellow charismatics. The church had over 5,000 in attendance and their services were broadcast across the world. From a young age Joel was involved in this work, laboring behind the scenes in support of the family ministry.

When John Osteen died suddenly of a heart attack on January 23, 1999, Joel, who had preached his first sermon the week before, succeeded him as pastor with his wife, Victoria, serving as co-pastor. Very quickly, the church exploded in growth and Joel’s broadcasts become more popular than his father’s had ever been; his sermons, full of homespun wisdom and messages of self-empowerment, were heard all over the world and it was only a matter of time before he penned his first book.

In October 2004 FaithWords released Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. The book is framed around seven steps meant to instruct the reader in living out God’s big dream for his life.

  1. Enlarge Your Vision. Osteen begins the book by teaching that God wants to make our lives easier and provide his people with special advantages and preferential treatment. We need to learn to expect good things from God so, for example, if we are in a crowded parking lot, we can pray, “Father, I thank you for leading and guiding me. Your favor will cause me to get a good spot.” Throughout the day we ought to declare “The favor of God is causing this company to want to hire me. The favor of God is causing me to stand out in the crowd.”
  2. Develop a Healthy Self-Image. In this section Osteen teaches that we are what we believe, that we need to think positive thoughts. “God sees you as strong and courageous, as a man or woman of great honor and value.” He bases much of this on the story of Abraham and Sarah, saying “I’m convinced that the key to the promise coming to pass was that Sarah had to conceive it in her heart before she was able to conceive it in her physical body.”
  3. Discover the Power of Your Thoughts and Words. Osteen wants us to believe that our thoughts and words have creative power. “Our words become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you allow your thoughts to defeat you and then give birth to negative ideas through your words, your actions will follow suit. That’s why we need to be extremely careful about what we think and especially careful about what we say. … Your words have enormous creative power. The moment you speak something out, you give birth to it.”
  4. Let Go of the Past. We need to let go of past hurts and past failures, knowing that these will only keep us from the blessing and favor God wants to pour out upon us.
  5. Find Strength Through Adversity. Osteen wants his readers to know that we cannot allow adversity to stop or slow us. “God has promised that He will turn your challenges into stepping-stones for promotion.”
  6. Live to Give. In this section he calls for compassion and kindness, using the principle that in order to receive, we have to first give. “If you’re struggling financially, go out and help somebody who has less than you have. If you want to reap financial blessings, you must sow financial seeds in the lives of others. If you want to see healing and restoration come to your life, go out and help somebody else get well.”
  7. Choose to Be Happy. In this final section he calls the reader to a life of happiness and excellence. “If you will start taking care of what God has given you, He’ll be more likely to give you something better.”

The great promise at the end of it all, is that by following these seven simple principles, each of us can have our best life now.

Sales & Lasting Impact

Your Best Life Now quickly debuted on the New York Times list of best-sellers and remained there for more than two years. By December, just three months after its release, Your Best Life Now had tallied over 500,000 sales and was awarded the Gold Book Award. In May 2005 it achieved 1 million sales and received the Platinum Book Award. To date it has sold over 4 million copies.

Osteen’s book was widely criticized by Christian leaders for ignoring the gospel of salvation through Christ’s atoning sacrifice in favor of a gospel of financial and life-wide prosperity. While Osteen claimed to be teaching biblical principles, he was instead picking and choosing isolated verses of the Bible to teach self-empowerment much as Norman Vincent Peale and so many others had done before him. In a helpful review of the book, Greg Gilbert summarizes it well: “Yes, Osteen talks about God throughout, but it is not the God of the Bible he has in mind. Osteen’s God is little more than the mechanism that gives the power to positive thinking. There is no cross. There is no sin. There is no redemption or salvation or eternity.” He continues: “If Joel Osteen wants to be the Norman Vincent Peale of the twenty-first century, he has every right to give it a shot. But he should stop marketing his message as Christianity, because it is not. You cannot simply make reference to God, quote some Scripture, call what you’re saying ‘spiritual principles’ and pass it off as Christianity. That’s the kind of thing that will have people ‘enlarging their vision’ and ‘choosing to be happy’ all the way to hell.”

Despite such critiques, the book proved extremely popular among Christians and non-Christians alike and was followed by a series of similar works.

Since the Award

Your Best Life Now catapulted Osteen to new heights of exposure and influence. Barbara Walters declared him one of her “10 Most Fascinating People of 2006” and in that same year readers of Church Report Magazine named him “Most Influential Christian in 2006.” He was invited to make many appearances on television programs including 60 Minutes, and he made much-publicized visits to Oprah Winfrey and Larry King. He also began to travel extensively and internationally for sold-out events called “A Night of Hope.”

