Once upon a time there was a version of the Christian faith that was practically irresistible.
But that was then.
Today, an increasing number of people have no religious affiliation. Some even insist that Christianity is actually harmful to society.
Maybe it’s time we consider the faith modeled by first-century Jesus followers—a group that had no official Bible, no status, and very little chance of survival.
What did they know that we don’t? What made their faith so irresistible?
NOTE: The following content is a raw transcript and has not been edited for grammar, punctuation, or word usage.
Our world changed because of the Internet. And because of the Internet, now all the information and the misinformation in the world is at everyone’s fingertips, including children, middle school students, high school students and college students. What you may not know is this, that after 9/11/2001, after 9/11, after the World Trade Centers were attacked and our country was attacked, following that, in fact, in the two or three years following that, there was a firestorm of religious skepticism that swept our country. Initially, it was anti-Islam skepticism, but now very, very, very quickly, it turned into skepticism about all religion. And some very witty, very educated and very convincing atheist authors published several books and sold millions and millions of copies. They became rockstars on university campuses, they became rockstars in debates, and unlike years before where you had to buy a ticket and attend the debate, unlike years before, where you had to buy a ticket and drive to a city and actually show up on a university campus to hear someone speak, those days are long gone. And suddenly everybody in our country, everybody in the world, but everybody in our country had access to all of this misinformation, as this group of people began to really war against all religion, and over time it turned to Christianity in particular. And it fueled the rise of something that many of you, most of you know about, but all of you should know about, it fueled the rise in our country of what are called the Nones, the N-O-N-E-S. The people who are religiously unaffiliated. Currently… And all of this happened while we’re working hard in creating churches and baptizing kids and doing all this cool stuff, right? Currently about 25% of everybody in America, 25% of Americans would consider themselves religiously unaffiliated. Now, that’s a high number, but the staggering statistic, and the thing that bothers me, and I want it to bother you, is this, in 2007, it was just 16%. 16% to 25%, that is millions and millions of people. And the thing that bothers me the most and the thing that I want to bother you the most is this, that 35% of men and women, 35% of men and women who are under 35 years old consider themselves religiously unaffiliated, and most of them grew up in church. Most of them grew up going to camp. Most of them grew up hearing the same kinds of sermons that many of us heard growing up. And maybe most alarmingly of all is this, that 70% of the unaffiliated or the Nones, the non-religiously affiliated, about 70%, view the Bible as completely irrelevant, ancient myth, ancient literature, certainly not inspired. And more and more and more, there is a movement to argue that the Bible is not only fiction, that the Bible is harmful. And when this group of people are surveyed… And the Pew Research Center does these surveys every other year, and they get more and more and more statistics. At the end of the day, when this group of people are asked, “Why did you leave your religion? Why are you religiously unaffiliated? Why did you walk away from your local church? Why did you walk away from a church you grew up in, that your parents grew up in?” There’s many, many presenting reasons. But at the bottom of it all, the primary answer is simply this: They just don’t believe anymore. And I’m gonna pause there and say this. For some of you, this is not somebody out there somewhere, this is the story of your children, isn’t it? This is the story of your grandchildren. This is what happened to your sister-in-law, your brother-in-law. And you just don’t understand it, because they heard all the things you heard, they believed all the things you believed, and now when you have conversations with them, it’s like, they’re not even antagonistic, they’re not even defensive, they just basically say, “That’s good for you, that’s your truth. I don’t believe it anymore.” And you can’t even figure out what it is they don’t believe anymore, and you can’t figure out why they don’t believe it. For others of you, you are right in the middle of this with your children, or your grandchildren, your college son, your college-aged daughter, your son or daughter, or your niece or nephew that’s in graduate school. And fueling this mass exodus, fueling this mass exodus is this. That once upon a time, once upon a time, a person had to read the Bible to know what was in the Bible. Once upon a time when most of us grew up, if you wanted to know what was in the Bible, you actually had to go find one, borrow one, steal one out of a