Note from the Editor: This article was originally published in December 2017. At the time, Joshua Harris was still a professing Christian, although he was going through a time of self-reflection and reconsidering some of the theology to which he had previously adhered. The following article gives insight into the reasons Harris left the church he was leading in Gaithersburg, Maryland and why he decided to go to seminary at that time.
For many ministry leaders, one of the scariest questions is “what if I’m wrong?” Many pastors lie awake at night worried about staffing choices, building campaigns, and pastoral care conversations, and what would happen if they guide people the wrong way.
This fear has been Joshua Harris’s reality for the past few years. A former megachurch pastor and author of multiple books including I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Joshua Harris resigned as lead pastor of Covenant Life Church in January 2015 to pursue a seminary education, and as he told the Washington Post, become familiar with other Christian cultures outside the insular world he worked in. In a recent TEDx talk, Harris discusses how the fear of admitting “I don’t know enough” was soon replaced by the even deeper terror of “what if my book that influenced thousands of people was wrong?”
Joshua Harris: Face-to-Face with critics
“How hard is it for you to consider you’ve gotten something wrong?” Harris opens his TEDx talk asking. “What if something you’ve gotten wrong could affect your livelihood, or your involvement in a community, or even your own sense of identity? I wish these were just theoretical questions, but they’re very real for me right now and I’m wrestling with them in a very public way.”
When Harris left his pastorate to attend seminary, he was surrounded by fellow students who had grown up reading I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Harris’s bestselling book was well-known both in and outside of the evangelical community during the late 90s, with Harris at one point being invited on to comedian Bill Maher’s national show Politically Incorrect where he sat across from a relatively young and unknown actor named Ben Affleck.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye claimed that the worldly concept of dating would fundamentally steer people into sexual temptation, selfishness, broken hearts, and divorce. Because of that, Harris’s book pretty strongly suggests the only Biblical way to “date” is through courtship. Whether the book’s claims are right, wrong, or somewhere in the middle, in many evangelical cultures the book became a near-mandate for “healthy” Christian relationships, where it was either said or implied that if you followed the right rules you’d meet the love of your life and have great marital sex forever. If you didn’t … you’d experience something less.
At seminary, Harris for the first time saw the faces of people who told him they’d been hurt by his book, and he describes this moment as a fundamental changing point in his life.
Opening Up the Conversation
“A lot of [my classmates] shared stories of the effect my book had, and a lot of them were negative,” Harris remembers. “I couldn’t just write them off as angry trolls, because these were my friends, and so I listened. And then one day, on Twitter of all places, this woman wrote me and said ‘your book was used against me like a weapon.’ I answered and said ‘I’m so sorry.’
“It was such a simple, human interaction, but that interaction led to a conversation which led to a friendship, and that friendship changed me. She said something I”ll never forget – that her conversation with me on twitter was the first time a religious leader had ever acknowledged getting something wrong and apologized to her.”
From these experiences Harris opened up his website for people to share their unedited experiences—positive or negative—with his book, which led both Harris and a fellow grad student who had also been hurt by Harris’s book to begin work on a documentary that explores the impact Harris’s book had on dozens of people. As Harris has leaned into the fear of saying “I’m wrong,” he says there are three main lessons he’s learned.
Evolution always involves death.
“We talk about wanting to evolve – become a smarter or loving or compassionate version of ourselves. But think about what that requires – there’s a lot of death that takes place,” Harris says. “Evolution is never a painless process. It’s a dying to old ways of thinking and old habits. Maybe old relationships. Evolving personally involves admitting you got things wrong and letting those things die.
It takes time.
“You can’t rush through the pain of being wrong. Often we want to get through it as quick as possible and go back to being right. Or we give these lame apologies: ‘to anyone who was offended …’ as though being offended was their fault. We want to get past it, deal with the tension and messiness of it, and get back to being right. But if you rush past that you won’t grow. It sucks, it really does. But in that tension and facing up to it, that’s the sign that I’m growing.”
Admitting you are wrong will tick some people off.
“I wish I could say people will come by and pat you on the back for being humble, but expect resistance. There are people who want you to stay the same … because if you admit you’re wrong and they agreed with you before, then that by implication makes them wrong too.”