It’s difficult to keep conversations on hot topics conversational and keep the back and forth from devolving into a debate. In this segment of Reports from The Front where we share stories of people who demonstrate winsome conviction in real life, Sean McDowell (Ph.D.) talks with Tim and Rick about his experience having conversations with those who have left evangelicalism. They discuss how to organize a conversation to keep it civil and engaging, the value of having moments of clarity, being wise in the particulars of the conversation, and how to safeguard conversations from going off the rails. This is part 1 of a 2-part conversation with Sean on keeping it conversational and civil when we disagree.
Sean McDowell: I didn't push the LGBTQ one because that is such a divisive issue. It warrants a conversation separate from what the goal was to clarify progressive Christianity. That conversation could hijack the entire positive conversation we were having within itself.
Rick Langer: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction podcast. My name's Rick Langer, and I'm a professor here at Biola University in the Biblical Studies and Theology department. And I'm also the director of the Office of Faith and Learning. And I work together with my colleague, Tim Muehlhoff, co-directing the Winsome Conviction project.
Tim Muehlhoff: Rick, it is great to be with you. It's great feedback with our listeners. What's really fun about this segment is you get to have your friends on every once in a while. And that didn't work out, so we have on one.
Rick Langer: He just can't help himself.
Tim Muehlhoff: Sean, don't say anything. You've not been introduced yet. Do not say anything. No, you can obviously tell this is going to be a great time. Dr. Sean McDowell is a friend of ours. He's a gifted faculty member here at Biola University. He has a passion for equipping the church, particularly young people. I just was at Capistrano Christian Valley High School, where I walked in the shadow, Rick, of Sean McDowell. People absolutely love his teaching. He's done a great job there. He is an associate professor in Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology. Sean travels throughout the United States and abroad speaking at camps, churches, schools, universities, conferences, but the cool thing, Rick, is Sean has also done a podcast, Think Biblically podcast, which is probably the second most popular podcast at Biola, wouldn't you say, Rick, probably after Winsome Conviction. And he has co-written or edited more than 20 books.
Tim Muehlhoff: He has a leading apologetics blog, Seanmcdowell.org, but he's also started a YouTube channel that has garnered national attention. That's what we want to talk to him about. We have a segment on this podcast called Reports From the Front Lines. We are looking for people who don't just think about being winsome, they actually do it. And we've taken a look at a couple recent episodes on Dr. McDowell's YouTube channel that have really been impressive, and we want to talk to him about it, what it took to make it work. So Sean McDowell, welcome to our podcast.
Sean McDowell: Hey, Tim and Rick, thanks for having me on. I love that you gave me a hard time introducing me. It clearly shows the audience how far back we go and your confidence in giving me a hard time that we're friends. So I'll just take that one on the chin.
Tim Muehlhoff: Sean, can you tell them just a little bit how far back and even give a little shout out to the communication center, kind of let them know how we met?
Sean McDowell: Yeah, I think that must have been about '96, '97, if I remember, when I was a college student.
Tim Muehlhoff: At Biola.
Sean McDowell: At Biola, yeah, as an undergrad. I was a comm major. And I think probably my dad told me about it. If I remember, it was like six weeks long out in Colorado. And I think you were at North Carolina then maybe doing your doctoral research or teaching there. And as far as I remember, just instantly, I could see the way that you spoke. We connected, we were friends, we had so much in common, except the lack of basketball skills maybe separated us. That's a separate issue. Everything else we had in common. And, to be honest with you, Tim, I was telling you this on the phone couple of days ago, I still remember some things from that communication seminar that shaped the way that I speak today. It was really formative and good. And you are a key part of that.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, Sean, thank you. It was part of Crew, a brain child of a man we both really respect, Tim Downs. And students got college credit for going through it. It talked about evangelist speaking, apologetics, worldview issues, and Sean, you were amazing. And the enthusiasm you brought and just to see where God has taken you, the platform he's given you, is really encouraging. We were struck with you, one, just jumping into some hard topics, but not doing it with another fellow Christian necessarily, somebody from Biola. That'd be a piece of cake for you to do.
