In part 1 of this segment on Reports from The Front, Sean McDowell (Ph.D.) shared insight from his conversation with pastor/author Colby Martin on the differences between evangelical Christianity and progressive Christianity and how to keep the conversation civil and engaging. In this episode, Tim and Rick speak with Sean about a conversation he had with Jon Steingard, former frontman for the Christian band Hawk Nelson, who deconverted from Christianity. Sean shares the backstory on his conversation with Jon, and then they discuss how to jump into the hard conversations, the value of framing, pushing back and knowing when to let things go. This is part 2 of a 2-part conversation with Sean on keeping it conversational when we disagree.
Sean McDowell: And he said to me, he goes, you know, I didn't know who you were until after I saw evidence that demands a verdict and realized, you could have buried me. But I felt like from the beginning, you were on my side and pulling for me, not trying to win an argument. And that has opened up, not that he believes necessarily what I would want him to believe, but there's a trust and a relationship there that I treasure that has given me a voice into his life that I don't think would have happened had I approached it differently.
Rick Langer: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction podcast. My name's Rick Langer, and I'm a professor 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 awhile. And 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, in particularly young people. 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.
Rick Langer: Sean, by the way, I just wanted to say I had the privilege of watching a little bit of the YouTube conversations that you've had. And I have a really negative attitude a lot of times to social media and things like this, and YouTube I so often see is a bastion of polarization and animosity.
Sean McDowell: It is.
Rick Langer: So it was such a treat to just be reminded that, hey, you can use it differently. It doesn't have to be that way.
Sean McDowell: You know what's interesting about that, Rick, is I had some key people who have bigger channels than I do who kind of told me, they said, you know you have this, they didn't use the word winsome, but the same thing you're doing on this podcast. You want to be gracious with people. That doesn't really work on YouTube. You've got to be edgy, grab their attention, be provocative. And I actually am getting a lot of followers and attention because people are looking for something different than that. So I'm glad I didn't take that advice actually.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: 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. But reaching out to people that are making decisions that concern a lot of people. And I'm glad we gave a plug for Unbelievable, because you did one with John Steingard on Unbelievable that has over 300,000 views, which is just amazing to see all those eyes on it. Now I'm sure all of this is going to pale in comparison on June 23rd, when you have the Tim Muehlhoff. So this is all just in the shadow of the Almighty. But, okay. So with John, John is a person who is not identifying as progressive. They're a person who has left the faith. So can you give us the backstory a little bit on John, how you became aware of him, the invitation and then that conversation, how you felt like it went?
Sean McDowell: Yeah. John is the former lead singer of Hawk Nelson. So in the earlier 2000s very popular Christian rock band. I never met him, but heard of Hawk Nelson, heard of some of their songs. And I sat down to work that day. I was going to, it was in the morning, grade papers, write, do whatever. And just checking the stories and a story pops up about an another deconversion of a Christian rock star leader. And I read it and had that moment like, I could set aside what I had planned for the day and address this because it feels timely and the story had just broke so nobody had weighed in on it. I thought, you know what? I've got something to say about this. So I took two or three hours and started reading about him. And he started by writing, I think, about a 2,500 word Instagram post, where he basically says, I don't believe this Christian story anymore.
Sean McDowell: I've grown up in the church. And he's like, if I remember correctly, hell, problem with evil, absence of God, this is so difficult for me that I just want to let the world know. So it was this heartfelt kind of cry. And I looked at some of the comments and I recognized a few of them were friends of mine. And one in particular, friend that I love, was just very dismissive in his comment, like, here you go again. Your experience doesn't trump truth. And I called my buddy and I said, hey, I know your frustration, but he's hurting. That comment is not going to help. And he owned it and he took it down. So I wrote a response and basically compared and contrasted his story of growing up in the church and how people were not okay with doubt, experientially based, never taught him to think.
