Josh McDowell – “I’m Sick of McLaren and Bell Putting Me in the Modernist Camp.”

I ate lunch with Josh McDowell today. Some ministry leaders in Northeast Ohio got together to hear him talk about how we can reach young people in a post-Christian culture.

Now that I am in college ministry, I found it interesting to be sitting beside a legend in college outreach. I was at a table with Josh and five other people, eating turkey sandwiches and discussing college outreach ministry for about twenty minutes. This is the first time I met the man, and I was wondering what to expect. Being from the Emerging Church persuasion, I had some preconceptions of what he would say and what take he’d have on postmodernism.

After we ate together, he spoke to the larger group gathered for this luncheon. I was suspicious at first that he’d take the normal older-generation approach to “Truth” (as modeled by John MacArthur in my current series of posts on MacArthur’s book, The Truth War.)

McDowell started out calling for a belief in “Absolute Truth,” which he said he’d rather call “Universal Truth,” which he defines as “a truth that exists outside ourselves, one that is true for all people, for all times, for all places.”

I thought, “Oh boy, here we go again…He’s going to go on a tirade about how we have to fight for ‘Absolute Truth’.” He cited statistics where an astonishing 91% of “Born Again” Christians say that there is “no such thing as absolute truth.” This frightening statistic got the group of about 80 pastors and Christian leaders harrumphing in disgust. At this point of his presentation, I was skeptical of McDowell’s grasp of what the real issues are in the postmodern turn. But I held on, seeing how he will develop this and what solutions he would seek to offer.

McDowell then explained “how we got here,” with a quick review of history, from the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution to Darwinism, explaining that instead of God being the source of truth, nature and science had taken God’s place as that source. “Hmm,” I thought, “He’s pretty tough on Modernism. That’s good.”

He never said the word “Post-modernism,” preferring instead the phrase, “The Cosmic Shift.” He explained that we have experienced a shift in our epistemology. This shift is characterized by how the new generation processes truth. The older generation saw truth as something to discover, but the younger generation sees truth as something to create. The older generation said, “If it is true, it will work”; the younger generation says, “If it works, it is true.” In other words, the younger generation bases their idea of the true based on experience; they don't believe in things that have, in their minds, proven not to produce good results.

He then shot with two barrels at the pastors in the room. He said that the number one reason young people are leaving the church is because of the hypocrisy they see in the church. “It doesn’t matter how good your preaching is,” he said (I’m paraphrasing), “It matters more how that Dad you’re preaching to loves his kid at home. The kids need to have people in their lives that are actually living their faith.”

He said that Behavior comes from Values and that Values come from Beliefs. But at the base of all this is Relationships. So his first mandate to today’s ministries is “loving, intimate connections with our kids.” He said that the Bible says that we must have both “truth” and “love,” or we are not being Christian, citing these verses:

“For I am constantly aware of your unfailing love, and I have lived according to your truth.” (Ps. 26:2, NLT)

“Teach me your ways, O LORD, that I may live according to your truth…for your love for me is very great.” (Ps. 86:11, 13)

“…speaking the truth in love…” (Eph 4:15, NAS)

“Unfailing love and truth have met together.” (Ps. 85:10)

McDowell pleaded with these Christian leaders that ministry to the young generation needs to bring together “unfailing love” and “truth.” He insisted that it’s not just about being sure of the truth, it’s also about lovingly showing it to people.

And then he said, “I’m sick of McLaren and Bell putting me in the modernist camp. I am anything but a modernist.”

He proclaimed that he was advocating a “Relational Apologetics” and that “all truth is through relationships.”

I was amazed. At first I thought McDowell would advocate a mere reasoned apologetics and a fight for the concept of propositional truth. While he certainly insisted on the concept of "Absolute Truth" and believed that the younger generation's rejection of this concept was a deeply troubling thing, he was not arguing for churches to fight the battle to make this generation believe in this concept. Instead, he was arguing for churches to create opportunities for young people to have genuine relationships with Christians so that they can experience what its like to live out their Christian convictions in real-life situations.

He was arguing for incarnational apologetics (what I’ve called “Emmanuel Apologetics”)!

To my surprise, I have more in common with Josh McDowell than I thought!

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Ted M. Gossard said...

Glad to hear that. What he says rings so true. It would be interesting to hear him and Scot be in a conversation about all of this.

