WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’re listening in on my conversation with the former lead singer of the vocal group ZoeGirl, and now Christian apologist and author, Alisa Childers.
In recent years, lots of Christian musicians and other former Christian celebrities have turned their backs on Christianity. I think of Josh Harris, whose book I Kissed Dating Goodbye was a best-seller 20 years ago. Bart Campolo, son of the famous evangelist Tony Campolo and a former evangelical leader in his own right, has renounced Christianity. Jonathan Steingard, former guitarist and singer of the Christian band Hawk Nelson is a name you can add to that list.
Others don’t fully renounce Christianity, but attempt to re-define it. People on that list include Rob Bell, Brian McClaren, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Rachel Held Evans, and Jen Hatmaker.
But my guest today, Alisa Girard Childers, took another path. She was raised in the Christian music world. Her father Chuck Girard was the founder of the seminal Christian rock band Love Song. Alisa herself had a successful career in Christian music as a founder of the band ZoeGirl, which sold more than a million records and had multiple chart-topping hits.
What Alisa saw during and after her musical career created a spiritual crisis for her, too, But instead of rejecting the Christian faith of her upbringing, she sought to understand it in a deeper way. That journey brought her to a deeper understanding of Christianity and has resulted in her new book Another Gospel? A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity.
I recently spoke with Alisa Childers about her new book. Because of the COVID pandemic, we were not able to be face-to-face. Alisa spoke to me from her home outside of Nashville. I was in my home studio in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Alisa Childers, welcome to the program. It’s great to chat with you. I’ve been following you on social media for a while. I hope that doesn’t sound creepy when say it that way, but —
ALISA CHILDERS, GUEST: No, not at all. Thanks for having me on, Warren. It’s great to be with you.
SMITH: I want to talk about your new book, which I found very nourishing and I’m grateful for that book, by the way, Another Gospel? A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity. We’re going to get to the book, I promise, but I can’t resist asking you to get started, how’s your dad? I think a lot of my listeners are going to know or may know that your father is Chuck Girard, who was one of the pioneers of contemporary Christian music. And a founder of the band Love Song and had a crazy career. Is he doing all right? Doing well?
CHILDERS: He’s doing great. Yeah, both my parents are, they moved to Nashville I want to say about 15 years ago. So they’ve been living in the Nashville area. And so they get to be around their grandbabies and all of that, but yeah, they’re doing great. Dad’s still doing ministry, still singing in churches and doing music. So, yeah.
SMITH: That’s great. Well, I want to start, Alisa, with the lifelong Christian part of your book title. You, as I just have already alluded to, and we’ve talked about briefly, you were raised in a Christian family. You’re the daughter of Chuck Girard who is pretty well known in Christian music and, you know, well known for his Christian faith. And you yourself were a part of a Christian band, Zoe Girl, back 20-ish or so years ago. So you’re no stranger to Christianity. And yet you had sort of a crisis of faith in early adulthood. Can you tell me about that crisis of faith? What precipitated it and how that led you on a journey to write this book?
