A Conversation With Josh McDowell
July 1, 2011 - While in college, Josh McDowell set out to disprove the claims of Christianity, only to be confronted with the truth of Jesus Christ. That changed him forever, setting him on a course to proclaim Christ's crucifixion and resurrection.
Interview by Richard Greene
“Evangelism isn’t about church growth numbers or building an organization, it’s about leading people into relationship with God.”
So writes Josh McDowell in his latest book, “The Unshakable Truth.” Though the 71-year-old has spoken to more than 10 million people in 118 countries, he may be best known for his books “Evidence That Demands a Verdict” and “More Than a Carpenter.” While in college, McDowell set out to disprove the claims of Christianity, only to be confronted with the truth of Jesus Christ. And that changed him forever, setting him on a course to proclaim Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
In this interview, coming on the heels of celebrating his 40th wedding anniversary with his wife, Dottie, McDowell shares his heart and practical tips gleaned over five decades of evangelistic outreach.
Q: What motivated you to set out to disprove the claims of Christ?
A: There were two aspects associated with this. One was born out of deep anger and bitterness. I was sexually abused repeatedly when I was between the ages of 6 and 13 by a cook that lived with us on the farm. My parents wouldn’t believe me, and they didn’t stop it. That built up tremendous resentment toward God. Why would He let me go through that?
At the same time, my father was an alcoholic. He would beat my mother to a bloody pulp. As a little kid, I would be kicking him, screaming, “When I’m strong enough, I’ll kill you.”
So I grew up believing that fathers hurt. People would say, “Your Heavenly Father loves you.” That didn’t bring joy; that brought pain. I couldn’t discern the difference between a Heavenly Father and an earthly father.
On the intellectual side, in my first couple of weeks at Kellogg College in Michigan, I noticed this group of about eight students and two professors, and their lives were significantly different. They seemed to have a genuine love for each other and for others.
One day I asked them, “What changed your lives?” This young lady looked at me and said just two words, “Jesus Christ.”
I retorted, “Don’t give me that garbage! I want nothing to do with the Bible, with the church, with Christianity, with Christians or anything.” It was as if she tapped into a volcano, and I just exploded. She didn’t hesitate. She said, “I never said any of those things changed me. I told you the Person of Jesus Christ.”
I apologized. They challenged me to intellectually examine the claims of Christ. I thought that was a joke. I really did.
But I left the university and traveled throughout the U.S., Germany, France, Switzerland and England, gathering evidence to write my first book against Christianity.
Finally, after I considered all my research, while sitting at a small museum library in London on a Friday night about 6:30, I just said out loud, “It’s true, it’s true!” I knew those claims were historically accurate and reliable. And that led me to a point of trusting Christ just four months later.
Q: What changed you in the process and led to your conversion?
A: The more I researched the Scriptures, the more I realized that the points I was trying to disprove were indeed supported with ample historical evidence. That was also true with the resurrection. I concluded that for me to reject the resurrection historically would take more faith than to accept it.
Back in Michigan, I came in contact with the pastor from Factoryville Bible Church in Athens. He always answered my questions. And that’s when I trusted in Jesus Christ as my Savior and surrendered my life to Him as Lord. I then enrolled in Wheaton College and completed my degree.
Q: How did your commitment to Christ impel you to want to witness?
A: I started out wanting to tell anything that moved. But I got my start in skidrow missions. This is so dumb, but I figured if I could go and talk with men 30 minutes before they ate and hold their attention, I could speak to anyone. I went to Battle Creek, Grand Rapids, Detroit, then Chicago, everywhere. God made me effective.
The Lord then led me to join the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ in 1961. I was first sent to Latin America. Now, this was during the time of the Cold War. Everybody feared the Soviet Union, and communism was a force to be reckoned with. So after I became a Christian, I thought, You want to make an impact in the world, start with communism.
And so they had me travel throughout Latin America, debating Marxists and Fascists. God granted much fruit!
Q: But years later, God did open doors for you to minister in the former Soviet bloc countries.
A: Long before communism collapsed in 1990, we were working with underground printing presses throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, printing hundreds of thousands of copies of “Evidence That Demands a Verdict” and “More Than a Carpenter.” Pastors told us that next to the Bible itself, these two books helped them in their ministries of evangelism and discipleship.
So when the Berlin Wall did come down, people asked us, “How did you explode on the scene so fast?” Well, the reason was that we had been there for 15 years in underground printing. That then led to millions of books being distributed throughout the former Soviet Union.
