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Jesus Calling: too big in the PCA to fail?

Updated: Apr 8

(Part 1: Questions, Pessimism, and Gibeonites-- Oh, My!!!)

I encountered Jesus Calling in 2014. I persuaded some teachers in my Christian school to stop using the book with our students. They were shocked and then humbled to set aside something comforting as corrupting. I was relieved.

Later, I learned the author was a PCA member and missionary. I did nothing, or nothing faithful. I criticized the book to others. I thought poorly of my denomination (and well of myself). I thought the PCA was too something to act responsibly. Then I forgot about it. Some ugly epithets on me would be fitting.

There is a value in pondering that mixture of stupidity, arrogance, self-absorption and heartlessness. No, I didn't think on any of that over the last decade. Then in December 2023 my conscience was pricked by Kathy Keller. I then discovered that during that decade it had increased from 9 million to 45 million units sold. What to do?

I researched. It does looks like the PCA failed in this. I wrote a blog post. It is a wicked book. I presented my presbytery with an overture for the General Assembly. I've gone on poking around and querying other PCA people. I've stumbled on questions that fortify my desire for the PCA to investigate its responsibility for Jesus Calling. Questions have accumulated. The most recent one is a big question.

Observations Prompt Questions

  • Jesus Calling has sold 45 Million copies in various versions, some marketed for children. How much money is that?

  • Jesus Calling made the author the best selling Christian writer of all time. Why did ByFaith magizine assume PCA members to be likely ignorant that the author was a PCA member, a PCA missionary in fact?

  • Jesus Calling is without question the PCA's largest published contribution to Evangelicalism. How can its birthing from the PCA be largely unknown to the evangelicals of the PCA?

  • For the past 20 years, Jesus Calling has received sustained criticism from the PCA's Reformed fellow-travelers (and different evangelicals). Has any PCA "heavy hitter" ever expressed in writing criticism, praise or awareness of the book?

  • Unlike any other "trendy" Christian Book, the 20 year life of Jesus Calling is one of ever increasing sales and influence. It hasn't peaked yet. Why do PCA people regard it as a short fad that faded somewhere around 2010 or 2015?

The overture addresses this mystery by directing an Ad Interim Committee to document the PCA's history with the book. How can a PCA member and Mission to the World missionary, not only produce but actually publish such a gaudily atrocious book? When did the PCA fail to pastor the author over the last 30 years? Assuming tithing and missional generosity fueled by 45 Million units sold, why isn't there loud thankfulness for the book's enormous financial success? A preeminent question is what responsibility lies properly at the PCA's feet.

A new question has arisen, hazily in all this mystery. Although oddly inconspicuous in the PCA, is Jesus Calling too big to fail, specifically too big in the PCA?  Have I been chipping away at the sunlit top of an iceberg? After 20 years, it is not going to melt into the forgetfulness of the sea. Who can sink an iceberg-- is it just too titanic a task?

Pessimism is More Obvious Than Answers

The overture draws the many other criticisms together under the Second Commandment. This is not how evangelicals have faulted the book. It will be rejected as legalistic. There is not enthusiasm about the Ten Commandments, except the second table for social justice and culture warring. Perhaps a specific issue-- not connected to common exceptions on the 2nd and 4th commandment-- can stir up reflection on the Ten Commandments in general. Would that not be salubrious for the PCA in our lawless age?

The overture amounts to questioning the PCA's functional fidelity on a point of doctrine, The General Assembly will not do that-- ever. An Ad Interim Committee can ask what is the right thing (or spectrum of acceptable things) to do in the PCA, It can't tell the denomination that it has erred. That is for historians 50 years from now. The PCA's repentance of past grievous racial sins was very much nurtured by an Ad Interim Committee, although closer to the 150 and 50 year marks than the 20 year mark. Racism and Jesus Calling are still with us.

The overture is bad for our reputation. After repenting for the sins of our fathers culminating in the 1860's and then the 1960's, repenting for our own sins in the 2000's makes us look less than sound. It is too negative. It sounds morbid. No General Assembly will ever do that. PCA solidarity guarantees that. Yes, I had to repent of assuming so poorly of the PCA.

Divisiveness will kill it. One bulk in the PCA will use it to attack another caricatured block. Cries of "fundamental-ism" and "progressiv-ism" will gobble up the discussion. Actually, the mystery subsumes all parties in the last 20 years. Fundies, not really being so faithfully vigilant. Progressives, not being so faithfully contextual. Broad middle, more broad than middle. 45 Million units, and we forgot about it-- all of us. All of us.