CHILDERS: Yeah, well, like you mentioned, I have loved Jesus as far back as I can remember. I actually don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of the gospel and in love with the Bible. I’ve always loved the Bible ever since I was a little kid. I would read it and study it. But the one element that I wasn’t really exposed to a lot growing up was more of the intellectual arguments that have to do with Christianity. I wasn’t really aware of this rich intellectual tradition that goes back 2,000 years. So I hadn’t really looked at any of that stuff. I hadn’t really encountered any kind of a doubt, honestly. My parents did such a great job of discipling me and showing me a very authentic Christianity that was not just lip service, but the real thing. And so I guess I just didn’t really have a reason to doubt it. I loved Jesus. I loved the gospel. There’s nothing in me that didn’t want it to be true. And so it really wasn’t until after I had spent the better part of a decade as a part of Zoe Girl, as you mentioned, and we had come off the road. At this point, we were all married and I had a new baby. And so I was invited to be a part of an inner circle type study group at a local church here that my husband and I had been attending for about eight months. And I was really excited about that because we were going to be digging deep into the matters of faith. We were going to be reading books and discussing, and I was excited at the thought that I would be learning something I’d never really learned before. And so it was really in the context of that class that the pastor revealed just to this kind of small group of us, that he was actually agnostic. And so he wasn’t sure what he believed about Christianity. And so he was bringing in all these skeptical books and these skeptical claims about the reliability of the Bible and the authorship and the accuracy of the manuscripts. And it really shook my faith because if you would’ve asked me before this class, why do you think the Bible is God’s word? I would’ve just said, well, just because I know it is or the Bible says, so I would’ve said something like that. And so when he was bringing these really, what seemed to me at the time, to be really compelling arguments against the reliability of the Bible, I felt like the foundation of my faith was getting knocked out from under me. And so while I was in the class, I would try to argue with him and try to debate him as best I could. Probably didn’t do a very good job, but I tried. But once we left the class, that’s when all of the doubts that he had planted really began to take root in my heart and they really grew. And so it threw me into a really dark night of doubt and some deconstruction. I didn’t know to call it that, at the time. It was just sort of happening to me. I didn’t want it to happen, but I found myself not just questioning the actual things I believed about God and Jesus and the Bible, but I was really even questioning if God existed at all or if this was just some sort of feel good chemicals that release in my brain every time I sing worship songs or something like that. And so I was just in a really dark night of the soul. And so through the vehicle of apologetics, God rebuilt my faith and so here I am today. I never would have dreamed that I would have written a book about it, but here I am.
SMITH: Yeah, here you are, indeed. And we will get to some of those answers in your book in just a minute, because, as you say, that period of time where you questioned your faith, where you had sort of a crisis of faith turned you to apologetics and you got some really great answers and you put them in your book. But I want to talk before we get there about another episode that you recount in your book, which I found particularly fascinating because it does relate to what I sometimes call the Christian industrial complex. You were a part of Zoe Girl. You were raised in that Christian milieu. And you talk about being in the green room looking out on the stage when an evangelist, who was touring or was a part of this particular festival, was issuing an altar call. Can you talk about that story and why that episode also kind of put a pebble in your shoes, so to speak, about your faith.
CHILDERS: Tank you for asking about that, because that was one part of the book that I really wanted to convey just because I think when a lot of the critiques were coming in about evangelicalism about, oh, you know, maybe the mid-2000s or late 90s, early 2000s, I related with a lot of those critiques because I had seen a lot of things in evangelicalism that I just didn’t understand, or I didn’t think were good things. And so I do remember one time we were doing this summer festival and I was in the green room. And the way that this green room was set up is if I just sat at the table, I was looking out the window right over to the stage, which, you know, wasn’t that far away. And this pastor was giving this altar call and it was really impassioned and maybe even a little angry. And he was doing the whole hell and brimstone thing. And really it felt to me like it was really emotionally manipulative and he just kept it going and going and going and going. And, to put that in context, I think that was coming on the tail end of just a lifetime of seeing a lot of stuff like that. Not that there’s not a genuine version of that, because of course there is. I know many people who walked forward at a Billy Graham crusade or Harvest crusade and responded to the gospel and so I don’t mean to cast a shadow on that. But there’s this other thing that just in the book I say, it kind of felt like those knockoff Louis Vuitton bags you’d buy in New York on Bleecker street there, where you get all the knockoff merchandise. And it just seemed like it really wasn’t about salvation, but it was about filling out a card or being able to say the number of people that responded, and then everybody would get all excited and then this emotional crescendo would happen. And then the altar call would be over. And then I was just left wondering, well, what happens now? What about all those kids that walk to the front, for whatever reason—if it was genuine or just because they just felt like if they don’t, they’re going to go to hell, I have to walk forward to this, you know, the front of this stage in order to call myself a Christian. And I began to really be concerned that the actual gospel wasn’t really getting communicated. That it really became more about, well just say these magic words or pray this prayer or walk forward. And this is all you need to do. And then nothing really happens after that. And so that was one of the pebbles in my shoe, honestly, not about the gospel, but about the way Christians were living out the gospel in the world, I guess you could say, or in that particular cultural moment.
