Several months ago, Christianity Today’s past editor in chief Mark Galli announced his retirement, and Friday was his last day. This also means that Mark’s time as Quick to Listen co-host has concluded. In the interim, Christianity Today’s CEO and president, Timothy Dalrymple, will take the reins as co-host.
Christianity Today’s new editor in chief? Longtime pastor and writer Daniel Harrell, who most recently served as senior minister of Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota. Harrell lost his wife Dawn unexpectedly last Easter and the aftermath of this death has been difficult.
“A big part of this next season of my life is devoted to her legacy and her love for words and theology and for Christ and wanting to live that well for her, for my daughter, and for myself,” said Harrell.
Harrell joined longtime host and digital media producer Morgan Lee and new host Tim to discuss his memories of Billy Graham, the themes of his three books on the Old Testament, evolution, and the saints, and what it’s like to hear a call to ministry at a frat party.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #194
Hi Daniel. Let’s go a little bit biographical. Can you tell us about how you became a Christian?
Daniel Harrell: I grew up in the South in the 1960s, so you were a Christian by default, and you could only opt out. So my earliest memories are life in church at the foot of a kind and generous preacher and youth pastor. And my father, who was a brick mason, getting up every Sunday morning listening to gospel music, put on his tie, and out the door we went. It was just part of the air that we breathe in, the water that we drank.
Later on though, as I got older, there were a lot of influences that deepened my faith and gave it some form. Young Life was a big thing in high school. I found myself surrounded by mentors and staff workers that helped shape my faith. It was set up with a big group once a week and then small group Bible studies early in the morning over pancakes. And I think more than anything, just seeing other kids my age engaged in their faith was really awesome. And you know, they’ve worked off this model where they really tried to get the cool kids involved. And so suddenly you’re like, wow, this is cool to be a Christian, how’s that possible?
It was really through Young Life that I ended up engaged in a really powerful campus ministry at the University of North Carolina called InterVarsity. InterVarsity was immense at my university, and it was really there that this personal relationship I had with Jesus, that got shaped and Young Life, really found its depth as I was surrounded by just tons of thoughtful and passionate people trying to live out their faith on this big secular campus. It was excellent.
I started as a business major because I was an editorial cartoonist and was going to go into graphic design, but I was terrible on the business side of things and ended up taking a psychology major because I wanted to “work with people,” but that led eventually to a religion major, where one of my main mentors was Grant Wacker, who I know who sort of runs in the CT circles. He and others were very formative in why I ended up as a pastor and the kind of pastoral work I ended up doing, which was tied to the life of the mind, how is it our thought comes alongside our experience to pull us deeper and drive us deeper as Christians and how that changes the society that we live in.
When did you first feel called to ministry?
Daniel Harrell: I was at a fraternity party with some folks from my InterVarsity small group, and it was just one of these moments where I had been leading this small group, had been involved in all kinds of things through InterVarsity, and I just thought, I think I want to be a pastor.
And I turned to this friend of mine, who’s a diplomat in the Foreign Service, and asked her what she thought about it and she thought it was a good idea. So it was that day, actually, that next day after that frat party, I went and picked up the religion major and just started on that track. My fraternity brothers were deeply disappointed. They thought I was definitely throwing my life away. But it’s just what I felt called to do.
And so I began thinking about next steps. I’d grown up in North Carolina, but as a Boston Red Sox fan, when it came time to pick a seminary, I decided I’d try Boston cause I had always wanted to live there. And so I sort of took this call, ended up in Boston at Gordon Conwell. I thought I would just be there for a few years, but spent the next 25 years of my life in Boston.
It’s not exactly a tale as old as time that you found your call to ministry and so what was it that you were experiencing or observing or feeling at that moment that you think precipitated this sense of call?
Daniel Harrell: There were a number of things that were going on.
One, I’d been in a fraternity since my sophomore year, which was very typical for guys on our campus. Growing up in the South, I knew nothing about things like Wheaton College and Christian colleges. Again, everybody was a Christian, you know? It was just like, how Christian were you? My church growing up was the kind where the deacons would stand out in the front of the church and smoke before worship. And the question was never, do you go to church? It was always, which church do you go to? So this idea of secular/sacred was a very blurred line for good and for ill. So to go to a fraternity party as a Christian was what all the Christians would just do. It was just about how drunk you got.
