Josh McDowell has long been one of the leading spokespersons and apologists for Christianity, having spoken to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world. He’s just as excited about the gospel today as he was when he began his ministry in his 20s. He’s a great example of sustained faithfulness and consistent impact for God’s Kingdom. Scott Rae and Sean McDowell interview Josh about his long-lasting impact.
More About Our Guest
Josh McDowell is the author of over 150 books, including Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World. Learn more about his ministry at josh.org.
Sean McDowell: You're listening to the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” I'm your host, Sean McDowell, and also an author and professor here at Biola University.
Scott Rae: And I'm your co-host, Scott Rae, a professor of Christian Ethics at Talbot School of Theology. We want to welcome you to today's podcast.
Sean McDowell: We have a special guest today, someone who our audience will recognize immediately. He's written over 150 books, spoken at over 1,200 universities, and is a friend of Biola and Talbot, but is also my father. Josh McDowell, thanks for joining us today.
Josh McDowell: Hey, what can I do, you told me either this or you would disown me.
Sean McDowell: Hahahaha.
Scott Rae: Haha.
We have to use the family leverage however we can.
Sean McDowell: Exactly, if you didn't agree, I would've used mom to get to you. But since you agreed, let's jump in.
Heres the question we want to start with: You have been in ministry for 55 years, with Cru, speaking, writing, teaching. And I'd like to know, how is it that you stay faithful, theologically, emotionally, over this period of time, and be just as excited about ministry as you are today, as really, when you began?
Josh McDowell: Oh, boy. I get asked that question all the time. I would say, one, it's the way I came to Christ with convictions. I not only know what I believe, but I know why I believe it. Whether about the Bible, about Jesus, the resurrection, whatever, and I would say 95 percent of Christians have a belief system, not convictions. But when you have convictions, it will take you through times where a lot of people would just bail out. It will take you through victoriously.
This is why it's so important we raise our children to know, not just what they should believe, but why in the world do we even believe it? I would say that's key.
I would say the other is being married to your mother. I never knew a woman could love a man as much as your mom loves me. I've never seen it in a Hollywood movie, or anything. She believes in me more than I believe in myself. She's my greatest encourager. If I'm down, she lifts me up. If I'm up, she makes sure I don't get a big head on it.
Having your mom so believe in what I do keeps me consistent over the years.
The other is, the world's situation still out there, needs to hear about Christ. God has not rescinded his call in my life, so until he does — there hasn't even been a whisper so far — I'm just going to be obedient.
Plus, Sean, it's so much fun to see lives change-
Sean McDowell: Hahaha.
Josh McDowell: Come on! That's better than a good TV show.
Sean McDowell: Well, I've definitely seen you model that, in your life and ministry.
Scott Rae: Josh, when you began your public speaking ministry, I remember hearing you when I was a freshman in college back in the early '70s —
Josh McDowell: You must be old. You must be old.
Scott Rae: I'm trying actually to keep up with folks like you.
You spent a lot of time of college campuses, a lot of your public speaking was apologetics based. How, over the years, has your ministry changed, and what are the things that you are most passionate about today?
Josh McDowell: Well, your ministry must always change according to culture. Truth never changes, but how you present truth needs to change. Whether you're a professor, a teacher, an evangelist, a speaker, an author or a parent, truth remains the same. The way you present it must change. Some of the changes I've seen for this, it's gone from — and this has a lot to do with intolerance — it's gone to where you would be challenged, "How do you know that's true?" to in the last 15 years it's changed to, "What right do you have to say that?" It has shifted from the content, substance, to the form. Questioning your right to say it, not questioning whether it's true or not.
Second, it has shifted from objective to subjective truth. You now have to deal with the feelings, the emotions, the relationship. For example, I called Sean a number of months back, and I said, "Son, I believe this is true. In all my years in ministry, the same-sex gender debate and all, is the first time I know of, where literally feelings trump science, feelings trump relationships." I think that's what has taken the dents more. Well, "Is it good? How do you feel?" Not whether, "Is it true?" And so, you have to change the way you present truth, in that context.
Scott Rae: So, can you be a little more specific? How has your approach changed in order to confront some of this subjectivity of thought?
Josh McDowell: Yes. The biggest change is ... it's gone from, "Truth is truth," to presenting truth in the context of relationships. People today need to see how truth relates to relationships. Their relationship with one another, with their wife, with their father, with God, with the Holy Spirit, with the Son, everything.
