Gabe Lyons on curiosity and orthodoxy

Q&A | The founder of Q Ideas talks about leading young Christians as they wrestle with the culture
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 8/27/15, 02:13 pm

Gabe Lyons founded Q Ideas, which he describes as a learning community that mobilizes Christians to advance the common good in society. The “Q” stands for “questions,” and Lyons hosts conferences around the country where Christians can wrestle with some of the bigger questions that come up while trying to be faithful in a secular culture. The Q conferences are tailored to the culture and concerns of the cities in which they are held: Q Boston emphasized the role of Christians in secular, academic settings, while Q Austin emphasized creativity. While some have called Q’s presentations “TED Talks for Christians,” Lyons says the Q conferences provide ample opportunity for interaction and discussion, not just passive listening. I had this conversation with Lyons in Nashville, Tenn.

Q has been criticized from time to time for hosting speakers who are completely outside the bounds of biblical orthodoxy. Some have said you’ve given them too much of an opportunity to tell their stories. How do you respond to that? That’s probably true in some cases. That’s the risk you take when you’re trying to create space where you’re going to have difficult conversations about topics that are very complex, that don’t always have very simple answers, and where you’re not trying to instruct and prescribe every single person in the audience [by saying], “This is exactly how you must think when you walk out this door.” That’s not what we’re doing at Q. In taking those risks, there are times where the platform may be taken advantage of. There are times where beliefs that are completely counter to what I believe have a say within that conversation. … Obviously, a ton of prayer goes into this. We don’t just try to create a cute, cool conference and have speakers that are provocative for that sake. We really know that we’re in pretty consequential times right now. The church is in consequential times. We have to address topics that are difficult. To do that means putting people on a stage who are going to disagree with one another, who I’m going to disagree with, and being able to actually play out a conversation and model for Christian leaders, what does it mean for us to engage today in a moment where there’s going to be disagreement? …

What’s great is, and this has happened multiple times because our audience has been going on this journey with us for so long, they really do appreciate those moments. They don’t have a lot of question about where I stand personally or about Q’s commitment to biblical, historic, orthodox Christianity. We’re not wavering on that just because we’ve invited a conversation around a difficult topic where there’s going to be disagreement.

At the Boston conferences, you invited Matthew Vines, who wrote God and the Gay Christian. Can you explain why you would give Vines a platform? Our goal is to lead in this. It’s to set a tone. It’s to try to model a posture. … I didn’t ask Matthew to come and give at talk to Q. What we did was I had Matthew, who is a young gay Christian, sit alongside Julie Rodgers, who’s also a young gay Christian who has committed her life to celibacy. I wanted the two of them to be able to have a conversation in front of this room. It wasn’t about me having a conversation with them, it was about two people who are self-describing as gay, who both have committed their lives to Christ, having completely different views about what Christ has called us to.

I thought it would stand for itself to let the two of them have a conversation with one another where I could ask some similar questions but then they could talk and the audience can see for themselves the difference here. Julie saying, “I’ve committed to the Lordship of Christ in my life and so celibacy’s the only option. I don’t see anywhere in scripture where it’s possible to believe what you believe, Matthew.”

She said that then, but I’m sure you know that since then, she has changed her position. She’s still committed to living a celibate life.

Personally, but she has come out in favor of gay marriage. She has made some statements and written about that recently. The point is, at the time when we were hosting Q, her position was also very clear and confident in Christ’s call to Christians to be celibate. That’s why she was there.…We had a lot of other conversations happening as well around this. We had Debra Hirsch give a talk as well, who in her college life was a lesbian, who was completely transformed, married Alan Hirsch, happily married now and wrote a book on sexuality. She gave an 18-minute talk about sexuality as well. There were several different topics, where we’re trying to get with sexuality in general and what does it mean for the church to start to think forward about addressing a topic that many either avoided or maybe we haven’t handled with as much complexity as it may deserve.

How do you deal in good faith with people who are just not going to deal with you in good faith, who are not going to reciprocate. For example, Louie Giglio was asked to do the prayer at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. He was disinvited because of his position on homosexuality. You defended Louie Giglio in public. Did that cause you to question whether you were giving people more credit than they deserved in assuming that they want to have open, honest, conversation? That specific moment was a moment where I felt the president needed to step up and help Americans understand this basic concept of freedom of conscience. We all ought to have the right. He should have defended Louie’s opportunity to disagree and could’ve helped settle that matter and lead our nation in a way that he should be leading. I was frustrated about that and it was important, I think, to say that. … Over the last two to three years since that took place, we’re seeing more and more incidents of where there’s just an inability for people to disagree anymore. I do think at Q, one of our goals is to show that we can have differing points of view and occasionally find common ground. We can also, in differing points of view, even theologically, model a respectful dialogue that doesn’t turn into what we see most of the time on Twitter or Facebook or other places, where it comes to demonizing one another.