I think that for me, being at that frat party was just part of life, but it was also connected to a very critical thing that happened while I was at UNC. One of my friends died while I was there, and his name is Sandy Ford. He’s Leighton Ford’s son and Billy Graham’s nephew. When he died, he was dating one of my best friends at the time and of course, it was awful and really hard for us as college students.
But that had led to a series of things that that happened where we sort of leveraged the occasion of Sandy’s death to start a conversation on campus—actually Billy Graham came to our campus and led this massive event called Reason to Live. And my responsibility, as part of the organizing group around this, was to do fraternity outreach. I worked with a lot of other fraternity guys just to let them know sort of what was going on at this event, and it just sparked a lot of conversations around life and death and the gospel and Jesus, in ways that students don’t often have when they’re in college.
So it’s very powerful. And I think all of that together culminated in this sense of, I love doing this, I feel called to keep doing this, I care about this, and I’m going to devote my life to it.
Of course at Christianity Today, we have a particular interest in Billy Graham, as he’s a very important part of our legacy and our story. We’d love to hear a little bit more about your experience with him, either through this event inspired by his nephew’s death or other occasions.
Daniel Harrell: Of course growing up in that time, Billy Graham was certainly in his heyday, and I had gone to one of his movies as a kid. They had always had an altar call at the end of the movie, which is hard to imagine doing these days. But I remember going down in the front of the theater. And so by the time I got to the university, Billy Graham was someone everybody knew, every Christian knew.
And to know Sandy in this kind of different context and to find out that they were related was kind of fun on the one hand, but then just to recognize that Sandy was just a normal guy. He was very much involved in InterVarsity, and it was another way of knowing him. And then when he died, so suddenly and so unexpectedly—he had a heart malformity that just took him—there was an opportunity to have this engagement unexpectedly.
And so Billy Graham stepped up, stepped in, and came and actually participated in some of our organizing meetings, and recognized that part of what he was going to be doing was not going to be the kind of classic crusade. It was held in the basketball stadium, but was more modest than I think was typical of what he did.
Interestingly, while it was a big event, all that happened afterward was very different. Instead of some big resurgence in Christian faith on our campus, it ended up just raising more questions than I think it answered, and I’ve done a lot of thinking on that over the years. It just stressed to me how important it was, when we’re engaging in these kinds of life-and-death conversations, that they can’t happen in a moment or around a particular speaker, even one as popular and gifted as Billy Graham. But really, it can only start there. And I think for us, we spent so much time planning the event that we weren’t really set up for what happened afterward.
To tie it back to the pastoral ministry piece, I think that’s part of what I enjoyed about being a pastor. It was a conversation with a group of people that you got to walk through a lot of life with, more than just a moment in life. So the one hand, I deeply appreciated all that Billy Graham did and was able to do in his many years of ministry. But I also recognized how that style has dissipated, I think in part because we recognize that the moment in time is not sufficient for that deep work that the gospel demands on us.
Let’s talk about what happened after seminary and how you ended up at Park Street Church.
Daniel Harrell: You know, one of the things that happens in our lives is, if we have a strong youth ministry experience, we want to be youth pastors. If we have a good therapy experience, we want to be counselors. And for me, the youth ministry experience was one where I wanted other kids to have what I had.
At Gordon Conwell, I was tutored by a very gifted professor, Dean Borgman, who’s actually still there. He was great, and sort of set me up to do my first work as a youth pastor in a small community in New Hampshire, where I led this youth group that ended up being numerically larger than the church itself. It was just one of these communities where there was just nothing else going on. This was before the internet and technology, and these kids just liked to gather. And so we created a place for them to gather and use the Young Life tricks. And these kids showed up.
But I was living in Boston and the commute didn’t make any sense. And Dean Borgman had set me up with a pastor at Park Street, knowing that they were looking themselves for a youth minister. I interviewed for that and really hit it off with a guy who was hiring and got that job. And that was sort of the beginning of the next 22 years at Park Street, where I got to do so many different things. I didn’t think I would stay in Boston, I really thought that the South would pull me back, but I just loved it.
