Philip Yancey, Dr. Mark Turman, and Gerald Griffin discuss the good and bad of the local church, the dangers of fundamentalism, Yancey’s personal life story, and the power of memoirs.
Dr. Mark Turman begins by introducing Philip Yancey, thanking him for his personal impact (0:10). They talk about what prompted Yancey’s memoir, Where the Light Fell, and they talk about parallels between their own lives (5:13). Then, they discuss the spiritual abuse that takes place in many churches and how that was part of Yancey’s story (10:49). Yancey talks about when he realized how backwards his church was—and that was seeing how wrong racism was (14:44). They talk about fundamentalism and why Yancey continues to ascribe to evangelicalism even after abandoning fundamentalism (18:27). Yancey continues to share his testimony and why he started writing books (25:30). They talk about the local church and Yancey’s older brother (33:05). They discuss the power of memoirs and the message Yancey wants to come through—especially to Gen Z and those who’ve left the faith (44:36). They end by talking about Yancey’s dad and the trustworthiness of Jesus (51:30).
Resources and further reading:
- Where the Light Fell: A Memoir – Philip Yancey
- Disappointment with God: Three Questions No One Asks Aloud – Philip Yancey
- “The Denison Forum Podcast Episode 40: Digging into doubts and how to minister to Gen Z: A conversation with Barnabas Piper”- Denison Forum
- Philip Yancey’s blog, com
- “3 reasons why churches fail at mental health” – Chris Legg
About the hosts
Mark Turman, DMin, is the executive director of Denison Forum. He received his DMin from Truett at Baylor and previously served as lead pastor of Crosspoint Church.
Gerald Griffin is the pastor of Preston Ridge Baptist Church in Frisco, Texas. He received his MA in Christian Education from the Dallas Theological Society.
About the guest
Philip Yancey’s books have garnered 13 Gold Medallion Book Awards from Christian publishers and booksellers. He currently has 17 million books in print and is published in 50 languages worldwide. He’s still “in recovery” from a bad church upbringing, searching for the possibility of a faith rooted in grace instead of fear.
Philip Yancey began as an Editor and then Publisher for Campus Life magazine. In 1980 he and his wife moved to downtown Chicago where he began freelance writing. Yancey has written over 30 books, including A Companion in Crisis and his long-awaited memoir, Where the Light Fell.
Transcribed by Otter.Ai
Mark Turman 00:10
Welcome to the Denison Forum Podcast. I’m Dr. Mark Turman Executive Director, we welcome you back to this very special conversation super excited for you to hear what we’re going to talk about today and with our guests, a couple of them that I want to share with you. First of all, my longtime friend and fellow pastor Gerald Griffin. Gerald is originally from East Texas as I am, and we got to know each other about 25 years ago when we found ourselves pastoring in the same area north of Dallas, and we have a lot of stories we could tell about each other. But Gerald is the pastor at Preston Ridge Baptist Church in Frisco, Texas, and some people will recognize Frisco is one of the fastest growing communities in the nation. And Gerald and I got to watch our towns grow from small town to very large town. And if you’re a football fan, you’ll know Frisco as the training facility home for the Dallas Cowboys. You may remember them from the NFL, they used to be a professional football team. I think a long time ago. Yes. So if you’re ever in the Dallas area, and you’re interested in that, you can find them at the star which is just up the road from Gerald’s church. But Gerald’s church is a lot more exciting than the star is just recommended to that. Our other guests today is Philip Yancey, the author of 25 books, including a book that we’re going to talk about today that I’ll tell you about in a moment, but you may remember him as the author of the Jesus I never knew what’s so amazing about grace and Soul Survivor. How third teen unlikely mentors helped my faith survive the church. Philip Nancy’s books have garnered 13 Gold mount medallion Book Awards from Christian publishers and booksellers. He has currently sold more than 17 million books or has 17 million books in print, and is published in 50 languages worldwide. He worked as a journalist in Chicago for some 20 years editing the youth magazine called campus life while writing a wide variety of publications that have appeared in places like the New York Times the Atlantic and Christianity today, in 1992. He and his wife Janet moved to the foothills of Colorado, where they now live, Dr. Yancey or Mr. Yancey. Thank you for joining us for coming to our podcasts. And thank you for your ministry. Before I let you talk, I want to just share a little bit of a testimony with you. I’m not sure exactly when I first read something that you wrote. But I do remember perhaps the most profound thing in the last couple of decades. Gerald and I were starting to pastor, these young churches that had been planted to try to reach the growing population of our county. And as often happens is happened to him and happened to me, I ran into a very hard time in our church. And it was a time of strife and struggle, and a season of great disappointment that most all pastors experienced at some point. And in that season, somebody handed me your book, disappointment with God. And I read that book, and it became like a life preserver to me, and that particular season of life. And it became one of about, oh, a half dozen books that I ordered multiple copies. And over the last two or three decades has been one of my go to books to hand out to people when they are in hard times. And when they are struggling with their faith and just where is God in the midst of their pain. And so I just wanted to share with you that story and let you know what a powerful impact that book has continued to have in my life along with other writings. And just wanted to thank you for your ministry before we get into any other conversation.
