In 1997, Joshua Harris kissed dating goodbye, and his bestselling book on relationships shaped by biblical truths kicked off a craze for "courtship" in evangelical Christian circles. The young man who wrote that went on to write several more books, host youth conferences and become senior pastor at Covenant Life Church, a Maryland megachurch that recently separated from its umbrella organization, Sovereign Grace Ministries, in the midst of controversy. Harris lives in Gaithersburg with his wife and three children.
You wrote "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" in 1997. Would you change anything about the book now?
I think that the power of that book was that it was written by a 21-year-old single guy. Yes, I've learned a lot since then, and yes, I'm sure I could kind of chisel off some of the sharp edges of it. But it was very genuine, and it was ultimately a call for people to love God and others and let that transform the way they approach dating. So I would stand by that. But I also have seen ways in which people have applied it in very legalistic ways that are unhelpful. The people who have been helped most by that book are people who say, "Does this challenge anything about the way I'm living?" The people who are least helped by the book are those that have someone else come and say, "You have to do this."
Covenant Life has been through hard times lately. Has this made you doubt God?
The challenges we've faced as a church have been real challenges. My decisions have caused a lot of people to be upset with me, for different reasons. It hasn't caused me to doubt God; it's caused me to see how often my faith is based on my circumstances, instead of realizing that God is sufficient and good even when things around us aren't going the way we would like. A defining reality for me is what Scripture teaches in Hebrews 12, that God is our father, and that a sign that he loves us is that he disciplines us, he takes us through hardship to build character in us that could not be shaped apart from difficulty. So I am trying to, on a daily basis, receive the challenges as expressions of God's fatherly care.
Do you ever just want to throw up your hands and quit?
I definitely have been tempted to want to run away at times. But -- this is an odd source of encouragement -- I watched the movie "Rango," where Johnny Depp plays a lizard, and he says, "No man can walk out on his own story." And I thought, "That is a good truth for me." I think something dies inside of you when you start running away from difficulty instead of believing that God wants to meet you in the midst of that difficulty. Several years ago I felt the Lord say to me: "This is your post. I want you to stay here." I didn't understand why that was important at the time, but that has steeled my soul in the last couple years.
Covenant Life has been known for a unique blend of neo-Calvinism and charismatic worship. Do you think the charismatic element is fading away?
I am committed to fighting for it, because I think it is utterly biblical, and I think I'd have to tear pages out of my Bible. It's difficult for several reasons. A lot of charismatic teachers emphasize and teach things that I would not agree with. So the word "charismatic" is somewhat tainted. But what's very clear to me is that God has given us his Holy Spirit, that we can't live the Christian life apart from his empowerment, and that in increasing ways the only way to reach a world that has rejected God is to believe that God is present and powerful and still works in the ways that he worked in the days of the early church. As our church has grown over the years, our celebration of God's sovereignty in salvation -- our reformed theology -- has drawn people from a non-charismatic background. So we do have a clashing of church cultures at times. It takes patience for everyone, and teaching, and a reminder that our charismatic convictions are not just a style, but they're actually rooted in God's word.
At your core, what is one of your defining beliefs?
One of my defining beliefs is that Jesus Christ has taken all of my guilt before God, and that he has been raised from the dead. That gives incredible hope and meaning to every day of my life -- that nothing done in this world is wasted when it's done for him and his glory, and that there will be a day of justice and reward for the entire world. So how I live today matters. And I'm loved by God, amazingly.
- Liz Essley