People may not know that Park Street is really one of the flagship evangelical congregations in Boston.Can you just comment a little bit on the unique dynamics and the congregational makeup there?
Daniel Harrell: Well, you’ve got the red line, and the green line on the T in walking distance. You’ve got Harvard, MIT, Boston College, Boston University, Northeast—you’ve got 43 colleges and universities in the area. And back when college students went to church, Park Street was really the nexus for a lot of that. Now, I mean, admittedly, a lot of it had to do with trying to meet a young person that perhaps you might spend a life with and that social scene. But at the same time, during my days there in the late 90s, early 2000s, students just flocked to that place. It was really great.
In addition to that, we also had not only students but tons of young professionals finding their way to Boston. And church was still a place where people would come first to seek community. We saw a ton of those folks, to get to speak into their lives and, and hear their troubles, and walk alongside them in those days.
These are people who I’ve had the honor to stay connected with for years since. To have those relationships has not only been rewarding, but so powerful for me and my own challenges in life and struggles.
One of the books that you wrote is called Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith. Can you tell us about how this book came about?
Daniel Harrell: So this book comes about during the time when people like Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, the so-called new atheists, are really using science as a weapon to discredit the claims of religious faith.
So many Christians, especially conservative Christians, got caught in this conflict against science narratives that had a lot to do with either discrediting or eschewing evolution or what’s commonly known as “God and the Gaps” fallacies, totally forgetting that eventually science figures things out.
Growing up in the South, I had never heard any of these anti-evolution stories, and living in Boston, scientists who were deep professing Christians would cringe science was misused in these ways. I was also serving on a hospital ethics committee, so I was getting a chance to see a lot of applied science, but I also had been invited to be a religious voice at a conference at MIT on genetic technology and society. This was right after Dolly the sheep got cloned, and I was asked to come in and speak on the ethics of cloning, which I knew nothing about.
And I get asked this question, does a clone have a soul? And I’m like, I don’t know, and came up with some answer that drew an analogy to the Nicene Creed. And this bioethicist, he just turned red. He was so angry that I was even allowed on stage because, in his mind, religion was fairy tales and had no credence in scientific conversations. And I was just bringing the whole thing down by my presence. Now that was probably true for other reasons, and fortunately, the Nobel Prize winner stepped up to my defense and says, “Well, you know, things aren’t that cut and dry.” But I was so embarrassed that I’m like, that’s not going to happen again.
So I just started to study and work and came alongside so many scientists as I tried to better understand what are the connections between faith and science, specifically physics and biology. And the book is really the fruit of that, where I’m able to celebrate scientific discovery as the fingerprint of God.
I mean, if we believe in a God who is creator, as we do, and this is what creation looks like, then what is that telling us about God? And how can we engage in the wonder that truly is—from cosmology to quantum particles—the marvel of God’s creativity? And we have to remember that all of the best science grows out of our Christian conviction.
I took a group of kids a few years ago in the footsteps of Galileo through Rome, all the way to the particle accelerator at CERN. And I mean, it’s just marvelous what science is able to do. And in a lot of ways historically, Christian faith sparked so much of that.
Why don’t you go ahead and tell us about your next book, How to Be Perfect: One Church’s Audacious Experiment In Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus?
Daniel Harrell: What happened is I was reading a book by an author named A. J. Jacobs about a year of living biblically, and it was just a funny, humorous take on what would happen if you took the Bible so seriously, and have to do what it says. And for somebody who’s like, yeah, I’m kind of trying to do that, what would it look like if a group of people who actually believed this stuff tried it? Which is when you ask it like that, you’re like, aren’t we supposed to be doing that all the time?
But one of the things that Christians never know what to do with are Old Testament laws. And I thought, I’ve never preached Leviticus, what would that be like? And after reading A.J.’s book, I thought instead of just preaching it straight up, what if I got a group of people together and we tried to live it and use those experiences as sermon fodder. This happened right as Facebook was entering its ascendancy. And so we did all kinds of stuff with video and stories and sharing, which seems quaint now, but at the time it was super cutting-edge.