It's been tolerated for too long. 20 years of inertia is as much a defeater as any reasons for that inertia. Each pessimistic interlocutor trails off in the same way. The PCA won't address this. Plenty of run-of-the-mill people complained about it early on, and by now have dropped it as "old news." At the age of 50, isn't sclerosis the silent killer nagging at the back of even an energetic graying head? Isn't this what the PCA must resist?

The Dark Pessimism: Too Big In the PCA To Fail

I was naive. I believed the general report that Jesus Calling is old news within the PCA. I have been assiduous and adamant that the author Sarah Young ought not receive the scrutiny due those who failed her. The author and the industry of Jesus Calling are two different things. I knew that the author passed above the PCA in 2023. I thought the industry had moved out of the PCA since 2010. I was wrong.

A few pessimists invoked a dark explanation for the mystery of Jesus Calling in the PCA. "The people behind it and still benefiting from it" recognized the aversion which it provoked early on in the PCA. They prudently adopted an inconspicuous (if not stealthy) posture. The publisher of the book certainly did exactly this. Subsequent editions revised the introduction and even changed some of the book's messages from Jesus to make the target smaller for evangelical critics. The second is documented, the first is not.

The dark pessimism speaks thus. There are significant PCA players who have kept this out of general discussion in order to prosper the book. Other significant players have turned a blind eye; they didn't raise an objection and so assisted the strategic low profile. At this point, it is not conspiracy, just co-dependency.

There are jobs, reputations and ministry budgets on the line. First, for those still involved in the Jesus Calling industry. Second, for big PCA names (on both sides). Third, for kingdom efforts funded by that 42 million and growing units sold (and continued licensing contracts for the official merchandise, podcast, and television show). However much disagreement there is about the book, touching sin, idolatry, Scripture, etc.-- Jesus Calling is too big in the PCA to fail. Missional and personal imperatives can't allow that. These men won't allow that.

There is no shock in hearing such dark muttering, but what wisdom in listening? This is surely the worst case scenario-- imaginable, plausible, but says who?. Worst case scenarios are good for planning purposes, but they are even better for meditation on the steadfast love and wise right hand of the LORD. “What if” among men generates mere policy and self-protection. “What if” before the LORD– with the Scriptures open– fosters faith, steels repentance and humbles to expectancy. Not unimaginable, not impregnable.

In that scenario, the Jesus Calling industry is like the Gibeonites in Joshua 9. Joshua and the elders were wary; they used their senses and common sense. Still they were deceived, but not just by appearances and circumstances. "The Israelites sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the LORD." Joshua 9:14 (NIV). There was a covenant made with the liars. There were oaths sworn before the LORD.

That folly and sin fell on the whole assembly. They had a duty: ". . . you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them" (Deuteronomy 7:2, ESV). They had doubts, they had questions, and they did not ask the LORD. After this sin, repentance could only achieve so much; but this they did.

After this sin, God did not withdraw; in fact, he upheld their foolish oaths. God gave Israel victory. God delivered the Gibeonites. God made the sun stand still. God was gentle with errors, lapses and the folly of men. God acted according to their foolishness and His faithfulness. Worst case scenario, the Covenant of Grace was made with the Lord Jesus Christ for people like us.

Pause For A Breath (Or a Snort)

I'm breaking this piece in two parts. Three to four pages is a little more than enough. You might glance up to see if any of those paragraphs are padding to justify this pause. I don't think so. I left out the thing about Don Quixote meeting real giants, and the J. K. Rowling a fortiori argument. Some of it might be stupid, but not superfluous. I've rigorously ensured that only necessary stupidity could be scorned.

It is also a pause for a breath. Let the questions marinate. Let the pessimism percolate. Mostly I want to air out the fumes from "too big in the PCA to fail." Imaginable, plausible, but says who? The next piece will document that Jesus Calling does have a big place in a small part of the PCA-- and that does actually raise the question of too big to fail. Observations and well documented questions are the rationale of the overture.

Or, it's a pause for a snort of incredulity and scorn. Some will likely think "too big in the PCA" is a smear. I've dressed up our best and brightest in a sinful covenant and rash vows. Worst case scenario. The man is contentious and just trying to make trouble, maliciously "going after the PCA and her leaders." In Joshua 9, the people did murmur against their leaders.

Let's not murmur against Moses and Aaron modeling the-best-we-can-do repentance. I find myself there regularly. If I were standing flat-footed with them after the discovery, their reaction is everything. I would be terrified, should they temporize or catastrophize. God's Word was clear.

"But all the leaders said to all the congregation, 'We have sworn to them by the LORD, the God of Israel, and now we may not touch them'" (Joshua 9:19, ESV). Even exposed, they cherish a covenant among men and their vows. That high priest displays our confidence. That Moses explains why I fear God but not his law, why I despair of myself but not of my calling. That God delivered the Gibeonites. That leadership is the Covenant of Grace.


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