So, I say to anyone, present truth today, it needs to be done in the context of relationships, and second, you need to listen more. I think one of the biggest things that's changed today, before somebody wants to hear your story, they want you to hear their story, and almost every time when I ask a person, "What is your journey, what's your spiritual story?" I cannot think of one person that didn't say then, "Well, where are you coming from, Josh? What's your story?" Or I would say, "Is it okay if I share my journey?" I don't know one person who has ever said "No." That is one of the big changes.
The other is ... is showing why truth is relevant. Knowing that Jesus Christ was [inaudible 00:06:27] the son of God, well, how should that affect the way you live? Knowing the Bible is the word of God, it is historically reliable and accurate. How should that affect the way you think and the way you relate to people. The biggest thing, Scott, is applying truth to relationships, and that's key today.
Now, I think with the next generation coming up, Generation Z, it's going to be an even greater emphasis on how you feel, and that's going to be a tough one to address.
Sean McDowell: Dad, I think you're right about that. In my experience with students, there's so much emphasis on feelings trumping truth. How do we make ... take a step back. Do we need to make a case for truth itself? If feelings trump truth, then how do we convince young people to even care about truth? And if they don't care about truth, then obviously they can't believe that Jesus is the truth. So, what would it look like to help a young person to see that truth itself exists, and is important?
Josh McDowell: Well, what is interesting, I'll ask every person, "Define truth." Sean, almost no one, even professors in the universities, can define truth.
And I'll say, "Let me give you a very practical definition," and I'll give my definition of truth, and I'll tell them, "Everything in your life is centered, not around your feelings, it's centered around truth." I was finished speaking at the National Apologetics Conference, walked down, 'cause I had to get to the airport, went out to the right, and this student ran right up to me, and he asked me a question I think Frank's been asked many times, and said, "Well, why is truth even important?" And I learned this from you, Sean, I just looked at him, and very honestly, I just said, "Well, let me ask you, do you want the truthful answer, or do you want the false answer?"
He looked at me rather strange, and I really believe guys, he didn't get it. I said, "Almost every question you ever ask, you want the truthful answer. Reality, not a false answer. Every time you turn on your GPS, you want a truthful route to your destination. When you go to a doctor, you want the truthful analysis of your medical situation, not just how he feels about it." And so I would dwell on truth, ask them to define it when they can, and then I go from there.
Scott Rae: Now that's really insightful, to show how much of life is ... just assumes that we're interested in the truth. I would certainly want the engineers who build the bridges I drive my cars over to be interested in truth.
Josh McDowell: I was in New York City, and I learned this from Ravi Zacharias, I was in New York City, in this beautiful, huge new building, and I said to the guy, "Thank God the architect wasn't a millennial."
Scott Rae: Hahaha.
Sean McDowell: Haha.
Josh McDowell: Meaning postmodern.
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Scott Rae: Yeah.
When I was a college student, most people were asking questions about the gospel that had to do with whether or not it was true. Apologetics really had value directly to seeing people come to faith.
My observation is that more and more students today, and folks in the generation under 30, are not so much asking the question, "Is it true?" but they're asking, "Is it good? Is the gospel really something good?"
What's your observations about the main questions that students are asking about the gospel today?
Josh McDowell: The main question is probably the problem of evil, which is transgenerational. It goes over every generation, the problem of evil. I had it asked three of four times last week.
The other is "How do you know it's true?" Another is, "Is it good?" And this is why, Scott, most effective evangelism, apologetics today, needs to be in context of relationships.
Let me show you what I mean. One, I almost always share my testimony first, whether I'm dong an apologetic conference of two, three, four, five talks, I will first give my story, to show how apologetics, the searching of truth, what is truth, how it applied to me, and it was good in my life, with what it did.
So then, whenever I talk, I can relate it back to my story. People identify with that.
The other is to present truth in a way that applies to your life. I believe there is five steps today, whether you're a speaker, a pastor, or what, and Sean and I wrote a book on this, called "Unshakeable Truth." In presenting truth today, first of all, what does a person need to know about that subject to become a true follower of Christ? Say it's God. What do you need to know about God to become a true subject of God?
Second, how do you know it's true? Apologetics.
Third, is the most critical question. So what? So what?! So, God is God, so it's true, so how does it apply to me?