And well, what I did is I recruited 21 people to pledge to live according to the book of Leviticus for 30 days. And the rule was you could figure out your hermeneutic, the grid through which you wanted to interpret this on your own. Some people just did it straight up, other people did it interpreted through a New Testament lens. Other people said, “I’ll do the stuff that Jesus did.” So a lot of different ways that people took it. And it was really fun. We had young, old, executives, students, parents, men, women, black, white, Asian—we had everybody participating. And it was just a fun tribe that we put together.
There was this one guy who was from Ireland and he was back in Ireland and his parents actually lived on a cattle farm, so he had all kinds of things he was doing to try to bless bulls—not sacrifice bulls—and so there are these hilarious videos with him encountering the various animals on his farm. We had a woman who built a tabernacle in her Boston apartment and tried to carry out a few offerings. We had all sorts of stuff around women and purity and menstrual cycles, which was kind of interesting to participate in. We had a variety of people who were experimenting around food and clothing, because of the prohibitions against mixing fabrics and mixing seeds, and the kinds of foods you would eat, and kosher laws.
For my part, I just had this whole issue of loving my neighbor—who was putting his trash in my trashcan, which in Boston it’s tight for space. So I’m having a real issue with this guy, but do I lovingly let him use my trashcan or do I go and confront him, and you know, what’s loving my neighbor look like in all of this stuff?
So I did this sermon series, really enjoyed it, and decided I should write something about this. And so I write an article for Christianity Today. It gets published as a feature article. And it was fun to get to write about it in context of these experiences of these 21 individuals who each had their own experience that they would describe and then interact with each other about.
You also wrote a book called Wisdom of the Saints (and Near Saints): Christian Inspiration from Ambrose to Zwingli. Tell us about a couple of your favorite saints that you got to hang out with while researching and writing the book.
Daniel Harrell: This had started, again, as a sermon series, really based on this conviction that as Christians, our theology and faith is always constructed on the shoulders of those who’ve come before us. And so knowing the personalities and heroes of our traditions helps us to better understand the core convictions we hold. And I thought, what better way to think about these people than alphabetically?
So I started this 20-year sermon series with letter A, was going to get all the way to Z, but I became editor in chief of Christianity Today, so I didn’t get a chance to finish. So for my last sermon at a Colonial Church, I skipped ahead—I had only gotten up to T, so I skipped ahead to Z. And did a sermon on Nicholas Zinzendorf, who was a benefactor of a group of separatist Christians known as the Moravians. And the Moravians, their big story is about being caught up in a time of revival that was so fervent, they didn’t want to leave church. And so what they did was they ordered in food, and these days, the remembrance of that time is celebrated in something called a Moravian love feast.
I wrote about some of the classic heroes of our tradition, such as Basil and Augustine, but also lesser-known people that folks wouldn’t have heard about, like Tertullian. I added more contemporary figures, like T. S. Eliot and Caravaggio, who wasn’t much of a Christian, but boy could he paint, the testimony of how beauty arises out of places we wouldn’t imagine.
I tried to use artists and poets, as well as theologians, just to talk about the various ways that our faith has come to be.
Let’s move back to talking about your faith journey and your vocation. Can you talk about how you ended up in the Midwest?
Daniel Harrell: I like to tell people, I’m a southerner by birth, a New Englander by choice, and now a Midwesterner by the will of God.
You know, pastors have shelf lives. We serve at the behest of the congregations we serve. And we have seasons. My season at Park Street was a long and beautiful season, but there just came a time that it was time for something different and new, and I was ready for that.
I found it was harder to transition for whatever reason. It could be because of my evolution book, who knows? It was just tough to find a new place to go. And so I ended up through a search firm making a connection with Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota, which was not really the location that I was looking to move to, but the fit was fabulous. Not only their fascination with all things pilgrim and Puritan and colonial. It is like a Pilgrim Disneyland out here.
Every Thanksgiving, they hold a Thanksgiving service to honor that Pilgrim heritage. But the funny thing about is that we all dress up like Pilgrims. It’s something that’s been going on at Colonial for a long time, and they kind of do it tongue in cheek. It’s definitely not something you would lead with if you were trying to start a revival at a congregation.