Today Lakewood Church meets in what used to be the Compaq Center, the 16,000-seat former home of the Houston Rockets. Nearly 40,000 people attend each week, making Lakewood Church America’s largest congregation. Since Your Best Life Now, Osteen has authored several other books, most of which have appeared on the lists of bestsellers. They include Become a Better You, It’s Your Time, Every Day a Friday, I Declare, and Break Out.

A Personal Perspective

The very first time I saw Joel Osteen on television, he was speaking about the importance of a healthy diet, including the rejection of pork, shellfish, and other unhealthy foods. My son, who was probably five or six at the time, listened for a minute and said, “That’s not the gospel!” I learned that day that even a child can unmask his teaching as nothing more than a feel-good brand of self-empowerment. Shortly thereafter someone gave me a tongue-in-cheek gift: a copy of Your Best Life Now, the board game. It may well be one of the worst games ever created and includes looking in a mirror to say empowering and encouraging phrases to yourself.

I have written about Osteen and his books a few times over the years. He was the inspiration for an article I titled “Smilingly Leading You to Hell” in which I said, “Both the history of the church and contemporary Evangelical church are replete with nice people who are in complete rebellion against God. Is there anyone nicer than Joel Osteen? Yet is there anyone whose message has less of the gospel and more anti-biblical nonsense? You can watch him in this video, sitting with Oprah, receiving accolades, nicely, smilingly leading an eager crowd farther and farther from the cross. He is nice, but he, too, will nice you straight to the gates of hell, flashing that brilliant smile all the while.” I stand by those words.

The Bestsellers

Last week I began a new Sunday series called “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 will look 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 will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. Today we look at one of the bestselling Christian books of all-time: Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life.

The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren

purpose_driven_lifeRick Warren was born in 1954 in San Jose, California, the son of Jimmy and Dot Warren. Jimmy was a Baptist minister and from a young age Rick determined to follow in his father’s footsteps. He received an undergraduate degree from California Baptist University before going to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to receive his pastoral training.

In 1980, Warren founded Saddleback Church in Laguna Hills, California. The church’s inaugural service was held on Easter Sunday in Laguna Hills High School with nearly 200 people in attendance. Under Warren’s leadership and winsome personality, the church grew rapidly, outgrowing facility after facility until they finally purchased land in Lake Forest and began construction there in the early 1990’s. By the time the church settled in the Lake Forest campus, they already had 10,000 people attending their services each week.

In 1995, Zondervan published the semi-autobiographical The Purpose Driven Church, a book that soon proved popular and influential in teaching the principles of church growth. While the book was targeted squarely at pastors and church leaders, it introduced Warren to the leaders who would be key to the success of his next work.

In 2002 Zondervan released The Purpose Driven Life, a forty-day devotional meant to lead the reader on a spiritual journey. Warren considered it an anti-self-help book, a manifesto for Christian living in the twenty-first century. It famously begins with the words, “It’s not about you.” Instead, Warren shows that we exist for the glory of God and that our innate desire for fulfillment can be found only in Him. The forty devotional readings are divided into five themes:

  • You Were Planned for God’s Pleasure (Worship)
  • You Were Formed for God’s Family (Fellowship)
  • You Were Created to Become Like Christ (Discipleship)
  • You Were Shaped for Serving God (Ministry)
  • You Were Made for a Mission (Mission)

Each chapter contains a short devotional several pages in length followed by a section titled “Thinking About My Purpose” which offers a Point to Ponder, a Verse to Remember, and a Question to Consider.

The book was released hand-in-hand with a substantial viral marketing campaign meant to take advantage of the Internet and to encourage word-of-mouth and bulk sales. The 40 Days of Purpose campaign invited pastors to lead their entire churches through the book, reading it day-by-day and even preaching sermons provided by Warren. This campaign was launched with 1,5000 participating churches and that led to the book’s first print run of 500,000 copies selling out very quickly. Some 20,000 churches eventually took advantage of the program.

The book received a substantial and unexpected boost in March 2005 when Brian Nichols, a man wanted for a series of shootings in Atlanta, took Ashley Smith hostage in her apartment. During the seven hours he held her captive, she read chapter 32 aloud and later suggested that this helped in his decision to release her.

Sales & Lasting Impact

By January, 2003 The Purpose Driven Life had sold 500,000 copies and was awarded the Gold Book Award. Just two months later it had crossed the 1 million threshold and was awarded the Platinum Book Award. In 2005 it was awarded the Double Diamond Award for sales exceeding 20 million. It became and remains the bestselling hardcover non-fiction book in history and has now tallied over 32 million sales. It is the second most translated book after the Bible.