Tim Muehlhoff: But reaching out to people that are making decisions that concern a lot of people. And so the two I'm thinking about, and you can explain both of them to us. One is Colby Martin. He's an individual who would now identify himself as a progressive Christian. So he would maybe have started in the camp that we would feel comfortable with, evangelicalism, but now has not given up the faith, but has moved past it. He wrote an interesting book called Shift. Tell us a little bit about him and how you guys got to know each other and your decision to dialogue.
Sean McDowell: Sure. I have never met Colby in person. I was aware of a book he wrote years ago called Unclobber, basically making a case for an affirming view on same sex relationships. And when I wrote my book on same-sex marriage and researched that, taught a class at Biola, was aware of his writings there. But it was on YouTube he had another conversation with an evangelical Christian where they were talking about the differences between progressive Christians and evangelical Christians on LGBTQ issues in particular. And I watched the way he exchanged and I just thought, you know what, here's a thoughtful guy. He's not defensive, he's not angry having left his faith. He seems like the kind of person who'd be willing to have a conversation with me about just the similarities and differences between progressive Christianity and evangelical Christianity, really what I would call a historic Christian faith and the other book that he wrote, I picked up a copy, it's called The Shift.
Sean McDowell: And he tells the story of leaving from being a conservative evangelical youth pastor, going to a conservative evangelical seminary, and his kind of painful journey transitioning out of that. So I just pulled up and found out he was a pastor in San Diego, not far from where I live, and I just went to his website for the church. And on the contact page, just reached out and said, hey, Colby, we've never met. Not sure if you're familiar with my work or even who I am, which is fine if you're not. Would you be willing to come on and have a conversation? You strike me as a thoughtful person. I read your book. And my goal is not to have a debate. I just sensed he was not a debate person, and that wouldn't help for a number of reasons.
Sean McDowell: I said, would you just be willing to have a conversation? I'll send you the questions ahead of time. That would bring clarity for people that are trying to figure out what progressive Christians believe, what evangelicals believe. And he responded back pretty quickly, very positive. He goes, what a joy to receive this. Thank you. I'd love to do it. And then we set it up.
Tim Muehlhoff: Did that surprise you? Did it surprise you how quickly he got ahold of you?
Sean McDowell: A little bit. Not a ton. Honestly, I saw him already doing this conversation. I wrote a gracious email to him. So I thought more likely than not, he would do it, but I don't think I expected him to be that enthusiastic. I thought he might reluctantly agree, but he was just enthusiastic to do it.
Rick Langer: I just wonder if you could unpack for us a little bit the benefits of the kind of conversation you had with Colby, as opposed to what might happen in a debate.
Sean McDowell: Yeah. I had two goals for this and I told Colby ahead of time exactly what my goals were. I found in these kinds of conversations, if you don't put your cards on the table and be honest, someone's going to feel used by this. And that's obviously never good. So I just said, here's my goal. Number one, that people could just see two people like us who differ pretty strongly on probably political issues, on issues related to LGBTQ, religious questions about Jesus. Have a civil gracious conversation. Goal number one. Goal number two is all I want to bring is clarity. I remember Dennis Prager saying sometimes on his radio show, he'll say, I just want to understand what people believe and why they believe it. If I can just bring clarity to people, that has huge value within itself. And I thought, you know what? So many people are like, what is progressive Christianity?
