I ended the previous post with this:
If I couldn’t preach it, I would write it. I was convinced we were dealing with a kind of idolatry in the hearts of my Christian brothers and sisters (and likely in myself too), so I decided I would write it all down, all my thoughts and concerns, and use the exercise to sort it all out.
Deciding What to Write
By the midpoint of 2021, I had spent the previous 12 months wrestling with my personal dilemma of what to say out loud and what to keep to myself. I toyed with posts to Twitter (now X), Facebook, and my blog here, but more often than not, people in my life were encouraging me to keep those thoughts to myself. “What good can come from it? Does anyone ever change their mind through social media?” I was asked.
The pain of that indecision was palpable for me. I’m a preacher, a born communicator, my strongest talent is to use my words to teach people what the Bible says and what it means when it says what it says. Then, the reason for teaching people the Bible is that the Bible would transform them:
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. — Hebrews 4:12 NIV
Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. — Psalm 119:105 NIV
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. — James 1:22-25 NIV
In other words:
- I believed that words really can change people.
- I believed that I was gifted and called to use my words toward that transformation.
- I was convinced that both spoken and written words could be effective toward that end.
- I also saw many examples of people whose minds were being shaped in the wrong direction by what they were seeing online, and I felt the need to counteract that.
However, I repeatedly experienced the ineffectiveness of my strategies, and the people in my life were increasingly telling me not to say the things I wanted to say.
During those months, I wrote a lot of things that I never published:
- I wrote about white Christians refusing to say “Black Lives Matter”… but didn’t publish it.
- I wrote about Christians falling for conspiracy theories like QAnon, Flat Earth, anti-vaccine, etc… but didn’t publish.
- I wrote about the idolatry of American Christianity and the various nearly-true doctrines we hold.
Eventually, I decided to write a real book-length work and release it to a small group of people. I still didn’t know what I needed to say, so I thought there might be wisdom in a group of counselors.
I turned to Facebook, started a group (Jeff Writes a Book) and asked people if they wanted to join it. I got about 20 people and I started writing.
Defending Me, Critiquing Them
During those early days, I had two big issues on my mind:
- Some of my friends saw me as a “political activist” and I wanted to push back on that. On the one hand, I wanted to push back that I was somehow a different person than I was before, but I also wanted to push back on the idea that it was wrong to talk about political ideas through the lens of Jesus’s teaching.
- Secondly, I wanted to push back on the false ideas prevalent in the church that I thought were leading us away from the Jesus of the gospels.
In other words, I wanted to defend myself, and I wanted to “call out” or critique the evangelical Christian subculture.
Over the next few weeks, I wrote, edited, and then published to that group one chapter at a time. However, I was mostly disappointed with the results.
First of all, there were people who roundly agreed with what I was saying. They were people who cheered for me and affirmed me. They had basically nothing negative to say about the concepts from the book, and mostly left comments that supported my claims. It felt good to read those comments, but it was disappointing because I wasn’t just looking for affirmation. I was looking for insight and guidance, and the positive affirmations didn’t help me move forward.
Secondly, there were people who said nothing. They were in the group, they were close friends, so I was pretty sure they would actually read the chapters, but they said nothing, left no comments, and didn’t interact with the other comments. I was confused by that. Of course, I concluded that they must be keeping silent because they didn’t want to offend me or they didn’t want to start an argument with the other commenters. That was disappointing because my entire motivation for the project was to engage difficult conversations over difficult topics with people I cared for, and their silence proved it wasn’t working.
Nevertheless, there were a few people who chose to engage me by pushing back on something I said. They did so with grace and good will, but they were specific about their disagreements with me. Of course, in the heightened emotional state of Facebook comments in 2021, I read each one of their comments initially negatively, but I forced myself to not respond until I had researched and worked through the details of their statements to me, and that process was immensely helpful to me. I learned three things from their pushback:
- My experience of evangelicalism was much more broad than others. I had seen evangelical churches from the inside my whole life, known the inner opinions of hundreds of churchgoers, and been in dozens of churches from California to Chicago. I had been taught things others hadn’t ever even heard of. I had heard opinions others hadn’t considered. My experience was so broad it didn’t relate to everyone in my audience.
- My understanding of doctrine was likewise more “inclusive” than others. Having been educated in multi-denominational institutions, and holding a commitment to the entirety of Scripture, I developed an understanding of theology that was in the middle of most doctrinal controversies. As a result, although others had been trained to see a doctrinal war between “Legalism” and “Grace” I saw synergy between obedience and faith, works and grace. I thought it was obvious to read Paul through the lens of Jesus, but others had been taught to read Jesus through the lens of Paul. As a result, when I made comments about the gospel, or when I quoted Scripture, other people weren’t seeing what I saw in it.
- My tone was combative and defensive. Of course it was! I was mad at the evangelical church for following inane conspiracies, for supporting immoral politicians, for being vicious against unbelievers, and for ignoring the clear example of Jesus. Furthermore, I was mad at the people who turned their backs on me accusing me of being “political” or whatever. However, my combative tone was exactly the thing causing some people to cheer for me in the comments and others to hold their tongues for fear of getting in an argument.
Honestly, I didn’t fully understand the third point until a year later, but in mid 2021, I learned enough to start rewriting.
Confession & Teaching
Out of the Facebook experiment, I decided to change two things about the book.