SMITH: Welcome back I’m Warren Smith. And today you’re listening in on my conversation with Alisa Childers. Alisa Childers is a popular speaker at apologetics in Christian worldview conferences. She’s written for The Gospel Coalition, The Stream, and Decision Magazine. Her blog post Girl Wash Your Face: What Rachel Hollis Gets Right and Wrong received more than a million page views. Let’s get right back to our conversation.
So Alisa Childers, those two events that you talked about there in the first segment getting involved in that progressive church or that Bible study led by this progressive pastor and that experience that you had while you were still a member of Zoe Girl, I guess you could say, prepared you for this crisis, this dark night of the soul that you experienced, sent you on a journey to find out if what you believed was actually true. But even before that, you, in some ways, had to really codify what you believe. You spend a fair amount of time in the book talking about creeds and you, in particular, talk about first Corinthians 15:3-5, which you say is—and correct me if I’m misrepresenting you here, Alisa—you say is kind of the very first creed. It really clearly identifies what it is that Christians believe in and in fact what they must believe in order to call themselves Christians. Do I have that right?
CHILDERS: Yeah, I think that’s right. And the reason I formulated it that way is because when I went through this time of doubt, one thing that I observed from my classmates and other people that were in this same scenario with me is that many of them were walking away from their faith, or they were changing the definition of what they thought Christianity was. But they were doing that based on a bad experience they had had with the church or whatever stream of Christianity they grew up in. So, there were people in the class that were going through doubt because their prayers weren’t answered, or they had been promised that if they prayed for the sick, that they would be healed and then it didn’t happen. And so now they were doubting their faith. And then others had been in really legalistic streams of Christianity. Others had encountered abuse, just spiritual abuse or church abuse. And so I observed that and I thought, okay, if I’m really doubting whether or not this is true and then if I’m going to walk away from it, or if I’m going to think that it’s the wrong thing, or we have it wrong, I want to go back to the beginning and figure out what the real thing actually is, because I had to be intellectually honest about that even though I had a great experience with Christianity growing up. Maybe what I grew up in wasn’t the real thing. So I went on a journey to discover what I call historic Christianity. And what that is is going back to the beginning. What did Jesus and the apostles pass down? What did the earliest Christians think Christianity was? And then we can start tracing that through history. So you’re right. What I didn’t know, I was completely unaware of this until I audited some seminary classes, is that our New Testament contains dozens of creeds that actually predate those New Testament books themselves. And so this creed that you mentioned from I Corinthians 15, most scholars, including the most skeptical and atheist scholars, will all grant that this creed goes back to anywhere from three to seven years of Jesus’ death. And so this is the earliest sort of iteration of what Christians believe, what this was formulated to be Christianity. And so when Paul communicates that creed in I Corinthians, he says, this is of first importance. So this is the most important thing. These are the things we cannot agree to disagree about. And so that seemed like a really good starting point for me. And so in this creed, you have that Jesus died for our sins. Now that just stood out to me because I had just spent months in a class being told that the atonement is cosmic child abuse. The idea that God would require the sacrifice of his son, well, that makes God a divine child abuser. And so it was just stunning to see in arguably the earliest creed in Christianity saying that Jesus died not just to satisfy the whim of an angry mob or not just for speaking truth to power, but there was a heavenly purpose for that. He died for our sins. And then it says in accordance with the scripture. So there’s this connection with the Old Testament scriptures. Then it goes on to talk about him being buried and in accordance with the scriptures. And so Paul is saying like, now, of course, there’s so much more to Christianity than that, but it can’t be any less than that. So, any movement that comes along saying, you know, the atonement is cosmic child abuse. We can’t view that Jesus died for our sins, and we want to lower our view of the Bible and the scriptures and the physical resurrection doesn’t matter, any movement that comes along and is starting to say things like that is not in line with the very definition of Christianity as communicated through that creed by Paul. And so that was kind of my starting point.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, if I could summarize, Alisa, and again, correct me if I’m wrong, is that what you’re really suggesting here is that a lot of people walk away from the church, not because they really understand what the church teaches and reject it, or because they have examined the claims of scripture and have rejected those. But because of, as you say, some traumatic experience. In fact, in the book, you call it post traumatic church syndrome. It becomes this emotional response. And you said that looking carefully at this first creed not only told you what you should believe, but also it kind of guided your journey from there on. You could look very carefully yet, OK, did Jesus really rise from the dead? Are the scriptures reliable? Why must we believe in the atonement? Is the Virgin birth an important part of that? So, in some ways, coming to those conclusions that there really is an intellectual tradition here and that it can be studied and understood was part of what put you on your journey as well. Do I have that right?