Philip Yancey 04:18
Well, I’m delighted to hear that. The publisher wasn’t sure about that title, disappointment with God they said, you go to a Christian bookstore and you expect books like The Christian secret to a happy life who wants to read about disappointment with God? Yeah. Why don’t you change the title to something like how I overcame disappointment with God? And I said, I because I want to reach people who are actually disappointed in the middle of it. And as you were talking about Frisco, we’ve got our Frisco here in Colorado, and I was still living in Chicago when I wrote that book, but I rented up our some folks over us and plays out here in Frisco and it snowed everyday couldn’t even get out my driveway. And I spent two weeks And I read through the entire Bible, every word of the Bible, and just got a bird’s eye view that has helped me and everything I’ve written since then. But that was that was a formative book for me to try to figure out some of those questions for myself.
Mark Turman 05:13
Well, and as I’ve shared it, and as I’ve talked with other pastors and other Christians, just almost everyone I know, says, Well, I read this in Philippians, these books such and such, and they were, they were helped, and they were encouraged. And they had a sense that somebody understood where they were, and and that God did remember them, and that God was still near them, and that God still had plan and purpose for them. And it’s certainly been that way for Gerald and I, and, and was that way when we read your most recent book, where the light fell a memoir, and we want to spend some time exploring that with you today. And just to kind of get things started, just kind of wondered, what was it that inspired or prompted you to write a memoir like this that is so personal, and so revealing about who you are as a person and about your background? What what prompted that
Philip Yancey 06:12
I waited a long time, mainly because I tell family stories in there that are going to hurt people. And so I just kept putting it off. But I realized that a certain point that all any writer has is a point of view of perspective that nobody else has, we can all write about the same thing, but I’m going to do it differently than you. Because of my education because of my background, my family, whatever. And I came to see even the hardest times of my childhood in my life, as a gift, a gift from God. I, I came through a pretty tough family and a pretty, very tough church situation. There are a lot of people, as you know, Mark, who are leaving the church these days, especially younger people. And I’ve often been in conversations with them where they’ll, they’ll start to tell me their story. And they know I’m a Christian author, and they expect me to be kind of defensive about the church. And I just sit back and laugh and say, Oh, no, it’s a lot worse than that. Let me tell you about my church. But and they’ll say, Well, I thought you were a Christian author. Well, I am. But it would be a bad trade, to forego a chance to connect with the Lord of the universe, because of what some old lady did to you 20 years ago, you know, after hearing their story. And I realized that I had, I have given the gift. And I see it that as having some of the worst that the church has to offer. And some of the best. I kind of liked. Imagine God looking on planet Earth say, well, Philip, you’ve seen some of the worst, let me show you some of the best. And I learned a phrase Mark, this become kind of a mantra to me, it goes like this, that redeemed pain impresses me more than pain removed. When struggles happen, when challenges happen, we immediately want to pray God take this away, you know, make me well fix my kids, whatever the struggle is you’re going with. And that often doesn’t happen. And yet later, when you ask people almost all the time, when did you grow most as a person? When did you grow most spiritually, they’ll tell you about one of those hard times. So the more I’ve done articles on people, and in my own life, I can see the redemptive Hand of God. And as I look back on my life, I can clearly see it. And I wanted to tell that story just as an encouragement to people who may be wanting to lose hope in that, and a good God and a great guy.
Mark Turman 08:56
No, so powerful. Gerald, you had some parallels to what you read in Phillips work. Talk about that a little bit?
Gerald Griffin 09:05
Well, let me just say, what he went through just double or triple everything I went through. But still you’re right, some, some parallels. For instance, thinking about your mother, Philip. It was I think when your father died when things really started getting pretty, pretty hard on you. That’s right. And, and in my situation, it was when my parents divorced. And I was 10. And some of the some of the home life that that you described was a home life that that I felt like I was going through in some degree. Also, you have this extremely talented brother who seems like he can do about anything. I had the same thing. I had the artistic brother who could play anything, paint anything. And so I just said over here like a lot I’m just trying to stay out of their way. But there came a time when my mother’s anger at my brother became so extreme that I became the buffer. And as the buffer, I just tried to keep my head down. But finally my brother left home. And so it was kind of directed at me. And so that’s, that’s, that’s a lot of the similarities right there. And then going later to a, to a fundamentalist college and working through legalism, and trying to figure all that out. And so yeah, a lot of similarities. One, one, similarly, a one disassembler thing is it, you’ve written 25 more books than me.
Philip Yancey 10:45
You’re young, you got time.
Mark Turman 10:49
So fill up your book talks a lot about the very strict, very rigid form of Christianity that you grew up in, in the Atlanta area, correct? That’s right. Deep South. And, and I even have a friend these days that works in Christian counseling, and is doing a PhD right now on the idea of spiritual abuse, spiritual abuse within the context of local churches, that kind of thing. Talk a little bit about that part of the story that is, is in this book, and how how religion and local churches can become this context, for a form of abuse that we don’t normally recognize.