hotel drawer. Imagine stealing a Bible, that’s kinda weird, you know? When I was a kid, when I was a kid, my dad’s pastor, he was parked in his reserved parking spot at First Baptist Atlanta, and somebody broke in his car and stole his Bible, it’s the only thing they stole. I thought what are they gonna do, read it? [laughter] Thou shalt not steal, huh? Look at that. Anyway. [laughter] The point being, in the old days, the only way to discover what was in the Bible, you had to have one in your hands and read it, and most people in a bygone age respected the Bible, even though they hadn’t read it, and most people hadn’t read it. In fact, your experience is like mine. Some adult when you were a child, they gave you your first Bible, they said “This is God’s Holy Word, it’s all true.” And you believed it was all true, and you had not even read it. And I’ll let you in on a little secret, let’s keep this in the room. Chances are, the adult that handed you your Bible and told you that it was all true, they hadn’t read it all either. But that’s just the way our culture worked, because everybody had so much respect for the Bible. Very few people read it. We left it to priests and preachers to tell us what was in it. But those days are long gone. Because now you, your kids, your grandkids, and the future generation and this generation can discover what else is in the Bible without even owning or opening or touching a Bible. This calls for a different approach to what we’re doing. And post-9/11, this created the perfect storm, the perfect opportunity. And skeptics exploited, skeptics exploited a flaw in the modern version of Christianity. Because they had something that previous generations of atheists and skeptics didn’t have. They had the Internet. They had an all-access pass to every single curious person in the world. And they have leveraged this extraordinary tool to preach their Gospel of disbelief to undermine the credibility of Christianity. And they have exploited a flaw in our modern post-reformation version of Christianity. A flaw that is very difficult, almost impossible to exploit in a culture that holds the Bible in high esteem. And the flaw is simply this. It’s a false assumption. It is a shared false assumption regarding the foundation of Christianity. And when I say a shared assumption, I mean this, that Christians assume this, non-Christians assume this, post-Christians assume this, your son and daughter or grandson or granddaughter that walked away from faith assume this. If you’re considering losing faith or dismissing your faith, or walking away from faith, this is something that you assume as well. And this false assumption that has been with us since the Reformation has finally begun to take root and we’re finally paying a price for it. And it’s why I wanted to talk to you about it, and it’s why I wrote the book Irresistible. Since the Reformation, and we’re not gonna go back and do a lot of history, but since the Reformation, Protestant leaders, teachers and preachers have taught that the Scripture is the final authority for Christians. This was the whole point of the Reformation. That the church isn’t the final authority, that the Scripture, the Bible is the final authority for Christians. In fact, most of us grew up hearing that or thinking that. And even if you didn’t grow up in church, you assumed, well, the Bible is marching orders for Christians. So consequently, for generations and generations and generations preachers have said, “The Bible says, the Bible says, the Bible says, the Bible teaches, the Word of God says, the Word of God says,” and when you hear, “The word of God says”, and, “The Bible says”, basically what they’re communicating is, at the end of the day, the bottom line is, if the Bible says it, that’s all we need to know. If the Bible teaches it, we believe it. If the Bible says it, then that settles it. And that kind of language, generation after generation after generation, has left generations of Christians assuming that the Bible is the foundation of our faith. Don’t leave early. It’s not. And it never has been. But most modern Christians think it is. Most of the Christians that left church thought it was. Most of the generation that walked away from church walked away from church assuming it is. And modern skeptics, and those that are undermining the Christian faith, assume that it is the foundation of our faith, as well. And this assumption has left many with the impression, and understandably so, that as the Bible goes, so goes the Christian faith. If you can undermine the credibility of the Bible, all 66 books, or any one of the 66 books, or any part of any one of the 66 books of the Bible, that Christianity comes tumbling down. As you’ve heard me say before, it’s like a 66 card House of Cards, and we’re gonna pull out Genesis, or we’re gonna pull out Leviticus, or we’re gonna pull out something in Revelation, or we’re gonna pull out some supposed contradiction in the resurrection stories out of the Gospels. And if one part of it isn’t true, then the Bible isn’t true. And if the Bible isn’t true, Christianity is false. In fact, one of