CHILDERS: That was spot on. In fact to the point where I would say that, you know, starting with those early creeds, and here are creeds embedded in the New Testament as well that talk about Jesus’ deity. So, we read all of these online articles and clickbait articles trying to claim that the deity of Jesus was a late invention or the resurrection was some sort of later tradition. But if you go back to the earliest sources, that is just not the case. And so I think the conclusion I came to was, you know, this is what Christianity was. This is what made it unique. This is what defined it in that culture and in the world. And if we’re going to redefine it, then we really shouldn’t call it Christianity. We should call it something else. And that’s actually why I titled my book, Another Gospel because in the book I argue that progressive Christians who, you know, that class I was in, went on to become a progressive church. And so I got a real insight into what they were sort of advocating for belief wise. But for progressive Christians to change all the definitions, they really are then at that point there, it’s a different religion. It’s a different God, a different Jesus and it’s another gospel.
SMITH: Well, yeah, I wanted to come to that point because the title of your book is Another Gospel? A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity. But let’s sort of steal the thunder here. Spoiler alert here. You really are saying that progressive Christianity is not biblical Christianity. That it really is another religion. Is that fair?
CHILDERS: I do. I mean, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that because if you remove every meaningful element of what makes Christianity what it is, if you take core essential doctrines and you cast them aside, well then you do have a different religion that isn’t the Christian faith. That’s not the historic Christian faith. It’s not the faith that’s been fought for and preserved by the church for 2,000 years. So you need to call it something else if you’re going to change all those definitions and change the definition of sin and redemption and all of those things. And so, yeah, I know it might seem shocking for some people to hear that, but if you really drill down into the core tenants of what progressive Christians are teaching and what they believe it is not Christianity.
SMITH: Yeah. So your complaint, if I may put it this way, Alisa, is not with the atheist per se. Sometimes apologists will sometimes debate folks like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. Of course, some of them are no longer with us. But your concern really is more about people who claim to be Christians, but in fact have departed from biblical Christianity. People like, if I may throw some names out there, Brian McLaren Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, some of those names. Again, is that a fair characterization?
CHILDERS: It is fair. And in many of these cases, I feel like I have more in common with the atheist because when all of these claims were being brought forth in the class, I think the reason that apologetics was so helpful to me is because apologists typically are interacting with the claims of atheists and they’re answering the objections that atheists bring against Christianity. And so I began to scratch my head, like why is this helping me so much in this “Christian” context? And I realized that the apologists could help me because progressive Christians were bringing about the same objections. They were bringing about the same arguments. And there have been a couple of atheists even argue that, I mean, they would agree with us. So Bart Campolo is a perfect example. He’s the son of Tony Campolo, a famous evangelist who is much more in the progressive camp now, but his son Bart has become a secular humanist. And he basically went through a process of progressive Christianity. But he said, look, if you’re going to deny the atonement, the resurrection, all these doctrines are going to start to fall. You really just need to be intellectually honest and go all the way and call yourself what you really are. And so that’s why he identifies as a secular humanist. Another great example of this is Christopher Hitchens. You mentioned him. He was being interviewed by a liberal theologian. And she said, it seems like you’re kind of, I’m going to paraphrase here because I don’t have it in front of me, but she said, it seems like you’re sort of railing against the more conservative type of Christianity, but what about the liberal Christianity? If I don’t take the Bible literally, and I don’t believe in the resurrection? And Christopher Hitchens came back and basically said, well, then you’re not a Christian. And I’m thinking, well, I agree with the atheist here. And so, yeah, that’s one of the main arguments I make in the book is that you don’t get to redefine things and still call it Christian. If you don’t think Christianity is true, you really should be intellectually honest and call yourself a secular humanist or a wider spirituality or something along those lines. And some certainly have done that within the progressive Christian paradigm. They’ve gone on to identify themselves outside of that stream. But yeah. So I think those atheists are right about that.