Philip Yancey 11:38
Sure, it’s amazing to me as I look at the church today to see how things have changed. Because today, the issues tend to be more political. And that will divide churches, and that will rally churches around a particular cause. In my day, that wasn’t true. We were trying to be different from the world to be separated. And my little group, I know you guys are in Southern Baptist country might be a little group thought the Southern Baptists were the liberals. And it’s as if people went through and figured out anything that might be enjoyable and somehow labeled that worldly. So did you can’t do it couldn’t go rollerskating because it looked too much like dancing, couldn’t go bowling because they serve beer in the bowling alleys. couldn’t read the paper on Sunday, because it’s Sunday. And you couldn’t read it on Monday, because they had to work on Sunday to get it out, you know. And they went down to, you know, no lipstick, no jewelry. And we were different. You could you could go to high school and say, Oh, those are the Christian kids, or those are the fundamentalist kids anyway. And there’s something helpful about that, I suppose looking back, it got us out of trouble. I mean, if you smoke a cigarette, that’s like, the hookup culture today, you know, that would be as bad as you could get. You wouldn’t even think of going beyond that smoking one cigarette. And I understand that. And some of those things are helpful disciplines. But it’s easy to forget that we live with the gospel of grace. And yes, what also happens is that, especially when you’re a teenager, you do things that you know, are wrong, and we didn’t really have much way of receiving forgiveness. I think when you’re in a little tight community like that, you start comparing yourselves your spirituality to other people. I’m sure Gerald, you ran into that at the Bible at the Christian college you went to absolutely, yeah, you. The longer you have devotions, the more testimonies you get, you know, there’s a way to climb just like climbing in the, in the corporate world. And in some ways, you can understand that in other ways, it’s very dangerous when you look at the people who Jesus was most worried about. And in some cases most angry about, it was the Pharisees. It was people who, much like he studied the word and tried to keep the law, you know, truly worship God. But they thought they were better than other people, especially those sinners over there. And they didn’t didn’t really see themselves in need. And and if you don’t see yourself in need if you don’t have your hands out. Grace is a free gift. But if you don’t have your hands out, it’ll just fall to the ground and received. And it took me a long time to come to the place where I realized I was the neediest one of all I needed to have my hands out and just admit that I couldn’t make it that way. I needed to rely on something else which turned out to be the grace of God.
Mark Turman 14:44
Yeah, was there in the in the midst of that, especially the first you know, two decades of your life where it just became so negative to you that you just wanted to push it all the way that you want to do to walk away From the church and from faith all together, were you tempted as so many young people are today to move in that direction.
Philip Yancey 15:10
You know, Mark, that breaking point for me came on the issue of racism. My church was, this is back when the civil rights movement was just underway. And it’s a big deal in Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Jr, is one of our most famous sons. And my church was was so overt about it, that they, I still have one of the little cards, they gave out, somebody, a person of color tried to come to that church, they would get a card, say, beacons would stop the method door, they were guarding every door to give Black people out African Americans and they would give him a card that said, we we know you’re not serious, you’re just a troublemaker. But if you do want to know about Jesus, you can call this number. And some, some very good people ultimately started coming to that church who were going to an African American Bible College in Atlanta at the time Carver Bible College, where my father once taught. And they were, they were denied membership. And so I was taught some pretty serious things about black people that they’re really inferior, they’re they make great employees, but they can never be a CEO, then I tell the story of showing up at the Center for Disease Control. One day to meet my supervisor who is a PhD from the Ivy League university, and I walked in the door, and it’s a black man. And I realized that the church had lied to me about race. And if they lied to me about that, maybe they would lie to me about Jesus and the Bible. And it really started a crisis of faith for me. I have one advantage, I had my brother who was two years ahead of me. And like you, Gerald, I tended to be more of the observer just kind of sitting there watching life go on. And he took it on, he tried to break every rule in the book. And so I saw that that’s not a healthy way he was he was making a lot of self destructive choices with drugs and, and smoking and rampid, sex and all sorts of things. And I realized that’s not a good line. So where can I go? You know, I don’t want to be like those fundamentalists I grew up among, I don’t want to be like, liberty, you guys like my brother? That’s, that’s not healthy. Where can I go? And I guess, you talked about the books I’ve written my, my books have been wasted trying to figure that out ever since I take a topic like prayer or the problem of pain, or, as you say, disappointed with God. And just pick it up and and look at the Bible and say, Well, this is what my church said, growing up, and I can’t, I can’t buy that what is worth keeping? And what, what should I discard? And I’ve been blessed, I really feel that to be able to do that in print in front of other people, I write those books for me, because I’m struggling with those issues, trying to figure out what is worth saving. And where can I put my feet? And it’s just a great privilege. We all have those questions. But most people have jobs. That’s my job.
Mark Turman 18:27
You know, we talk on this podcast about terms that we all hear thrown around in our world, the terms like fundamentalist and Evangelical, I have a professor down at Baylor University, who is writing a book right now spent some time at Oxford doing research around Charles Spurgeon and some of the other historical figures, just around the idea of fundamentalism. And what what he’s tried to help me get clarity on is that fundamentalism is more a spirit or an attitude than it is a body of doctrine. Is it? Was that something you would agree with that something? Would you describe it that way?