And then, fourth, how does it apply in community? In your experience of living it out. Especially those four things, what do you need to know about that truth, how in the world do you even know it's true, third, and the question that gets people today is, "Well, so what?" And boy, you better make it relevant to their life. And then fourth, how do you live it out in experience starting with community?
Sean McDowell: You've been working with high school students for a long time. I've been working with students for about two decades, and I've seen some changes, just in terms of how they think and process the world. What are some of the bigger changes you've seen since you started, really about five, five and a half decades ago? In particular, as that plays itself out in Generation Z.
Josh McDowell: Well, there's so many there, but I emphasize one a lot of people don't emphasize. It's the information overload with the internet. The average student today takes in 34 gigabytes of data every 24 hours. If printed out, that'd be equivalent to 4.5 million pages. They're in overload, complete overload. What this has done, is added a tremendous skepticism, especially with junior high and the beginning of high school, and the question ... even from Christians: "Well, how do you know that's true?" There's so much out there, tomorrow they could discover something else. They're in a tremendous overload. And that's true, with it.
And then the other ... and Sean, I think in the next five years this is going to come out as one of the most devastating things, in evangelism, apologetics, truth and everything, that people are not adjusting today, and it's pervasive internet pornography. Our young people are saturated in it. And one of the first things it does, it starts to cause you to question authority. And when you start questioning authority, you had better have an apologetic to restore that authority, and pretty soon, in culture around ... it's almost there right now, give it another 18 to 24 months, to ever bring up a pornography in culture around us, it will be as controversial as bringing up a same-sex gender talk or same marriage talk, whatever, transgender talk. It will be controversial. It will be controversy because they'll say, "What right do you have to say it's wrong?" And I think we're gong to bring that onto ourselves, because we're not addressing it today.
Sean McDowell: Why do you think people aren't addressing it? Is it a lack of knowledge? Is it personal struggle with it? Why wouldn't people talk about an issue if it's as big as you're saying that it is?
Josh McDowell: Well, I'll start with pastors, 'cause they'll see any significant cultural change down through culture, spiritually, needs to come down to and through pastors, and there's three reasons. And I have this backed up with a lot of research.
One, shame, because over half of them are involved in pornography.
Second, the fear of exposure.
Third, ignorance. The lack of knowledge of how great it is. And the way it's impacting their own leaders in the church.
So those three things — shame, fear of exposure, and ignorance. I'm doing, in a couple weeks, I'm doing about a four-part series, and they said, "We really want you to really hit on Apologetics and all," I did it two years ago, the same thing, "but do not touch on pornography, because it upsets people." I almost canceled. I think any discipleship program today that does not deal with pornography is irrelevant. It's not worth your time. And that's 90 percent of all programs on discipleship.
Scott Rae: That's a strong statement, but I think that's true. That I think it has reached epidemic proportions, the amount of harm and damage that it causes is just off the charts, as you know.
Let me go back to your statement, how important pastors and church leaders are, especially the next generation. What advice ... if you could boil down two or three bits of advice that you would have, non-negotiable things, that the next generation of pastors, church leaders have to have. What would you tell them?
Josh McDowell: Number one, you've got to be authentic. If they don't see it, they won't believe it, and why should they believe it if they don't see it? If they don't see Christ in your life, and the way you relate to people, then you're not going to get anywhere as an apologist, a pastor, an evangelist, anyone. You've got to be authentic.
Third, have your marriage and family together. I believe my relationship with Dottie and my four children and 10 grandkids, has opened up more doors, given me more opportunities, than all my education, everything, to share Christ with young people. You've got to live a life that becomes, not just attractive, but it draws young people to the reason why.
Here's the problem with parents, if parents do not have the type of life their children want, they're in trouble. Why? Because their parents go to church, "why should I go to church, 'cause if I go to church, then I'll have what my parents have, and I don't want what my parents have, so I don't want to go to church. Well, my parents always tell me to read the Bible because they read the Bible. Well, I don't want what they have, so why should I read the Bible, 'cause if I read the Bible I'll have what my parents have and I don't want what they have."
That authentic life and living it out is so critical today. And then I would say, be trained. This is one reason why Sean and I revised and totally changed Evidence That Demands a Verdict, coming out in October, is that you've got to know just not what you believe, but why in the world you believe it. If you cannot explain that, you're not going to have much of an impact today.
Sean McDowell: Talk about that a little bit. Evidence, when you first wrote it, and the new version coming out, maybe what makes it different, and why you think it's still so important for families and churches today.