SMITH: You’re listening in today on my interview with Alisa Childers. Let’s get right back to that conversation.
So, Alisa Childers, what I’m a little more interested in getting you to talk about is how you got there. What was your journey? What books did you read? What were some of the mileposts on the way for you to eventually arrive at this conclusion that, yes, we can trust scripture. That God is who he says he is. And that Jesus really did come to save us from our sins.
CHILDERS: Well, I would say that the journey started really with the arguments for just the existence of some kind of a God. And so I started looking at things like the Kalām Cosmological Argument, the moral argument. And so I became satisfied fairly quickly that it’s pretty irrefutable that God exists. That it didn’t take very long. I listened to a lot of science lectures and things, and I was like, okay, God exists. And I have a hunch Christianity’s true. I can’t say I ever completely lost my faith. I was still a believer. In fact, sometimes I think I couldn’t have lost my faith, even if I would have wanted to.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, Alisa, let me pause you there just for a second, because you said, you say you came pretty quickly to the idea that God existed and you mentioned a couple of sort of technical proofs of God, but was there like a defining moment for you? I mean, like, I’ve heard people, for example, like Frank Turek who wrote I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist say that one of the things that proves there’s a God is that it’s just impossible to prove that there is not a God. Was there kind of a moment or a particular argument where you were able to kind of drive a stake in that and say, yes, I believe there is a God and then move on from there?
CHILDERS: Yeah, I think that was mostly with the cosmological argument, which is basically saying that the universe began to exist and whatever begins to exist must have a cause, therefore the universe must have a cause. That really made sense to me. Things don’t just come into existence out of nothing. And so the buck has to stop somewhere. And so that one was, again, like I said, fairly quick, but there were a lot—so that was my initial thing. But then after that is when I really wanted to get to historic Christianity. But I went through the classical case for the truth of Christianity first. So you mentioned Frank Turek’s book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. That was a huge help in that process because it just takes you through so many different arguments very quickly. And then I would begin to branch out and say, Oh, I’m really interested in these chapters on the Bible. And then I started to read scholars on that type of material and even taking seminary classes. Warren, I audited seminary classes just about everywhere you can imagine. Any place that would offer a class I could audit, it felt like I was taking the class—I listened to lectures from classes from Dallas Theological Seminary, from Biola, from Southern Evangelical Seminary and from Reformed Theological Seminary. Just anything. I was so, so hungry. And I ended up getting sort of locked in with Southern Evangelical Seminary and auditing several classes through them and the professors there were just so helpful in answering my questions, giving me more resources. If I had a question, they had five books I could go get and read. And so I always credit SES with being just such a huge part of this journey and such a help to me. And so, yeah, it was mostly just, I think there’s a line in my book where I said, you know, it takes work. It’s easy to just fall into something wrong, but it takes a lot of work to dig out and find the truth and the hungry doubter will do the work. And so it was a ton of work, but it was fulfilling work because it just seemed like every time I would lift the lid off of something, the evidence for the truthfulness of the core gospel that I believed my whole life was sitting under every corner and every rock. And it was actually a really exciting journey to discover more and more and more to where I, you know, if I’m really honest, I kind of thought in the beginning, well, I might find enough to justify believing this. But by the time I got through five, six years of studying apologetics, the wealth of information and evidence is just so grand. It’s so overwhelming. And it really was a beautiful journey God took me on
SMITH: Well that’s music to my ears in part, because I served on the board of Southern Evangelical Seminary for several years and Norman Geisler, the founder of Southern Evangelical Seminary—he passed away, I guess, last year—was a good friend of mine. I spent many, many hours with Dr. Geisler. So it’s really sweet to hear you say that. And I can see that in your book, tha that basic approtach, that the approach that I came to know and love at Southern Evangelical Seminary really does show up in your book. At some point though, Alisa, you make kind of another pivot, if I may say it this way—again, correct me if I’m wrong—where you go from a place of having this dark night of the soul. It causes you to plunge in to this apologetics world, to the point where you’re armed, you’re equipped, you know what you believe and why. And then there’s, it seems to me, at some point in your life, there was another pivot where you wanted to start telling that to others.