Philip Yancey 19:10
Well, I think you’re right, a rigidity and, and an anger and a spirit of judgment. I remember somebody said the difference between an evangelical and fundamentalist they both like Billy Graham, but one of them’s mad all the time. I’m sure there’s more to it than that. But I mentioned Billy Graham, because that kind of spirit were really lacking today. For a long time. Billy Graham was almost the Pope, of evangelicals. And yet he was so gracious in the way he reached out to people, even from other faiths or even in Russia, and certainly a bunch of different presidents who had policies that he just approved, but he he represented us so well. And we did have the kind of strident tone that we do now, where we’re just kind of across the Gulf, shouting at each other with people we disagree with, which is, that’s not how you spread the good news. You know, evangelical, as you I’m sure, you know, means good news. And if you use that word in a lot of contexts today, people don’t think good things. They think bad things. They think, oh, those rednecks, those eight failed people, those protesters, and somehow we’re not communicating. It just amazes me how Jesus when He was on earth, it must have been so difficult for it must be so grievous to see the kinds of people that we become, when he knew what the Father had in mind and creating Earth in the first place. He knew what a healthy life was life to the fullest, as he said. And yet, in spite of that, the people most attracted to them, were the bad guys, the prodigal son, and the prostitutes and the sinners. And, and instead of Jesus, kind of lifting up his skirts and saying, I don’t want to have anything to do with those people. He dealt with some even moral outcasts or physical outcasts, like people with leprosy in his day. And we in the church have a lot to learn from, from that example, if we’re going to be followers of Jesus.
Mark Turman 21:24
That’s, it’s been a sobering reality for me to be confronted over and over again, especially since I felt called into vocational ministry in college, to remember that it was the good people, the religious leaders who led the way and putting Jesus on the cross is very true that that terminology of I believe it was Mark Twain who said that they’re good in the worst sense of the word you have. Right. And, and just to kind of envision, you know, well, if I’m reading the, the stories of conflict with Jesus and the religious leaders or reading the the Easter story, where do I find myself in that story? Am I one of those people, you know, in the religious order? You know, that might be, you know, cheering for him to be done away with. And it’s just disturbing. So with, with the terms, some of the terms that we’ve brought up already is is Evangelical, there’s conversation about this word is Evangelical, a word that you still claim for yourself? Is it is are you in that conversation with people of hey, that words become so corrupted in a political sense, or in other ways that we just need to do away with it and go find ourselves a new word? How do you weigh in on that conversation?
Philip Yancey 22:47
I still try to keep that word going. Friend of mine, Walter Kim is the head of the National Association of Evangelicals. He’s an American of Korean descent. And he recently attended this world evangelical conference, he was representing the United States, and the others kind of ganged up on him. And they said, I understand you Americans don’t like the word evangelical anymore. You want to change it? Well, you can change it if you want, but I’m sticking with it. In my country, it means good news. And I’ve, I’ve traveled a lot to 87 different countries, and in many of those countries in Africa and parts of Asia, certainly in South America. When you say the word Evangelical, what they think of is, Oh, those are the people who built that hospital over there that mission school that people go to, or they’re the ones that handout food in the barrios, in the poor places, you know that it means good news. In many countries in Africa or in India, if you ask a normal village person, what is what is an evangelical they will look at you they don’t know theology, because they will. There’s a van with a red cross on it that comes by once a week and whatever our problems are, they seem to have a solution for it. It’s a it’s a medical van run by a Christian hospital. And that’s true around the world. And it’s unfortunate that the word has been tainted, the news media have a lot to do with that, you know, they they really don’t know the difference between an evangelical Christian and an evangelical of some political stripe, they blend the two together. And as we know, you shouldn’t be able to do that. And you can’t really do that. And it’s, it’s really sad that we used to be known. Well, like in my growing up, we were known as the ones who are different, but a different in some healthy ways. We weren’t out partying, binge drinking, doing that kind of stuff. That’s not the that’s not the whole gospel. But we were different in that way. Now they see us as being just kind of judgmental and anti Many times when I asked somebody when I say evangelical Christian, what word comes to your mind? They say anti anti gay, anti abortion, anti something. And, you know, some of those issues we may have to be anti on. But it’s unfortunate. That’s the first thing that comes to mind. Which I think it was Jesus complaint with, with the Pharisees, people were judging his faith by what they’re against, not whether or not like they were for. Philip, I’m
Gerald Griffin 25:30
glad you said that. I was thinking during that time, when I was involved with more of a fundamentalist group. I’ve often thought that we we acted like Pharisees, because it really we didn’t talk about the inner, we talked about the outer, what you can do and can’t do. And I’m sitting here realizing your glasses have or wire wire glasses, wire rim. That was wrong. Right? Hair had to be short, right? I remember when I first started attending a church that every the fashion of the day, men were starting to wear flares, flared pants, so we couldn’t do that, because that was new. And so what we found ourselves doing was trying to beat 20 years in the past. And we’re very proud of all the things we were not doing. And it became more and more. I can’t believe I didn’t see it. But it became more of modern day Pharisees wearing the right clothes, saying the right things. Using the right Bible version. All these things were were so important that when I got to college, what another thing that rang true for me was when you said about your, your brother, I believe breaking all the rules. I remember being in a dorm room. And my roommate, remember roommate and I decided this is the year we will break all the rules. And that was our rebellion, our pushing out against what we’d been taught. And it became a dangerous time for us. Because we we, we love Jesus. And that is the only thing that held held us. Because everything else just looked so fake. And I think I see some of that in your writings. Like when I read the Jesus I’d never knew you actually progressed you you started in one place and grew in your understanding of Jesus. And that was something we didn’t do. We added to our knowledge, but you never changed anything. Did you find that to be true in your background? Also just just unchanging?