The Purpose Driven Life catapulted Rick Warren into the public eye and it was not long before he was known as America’s pastor, the natural successor to Billy Graham. Warren was now one of the most influential Evangelicals in the world. A 2005 survey of American pastors and church leaders by George Barna found The Purpose Driven Life the most influential book among them, followed by The Purpose Driven Church. By 2005 nearly one quarter of American adults had read The Purpose Driven Life, and nearly two thirds of American Evangelicals. Despite the success, Warren seemed unchanged and unimpressed, giving away the vast majority of the proceeds and returning all the salary Saddleback had paid him over the years.

The 40 Days of Purpose program was integral to the soaring sales of the book and this showed marketers that Christians and their churches could be used to distribute resources. If marketers could get to the leaders, they could get to the people. This lesson was put to good use a short time later when Mel Gibson was ready to release his film The Passion of the Christ. He recruited Warren, used many of the same marketing techniques, and quickly had one of the biggest box-office surprises of all-time.

The Purpose Driven Life received a good deal of criticism from Christians and non-Christians alike. Many Evangelicals, and especially conservative Evangelicals, criticized Warren on a number of points, but most commonly for his use of Scripture. Through the book he relied on a host of Bible translations, often appearing to prefer a translation that said what was helpful for his point rather than a translation that was accurate. He also quoted partial verses in places where the full verse might have undermined his point. Many Christians were concerned by a weak call to the gospel which in turn led to a shallow prayer of commitment before being followed by a bold assurance of salvation. The book was also criticized by non-Christians who subjected it to disparagement and mockery. Overall, though, the criticism was almost unnoticeable against the roar of approval.

Since the Award

In 2005, before 30,000 people at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Warren announced his Global P.E.A.C.E. Plan, a response to what he identified as the five great problems in the world: spiritual emptiness, self-serving leadership, poverty, disease, and illiteracy. Using the acronym P.E.A.C.E., he determined to mobilize Christians to work together to Plant churches that promote reconciliation, Equip servant leaders, Assist the poor, Care for the sick, and Educate the next generation.

Warren has been in news headlines on a regular basis. A 2005 issue of U.S. News and World Report named him one of “America’s Top 25 Leaders;” TIME magazine has named him one of the “15 World Leaders Who Mattered Most in 2004” and one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.” In 2006 Newsweek named him as one of “15 People Who Make America Great.” During the 2008 Presidential election he hosted the Civil Forum on The Presidency with candidates John McCain and Barack Obama. In 2009 he gave the invocation and President Obama’s inauguration.

In April 2013 Warren was once more in the headlines following the tragic suicide of his son Matthew. Along with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange he recently co-sponsored “The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church” in which he called churches to action in helping those who suffer from mental illnesses.

Warren’s major follow-up to The Purpose Driven Life has been the subject of many rumors but has never materialized. Instead he published The Purpose of Christmas in 2008 and The Daniel Plan: 40 Days to a Healthier Life in 2013.

A Personal Perspective

When The Purpose Driven Life was released to such fanfare, I was a member of a church that immediately adopted it and embarked on 40 Days of Purpose. As a small-group leader, I had to read the book and be prepared to lead discussions. I determined I would read it carefully and pay close attention to Warren’s use of Scripture. Knowing the book was gaining so much attention in the Christian world, I decided to do this through my blog in the hope that it would be helpful to others. That series proved to be very popular, and established me (whether fairly or not) as one of Warren’s critics. I stand by most of my concerns from those days and continue to be troubled by the way Warren uses the Bible.

The Bestsellers

This morning I am beginning a new Sunday series called “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 will look 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 will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. We begin with a book that received the Platinum Book Award in 2005: I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris.

I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris

I Kissed Dating Goodbye
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Joshua Harris was born in 1974, the first child of Gregg and Sono Harris. His parents were pioneers in the Christian homeschooling movement which was only in its infancy while Josh and his siblings were growing up. Gregg’s book The Christian Home School was a foundational text for homeschoolers and a Christian Booksellers Association bestselling title in 1988.

Josh grew up outside Portland, Oregon, and professed faith in Christ as a teenager. By the time he was 17, he was establishing himself as a leader and teacher, speaking at youth events and conferences. Beginning in 1994, he began publishing New Attitude, a magazine targeted at fellow homeschoolers, and one that quickly gained a substantial readership. He was now the second generation of Harris’s to make a mark in homeschool circles. His influence was about to extend far beyond what was then still a small and close-knit community.