And that it became kind of a moment of, okay, well, how do I tell the stories or tell stories that communicate the truth of the gospel in ways that will resonate with people? Because I see that strategy in your book as well. Lee Strobel wrote the introduction to your book, and many people know Lee’s book The Case for Christ, which is in some ways, kind of a mystery story. You mentioned J. Warner Wallace in your book as well, who used to be a detective. This idea of storytelling as a way to get at the propositional truth of the gospel seems to be strong in you as it is strong in them.
CHILDERS: Well, thank you. And yeah, so the journey of getting to the point where I had a blog and a podcast and writing a book, I mean, I never dreamed I was going to do any of that. In fact, I was actually really against it. So, after I had spent several years studying and I was satisfied in my own faith, I was ready to keep studying, keep learning, but basically move on to whatever the next thing was. But I saw that Frank Turek was offering this cross-examined instructor academy, which is essentially a three-day training for up and coming apologists. And I thought, you know, I’m going to go to that and just see. I’m just going to go see. And then if it seems like that door is closing, then I’ll move on or maybe go back to music or whatever. And so I went to this training and my two personal instructors were Frank Turek and J. Warner Wallace. And both of them were so encouraging and they just really encouraged me to start a blog and just start telling other people, because they were saying, you’re going to be able to reach people that probably won’t go to the cross-examined website, but they might find you because of Zoe Girl or whatever. And so why don’t you just get the message out to whoever you can? And so I started doing that. And then the storytelling element for the book really came in after a two year period of reading almost nothing but the progressive Christian books. And what really struck me as I was reading their books is what great storytellers they are. And they would draw you in to what they think about God with the stories that they told. And so I think that’s partially why it so successfully deceives people because they can pull on your emotions and they tell stories you relate with. And I was thinking, this is how we’re going to have to communicate the message of truth as well. We have to become better storytellers. So I just prayed. I really asked the Lord to help me with that, that as I communicate some of this more technical information, not everybody wants to read a 4,000 page commentary on the historical Jesus. But if you can tell a good story and convey the information that way, I think that’s going to be helpful to a large group of people. And so I really prayed that I would be able to do that. And I think the Lord helped me with that to communicate some of these truths through the power of storytelling.
SMITH: Well, I think you’ve done that, Alisa, thank you so much for your book Another Gospel. And our time together probably needs to draw to an end, but just a couple of real quick questions before we go. Are you still doing anything with music? Should we expect a Zoe Girl reunion in our future?
CHILDERS: I think all three of us would love that. We’re just so busy with kids and projects and things we’re doing, but we’ve often talked about coming together to do a lullaby album now that we’re all moms. But it’s just never come to fruition. So maybe one day. But now I’m not really doing, this is kind of the first time in my life where I’m not doing any music anywhere. So it’s kinda weird, but it’s the season of life God has me in.
SMITH: And so you’re not doing music, but you are doing this book. I mean, this book is a kind of a new thing for you. And what’s your hope? What’s your expectation? Where do you go from here with this book?
CHILDERS: It’s just my prayer that it will get into the hands of the people who need it. I think the biggest need that I see via the emails that come into my website and what I’m asked on social media is people are seeing red flags of progressive Christianity everywhere in their churches, online, in their bookstores they go to, everywhere. And a lot of people have communicated to me saying thank you so much for giving language to what I was seeing. I didn’t know what it was called now. I know what it’s called. I have a better grasp on how to answer it biblically. So hopefully it will be a resource for people who might be seeing these red flags, but they’re just not quite sure how to interact with it. It’s just my prayer that God will use it to help the church.
SMITH: Well, Alisa Childers, her book is Another Gospel? A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity. Thank you so much for being on the program. It’s great to chat with you.
CHILDERS: Thanks Warren.