Philip Yancey 27:44
Yeah, very much. One of the things I loved as I studied Jesus and got to know him is that you just couldn’t put him in a box, he would surprise you every time. And I think as Brennan Manning, you may know that author who we used to quote a statistic, I never added it up. But this is what he would say. He would say 183 times somebody asked Jesus a direct question. And only three times to give a direct answer. You would use a toss it right back to them or tell a story and you know, many of those parables came for people’s questions. Who is my neighbor? Well, let me tell you a story of the Good Samaritan. And just That’s That’s surprising. Really an aspect of Jesus that attracted me when I grew up, he was in this nice little Sunday School box and, and completely predictable, always nice. Well, Jesus can be pretty fear sometimes, you know. And I wrote the book called The Jesus I never knew because it wasn’t, it was a complete discovery for me what? Like the Jesus, I understand as an adult reading the Bible now, compared to what I grew up with.
Gerald Griffin 28:57
I wouldn’t have imagined after reading those books, what you would disclose once I read that your latest book, but when I read it, I think Mark and I have been responsible for a lot of your sales. We keep buying the books and handing them out to everyone handing them out. Yeah. And I think I gave out three copies of where the light fell. Because it just it resonated. But it’s always just a blessing to see how that God can change us and begin to break down walls in the minute we as you said, the minute we think that we have figured God out, as I used to say the master divinity, that we think we really master divinity when we get that degree. I mean, we, we, we don’t understand so much. And faith is so different than understanding everything.
Philip Yancey 29:52
Yeah. And God speaks to us in different ways. You I’m sure you’ve heard testimonies from people God saved me from Drugs, God saved me from alcohol. God saved me from sin. And I guess my testimony would be God saved me from the church. God saved me from, from what we have done and do in God’s name. And to me, the greatest miracle of all, is God’s trust in us, turning us turning over to people like us the message of the good news, and I, I just marvel at the way God deals with us individually, I didn’t tell the story of my conversion for a long time. Because often when you do that, people say, Well, God never did that to me, you know, my, I didn’t have that experience. And that’s true. God deals with us all individually. And in my case, I was so hardened and so bitter and so defensive, that there’s no way a gospel tract or Billy Graham rally or something like that could have gotten through the meat. I had heard all that stuff. I could preach the servants better than my preacher, you know, I could pray the prayers better than anybody else. And then I realized one day, I didn’t mean it. And so I just stopped. And what did God do? The people in my church said, Well, God is gonna break you break, you break you, we would hear that over and over. And I was kind of prepared for that. Okay, let’s go God. And God didn’t do that. God melted me. Book, we’re talking about how suicidal where the light fell. It comes from a quote by St. Augustine, who said that he couldn’t look at the sun directly. But he looked at where the light fell from the sun. And that’s where I was, I couldn’t look at God directly, because I had such a misshapen image of what God was like. But I could look on things. And for me, they were the beauties of nature, and music, and romantic love. And those three things started to melt me. And I realized that this church that kept me from doing anything that sounded like fun, had it all wrong, that God was the father of all good gifts, the Bible says, The Father of all good gifts. So if anything gives you joy, that comes from God, no, that’s, that’s the kind of God we are, that we have. And I am just so grateful because I was, I was prepared to be broken. And instead I was seduced by a God of love, and God is love. John says that, He says, it’s an it’s a noun, God, He doesn’t say God loves He says, God is love. God can’t help loving. And he, he loves each of us if we can only understand that God wants the best for us, not the worst. It’s not about just grinning, grinning, and somehow getting through life. It’s gritting your teeth. It’s about flourishing being the human beings that God wants us to be and all of beauty and music and so many things are ways of places where the light fell, they certainly did for me,
Mark Turman 33:05
Philip, you, I kind of suspect that if people have been listening to us for the last 15 or 20 minutes, they might they might conclude that well, he’s he’s come to a place of really deep, profound and personal faith. But it’s a faith that needs to stay away from the local church. My own story, I was born into a very devout Roman Catholic family, I’m the seventh of eight kids. And the first decade of my life, we were in church every single Sunday. And even even in that context, it was a lot about following the rules. It was a validate. It was about performing not just individually, but as a family. It was about performing in a certain way. And, and now my parents are are in heaven. And the eight of us are navigating our faith and only one of us eight kids is actually still practicing Roman Catholic faith. And then I had and then my parents when I was 10 years old, just dropped out of church all together. It’s like they flipped a switch and said, We’re done with that out of a series of disappointments really. And then I encountered, you know, seven or eight years later, these evangelical Southern Baptist Christians that was really the one group my mother said you can’t get anywhere near them was kind of her initial reaction, but I got caught up in this fairly large, very joyful and energized Southern Baptist Church which some people think those are oxymoron terms. But what’s where is your How does your faith engage within the context of the local church? Now you you give some insights and some hints into that. At in your book, but kind of where is your perspective on the local church and and particularly the the way we do church in modern American Evangelical evangelical life.