Sean McDowell: And I said, you know, I kind of grew up with a pretty well known apologist. He was okay with my doubt. There was experience, but it was rooted in truth, and just gave some lessons for the church. But the way I wrote it, Tim, in the back of my mind, even though I'd never met John, I wrote it thinking maybe he would read this someday and I could have a conversation with him. I didn't know it was going to happen. But everything I post publicly, I always think somebody on the other side, there's a good chance they're going to read this. Am I communicating in a way that's honorable or gracious towards them? So Justin Brierley, I think I'd been on his show five or six times, saw that article and goes, hey, this story broke. Would you come on and talk with John?
Sean McDowell: And I was like, sure. So I read more about John. And it was very clear that he wasn't angry. He's not this intellectual who wants to parse the Greek of a certain word in Mark 16. And what he needed was somebody to listen, show kindness, and just graciously push back. And I'll tell you one thing he said to me, he lives about, we go running every few weeks together down at a pier and just kind of talk about this stuff. And he said to me, he goes, you know, I didn't know who you were until after I saw evidence that demands a verdict and realized you could have buried me.
Sean McDowell: But I felt like from the beginning you were on my side and pulling for me, not trying to win an argument. And that has opened up, not that he believes necessarily what I would want him to believe, but there's a trust and a relationship there that I treasure that has given me a voice into his life that I don't think would've happened had I approached it differently. So then to follow up, then I invited him for a second conversation onto my YouTube channel. And then we just kind of started the conversation offline after that.
Rick Langer: You know, that's a wonderful model of viewing. I guess one of our dangers I think is viewing a person as their arguments. You read what they said and that exhausts your imagination for the person. And I love the insight you had in saying, wait a minute, wait a minute. What's sitting behind this? And so often the exact thing we fail to do is to stop and hear a person's backstory, their fuller story. You know, what's going on that makes them see things so differently than I do?
Rick Langer: And there's usually a very good reason, if not a fully rational, even if it isn't even the best rational argument, that isn't the issue. It's like, oh, here's what happened in their life.
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Rick Langer: And if that happened to me, I don't know what I'd be thinking, right? So, to take that deep breath and say, man, let me just assume this person is a person. Let me treat them, not in an abstraction of a set of propositions, but as a person who's having a real life story lived out. So I appreciate that modeling.
Tim Muehlhoff: A real quick comment, Sean, and then I have a question that we get hit with all the time. I know you're going to know this person right off the bat, but you know the conversion story, well, the conversion to theism of Antony Flew?
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Right? And who's the guy from Liberty, he's the resurrection.
Sean McDowell: Gary Habermas.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, Gary Habermas. So, you know the story a little bit that Antony Flew would come to the states to do debates. And there was one Christmas he came and had no one to stay with. And he was just staying alone in his hotel. And Habermas learned of this and invited him over for dinner. And they really got to know each other. And it was during those conversations that Antony Flew said something like, you know, I do believe in God, in Aristotle's view, like the prime mover. And here's what's so cool about that story, Sean. They, and it wasn't just Habermas. They kept it quiet.
Tim Muehlhoff: I mean, could you imagine what a notch in your apologetic belt it would have been to say, you will not believe what Antony Flew said at my dinner table. It'd be like CS Lewis voicing doubt to somebody and that person going public in a heartbeat. So here's a huge compliment to you, Sean. I never get the feeling watching these two discussions that you're trying to get an apologetic notch on your belt. I felt these things were personable. There were moments you could have attacked. I saw these openings and you just didn't do it. And I just think that is a remarkable, winsome example that we just need more of today. So kudos to you, Sean. I really mean that.
Sean McDowell: Well, that means a ton coming from you, Tim. Thanks. I guess for me, you know, as I think about it, I just try to ask myself the question. What am I trying to accomplish in this conversation? What's the point? And I've had debates where the point is, you've got to make an argument and you got to win. I've done a handful of those. And there's some people that should do those. There's a place for it. But that's not always the bigger goal of the conversation I'm having. And I think letting certain things go shows a confidence in the truth and just that I think can be appealing to people and respectful to a host. I appreciate you recognizing that. And you know, it's something I want to hopefully even get better at.