the most prominent new atheist in introduction to one of his books, I’m not gonna mention his name or the book right now, we’re gonna talk about that in the series to come… In the introduction of the book he says this, he says, “Come on, Christians, this is how it works. If Christianity is true, then I have a frightful surprise waiting for me when I die. But if the Bible is false, then Christianity is false and you’re all living a fairy tale.” This is the assumption of the modern church, and I understand how we got there, and I’m not being critical of anybody, but the time has come for us to call out and draw a circle around this false assumption. Not for our sake, I’m fine. Not for your sake, you’re probably fine. For your children’s sake, for your grandchildren’s sake, for this generation’s sake, and for the sake of the next generation. With the help of the Internet, the skeptics have done a masterful job exploiting this false assumption about Christianity. And what has the church done? How has the church responded? In my opinion, the church has done nothing. Churches preach and teach as they’ve always preached and they’ve always taught. They keep preaching the same way, they just tell children, “Here’s your Bible. It’s all true. Believe it.” The children believe it, ’cause the children will believe anything adult tells them to believe, but most adults haven’t read the Bible, they just assume it’s all… Because of the way they received it, they’ve held on to their childhood view of the Scripture, and consequently they hand that off to another generation. And then they graduate from high school, and we send them into an increasingly post-Christian culture. And when they come home with real academic questions, we give them Sunday school answers, and no wonder they’re walking away from faith. Now, there is a group that has responded to all of this. Some Christian authors and apologists, and they’ve written many, many books defending the Bible. And I think, I’m not exaggerating, I think I have read every single one of their books. Ask my wife. It’s all I listen to, ’cause I love apologetics and I love this stuff, but here’s what I know. The average 22-year-old, 25-year-old, 30-year-old, in fact, the average human being is not gonna do that. And all it takes is a little bit of the wrong thing to undermine the right thing. So, years ago, I was sitting at home and I am on my computer and I’m watching another rant by one of these very smart, very witty new atheists at a university campus just dismantling the Bible and consequently, in his mind, dismantling Christianity, and the crowd was cheering and the students were chanting and I mean, he was just having the best time. And as I sat there listening I thought, “You know what, defending the Bible is the wrong approach to this. I mean, there is a defense of the Bible if you’ve got a lot of time and undivided attention, but you’re just not gonna get that from a whole generation of Christians. That the better approach, the better approach would be to address the false assumption that’s driving all of this energy.” And so, after watching that video years ago, about eight years ago, I decided to change my approach. I didn’t announce it. I didn’t come in here and say, “Hey, from now on, here’s what I’m gonna do, here’s what I’m not gonna do,” because I was figuring this out. But I decided I am not gonna be a part of the problem. We are not gonna be a part of the problem. I care too much about my kids. I care too much about your kids. I care too much about this generation, and the next generation, not to respond. And contrary to some people’s opinion, not only I changed my approach, but I didn’t change what I believe, in fact, just the opposite. I am more convinced than ever. I would say to anyone, regardless of their belief system, without any… I wouldn’t blink. I’m so confident, that following Jesus will make your life better, and following Jesus will make you better at life, and you should follow even before you believe, you should follow until you believe. It’ll make you a better parent, a better friend, a better boyfriend, girlfriend, employee, employer. Following Jesus will make your life better, it will make you better at life. Honestly, I don’t know why everybody wouldn’t want the narrative of Christianity to be true. I don’t know why everybody wouldn’t want to think that everybody gets justice in the end, regardless of what happened to them in this life. I mean, who wouldn’t want that, right? I don’t understand why everybody wouldn’t want to think there is a God in heaven who loves you so much he has invited you to call him Father, and he has taken care of whatever obstacle there is between you and him. Even though it’s hard to believe, even though it’s difficult to believe, I don’t know why everybody wouldn’t be leaning in, trying to figure out how to believe it. So, I didn’t change my view, and I did not change my view of or respect for the Bible. In fact, I’ll let you in on a little secret, Sandra and I are empty nesters now. One of the cool things about being empty nester, we can get up in the morning early and get our coffee, and