Philip Yancey 35:14
I was very blessed to find a church that was a safe place to be when even when I was beginning my writing career and not sure where I was going to come down what my faith would would look like. We found a church in Chicago, that just wasn’t a perfect church. But it was as close to what I needed. As far as I can imagine. It was right smack in the middle between the poorest part of Chicago, this housing project, and the richest part of Chicago, the Gold Coast. And the church would take the resources from one side and use them to minister to the other side. And so many of those people would start coming to our church, as a result, we had a lot of diversity. So maybe it was 30% or so African American, there were agents. So I would teach, I taught a Sunday school class there for eight years. And there would be PhDs and illiterate people in the same class. And it was just beautiful, you know, is we’re looking at the Bible trying to understand what God has to say to us. And often, it’s the illiterate ones who would come up with insights, it would never occur to them, some of the more educated ones. And it was a it was a grace place, I could stand up in that Sunday school class and say, Okay, I’m reading about Joshua, and all these battles and all these people being slaughtered. But I’m having a hard time here, this holy war thing is that easy for me to grasp, you know, and nobody kicked me out. Nobody. No hood came out and pulled me off the platform. And it was a it was a great a place of growth for me. I moved to Colorado, and things are different. I’m not in the middle of a city. So diversity isn’t, isn’t easy up in the mountains here. And we’ve we’ve had our adventures, the church we went to grew from about 250, to about 1000. And now, that same church, there are 30 of us left, and we’ve stayed with it. And in some ways, there have been various splits and problems with the pastor and all that over the years, we defaulted on the building. So not a perfect church story. But it’s just part of, it’s part of life. And in some ways, the church we’re left with is more meaningful than the church when it had the great music and the great orator and all that, because we have a community and we we stumbled through, you can’t get great quality music on a consistent basis with 30 people there. But we find a way. And I was just hearing the other day that the average church size in America now is 65. That’s the average. So if you’re going to a church that has more than 65 members that’s bigger than normal, bigger than the median. And that’s down from more than 100, just a few years ago. And people worry about church attendance falling. And, you know, I don’t worry so much about that. I know that the pandemic was a real challenge to pastors. But church should never be a place where people go just because it’s the thing to do. When I grew up in Atlanta, it was the thing to do. You go to the grocery store, and the cashier would say, what’s your child go to honey, just because everybody went to church. And, and some people are just working on the grocery list while other preachers preaching, they didn’t want to be there. But they wanted to look like they should be there. And Jesus, Jesus didn’t make it easy for any of us the only one that people who were committed. He said, The way is narrow, and most people won’t take it, but it’s the best way. And but just follow me and it’s going to be hard. You never made it easy. It’s going to be hard. But it’s going to be worthwhile. And so I don’t worry so much about attendance, I worry about the the spiritual formation of the people who are there.
Mark Turman 39:14
Yeah, Fill him. I’m sorry, go ahead. Go ahead, fill
Gerald Griffin 39:17
a drum fill up my, I’m very thankful. Don’t want to sound like I’m not I’m very thankful about the way in which I came to Christ. And it was through that church, and so did my brother. And so I’m intrigued about your brother. I know he took a very different path than you took. And I’d love to look know a little bit more about how he’s doing in his life and your relationship with him today.
Mark Turman 39:44
Just let me add on that some so many of us in so many of the families that we that we work with as pastors, that you’ll hear this story over and over again. I’m sure you’ve heard it, Philip. They were raised in the same home by the same parents. We treated them the same and you Got this one’s gone that way. And this one’s gone the other way. And we just we don’t know what we did wrong. We don’t understand it. And that’s that’s paralleled in in what you write about in with your brother as well. So yeah, I’m very curious to hear where things are with him.
