Craig Groeschel, considered one of the most influential pastors in the country, wants to help Christians open their eyes to all the "spiritual trash" that has accumulated in their lives.
Through his new book, Soul Detox, the LifeChurch.tv pastor makes the case that many believers are absorbing toxins from culture, relationships, and habits that pollute their relationship with God and they don't even know it.
"Everything that we allow into our minds, hearts, and lives – everything that we spend our time and money on – has an impact on how we grow, or don't grow, spiritually," he writes. "Just as we are what we eat physically, we are also what we consume spiritually. If we don't monitor and adjust our diet accordingly, our souls are in danger of absorbing more and more lethal poison."
Groeschel recently spoke with The Christian Post about his new book and his hope for Christians to live for what matters rather than settling for a cheap substitute.
CP: So you started the Soul Detox sermon series last month?
Groeschel: 2 weeks ago
CP: Have you gotten any reaction yet from the congregation?
Groeschel: Yeah, you know the driving thought that we're not a body with a soul but we're a soul with a body, learning that just as we are what we eat physically we are what we consume spiritually. I think a lot of people are really responding well to that. It kind of seems to be a deep ministry going on with a lot of people.
CP: It seems like the topic of Christians embracing their identity as Jesus followers and distiniguishing themselves from the wolrd is a passion of yours. I noticed a similar theme with your other books like Christian Atheist and Weird. What is feeding this passion? Are you tired of seeing Christians not fully embracing their identity?
Groeschel: I think that's part of it. It seems to me like Christians are settling for a life that's so much less than what God intended and that we're easily seduced by culture into accepting things that may be harmful to our souls when God has such a better way to live. I'm really trying to help people see, if you listen to the message or have read the first pages of the book, the story I talk about where I grew up in a home where both my parents smoked when I was a kid, I didn't realize I was inhaling poison and didn't know I smelled like smoke for 18 years of my life until I moved out of the house then came back in to visit, then I realized this place really smells bad. I think so many of us Christians don't realize we're inhaling all sorts of things that are harmful to us. If we recognize it and really let God's Word pierce our hearts I think we can live in a way that's much more pleasing to God and much more helpful to others.
CP: You seem to be giving the congregation that "out of the house" experience so that they can see this is contaminating me.
CP: Pastor Tim Keller had an illustration that I think fits here. He was actually talking about marriage and divorce but he said, if you go out into the rain even if you have an umbrella or raincoat on you'll still get wet. He said we're living in a corrosive culture and it's really tough, you have all these things thrown at you. Would you say it's possible to live a clean life in a polluted world?
Groeschel: I think Tim's illustration is good. I think that because by nature we're sinners, living a life free of sin is ultimately impossible. But I do think there's a level of purity both through Christ and practically living as well that's attainable, that's really greater than most of us realize.
CP: You say in the book that without being fully aware, many Christians end up being desensitized to what's right and wrong and starting to believe lies to be truths and truths to be lies. Are you seeing that play out more today? Like with teens and their sex lives or with the culture wars?
Groeschel: I think things are probably getting worse in those areas. Because we're bombarded with so many messages through the different means of media and our kids seem to be [targeted] younger and younger …. I think they're battling even more of an issue with their identity, probably even more vulnerable than we were and I was pretty vulnerable too, maybe even more vulnerable to finding their identity and approval of others in places that aren't helpful instead of finding their identity in who they are in Christ.
CP: Would you say it's because there are just so many entertainment options and influences today, that it's easier for them to find their identity in something else?
Groeschel: I do think there are so many more distractions today obviously than there were even 5 or 10 years ago. I think we're bombarded with more messages than ever before through media and through culture that really tells us what we need to be happy, what we need to be popular. I think those messages can be really confusing and poisonous to all of us if we're not praying to recognize what part of those messages are true and to know what is true.
CP: You mentioned that our responsibility is to discern what we let into our lives and that everything we do should reflect our commitment to Christ. I don't think Christians would want to be held that accountable.
Groeschel: You're probably right. I think most would want to believe that we're not that accountable. But Scirpture says we're going to be accountable for every word we speak so the level of accountability to God is probably going to be …. His grace is probably going to be greater than we realize and yet what we're held accountable to and even the rewards may be greater than we realize as well. Meaning ultimately, the way we live today and what we believe today will have a greater impact on our eternity than we can imagine. Ultimately it's harder for us to be eternal-minded in a world with so many temporal distractions. We need to learn, by the power of God's Word and the Spirit, to overcome those and stay focused on the true prizes as best we can.
CP: What would you say to Christians on what they'd be missing out on by not fully living for Christ and immersing themselves in this world?
Groeschel: I think so much of what we think is the "fun, happy, meaningful" life is simply a substitute for the real thing. It's kind of like money promises happiness and it promises security and in reality only God can give us happiness and only God can give us security. I think any time we settle for a substitute we're missing out on what's real. There's having a relationship centered around Christ, that's fun. Having a ministry where we make a difference more than just trying to make money, that's fun. Living for a higher purpose and calling, that's fun. Serving people in the name of Jesus, that's fun. Even loving and forgiving and doing life together when it's hard and messy with people and still loving, that's ultimately fun. I think when we redefine what success is and what meaning of life is according to God's standards we really can live a life that's infinitely more meaningful than what most of us are settling for.
CP: How long would you say it took for you to realize that?