sit and read the Bible and have the nerdiest conversations you have ever heard in your life. ‘Cause our kids are gone and we’re not rushing off to school and we talk about… And she’s in seminary, my daughter is in seminary, my daughter-in-law’s in seminary. I mean, we are like nerd upon nerd upon… And we love the Bible and we love theology, but I love the generation of students and college students and high school students that have left unnecessarily, and I want them back. [applause] So, I adjusted my approach. No, I didn’t adjust my belief system, but I adjusted how I talk about the Bible when I’m preaching and teaching. I stopped saying anything that I thought would lend fuel to this false assumption that as the Bible goes, so goes Christianity. And I embrace to the best of my ability… And I don’t get it right, I don’t get it perfect, I mean. I embrace to the best of my ability what I think our first century brothers and sisters approach was to their faith, to the foundation of their faith. And so I stepped back away from leveraging “the Bible says, the Bible says, the Scripture teaches, the Scripture teaches,” and I began, I embraced an approach that argues from and anchors to the event of the resurrection rather than the authority of the Bible. I’m gonna read that again. My new approach, and I’ve been preaching and teaching this way for about eight years, an approach that argues from and anchors to the event of the resurrection rather than the authority of the Bible. Because, and everyone knows this, but it’s time that we take what is true and elevate it. Long before, long before there were Christian scriptures, long before there was a “the Bible,” long before all of that, there were Christians. And not just any Christians, extraordinary Christians. Men and women who daily risk their life for what they believe and no one ever stood up in their church and said, “The Bible says, the Bible says, the Bible says,” because it would be 100, 200, 300 years before there was an Old and New Testament labeled the Bible. These were extraordinary men and women sandwiched between the temple and the Roman Empire. Remember, Rome was not the first person to launch a persecution against Christians, it was the temple. Sandwiched between temple and empire, they survived and they thrived, and they weren’t fueled by a book, they were fueled by an event. This was a group whose faith was tougher than Roman steel and tougher than Roman nails, to which many of their friends were nailed to Roman crosses because of their faith in Jesus. And here’s what’s indisputable. Today Rome is full of crosses commemorating the death of Jesus, the City of Rome. And the city of Jerusalem is full of Christian tourists. How did that happen? What did they know that we don’t know or have forgotten? So I have done my best in these past few years to step back, to step back and to teach and to preach from the standpoint of anchoring your faith, and the faith of your students and the faith of our churches to the event of the resurrection rather than the authority of Scripture. It began with a series that some of you were here for, called Christians, some of you remember that? Two years later, Brand New. Two years later, Tough as Nails. Two years later… Last two years ago this fall, Who Needs God? This Spring, 90, and after 90, Aftermath. I’ve not spent every single sermon or every single series doing this. We need to talk about practical things, but I’ve done my best to bring you back and to try to lead you into this more formidable faith, the faith of our first century brothers and sisters. I stopped saying a long time ago, “The Bible says, the Bible says, the Bible says, the Bible says.” And what I did instead is, I tried to draw your attention to the people in the narratives. James, every time I teach from James, I say, James the brother of Jesus. What would you have to do to convince your brother that you were the Son of God? And everybody chuckles, and I’m like, “That’s James. When James died for his faith, he died believing his brother was his Lord. What did James know? Let’s look at James,” instead of the Bible says, and quoting James. Peter, Peter, who betrayed his best friend, and then he had to face his best friend, we all know what that feels like. Let’s see what Peter has to say. John, who introduced us to the idea that God is love. And John did not believe that life was lovely or the world was lovely or culture was lovely, but John, who stared into the eyes of love, who stared into the eyes of Jesus and determined this man is God in a body, and if God is anything like this man, and if this man is anything like God, and if this man is God, God is love. And I’ve done my best to draw you into the history behind the narratives and to focus and to anchor your faith to the event of the resurrection. How many times have you heard me say this? If someone predicts their own death and resurrection and pulls it off, I go with whatever that person says. I have said this every single chance I get, and I’ll tell you why. Because when you begin to doubt, and your son or your daughter begins to doubt, I want you to know