Sean McDowell: What do they believe about Jesus? And there's all these debates going back and forth. And I thought if someone would just sit down and say, okay, what do you mean by progressive? What separates a progressive Christian from somebody else? What do you believe about Jesus? What do you think about social issues? And just press him enough to bring clarity. There would be value in that. Most people watching it saw that. A few people got upset and they're like, why are you giving him a platform? Why are you promoting his book? But pretty quickly in the comments people jumped in and they're like, hello, think about what's going on here. And the other point that I didn't state to him is, typically it's the more conservative side. We're told that we're closed-minded, we're bigoted, and we're hateful. So I wanted to be the one to reach out and kind of break that mold and say, actually, I'm open for conversation and I'm interested in building relationships with people that are different. In fact, I've probably invited a lot more progressives and people of different beliefs than they have invited me.
Tim Muehlhoff: You know, Sean, I was thinking, that inquisitiveness and allowing a person to define things, I came across an interesting article about Larry King, the legendary interviewer. And we joked a little bit about Think Biblically, but you know we're huge fans of you and Scott Wright. So you guys do a great job. But Sean, you know what surprised me about Larry King. He never read a book ahead of time. It's amazing. So if you came on his show, he would not read your book. And the reason would be, I want to ask questions. Okay, like, what is this about? What is your book about? You know what I mean? And not already have pre ideas of what it's like. I thought that's a really interesting, and of course he was good enough to pull it off, right? But that's interesting to honestly be inquisitive. What do you mean by this? What's post-Christian? What's progressive Christian? I think that's kind of cool. That's kind of nice.
Sean McDowell: I think that does take a certain skillset.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.
Sean McDowell: And I think it also probably takes somebody who's done that a long time and developed the ability to ask certain questions. So I would encourage people listening not to do that for starters. But I think there's a balance. I like to come in super prepared, but always be flexible and not be wooden to it. And I found over and over again, people are like, thank you for actually reading my book. Thank you. And sometimes people say, did I actually say that? I'm like, yeah, I'm quoting you. Not to catch you, but to make sure we get it right. So I think there's a balance there.
Tim Muehlhoff: No, I think you're absolutely right. We want people to read our books. But listen, you had a great moment of clarity that I paused a couple of times when you hit this clarity. And again, we just so encourage our listeners to go watch it, to watch because the tone, the interaction, is what we were really impressed with. But do you remember this section where you said to him, okay, could you kind of identify the key parts of progressive Christianity, and he listed them. Then you did a super job of saying, okay, well this one, I think you could still be an evangelical. One of them was not being afraid of science. I don't know if you remember this, Sean. And you were like, yeah. I think you could be an evangelical and be open to science. You around to one very interesting aspect, and that was if I remember correctly, LGBTQ issues.
Sean McDowell: Yeah. So I'm glad you picked up on this. And he had listed these four in his book. And the four were kind of being against white supremacy and supporting Black Lives Matters, being pro science, being egalitarian on relationships, and then LGBTQ. And I said, even within the evangelical church, you're going to find people who differ over how to define what white supremacy is, how we are supposed to critique it. But everyone in the evangelical church is going to be pro justice and against racism. So I don't think that's our dividing issue. Pro science. I mean, there's even some evangelicals that are open to a kind of evolution, but still embrace inerrancy, a historical Adam, et cetera.
Sean McDowell: I'm not there, but I'm not willing to say they're outside of evangelicalism because of that. What was the third one? Oh, and egalitarian. Ron Pierce on our staff at Biola is egalitarian. I said, but the issue that I think is the dividing line seems to be LGBTQ, because if you embrace an affirming theology, you cannot be an evangelical Christian. I said, is that fair? And he goes, yes. I think that is the dividing issue between progressive Christianity and those who would reject it.
Tim Muehlhoff: Those are those nice moments of clarity. And again, why they have to watch you do it, is this was not a contentious moment of like, aha. So now we got it. Now we really know. It was not like that at all.
Rick Langer: Yeah. I was going to say, Sean, I admired actually the way you talked it through. Not in the sense of, oh, you're all wrong about there's theistic evolutionists, or like the Willow Creek churches were famously egalitarian or things like that. It wasn't let me whip you into shape on this point. It was just saying, well, it seems like this, this and this. So it really seems the one that's left is really LGBTQ, and it seemed easy for him at that point to say, yeah, I think that's actually true. Which by the way, was an interesting thing to have left at the end of the day as the entire hallmark of progressive Christianity. Did that strike you?