It’s also the only congregational church in America that has a relic of the Mayflower. We have a relic of the Mayflower and a piece of Plymouth rock. I’m telling you, this is a very special place.
How else would you describe the congregation? And what are some of the key issues that you guys have had to work through together while you’ve been there?
Daniel Harrell: Unlike Boston, which was a very transient congregation, given their context, Minnesota is a place where so many people, if they leave, they come back to. Family runs deep here. Community ties are tight. Folks who grew up in Minnesota, they just love it here. It’s a lot like coming from the South, as a place you return to—to get married, to raise your family, to enjoy life. Education is greatly valued, as is industry and innovation. And Minnesota continues to be at the top of states when it comes to charitable giving and social entrepreneurship. It’s a wonderful congregation.
One of the highlights, we have some very creative businesspeople here that have managed to make it so our church is financially flush. And so we have used some of that money in creative ways. Probably the one I most proud of was we took a half a million dollars and created a contest for social entrepreneurs to compete for those funds to advance or accelerate their entrepreneurial enterprise. So we were able to launch or accelerate 11 social enterprises around the world, enterprises all led by people 35 years old and younger.
We have a woman who runs a jewelry business called Fair Anita, and she hires women all around the globe who have been victims of sexual abuse and she gives them work. Some of her best work comes from Ethiopian women who take spent bullet casings and craft them into jewelry. We have another guy locally, who has created a food program for schools where he feeds kids who don’t have access to food over the weekends. He started with one school and now has over a hundred by virtue of our ability to come alongside. We’ve got a group from Iowa State University who created a solar dehydrator to help farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa keep their crops longer by dehydrating the produce that they create. There’s a group that came up with some technology to help kids who can’t use their arms because of congenital birth defects.
And we not only did funding, but also did coaching of these folks. We provided free HR, legal, and insurance advice, and of course, networking given the capacities that a lot of the business folks in our congregation have. It was marvelous work, very rewarding. And the church just voted last month to give away another million dollars. And so they’re looking to launch a similar kind of thing again, where they’re able to get it out the door and get it into the hands of social enterprise.
To circle back to hearing more about your faith, what formidable life experiences have you been through that have impacted how you understand your faith?
Daniel Harrell: The most poignant at this point in my life is my wife died this past Easter Sunday. She had pancreas cancer that she was diagnosed in February and died two months later. It’s been awful, but she was a woman of immense and deep faith, who suffered and died so beautifully in ways that I want to do too.
She grew up a missionary kid in Angola, actually met Billy and Ruth Graham when she was a student in North Carolina. Ruth Graham had a real heart for missionary kids, and they invited her over for lunch one day. My wife, Dawn, went on to go to seminary herself, became an editor at a small publishing house in Massachusetts. And then we married, had years together at Park Street and then came out to Minnesota and had our daughter Violet. And she was doing some writing, editing, and seeking to get published herself when she got sick. And, you know, died so, so fast. But again, so beautifully.
But in the midst of all of this, not only do I—I don’t want to say I learned, because as a pastor, when we think about death and life and new life, I mean, this is what we preach about and what we’re honored to come alongside, but I think to experience it in this way, and to see a church step up like Colonial Church did, it just underscored the power of the Gospel and what matters most.
You just recognize that in all that we say and preach and hope for, that it’s true and it makes sense and gives us the power and the strength and the hope that we need to live the lives that we have. Life is so short, so quick, and so tenuous that to get caught up in so many of the things we get caught up in, and let those things rise to the surface, is a real betrayal of the beautiful, deep, and good lives we could be living if we would just recalibrate our priorities.
This is why I think CT and worship and all of these ways where we continue to call people to first things first is so critical. Because at the end of the day, I think it was David Brooks who wrote, “The stuff that gets said at your funeral is not the stuff that’s on your resume.” It’s the kind of person you were and the values that you held and the way you lived your life in those moments that matter. And we’ve just got to keep coming back to that.
And so, it is a permanent imprint. And a big part of this next season of my life is devoted to her legacy and her love for words and theology and for Christ. And wanting to live that well for her, for my daughter, and for myself.
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