Matt said...

Thanks for this info. I grew up in a tradition (reformed with a big focus on campus ministry at the University of Maryland) where Josh was a big deal. Good to hear where he's at.

joe said...

that is really incredible. what i thought was going to be said and what he actually said were completely opposite. i learned my lesson.

Derek Melleby said...

McDowell came through my town recently and offered the same presentation. Although I certainly knew who he was (More Than a Carpenter, etc.), I'm a little younger so he didn't carry the legend weight with me. He pushed "product" A LOT which made me uncomfortable, especially because his context was a Sunday morning sermon. The overall message is a good one: develop relationships with the young; help them connect faith to all of life; and they will learn best by watching/observing older people doing that. Makes sense.

Two things I find interesting: (1) He likes to "call out" people like McLaren and Bell for saying he's a modernist, but did either of them actually call him out by name? I guess what I'm saying is that his frustration seems to be based on an assumption, which actually reveals how much of a modernist he is. He reads their books and thinks it is a critique of him, but they don't actually say his name (although they may refer to "Evidence that Demands a Verdict"). Does that make sense?

(2)If he is upset that people call him a modernist, he needs to answer this question, very clearly: What is the Gospel? I don't want to answer for him, but here would be my guess: The Gospel he preaches leads to the problems we have.


Bob Robinson said...

Ted, Matt, and Joe,
McDowell certainly believes that Absolute Truth is very important, and he denounces the ideas of "Tolerance," "Diversity," and "Multi-Culturalism." So, I think he has NOT interacted deeply with the legitimate issues that postmodernism has correctly identified as problems in society. But that's not really the point. The people he was talking to have not done so either, and when he first mentioned McLaren's name, one pastor said something derogatory about McLaren in response. So for him to advocate a relational approach to apologetics in the manner he did that was acceptable to this crowd, was certainly something I was happy about.

Bob Robinson said...


1. I think that many of us in the Emerging Church use "Evidence That Demands a Verdict" as a foil for what we want to accomplish in a postmodern context. We paint that as the quintessential modernist way of doing apologetics and evangelism. So, I was glad to hear that he was not too thrilled with the modernist worldview; I now will be careful not to implicate him as a pure modernist.

2. Can you expand on your second comment - that "The Gospel he preaches leads to the problems we have." What do you understand his version of the gospel to be, and how do you think it causes problems?


Derek Melleby said...

I can’t find my copy of More Than a Carpenter, but I remember the “punch line” going something like this (after he “proved” that Jesus “had” to be who he said he was): You are a sinner, Jesus died for YOU, and you can go to heaven when you die if you put your trust in Him for your salvation. This is true, I think (although I liked your diatribe concerning the funeral song), but I’m not sure it is the whole Gospel. And, pragmatically speaking, I’m not sure how it leads to vibrant, active lives of faith in Christ. Thus, according to him, the reason people leave the church and why he is calling for deeper relationships. In this Gospel presentation, there is no mention of community (not even God’s family) or the Holy Spirit (central to the proclamation in Acts) or discipleship (apprenticeship which assumes at least one other person).

So, what the Gospel is, is disconnected from how we are supposed to be living and passing on the faith. That just seems weird to me and confusing to college students trying to make sense of faith. You could say, “You actually won’t go to heaven when you die unless you are a part of a Christ-centered community and are intentionally nurturing your relationship with Christ through a mentor and sacraments/means of grace, etc.” (sounds like Paul, actually) but evangelicals don’t have the guts/courage (or perhaps Biblical authority) to say so. Instead, the Gospel is the ticket to heaven and community is a nice add-on, but not essential. If it’s essential, then maybe we need to include it when we declare people “saved.”

Is this making sense? I’m kind of rambling…


Bob Robinson said...


Yes, Yes, Yes.

I think that McDowell's version of the Gospel is the standard evangelical truncated version that makes the main thing (and thus the only thing) about getting people into heaven.

I agree with you whole-heartedly. This truncated gospel, though it has done a lot of good in an era when people seemed to need a simple way of understanding God's good news, has caused problems in the long run in that it has disconnected the gospel from our vocation as Christians.

Heidi Renee said...