Philip Yancey 40:15
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And my mother reacted with great fear and concern. My brother started taking a turn dropped out of just going to Wheaton College, dropped out his final semester, became one of Atlanta’s original hippies started using LSD. And she because she just kind of freaked out and I tell the stories that were she almost cursed him. He still lives under that today. He went to California, did anything that he wasn’t supposed to do pay the price, and then have a stroke. So he’s disabled now. Now tell you a story. That’s that. That little shows a little bit of where he is now. He started going to a church that he calls an atheist church. It’s actually a humanist church. A philosopher in Sweden, and Switzerland started this movement called Sunday Assembly. He said churches, they do some good things. They look after all people and you know, give to poverty and things like that. And but you don’t have to believe in God to do that. So he formerly Sturgis, they meet on Sunday morning. They never talked about God, they may do a meditation time or mindfulness time, they wouldn’t pray to God. The call to worship as it were, the day I went with my brother was love shack, which is not something I’ve ever heard in church before. But a friend of mine moved to California, and he didn’t know anybody. And I said, Well, you should get to know my brother. It’ll take a little work, because he doesn’t talk very easily. But he’s good man, you can get to know him. And he found out that Marsha went to this church and my friend went to John Ortberg, church, or the video, satellite churches. And he said, he finally said, well, Marshall, your church only meets once a month? Or maybe every other week, how about if I go to your church? And then you go to my church and times when your church doesn’t meet, and I’ll buy you lunch? And so I was going out there one day to see my brother and I said, now as is your church, the atheist churches, are they meeting on Sunday? He said, No, it’s not one of their meetings. I said, Well, tell me about that. Do you have any friends there? No. Well, don’t they have like a coffee hour or something? Yeah. Does anybody ever come and talk to you, though? Marsha, you’ve been going there for six months nobody’s ever talked to you know, he’s not easy to talk to, you know, he’s obviously disabled. He’s leaning on a cane and, and can’t talk easily because he has aphasia. So I went out that weekend, and I said, Well, look, why don’t we go to John Ortberg. Church with your friend, my friend. He said, Okay. So we went to John Ortberg. Church, and no sooner had his car pulled into the parking lot. And it was surrounded by people saying, hey, Marshall, how to bridge go Tuesday night, did you make that doctor’s appointment on Friday? It was the church being the church. And the difference is, nobody told people who into that numinous church, that whatever you do, for the least of these, my brothers, you do for me, you know, if something that easy to do, if it doesn’t make you feel better than just don’t do it, if a guy is kind of hard to talk to, and you don’t want to get embarrassed, you just ignore him. But we are told to reach out to the marginalized as Jesus did. And it was it was a beautiful example. And, you know, my brother still would claim to be an atheist to the stay. But he also grudgingly admits that the people he, the only people he knows who can call in the middle of the night to take him to the hospital is he had to do with COVID are Christians, the first in France, I put him in touch with no one else is going to do that. For him. There are a lot of good people. And I don’t mean to say you have to be a Christian to be compassionate. But it was it was just such a striking contrast between these humanists who have presumed very good values, but but, you know, they’re not getting their directions in life from Jesus. And then some of us who, in our own flawed way are trying to do that.
Mark Turman 44:36
So, Philip, when you were thinking, Oh, just thank you. Number one is thank you for telling these stories. And as you know, we all have a lot in our background, and particularly with our families, our families of origin that can be hard to talk about it. They shape us so profoundly it’s it’s kind of like what they say right? You never you never leave your high school, right? You’re always Yeah, he’s a part of that context, right. But it doesn’t feel like that when you sat down to write this book, or maybe any book that you were trying to think about a particular target audience is more about working out the the own adventure and questions of your own faith. But if, you know we’ve done in our ministry recently, we’ve done a fair amount of research and also teaching around just where the 20 year olds are what is seemingly becoming called the Gen Z group, those who are basically, you know, 10 to 30 years old or 15 to 25 years old, that group of people if, if they were to pick up where the light fell, what do you hope that they experience and gain from it if, if they’ve so many of them have some kind of a church experience or faith experience. But some of the research I most recently read, only about 10% of them would be aptly called resilient Christians right now. They’re not all out of the church, they may be on the periphery of the church. And certainly there is a segment of them, maybe 20% of them that consider themselves to be ex Christians or ex evangelicals. If they pick up this book, what are you hoping that they discover and experience through your story?
Philip Yancey 46:33
Oh, that’s a wonderful question. And one thing I learned about memoirs, because I read a bunch of them, just trying to figure out how to do a memoir. I’ve never written like that before. Is it there as much about the reader as the writer. When I read somebody’s memoir, I’m instantly comparing it to my life and trying to draw that parallel, we have kind of a relationship, calling it. And I’ve gotten hundreds of letters since publishing this book a year ago. And they’re almost Well, probably 90% of them, tell me their story. They start by saying, I read your book. And then they’re telling my, just like, you’ve done I was raised Catholic, it wasn’t quite the same or Gerald’s done. Actually, there are a lot of parallels between my life and yours. And that’s what memoirs do they give, they give us a an honest pathway to face ourselves. And reading is a private act. Nobody’s looking at you. You know, it’s just between you and the book. And the question is, does the book hold your interest? And I guess, looking back at that, I’m kind of grateful that I had the extremes in my life, because I’ve got a lot. I’ve got a lot to hook people. People have certain childhoods. Well, as Darrell said, you can top them sometimes. And I really do think that that’s my wife calls his book, a prequel that explains why I was so fixated on topics like suffering, and on Grace, on suffering, because I, I learned a lot of growing up, I absorbed a lot on Grace, because I lived in and grace, when I tasted that first gulf of grace, I realized, this is what I’ve been missing. This is, this is what I need. So, to those extra angelic calls, I’ve heard there’s many as 25 million of them in the United States. But like you, when I talk to them, they have kind of a nostalgic, wistful memory of maybe going to a young life club or a summer camp or something like that. I mean, they’re not. Some of them are hard and bitter, but most of them aren’t, because we are spiritual beings. And if they’re honest, they probably will admit, I haven’t replaced that with anything. Or maybe they’ve replaced it with something that it’s not. That’s below God for sure. As Tim Keller says, idolatry is a way of making good things into ultimate things. And they’re and people do that all the time can be sex, be alcohol can be all sorts of stuff, careers. But those don’t ultimately satisfy. And, and I just encourage people to live out what they believe. So many of the Gen Zers haven’t really thought through. Okay, so if I believe this, how should I be acting? And that’s, that’s pretty basic. We need to do that. And when it often takes a church community to give us models of people, okay, I had a family with some strange characters in it, but there were some decent people in my church I could learn from there were some older men who reached out to me not having a father. And I think that’s, that’s what the church can be. It can be that safe place that shows us the way the game gives us models for me. I wrote three books with this Dr. Paul Bran, fearfully and wonderfully made was the first one. And he, he demonstrated to me this is what a Christian is. This is someone who’s inhabited by Jesus and changed forever by it. And it just takes one of those people for you to realize. That’s what I want. That’s what I want.