First, I would make it more introspective. If my experience of the church was different from that of others, I needed to spend some time talking about my experience. Additionally, I realized that if I used my experience as the basis for a critique, people could get the feeling that I was battling a straw man instead of reality. More than once, people have disregarded my critique because I was speaking against something they had not personally experienced. They thought I was talking about fringe ideas in the church and not anything substantive. To counteract that, I decided people might be more receptive to my experience if I framed it as a confession instead of a critique. This started out as a persuasive technique, but the more I wrote from that perspective, the more I realized my own complicity in the things I was critiquing. I completely rewrote one chapter, transforming it from a critique of evangelicalism to a confession of my own beliefs and teaching. I surely described how I came to those beliefs and the teaching I had received, but I took ownership of my own role in holding and propagating those beliefs.
Secondly, I would invest more heavily in teaching. Since I had pushback on the nature of works v. grace, I decided I needed to spend additional time in the book discussing what the Bible really teaches about the meaning of the gospel, the nature of salvation, and the calling Christians have to be salt and light in the world. I added a chapter just on the gospel, and I revised the rest of the content to add and explain the relevant Bible passages on each topic.
It was an important addition, and the writing process helped me get my thoughts worked out.
By December 2021, I had finished the revisions, but had lost motivation for the work. I had received good feedback, but I had also inspired very little constructive dialogue among the people in my Facebook group. I lost motivation for the group, and therefore, I saw the book content as having no future.
But in 2022, a friend of mine on Facebook announced that his book was about to be published with Zondervan, and I suddenly saw that I might have an opening with a major Christian publisher. I reached out to my friend to see if he would put me in touch with his contact at Zondervan, and he did. After a conversation with that editor, I was inspired to come back to it.
Addressing the Idols
The very first motivation for the book included the desire to critique the idols present in American Evangelicalism, and although that concept formed a chapter in the original work, it was mostly a list of my grievances with evangelicalism. I didn’t build a case for why these idols existed, where they came from, or why they were bad enough to be called “idols” in the first place.
Still, after my conversation with that editor, I began to think the real value of the work was there, and I set to work making that a more central theme in the book. I gave the book a new title: “Deconstructing Evangelicalism’s Idols” and I added a new chapter entirely on selling the idea that now was the time for the church to identify and address our idols. I wrote a proposal for Zondervan and sent it off. However, they did not accept the proposal and gave two reasons. First, there were other books in their pipeline that had similar aims. Zondervan/Harper Collins would later publish Andy Stanley’s Not in It to Win It and Tim Alberta’s The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism. Secondly, I didn’t have a verified audience (social followers, church attendees, etc.) large enough for them to guarantee a minimum number of sales. Publishers are in business, and they couldn’t guarantee enough sales to make a profit.
Again, I set the book on the back burner.
The Real Insight
Throughout the whole journey, one thing had been weighing heavily on my mind: If there were all these problems with evangelicalism, and if I could see the answers, why wasn’t it any different in the church I led? At the beginning of 2023, my wife and I decided to relocate so she could pursue a new career path, so I resigned from my church. No longer preaching every week, away from the pressures and burdens of pastoring, I was able to reflect perhaps a bit more honestly over that question. Why wasn’t my church immune from the problems I saw in evangelicalism?
I had to come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I was honestly part of the problem with American Evangelicalism. A small chapter on “confession” wasn’t enough. I had to see the entire work as a reflection and critique of my own ministry. Then, while driving home one day, a Bible metaphor came to mind: Wood, Hay, and Straw.
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. — 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 NIV
Paul talks about people who build their lives out of worthwhile materials or flammable materials, but what he’s really afraid of in this passage is that some teacher will give people those worthless materials to build with. I had to realize that I was that “someone else” in the passage. In so many ways, I had tried to give people the material of Jesus, but throughout my ministry, I also gave people a lot of wood, hay, and straw.
Suddenly, I had a newfound insight both into what I needed to say in the book and why I was someone who needed to say it.
Unlike all the other books on the market talking about what’s wrong with evangelicalism, my voice was going to be one of honest confession. What did I do to create these problems? What role did I play?
With this new metaphor in hand, I added a new chapter and worked through the entire book two more times to get the tone right, to make the confession more personal, honest and real, and to more directly connect myself with the idols I was now trying to tear down.
And with this new motivation, I wrote a new proposal, and submitted it to Zondervan again, but this time, I also submitted it to a variety of other publishers including Moody, Thomas Nelson, and Eerdmans among others.
Zondervan wrote back to say it was a better proposal but still didn’t meet their criteria.
Eerdmans wrote me back and said it looked like an exciting new project for them eventually offering me a contract to publish.
Topic & Tone
During the process, I grew a lot. My journey went from my initial anger and frustration, toward more understanding of other perspectives, toward more understanding of my own complicity. Finally, I think I’m at the place where the book makes sense. I much more fully understand what I’m trying to accomplish, why my voice is unique, and how it can be helpful to others.
I’m, of course, not at liberty to give away the content of the book anymore as I’ve effectively sold the content to Eerdmans, but I will be writing more here about the themes and topics. Plus, I’m more convinced than ever that I’m bringing something helpful and unique to the conversation, and I hope this process will result in more honest communication among pastors and church members regarding what it means to really follow Jesus with each other in this complex, modern world. After all, that’s my real goal. To see Jesus lifted up, and to see more people follow his life and teaching. His Kingdom matters, and though it isn’t of this world, its citizens affect this world. May we do so rightly.