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A Pastor’s 4 Reflections on Joshua Harris’s Latest Goodbye

My (Bobby’s) children grew up in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

They remember…

  • WWJD Bracelets
  • DC Talk, Jars of Clay, and Steven Curtis Chapman
  • Big youth groups and youth camps
And then there was Joshua Harris’s book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

As parents, Cindy and I asked them to read it because we remembered our own high school experience. The sexual experimentation and pressure we witnessed was a big deal. We wanted to see our children protected from that and experience purity. We asked them to read it critically. We sought to encourage them to think critically about everything. They liked a lot in the book, but not all of it.

Here is some backstory of the book: In 1997, 21-year-old Joshua had experienced regret over how he had crossed moral lines in dating. He also felt that the casual, narcissistic way people typically dated led to a lot of hurt. In repentance of his sins and response to the culture, Harris wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which would become a bestseller and a game changer, advocating parent-involved “courting,” as an older and better alternative to modern American dating.

But a major backlash was on its way. The book wasn’t merely controversial. Over the years, it has come out that many people found it hurtful. For example, some kids raised according to its principles explained that the book made them feel unforgivable and undesirable because of past sexual sin. Years later, after hearing multiple stories of deep hurt that the book—and “purity culture” in general—caused, Harris publicized an apology through his 2018 documentary I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

But his purity book isn’t the only thing Josh is kissing goodbye.

On July 17 of this year, Joshua Harris announced that he and his wife of 19 years were separating, citing “significant changes” they had both experienced. Then on July 26, Joshua announced that he was no longer a Christian, apologizing, as he said, for any of “the views that I taught in my books and as a pastor regarding sexuality,” with his apology especially directed to the LGBTQ+ community.

We don’t personally know Joshua or why he’s leaving his wife or his faith, and we don’t know how to solve his problems with Christianity. But we can offer this hopefully helpful observation:

The tale of Joshua Harris seems to be one of overreaction.

Many would see the anti-dating message of I Kissed Dating Goodbye as an overreaction to Joshua’s own negative past dating experiences. The result was an alternative lifestyle for the evangelical subculture which proved awkward and unhelpful for many. And then in light of the hurt that the book caused, Josh seemingly overreacted again by discontinuing the book’s publication and by treating those who made it through the book intact as “survivors.” More overreaction was to come: Joshua has been “questioning [the Bible’s] specifics” about sexuality. But isn’t leaving his faith behind an overreaction?

Overreaction is easy. It’s easy to overreact to Joshua’s sad news. But the sky is not falling, even if another Christian celebrity has fallen. This kind of thing has happened many times before. Let’s trust in God and pray for Joshua, his wife and kids, and anyone whose faith in Christ might be shaken by his story up to this point.

Here are 4 reflections on Joshua Harris’s news and on raising teens to be disciples of Jesus today.

#1 – Let’s not overreact—youth is often a time for the cringe-worthy.

There are going to be emotional papercuts as you flip through the pages of old yearbooks. Can you believe I used to wear that? Can’t believe I thought that pose was cool. Don’t know what we were thinking when we pulled that stunt.

It’s the same with your journey as a Christian. Just as toddlers stumble before they walk, young Christians can say and do and think all sorts of things that might later make them cringe looking back. What you thought was coolest back then is probably going to feel dorkiest today—and that’s okay. It’s even okay to look back and laugh at yourself, even if it’s painful like a laugh after hernia surgery.

It’s the same with our journey as Evangelicals. Let’s face it: Evangelicals have made a lots of mistakes engaging the power of the emerging secular world. Many of our attempts at cultural engagement were clumsy, and many of our attempts at biblical purity were legalistic. In many ways, the teens of the late 90’s were like teens of all ages. They embraced what they now look back on as goofy fads.

At times, we have even made “perfect family” and “godly nation” into idols which replaced our dependence on God and our pursuit of His kingdom. Thank God that, in His grace, He lets idols crumble so we can place our trust in the God who is left standing.

#2 – The wake-up call to face secularism is getting louder and louder.

Many Christian parents have not properly prepared—and are currently still not preparing—their children for the emerging strength of the secular world. Easy answers for tough issues might “work” for a few years. But in the long run, easy answers leave blanks—about Bible difficulties, LGBTQ issues, the question of other religions—to be filled in later by secular authorities.