This was followed by the founding of Operation Carelift. We were able to help meet incredible physical and spiritual needs in orphanages, hospitals, schools and prisons in those same countries.
Now, we’re doing the same thing, quietly, in another region of the world.
Q: Is the passion still there all these years later?
A: Oh yeah.
A: People are still lost, the Gospel is still true, Heaven is still desirable, the commandment is still there—“Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15, NIV)—and my heart is still in love with Christ. So, nothing has changed.
Q: Can you share some practical steps to help believers give away their faith?
A: First of all, make sure your life backs up your words of proclamation. If people don’t see it in your life and in your attitudes, no matter how well you present the Gospel, your words will fall on deaf ears.
Second, listen to the other person. Ask him or her, “What is your spiritual journey?” Do this before you share your own. This communicates that you care.
Third, declare biblical truth within the context of your own testimony. I share my story, but I proclaim truth within it.
Next, be ready to defend your faith. As 1 Peter 3:15 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (NIV). Which simply means, when somebody asks, “Why do you believe in Jesus?” give an answer. “Why do you believe in the Bible?” Give an answer.
But when you witness, make sure you use Scripture because God promises to honor His Word.
And finally, call for a decision. That’s where most people miss out. We tell our story and everything else, but we don’t ask for a decision. That’s essential!
Q: What role do the Holy Spirit and prayer play in that process?
A: Nobody will ever come to Christ if the Holy Spirit doesn’t bring about a conviction. You cannot argue anyone into the Kingdom of God. Now, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have good arguments. But only as God the Holy Spirit uses our witness will anyone ever come to Christ.
I think every moment we should be filled with the Holy Spirit by faith, and that is a conscious choice. The Holy Spirit lives within us, but He wants to live out through us. Basically, quenching the Holy Spirit means we’re not doing something the Holy Spirit is leading us to do, while grieving the Holy Spirit means we’re doing something the Holy Spirit is not leading us to do. So, if we’re not quenching or griveing the Spirit, we’re filled with the Holy Spirit.
Then prayer. I try to be praying all the time. It’s a constant attitude of prayer with every person I meet, with everything I do. Prayer unleashes the power of God.
Q: Can you share one example of how you witness and have led someone to Christ?
A: Sure. I was at this one college in California. There was quite a stir on campus. Instead of several hundred coming out to hear me speak, several thousand attended, and the campus wasn’t used to that. So a campus reporter came to interview me.
He asked, “How do you become a Christian?” I said, “Well, not by going to church. Not by being baptized. Not by taking communion. Not by being sincere. Not because of your parents.”
He pressed, “How?” I replied, “Well, I’m not going to tell you.” He said, “What?” I said, “No, find out for yourself.” Again, he said, “What?”
So he walked away. The next day on the front page of the college newspaper, they ran the headline, “What is a Christian?” And the reporter wrote out my entire conversation, and he said, “To this day, I can’t find the answer.”
A little later, the guy called me up. “Can we get together?” I was waiting for him. “You bet,” I said.
When we met, I told him that a Christian is one who has turned from his sins, placed his trust in Christ as Savior and Lord and invited Him by faith into his life. So you now have a relationship, not a religion.
Right there, the student prayed with me. And I mean his life was turned upside down. Three days later, a different headline ran on page one: “I’ve got the answer.” This time, he went through his entire testimony and my answer to him as to what a Christian is and how to become one.
That brought more people to Christ than all my speaking on that campus ever did. With that particular student, I forced him to search on his own. But I was always available at the right time to give an answer.
Q: You and Sean will be teaching at The Cove in mid-July on “Unshakable Truth, Relevant Faith.” What will be the take-away value of your seminar?
A: Young people are alarmingly walking away from the church in droves. Probably 80 percent.
I believe by accident we not only discovered why, but historically we’ve discovered the answer. We can’t take credit for this, it was by accident—because one man, 1,900 years ago, had the solution.
What Sean and I will do is paint historically what the answer is, and every parent and grandparent at the seminar will sit up and say, “This is what we’ve got to pass on to our children and grandkids.”
The biggest takeaway value will be how we can impact our children and grandchildren for Christ.
Q: Now you’ve got me intrigued!
A: Let me tell you, I’m excited. You’re just going to have to be there to find out.
Interviewed by Richard Greene, Assistant Editor.