that you can anchor your faith and their faith not to the 66 books of the Bible but to the event that launched this thing to begin with. Every Easter for the past five Easters, I begun our services the same way. I’ve said this, “Hey, if you’re here today, and this is your first time at one of our churches, here’s what we want you to know. We believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, but not because the Bible tells us so, it is better than that.” I’ve said that the last five Easters in a row, why? Because I wanna anchor people’s faith and I want you to anchor your faith to the event of the resurrection, not the 66 books of the Bible. Do I think there’s anything wrong with the 66 books of the Bible? No. This is not about me. This isn’t even about you. This is about a generation we’re losing, that we’re losing unnecessarily, because I’m convinced, 99% of the people who’ve walked away from faith did not walk away from anything that had anything to do with the essentials of our faith, and that has to change. And I want all those people to come back, because I believe that following Jesus will make your life better and make you better at life. The first century Christians, the second century Christians, they knew what we either didn’t know or have forgotten that the foundation of our faith is not, “It is written.” The foundation of our faith is “Something happened.” Our epic story does not begin in Genesis. Our epic story, begins Easter morning, when disheartened and sad and broken-hearted and disillusioned men and women stared into an empty tomb and met their resurrected Friend and Rabbi who they would later declare as their Savior. Our story, come on, your story, your children’s story, our grandchildren’s story does not hang in the balance of whether 66 ancient documents are all accurate at every level and can be proven true. The story of our faith hangs on a single event. Now, if you think I’m making this up, or I’m discounting the importance of Scripture, please pay attention. In fact, the Apostle Paul who brings us about half the New Testament, said it best. The Apostle Paul, in the book Irresistible, I spend a lot of time on this, the Apostle Paul who… And this is unimaginable. In the course of a day, went from a law-abiding Pharisee who was so committed to the law and the temple that he was rounding up Christians and having them tortured and executed, in the course of a day, he went from a law-abiding Pharisee to a Jesus-follower in one day. And when the scales fell from his eyes, he not only could see physically, he had extraordinary clarity about the contrast between the old covenant and the new. And the Apostle Paul himself says, there’s only one thing, there’s only one thing that serves as the foundation of our faith, and if this goes away, our faith goes away. And it was not something written. Here’s the words of the Apostle Paul himself. This is big, he said, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith, and your faith, and your faith, and your faith, and your faith, and your faith, and your faith, and your faith.” So wait, wait, wait, wait, Paul, that’s kind of risky. You’re saying the whole thing tethers on a single event? Paul would say, “Yes, do not be mistaken. This is not the “it is written” religion. This is the “something happened” religion. And if this happened, game on. God has done something in the world for the world. And if this did not happen, ignore my preaching and ignore your fairy tale faith and go back to the temple or go back to your polytheism or your paganism because Christianity is not true.” Christianity rests on a single event. And the Apostle Paul did not say this about anything else. The Bible did not create Christianity. I want the next generation to know that. I want them to know if they decide to walk away from the Christian faith, they’re not walking away from a book, they are walking away from an event that has been documented. And more importantly, they are walking away from a person. The Constitution did not create our nation, the company handbook did not start your company, and the Bible did not launch Christianity. [applause] If you think I’m anti-Bible, you don’t know me and you’ve misunderstood me. Let me put it this way, your birth certificate did not birth you. When people came to the hospital when your momma had you, nobody asked to see the birth certificate. In fact, if I were to call your mom if she’s still alive and I were to say, “Hey, what’s more important to you? The birth certificate or the baby you birthed?” Hopefully, she would say, “The baby I birthed.” When people came to the hospital after your mother had you, nobody asked to see the birth certificate, they wanted to see the baby. And the thing I love about you and I love about our church, for 23 years, we’ve been showing people the baby. And I say we keep doing that, and if it means we have to do some things that other people aren’t willing to do to reach some people that other people aren’t reaching, that’s what we do, because that’s what you have always done. The baby that showed up as an adult man on the banks of the Jordan River. And