Tim Muehlhoff: All of that was just a set up, Sean, for this. All that was just a set up, because, listen, Sean, honestly since we've started the Winsome Conviction project, we just really finished year one. This is the number one critique we get. And I think, I'm very curious to hear your answer because I think you're kind of putting yourself in the same position that you will get the critique we get. So here's the critique, okay? Some would say that because you are not jumping in and rebutting every chance you have, that you're giving the mic, you're using your YouTube channel to give a microphone to a person who is now a progressive liberal or a person that walked away from the faith. Why would you give that person your platform to share ideas? And why don't you knock down every one of those ideas as soon as they come out? Why give a platform to a person who walked away from our faith?
Sean McDowell: I think that's a very fair critique. And I've thought about that a lot. I think one mistake that I've made as I've had people on, because a lot of what motivates my channel is like, I'll just look and think that person looks interesting. I want to know what they think and have a conversation and I want to invite the world into the conversation. And I forget that people watching don't necessarily have the background and experience and maturity to just see the bigger picture. And so probably sometimes I haven't pushed back enough. So I've learned that if I frame things at the beginning very clearly for people, it minimizes a lot of that pushback.
Tim Muehlhoff: Can we hear that real quick? Can we just hear that framing? Can you do a real quick of what that would sound like?
Sean McDowell: Sure. If I had off the top of my head, if I had Colby Martin back and we're going to talk about his book Unclobber, I might start and say, hey, it's good to have you back with us. If you recall, a few weeks ago had Colby Martin on, a progressive Christian pastor. Wrote a book called The Shift and we were talking about the similarities and differences between evangelical Christianity and between progressive Christianity. Well, a topic I've written on and talked about, and he has written on and talked about is LGBTQ issues and what the Bible says. Our goal in this conversation, we're not going to settle this in an hour, but what we want to do is walk through some of the key passages and see where we disagree, exactly where we differ, and why, so those of you watching this can say, okay, if I take an evangelical or historic Christian interpretation, I see how this fits up with the text.
Sean McDowell: If I take a progressive position, I see how this fits up with the text. So again, this is not a debate. There's a time and place for that, look on my channel. You'll see plenty of debates before. But sometime on an issue as divisive as LGBTQ, and obviously a lot is at stake when we're talking about scripture, what we need is clarity. So I'm going to push back sometimes for clarity. If I don't push back enough, give me some grace that I'm doing my best to offer one resource that will help us think more Biblically about what the Bible says about same-sex relationships. I don't know, probably something like that comes to mind.
Rick Langer: Wow [crosstalk 00:15:30]
Tim Muehlhoff: We're looking for Winsome Conviction. Can you please come over? And every time we open our mouth, hey, just a word from Sean McDowell real quick. No, Sean. I think that's great. And again, it's your body of work and we just need to be comfortable saying, listen. So sometimes we'll get the feedback, well, what if they just listened to just that section of your podcast? And it's like, well, yeah, but this is a bigger picture. It's a bigger conversation. You know what I mean? And sometimes that freaks out Christian communicators. No, no, no. Trust the fact that you have a body of work, trust the fact that you don't need to say everything at that moment.
Rick Langer: Yeah. Tim, that phrase, a body of work, I think is really good to keep in mind. I'm thinking, now I'm kicking back mentally to the imaginary Thanksgiving conversation or what do you do with your family members? What you want with your family members is to develop a body of work. And you know, the harvest doesn't come at the end of the Thanksgiving dinner meal. You have a long life to live with these people. And so, develop a body of work. And I think that's a great guideline.
Tim Muehlhoff: Sean, thank you so much for taking time out. We know you're busy and we really appreciate you jumping in. And 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.
Sean McDowell: Hey, Rick, I expected good questions, but Tim, these were actually good questions.
Rick Langer: And that wraps it up nicely. I would like to thank all of you for joining us at the Winsome Conviction podcast and we'd love to have you be a regular listener. And you could subscribe at Spotify or Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, and would also encourage you to check out the WinsomeConviction.com website for more resources, articles, and information on cultivating convictions, holding them deeply, and conversing with others in ways that honor our differences and avoid dividing communities. That's really what we're all about here. So thanks again for joining us.
Tim Muehlhoff: And please check out Sean at seanmcdonnell.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.