Amazing post & comments. I am excited to hear that there is a softening happening here for Mr. McDowell. It thrills my heart. I have gone from the place he was to where I am now, and that he might be on a similar path gives me great joy.

I wonder though Derek if it might be his eschatology that is affecting his ineffective gospel though more than his soteriology. I don't know if I can explain it well enough, but the shift from pre-millenial doctrine to kingdom come here and now has changed my apologetics and the way I look at evangelism far more than my view of Christ and salvation.

That is being re-formed too, but I found in my own life that the shift happened when I "left behind" that dispensational eschatology I was raised with.

Just my 2 cents - Thank you so much Bob for giving us the "fly on the wall" insight - I really appreciate it.

thunderbeard said...

mcdowell came to SBTS a few years back, when i was in school there, with the same presentation (that was maybe in 2003). the funny thing is that the TR-type folks there were upset about the things that you are praising with regard to what mcdowell had to say. very humorous, indeed.

sean cannon

Bob Robinson said...

I think that part of why McDowell was so well received at this luncheon was that he made it clear that he was no fan of Brian McLaren's. He purposely distanced himself from McLaren and the Emerging Church, thus when he talked about epistemology and presented the case relational apologetics, it was more readily accepted.

Anonymous said...

I would still put McDowell in the modernist camp, and probably still would. His books take a modernist tack in countless ways (approaches to evidence, framework of psychology, hermeneutics, etc.), even if he wishes to stress relationship, that doesn't in and of itself make him anything but a modernist - more is needed before I could agree to that.

"mere reasoned apologetics"

What about someone who sees rational dialogue as framed and rooted in a social context, and thus marrying the "relational" (to use present language) with the theoretical?

Anonymous said...

***correction*** "I would have still put McDowell in the modernist camp" like MacLaren and Bell do.

Anonymous said...

wow. I am kinda new to the emergent church and try to read all that is written on line. I was not raised a Christian but was born again at 13 when a deacon visited my home. I have always been evangelical and conservative in my theology. I even went to a independant Baptist college and SouthernBaptist seminary. Then dropped out of full time vocational ministry. Sorry rambling but I have NEVER believed nor have been taught that you can or will or should separate "the Gospel" in teaching and the way you live out your life. It is is not just teaching absolute truth, but teaching it and living in it. It is NOT either/or but both/and!!!! I don't understand why the "emergents" don't see that. You don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Just because some "older generations" have not full lived out the Truth does not mean it does not exist. It just simply means some did not live it out or at least live it out to your expectations. McLaren seems to be the "new Pope" of the "new emergent church" By proclaiming that there is not absolute universal truth, you are proclaiming that as the "new absolute truth". Can't you see that? WE are not to live out truth as we see it but as God reveals it to us. He is still sovereign. Can the pot say to the potter......?I have no problem with "younger gernerations" questioning the Gospel or Truth but they are not asking just to ask. They want to know answers too. Questions seek answers!!!!!!If one would just focus on Jesus Christ and "lifting HIM up" then Christ will draw all men to Himself. Out job is to point people to Him not just foster questions and conversations. Eternal life in Heaven must have been important to Jesus because He said " I go to prepare a place for you...I will come again and receive you unto myself so you can be there with ME"!!! It is both now and later.

Anonymous said...

incarnational apologetics, i like thathtt

Chris said...

Isn't it interesting that the people who have heard McDowell say that his message of Truth taught in the context of relationships is relevant to doday's society, while those who have only read his books written for a different generation seems to judge him as irrelevant.


Unknown said...

It seems to me that the Emergents are in the same boat as Pontius Pilate when he asked, "What is truth". The only reason I came to Christ was to find truth, ABSOLUTE TRUTH. If truth varries from person to person, it stops being absolute. The Bible is THE absolute truth that God has imparted to humanity. It does not need to be picked apart, only comming away with the portions that we like. Truth is what it is and we must conform to it, not it to us. I do not like labels ut if you want to label me, label me absolute. I absolutely believe in the absolutes found in the Word of God. There is no place for gray areas and it seems to me that many Emergent Leaders live in the gray area. Another issue I see is a subtle merging of Eastern and Western religions. The outcome is a, Hindu/Buddhist/Greek Orthodox/Catholic/Evangelical/Mystic. I guess that is why you are refered to as Emergents. When you allow this type of mixture, your original identity as a Cristian seems to just melt away.