Rick Langer: So you didn't chase that rabbit hole when you were in the interview, which I think was fine for practical reasons. But I'm intrigued. What was your reaction as you had that sort of aha? I assume you'd thought about this before, when you read the book, but how do you view that issue? And was it a hot button issue that was hard for you not to dive into? Or how did you process that part of it?
Sean McDowell: Well, if I'm in a conversation with somebody and it's not just a Christian, like another Biola professor, I pretty much have done my research ahead of time where I know or think I know what they're going to say, and I'm not going to be surprised by their answer. I don't want to be surprised. My dad taught me that in debates. He's like, I knew my opponent's side better than they knew their side. Now, this wasn't a debate, but I had listened to his stuff, read his books, so I was super confident he was just going to agree with me on that point. So it wasn't really for me, it was more for listeners. And I was curious if he had conceded or pushed back on any of those, but he just kind of was like, yeah, that's probably it and moved on. So I didn't push the LGBTQ one because that is such a divisive issue. I think it warrants a conversation by itself, separate from what the goal was, to clarify progressive Christianity. That conversation could hijack the entire positive conversation we were having within itself.
Rick Langer: And that's probably a great, if you were to think about our listeners wanting to do better at having kind of successful, positive, and winsome conversations about things like convictions, you've probably given a good hint there, is to realize what are the areas that tend to shut that in or just become kind of like the black hole that sucks the entire conversational energy into that one reservoir if that isn't what you're there to talk about, which is really a dangerous thing. I think we leave a lot of things that would need some talking left undiscussed, simply because we have these sort of conversational vortexes that suck us in and we can't get back out.
Tim Muehlhoff: But Sean, can I push back on that a little bit? And much of this is what we're experiencing with the Winsome Conviction project. What would you say to the critic who would say, yeah, but you had a golden opportunity to address the LGBTQ issue with a huge listenership and you didn't do it? That was a missed opportunity. How would you respond to that?
Sean McDowell: I'd say, normally the criticism I get is that I cover it too much on my channel, not too little. So, you're not going to please everybody. And I just talk about this issue because there's not a lot of people talking about it, I think, with biblical fidelity and with grace. So that's the first thing I would say. I would say, second, I still think that conversation with him, to go the way it should, needs some trust to be built up. So if I decide to have that conversation, I think he would agree with me now to do it just because he feels like, wow, Sean treated me respectfully, he asked good questions, he was gracious in his interaction. Then I think that conversation would be so much better than it would have in the middle of our other conversation, taking the bait, and potentially hijacking it. And third, I'd say, maybe you're right. Maybe I blew it. That happens.
Rick Langer: Fair enough. Good insight.
Tim Muehlhoff: Sean, let me ask this question. And I love what you just said. The book of Proverbs says a word spoken in the right circumstances is compared to fine jewelry. And sometimes it's just not the right timing or the right circumstance to try to do that. But is there a process you go through when you're going to do a potentially volatile YouTube segment where this could go off the rails if you get wires crossed or your hot button pushed? Is there a spiritual process or a mental process that you go through before the lights come on and you're on just to make sure, hey Sean, remember what the big picture is? Is there any kind of process you go through?
Sean McDowell: You know what? I actually select people that I have these conversations with very carefully. So I get invited regularly to have conversation with people that I've seen them be divisive and angry. So I don't want to get on a platform with somebody like that. It's almost like you hear J Warner Wallace, cold case detective. He's like, you win a case in jury selection before it even goes to trial. And it's not like I'm trying to win this conversation, but I think the conversation will be a win if you choose the kind of person that wants to have that kind of conversation ahead of time. So after this one with Colby, I've had a few people reach out to me, and I just thought, you know what? I did this once on progressive Christianity. I don't want to give more of a platform to this.