As Joshua Harris’s story reminds us, Satan is sly and patient. It’s not difficult to imagine what happens to kids who emerge from an evangelical bubble where they were protected from the real world instead of trained to live in it.

Cindy and I (Bobby) sought to protect our kids to a certain degree. But we thought it was also important to expose our children to the hard issues that true disciples face in this world. We made our share of mistakes, but we are glad, in retrospect, for their struggles and questions. They had to work through many difficulties and hardships for themselves, and they emerged with a stronger faith as a result.

High school, for example, was an almost daily battle ground for them as they sought to follow Jesus. Walking with them through the difficulties, we stuck to daily devotionals, open discussions about hard questions, and an emphasis on youth group and other Christian families. They got through those years and now, in retrospect, we see that we were helping to prepare them for the world that they live in as adults. However we do it, parents must prepare their children to live in the real world.

The world is changing—rapidly—all around us. Too many parents have been sheltering their children more than intentionally discipling them.

#3 – Parents must go back and focus on discipleship.

We can’t rely on the latest trendy Christian resource or cool Christian celebrity to train our kids in the faith.

Moses showed us the best path forward for parents. It is the “great commission” of the Old Testament, before Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20. It is recorded in Deuteronomy 6:6-9:

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

God envisions that parents will walk in close relationship with their children, intentionally discipling them. Parents—not this generation’s Joshua Harrises or the I Kissed Dating Goodbyes’s—are supposed to take the lead in teaching God’s word to their children. God’s plan is that in the midst of life-on-life relationships, parents teach the commandments of God’s Word to their children, with wisdom and practical insight. There is no substitute for this part of parenting. It is God’s plan “A.” My son Chad and Jason Houser joined with me (Bobby) to write a book for Zondervan that guides parents in these principles called Dedicated: Training Your Children to Trust and Follow Jesus.

A friend of mine (Bobby) recently wrote me the following note about how he is discipling his children through the hard issues of our day.

We have allowed our children to watch certain programs or movies which deal with issues that are a part of the world they live in. They are thankful because we always dialogue about how what we’re watching agrees or disagrees with Scripture. My son has a friend whose parents have been and continue to be very strict about things like this, and now that he’s in High School it seems to be pushing his friend away from his parents and has created a barrier regarding conversations they could be having about real life issues. Many parents focus on unhealthy prescriptions of rose-colored glasses instead of fashioning a pair of sturdy, clear Christian worldview lenses through real-life exposure and discussion. If we don’t do this, it’s likely that the carpet of our young people’s beliefs and convictions will get yanked out from underneath them the first time they sit in a philosophy or ethics class at university. We want our kids to understand what’s out there and discuss how it honors or dishonors God.

We think he is describing an approach to discipleship that must become the norm for Christian parents if we are to prepare our children for the world in which they will live.

#4 – Amongst all that we have to cringe about, here’s something beautiful.

As kids in the youth group, my (Daniel) friends and I were grateful for anything that brought “Christian” and “cool” together. Especially when it came to music, an area in which—I was convinced—my friends and I were amazingly cool. That night, we were going to play an actual concert for the campers, not just worship music. And this was not happy, clappy songs for the 4-6th graders. No, this was a rock concert for the high school week at camp. Being high schoolers ourselves, this was a big deal.

As epic as this was in our minds, the reality was embarrassing. I still remember arriving at the climactic moment of Jars of Clay’s “Crazy Times” (the measure before the guitar solo), when our drummer played a robotic, offbeat fill which ended in his cymbal falling over and crashing to the floor (might have been the only on-beat crash of the night). The electric solo ended up screeching up and down like a cat whose tail got stuck in the door. And though that was the most cringe-worthy moment of the concert for us, if we owned a video of the concert, I’m sure today we would be cringing through the whole thing.

There are lots of reasons for us who grew up in youth church culture to cringe. Tacky gospel tracts? Carman music videos from the 90’s? Cheesy Christian t-shirts? Cringe all you want.

No shortage of cringe-worthy content. Most recent of all, we cringe when we hear Joshua Harris’s sad story. Yet another high profile de-conversion!

But never forget this: However clumsy our earlier years, however checkered our past, Jesus has never left us. Not once.

It’s no small thing that Jesus has stayed faithful to us no less on our worst days than on our best days. Praise God that “If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).

And if He has remained faithful to us, then surely we can remain faithful to Him.

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