Groeschel: I still think I struggle with the lies every day. I certainly have not arrived at all. It's kind of the closer I get to Christ, the more aware I am of my shortcomings and sinfulness so I wouldn't even claim to be close to it. I would say that the closer I am to Christ the less I desire the things that this world offers and the more I drift from him, the more I crave the things this world offers. It's kind of a daily and oftentimes hour by hour, minute by minute choice to try to stay focused on Christ and what's eternal because it's so easy to get sucked into the things that aren't of him and for him.
CP: Would you say the main cause of all this contamination is a lack of time that Christians actually spend with God whether it's praying or reading the Bible?
Groeschel: I think certainly a lack of time with God would contribute to being vulnerable to sin … I also think it's sometimes not taking seriously what God says that we may spend time with Him but not take it seriously or believe we're supposed to obey. I think it's both. Learning what He says and also taking it seriously.
CP: Do you think pastors or churches contribute to the problem of contamination by bringing in bits of culture to sermons or worship songs or simply by not calling for more commitment?
Groeschel: I don't think that culture is bad just like money's not bad. But there are certain messages … for example a movie can be a horrible influence or it can be an incredible influence. So the medium isn't what's bad, it's the message behind the medium that we need to watch out for. By bringing some kind of illustration into a sermon I don't think that's harmful, I think it can be helpful unless we're bringing the wrong message into a sermon.
CP: You identify "toxic religion" which focuses on behavior and what I do instead of what Jesus did. But do you think there are also dangers in just emphasizing the salvation of the soul? For example, in a recent interview The Christian Post did with Ken Myers, of Mars Hill Audio Journal, he identified the biggest challenge to the church as not the outside culture but the culture of the church – he said "we have reduced the Gospel to an abstract message of salvation that can be believed without having any necessary consequences for how we live."
Groeschel: I think it's a fair question. I don't think the message of salvation alone leads people to live however they want. It's a little bit like Romans 6 raises the question, shall we go on sinning that grace may abound; by no means if God's going to forgive us, why does it matter? To me the difference is in the root of the approach which is legalism or religion says "if I obey God, God will love me." But I believe the Gospel's message says more: "Because God loves me, I want to obey Him." So I think a person whose heart's truly been forgiven, someone whose soul's been saved is going to have a desire to grow spiritually and to obey unless they start to believe lies or are deceived. That's why being grounded in God's Word is so important. That's a fair question and we should let the tension speak and not just assume I got someone to pray a prayer and so they're good to go. I think there's a lot more to truly being saved than that.
CP: Should churches be challenging their congregations more in terms of transforming their whole lives?
Groeschel: I think unquestionably we should be raising the standard in the church, and by that letting God's Word speak plainly because His Word is living and is active and it convicts, it helps to purify. I don't know if that answers your question. Unquestionably today we have to present God's Word clearly and not water it down and not try to be so clever in our presentation that we lose the essence of what it says.
CP: So what role should pastors play in this "Soul Detox" process?
Groeschel: I think the first place we start is with ourselves and recognize that we all have virtually unlimited ability to deceive ourselves and to recognize in our own lives the areas that God needs to work on. I think as we're continuing to grow in Christ, then we're going to do a better job of leading others as well. But in the church, I'd like to call it, we call it the paradox at our church: we really do want to help people feel comfortable in the church, meaning they feel welcomed and loved but not at the expense of softening the Gospel. So we want them to feel simultaneous comfort and confrontation, that they're comforted by loving, accepting people but they're also confronted with the truth of God's Word.
It's just like when Jesus came full of grace and truth, if it's all truth and no grace we'll fall into legalism. If we fall into all grace and no truth, we'll fall into do whatever you want gospel. So I think as churches we need to teach God's Word with grace and truth and practically we see that as comfort and confrontation.
CP: How do you think Christianity or the world will change if all Christians went through this "Soul Detox?"
Groeschel: First of all, I think the people would have a deeper intimacy with God that would overflow into every area of their lives. I think relationally we'd be transformed, because we'd be loving out of pure motives and out of truths rather than out of our own insecurities. And then ultimately I think we would live for the things that last and matter instead of living for selfish and temporary desires. I don't think this book is the answer to the whole world. God's Word and His power is ultimately everything. But I think this would be a big step forward in our intimacy with God that would overflow into effective ministry and everything we do.
CP: Last question. You have 15 church campuses now, you're one of the most influential pastors in the country, you also have the YouVersion Bible app that's being downloaded everywhere, and books, so you've accomplished a lot already. What's next for you?
Groeschel: You know, the only thing I'm passionate about more than anything else is building the church and I feel like serving pastors and turning messages into a book is kind of a helpful overflow of the ministry. But all I dream about and wake up thinking about is building the church. Sometimes people ask what are we doing next that we're excited about. Our philosophy is to just to be in the ready position. I don't have the ability to predict five years into the future, not even a year into the future. So we just try to make sure we've got extra time and margin financially to grow at whatever opportunities God brings and YouVersion was one of those that we just felt was the right idea at the right time that God would love. Right now it's just continuing to do what we're doing which is evangelizing people, getting God's Word out, building leaders and starting churches. If I get to do that for the rest of my life, I'll be a happy guy.
CP: Even if you work on weekends? (mentioned in the book)
Groeschel: Even if you work on weekends, right.