Sean McDowell: And I don't know enough about these other people to feel confident and I don't have time to research and watch all their videos, so I just say no. And maybe I miss some positive opportunities, but I think it weeds out a lot of that negative divisive direction that it goes. Now sometimes on like Justin Brierley's show, Unbelievable, I've been on there with people that are a little bit more spicy and it's not a conversation, it becomes a debate. But Justin is a masterful moderator and so I don't have to worry about that. He's going to handle it well. But even in that situation, I will choose who I want to exchange with and not with others.
Tim Muehlhoff: Hey, let me put in a shameful plug. So our book Winsome Conviction, we use Justin as an example of how to talk positively about other people in a way that breeds goodwill. He's masterful in how he talks about people that are outside the Christian community. And so we're a big fan of his, so it's so cool that you also are a fan as well.
Rick Langer: So let me pick up on one thought while you were talking about the careful way in which you choose your conversation partner. I could imagine some of our listeners sitting here and saying, well, Sean, it's really sweet that you get to choose, but the guy I'm worried about is my dad who's coming over for Thanksgiving dinner. And how in the world can I talk with him without the whole thing going off the rails because he is fill in the blank, whatever his crimes are of, conspiracy theory person or he's gone liberal or whatever the issue is. But it's a family member. It's a person you just can't not talk to. Any thoughts for those kinds of moments?
Sean McDowell: Yeah. If he's coming over for the Thanksgiving meal, don't talk about politics and religion at the Thanksgiving meal. It's not going to go well. I have made that mistake. So family members, look, when it comes to communication of the principals I'm talking about, public dialogue, YouTube debates onstage, I operate on principles that overlap with but are different with say family members. So my wife, on her side, there's a number of people that are not believers that are there and some that have very strong opinions, religiously and politically, that are different than mine. Well, I just do a couple of things. Number one, I try to have a longer term view of this and not feel like, you know, with Colby, I might only have one conversation. I want to hit a home run with this. With family, it's over and over and years and sometimes can be decades.
Sean McDowell: So longer-term view can shape how we look at it. Second, I want to really focus on the relationship a ton. They know in my family what I believe, they know what I do, and I want them to see that I'm a good dad and that I love my wife and that when I see them, it's not always like, hey, let's talk about abortion. Hey, let's talk about immigration. Hey, you know, whatever, that I just care about them as people. And then I just look for strategic times, few and far between, to have conversations. And it involves probably a lot more listening than it does debate. The other thing is I also know there are certain family members that are open to these conversations and some that aren't.
Sean McDowell: And so I'm just wise. Like one of my brothers in law, he doesn't believe what I believe, but he loves talking about God and science and abortion. And we can go back and forth and he respects me. And there's other family members that I just know aren't comfortable going there. So that's how I try to navigate those. And I've had a few family members coming to me after years when they're at a certain point in their life where something's going wrong and they're asking spiritual questions. And they've reached out to me, I think, because of the way I've treated them and built a relationship with them and they know what I do and that's given me an open door.
Tim Muehlhoff: Sean, that's such good wisdom. I have such an advantage over you because every Thanksgiving, all we do is overeat and watch the Detroit Lions lose. So we have such a diverse. Now, every once in a while, somebody will say, where's God. And I'll say, I have no idea. He is not in Detroit. I'm pretty sure of that. Sean, thank you so much for taking time out. We know you're busy and we really appreciate you jumping in. So we're fans, we'll just be honest. We're fans and we think you're a great example of what we call reports from the front. These are people who are doing it in a way, both content wise, but also the relational level. So thank you for all you do. And please check out Sean at seanmcdowell.org. You can find all of his books on Amazon. He also has a podcast. I honestly can't remember the name of it right now, but it's pretty good. It's called Think Biblically with Dr. Scott Wright. Please check it out. So thank you for joining us. Take care.