John the Baptist looked at him and said, “Oh, no, or oh, yes, or oh, good, or oh my, it’s about to happen. The promise given to Abraham all those years ago is about to come true right here in our generation, behold the final Lamb of God who has come to take away the sin, your sin and my sin, the sin of the whole world. The baby who grew to be a man, and the Apostle Paul would say about him later in Ephesians 2:20. And if you doubt what I’m saying, you need to look up Ephesians 2:20 later. You know what the Apostle Paul said about Jesus, “He said the foundation of our faith is a person, Jesus, the cornerstone. The very first stone laid. The thing that determines everything else about the building, the foundation of our faith is not “It is written,” the foundation of our faith is “Something happened.” God sent his Son into the world. The same baby that grew to be a man. That after his resurrection would gather his closest followers. And he would say something that that was just crazy, nobody would say this unless there was some evidence to back it up and they’d seen him die. They knew where he was buried. Several of them had breakfast later with him on the beach and now there he was alive in front of all of them, and he makes a statement that I hope you’ll wrestle with, he says… Now, who would say this? “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” Do you know what the final authority for your life as a Christian is? It’s a person, it’s Jesus. My final authority is Jesus. The foundation of my faith is Jesus. It’s a person. That’s what Paul said. And the authority is Jesus, that’s what Jesus said. So as the Bible goes, Christianity doesn’t go. The skeptics have it wrong. Unfortunately, most Christians have it wrong. The people who walked away had it wrong, and we together are going to get it right. It’s not as the Bible goes, so goes Christianity, it’s as Jesus goes, so goes Christianity. Or Christianity goes. And if you wanna know how Jesus goes, don’t cross-examine the Bible. That’s what skeptics do. To take down Christianity, you’ll need to cross-examine a list of people and a list of unexplainable events. You don’t cross-examine the Bible. You have to start with the document called Matthew and ask Matthew where did all this intricate detail come from? And when you’re finished with Matthew and you’re able to write Matthew off, the game has just begun because then you gotta wrestle with Mark, who tradition says got his information from the Apostle Peter. And once you’ve discounted Mark, you’re just getting started. Then you gotta go to Luke, who said, “I thoroughly investigated all these things.” Then you gotta go to John, who lived to be an old man. When you’re done with John, then you gotta take on Peter, then you gotta take on James. Did I mention that James is the brother of Jesus? Did I mention he was stoned illegally, and he went to his grave believing his brother was his Lord? Before you discount Christianity, you gotta wrestle with James. And then if you get through all that, which you won’t, then you’re confronted with the Apostle Paul, who’s smarter than you can ever imagine being. The Apostle Paul who said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, hang on. I was a proponent of first century Judaism, and I became a Jesus follower. I had been there and I have done that. And I have spent time with Peter and I have spent time with John and I have spent time with the other apostles and I’ve been to Jerusalem. And I’m telling you, God has done something among us, and the entire Old Covenant was pointing to this period of time. And this man, Jesus, rose from the dead.” And after you’ve taken on each one of those individually, then you have some more explaining to do. You’ve got to explain the survival of the church, sandwiched between, again, empire and temple. You realize the first people that launched the persecution of the church wasn’t Rome, it was the temple. How in the world did the church survive all of that? Why is Rome full of crosses? Why is Jerusalem filled with Christian tourists? You have to explain that. Then once you get through that, you’ve gotta explain Jesus’ extraordinarily detailed account of the destruction of the temple. How in the world did he give that much detail to something that was actually going to happen, that was considered impossible when he made the prediction? Why is there no mention of the four-year Jewish war between Rome and the people of Israel in any of the Gospels or any of the literature of the New Testament? Why is there no mention of the destruction of the temple in any of the Gospels or any of the documents of the New Testament? Because it hadn’t happened yet. These documents weren’t written a hundred years after the fact, they were written while the temple was still standing. You got to explain all of that. You can have Genesis, you can have Leviticus, you can have Exodus, you can have Revelation and Philemon, you can have 1, 2, 3 John, just give me two gospels and 1 Corinthians, game on. Jesus rose from the dead. That’s where we anchor our faith and that’s where we must anchor the faith of the next generation.