In 1997 Multnomah Publishers released I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a book Harris had written when he was just twenty-one years old. In this book he tells why he rejected dating in favor of courtship, and he calls on his readers to do the same. He believes courtship represents a better and more biblically-faithful model of beginning and building a romantic relationship.

Dating, as understood and practiced by many believers and unbelievers alike, too often proves an obstacle rather than an aide to living for God’s glory. Harris suggests that dating comes with at least seven serious pitfalls. Dating…

  1. …leads to intimacy, but not necessarily to commitment.
  2. … tends to pass over the “friendship” stage of a relationship.
  3. … often mistakes physical intimacy for love.
  4. … often isolates a couple from other important relationships.
  5. … distracts young adults from their primary responsibility for these years, which is preparing for the future.
  6. … can cause discontentment with God’s gift of singleness.
  7. … creates an artificial environment for evaluating another person’s character.

The cultural expectation for teenagers and young adults is that they will experience a succession of short-term romances before finally finding true love and settling down with one person. This system, though, is built to fail. When people finally do marry, they often do so with a long history of heartbreaks, baggage, and sexual failure.

Writing from the perspective of personal experience, Harris says that in place of this kind of “dumb love,” Christians ought to emphasize “smart love.” Where dumb love is primarily concerned with self, smart love begins with a love for God and matures into love and concern for others. Smart love manifests itself in courtship, which is simply dating with purpose. He does not describe dating as a model that is necessarily sinful, but as a lesser option than courtship. Courtship is superior because it is meant to protect against heartache and regret.

Sales & Lasting Impact

By 2001 I Kissed Dating Goodbye had sold 714,000 copies and received ECPA’s Gold Book Award (given to books exceeding 500,000 copies sold). Four years later it had reached the million threshold and was awarded the Platinum Book Award.

I Kissed Dating Goodbye suddenly and unexpectedly catapulted the word “courtship” into mainstream Evangelicalism and sparked a wide-ranging controversy over dating and romance. Christians were forced to examine what they believed about romantic relationships. For many Christians, this was the first time they had considered the issue. Harris was not interesting in re-introducing ancient models of courtship and romance as much as he wished to call couples to consider dating with purpose. In many cases his book succeeded in doing this. It was read and discussed in youth groups around the world and caused countless teens to consider an alternative to casual dating.

The discussion his book generated was integral in shaping his generation of young Christians. As that generation has grown up and matured, some now commend and some now condemn the book. Where many followed the book’s counsel and avoided the relational difficulties and baggage that so often come hand-in-hand with casual dating, others insist it led to confusion and anxiety when it came to forming relationships and finding a marriage partner. Some saw courtship become a divisive issue within local churches, with Christians rallying to one side or the other.

Since 1997, a multitude of books have critiqued or affirmed Harris’ approach, while others have nuanced it, often teaching similar principles but without the use of the controversial word “courtship.” Courtship has continued to be a hot-button issue, especially in very conservative Christian circles. It was Harris who established courtship as a legitimate alternative to dating, and it is feasible that the modern courtship movement would not exist had it not been for I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

Since the Award

Harris’ ideas on dating and courtship were more fully developed in Boy Meets Girl, a book he wrote after marrying his wife, Shannon. In 2009 he wrote an article titled “What I’ve Learned Since I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and here he said he stands by the basic message of the book: that short-term romantic attachments can be a big distraction from serving God—especially for teenagers. However, he also explained how his book had proven divisive in some contexts:

I’ve also seen that a legalistic application of these ideas can be unhelpful, too. One of my main concerns in my church or any other church is that there be no disunity among Christians over issues of dating and courtship. We need to learn to hold our own convictions on this matter with charity. Most importantly we need to make sure that our convictions are shaped by scripture—not culture, church culture or my books.

I Kissed Dating Goodbye propelled Harris to the public eye and gave him a wide platform. However, even as he was given every opportunity to become a “professional Christian,” he became convinced of the primacy of the local church in Christian life and, in 1997, moved across the country to Gaithersburg, Maryland. There he became a member of Covenant Life Church and received on-the-job pastoral training under the mentorship of C.J. Mahaney. New Attitude magazine was put aside in 1997 in favor of New Attitude conferences which began in 1999 and continued in various forms until 2012. In 2004 Harris succeeded Mahaney as pastor of Covenant Life Church, a position he holds to this day. He is married with three children and has written several more books: Boy Meets Girl (2000); Sex Is Not the Problem, Lust Is (first published as Not Even a Hint) (2003); Stop Dating the Church (2004); Dug Down Deep (2010); and Humble Orthodoxy (2013).