Josh McDowell: One of the first reasons I wrote Evidence was when I would speak, so many students, professors, businessmen and women, laypeople, would say, "Wow, I never heard that before. Can I get your notes, can I get your documentation, can I get your evidence and all?"
I always had the philosophy, whatever God has given me, you give away. So I went and printed out. It was about 28 pages, 14 pieces of paper, half of 8.5 by 11, and I just documented a lot of evidence on the Bible.
I had a dollar a piece, I sold about 15,000 in just several weeks. People were just so appreciative. I thought, "Well, that's nothing."
The Lord seemed to lay in my heart, "Look, take some time," and it took a lot of time, "and document everything that you know, lay it out there," 'cause I always say, you research 80 percent more than you could ever use. I do that because it helps me to arrive at the truth, and it gives me greater confidence and convictions when I speak, and it gives me background to support things that I say.
So, I started doing it. It took 13 years. I compiled everything, documented it, and when I got through, nobody would publish it, because I broke every principle of printing, of publishing.
One, they said your quotes are all too long. I said, "Look, I don't want to do what everybody else does. People do short quotes and they're used out of context. I'm going to do long quotes where people can see the context of what that person was documenting and saying." It's easier to share truth.
Second, I totally changed the format of how you outline a book. I broke it down into outlined form. They said, "It will never go that way!" Well, days before it was even printed, I had to self-publish it, it became a runaway bestseller for 54 months. Then everybody wanted it.
So, I did evidence to help believers solidify their own faith. Plus, it was difficult to get this material out there.
It's a little easier now, with the internet, but the problem is, you can't trust so much of what you read on the internet, even from Christians, unless it's documented. Most people don't document it.
So this is why I was so thankful to team up with you, Sean, and about 14 scholars, and completely update with all the new evidence out, everything that believers could have in their hands ... and also, the questions I was asked 30 years ago are different now. They're a lot different.
We have a whole chapter just on truth. Is there anything such as truth? A chapter on "Can you even know truth?" A chapter on skepticism. A chapter on postmodernism. These weren't even issues 30, 40 years ago. Today they are.
What I wanted to do with this revised Evidence That Demands a Verdict is continue to equip followers of Christ to be more effective in and through their lives.
Scott Rae: That sounds like evidence and apologetics and what you've devoted your life to is just as relevant today as it was when you first started out. I look forward to seeing the new book come out this fall. We're actually glad to have the opportunity to help publicize that for you, because it promises to be a wonderful tool, not only for nonbelievers, but for the church, too.
Josh McDowell: Well, Scott, if you sweet talk Sean, he'll probably give you a copy.
Sean McDowell: Hahahaha.
Scott Rae: He reports to me now, so I think I've got that leverage over him.
Josh McDowell: I'm going to have to pray so much more for Sean now.
Scott Rae: Hahahaha.
Sean McDowell: Haha.
Scott Rae: I think you should pray for me.
Josh McDowell: But you know, if you can't sweet talk my son, you can go to readevidence.com and get it.
Scott Rae: You know, you may be an apologist and a speaker, but Sean said you were a businessman at heart, too.
Sean McDowell: Hahaha.
Josh McDowell: I am.
Scott Rae: Haha.
Josh McDowell: If there's not money involved, you won't last very long. I'll tell you, there's no such thing as a nonprofit. You better run your ministry like a business or kiss it goodbye. And that's one of the greatest ways to trust God, is through using sound business principles in ministry.
Scott Rae: I think we call that being a good steward. Josh, it's been wonderful to have you join us here for these few minutes. I look back over your 50-plus years of public ministry, it's what I would call sustained faithfulness and relevance, and would that your tribe might increase. As you've been at this for a while, you don't look like you're slowing down much to me, your level of energy and passion certainly has not slowed down. That's a wonderful inspiration, I think, to the legion of folks out there who look up to you and are so encouraged by the work that God's doing in your life and through your ministry, so we're very grateful to have you with us.
Josh McDowell: Well, many people say the same thing about you.
Scott Rae: Oh, you're nice, thank you.
Sean McDowell: Thanks for joining us today, Dad.
Josh McDowell: All right, next time your ratings start to slip, just call me.
Sean McDowell: Hahaha.
Scott Rae: Haha.
Josh McDowell: Okay, love you guys, bye bye.
Scott Rae: All right.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us, and our guest, Josh McDowell, and to find more episodes, go to www.biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app, and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening, and remember, Think Biblically. About Everything.™