Mark Turman 50:21
No, and I’ve heard, you know, over the years of our friendship with her, Gerald, talk about both of his parents and talk about how his dad even passed, divorce was such a significant influence in his life. You talk about your dad some in the book and talk about how you never knew him? I’m just curious, you know, in my church, working with men, you know, we used some of the work of Robert Lewis, a pastor in Arkansas, who talks a lot about what he calls the father wound that his his father was present. But as a world war two vet, his dad was emotionally detached even after he came back from war. And have heard a number of stories like that. I’m just curious, in in the journey that you’ve had, have you been able? I know, you said you never knew your dad, because he passed when you were so young. How much of a picture of your dad have you been able to kind of reassemble from others? Is that been a meaningful part of your journey?
Philip Yancey 51:30
A surprising part, I would say, because my mother was very strict and was very concerned and had a lot of rules. Don’t play outside the yard. Don’t do this. If I get hurt, you know. And then I later found out my father was kind of a daredevil, he would run away from home because he heard the schools were better in Chicago or zoo is better in St. Louis. And he just pack up as a 15 year old and run away from home. And then a couple of weeks later call home and say, Hey, I’m kind of bored, can you send me the bus fare home. And he had an old model T four that he worked on, and he souped it up so that no, he nobody could pass him, you know, he’s gonna, and my mother is tuning along about 30 miles an hour on the on the interstate highways, you know, and I think so opposites to attract, I guess. And I would have liked to know him. He had a dramatic conversion. And then I have a Bible of his one of the few things passed down to me, that tell story after story of people that he introduced the Jesus people in his own family, his brothers, and then others. So he had, he was planning to be a missionary. And that was the great shock to my mother, because he or she married this person thinking this is she had a pretty bad family herself. And now I can find a place that I can have a partner, someone I can trust. And then he was taken away from her dramatically after being pulled out of an iron lung because of a theological error. People who believed that they knew God’s will. And it turns out they didn’t. And that’s one of the things I’ve struggled with, as a writer off, ever since that not everyone who claims to speak for God does so. And that’s surely came through in my face. I mentioned the racism issues. And there were others like that, where I realized these people claim to have the truth, and I don’t think they do. And I think those extra angelical is out there. And often they’ve been wounded by people who stand up and say, this is the way it is, and they know there’s something wrong with that, that maybe they can’t articulate it, but they know there’s something wrong. And I’m just saying, find people you can trust and start with Jesus, because you’d be amazed how trustworthy and how surprising he is.
Mark Turman 53:52
Yeah, and, and look for him in the Scriptures because that’s where the clearest picture comes from. Not the only picture but, but always the baseline and always the best place to start. And that’s a good word for us. At this time of year, Phillip, thank you so much for spending some time with us today. And I would just recommend to our listeners, if you’re looking for a good Christmas present for yourself, pick up where the light fell or I would just say any Philip Yancey book, it will bless you and it will help you and if you’re looking for a way to encourage others that you know, I couldn’t recommend anything better than a Philip Yancey book. I think they would be blessed and you’d be blessed to share it with him in that way. Again, Gerald and I just again, want to thank you for the opportunity to meet you. And thank you for the many, many ways that you have ministered to us and to people that we’re ministering to, through your writing. I would suspect as an author you you don’t always know exactly where the impact is happening. But at least for the two of us and many more Are that we’ve, we’ve worked with in our ministries, we’ve been deeply touched, and we are big, big fans. And so we just are grateful for you and grateful for the way that you’re making an impact for the Kingdom.
Philip Yancey 55:12
Well, I’m gonna have to appoint you guys my sales directors for the for Texas and ArtsQuest. And absolutely, thank you very much for for helping to spread the word and the work that you’re doing.
Mark Turman 55:25
Gerald, thank you for being a part of the conversation as well. And we just want to take a moment to say thanks to our audience. And if you liked and were helped by our conversation today, please rate and review us on your your source for podcasts and share this with others so that they can be a part of our group as well. We look forward to you again. The next time on Denison Forum Podcast. God bless you