God loves everybody, right? He loves Matthew Vines even if I think Matthew Vines has a very bad idea that he’s bought into. I do believe that God’s love is still for Matthew, and so I don’t hold the bad idea against Matthew although he’s parroting that idea and sharing that idea. I don’t hold bad ideas against Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. … I interviewed him about his faith and what he was trying to do at Ground Zero and the history between Christians and Muslims four years ago. He’s bought into a bad idea, and my hope is to engage with him as a human being made in the image of God. … The image of God within the other person that might look different from me and really believe in me, and not have faith the way that I have faith, but I still feel like God calls me to love and engage them in respectful dialogue.

That’s what I try to do. I do get the dangerous nature of, within the church, setting up people who have theologies and things that are false theology, in any way giving them a position that might convey to people this is valid, which is why at Q, we were very, very clear. Everybody in the room understood, even with Matthew and Julie having this conversation amongst one another, that we didn’t see these ideas as equally valid. … There’s a historic, orthodox idea of sexuality that Q subscribes to because the church has subscribed to it, because Jesus speaks to it, because the Bible speaks to this. We have tons of confidence in that.

How did the ideas of Chuck Colson influence you? Colson’s biggest influence on me was essentially this theme …  that Christians are called to redeem entire cultures, not only individuals. That one idea captured my heart and imagination, realizing that if … the younger generation, could really understand that our faith is not only about evangelism—of course that’s a top priority of what we’re called to do—but we’re also called to hold back, as Chuck writes in How Now Shall We Live, that we’re to partner with God with His common grace to hold back the elements of the fall that would otherwise overwhelm creation.

We’re supposed to create works of art and beauty and push back by doing great science, by creating beautiful poetry, by making great films and art. … When I was in my mid-20s, that was a story I hadn’t heard much. A burden started to come onto me and a conviction that I need to be sharing, essentially, Christian worldview. The idea that there’s a redemptive and renewal part of what God wants to do in the world. It’s not only about getting people saved and getting out of here as quick as we possibly can and going to heaven. That really is a foundation to how we think about Q and how we think about what our role is within the church these days.

You were one of the founders of the Catalyst Movement. Talk about that. There’s a group of us that helped create Catalyst. It was originally just a young leaders conference we were trying to create in my days working with John Maxwell. We wanted to help younger leaders under 40 understand how to lead in the church. That was a great experience for me and a great opportunity to really have to put on the mentality and go, “Where’s the church going? What does it mean to lead in the church today?”… 

Out of that, [I got] a pretty clear target of understanding what I was supposed to be doing, which wasn’t just to talk about leadership. It was really to equip and prepare leaders for the days we’re finding ourselves in today, when we’re in a culture that’s moved beyond the Christian faith as any sort of standard or foundational way that we all see life. What does it mean now for us to plant churches, to be faithful churches, to be Christians who are the church in the midst of any kind of segment of society? Q became a place where we could start to wrestle with those questions more specifically. Catalyst has continued to go on and do wonderful things, but Q has become that place, for me that felt like the bull’s-eye of what God had put in my heart to do.

Tell me about your experience as a student at Liberty University when the Rev. Jerry Fallwell was in charge of it. I grew up in Lynchburg, so Jerry wasn’t just the chancellor or founder of the university I went to, he was my pastor. I grew up every Sunday hearing Jerry share from the pulpit at Thomas Road Baptist Church why Christians need to roll up their sleeves and engage in culture. There is a bit of a misconception that in some ways, I would distance myself from that. In fact, I don’t. I really love the heritage that God gave me to sit under his leadership as a pastor, to sit under a man who really loved people. He really talked to the Larry Flynts of the world, the founder of Hustler who was a friend of Jerry’s, who loved spending time with Jerry. Larry King. So many of these folks who you might have thought had animosity for Jerry absolutely loved him.

The caricature that was painted of him was unfair from some of the things he said in media. In general, people loved this man and he loved them. What I took away from that experience, reflecting, when I went to his funeral, which was a poignant moment for me, was a man of vision, a man of courage, a man who said, we have to get involved in this world in any place that it’s broken. I would say the only difference is possibly the way in which I’m trying to get involved. It looks different than just political leadership. I have a different set of experiences, and God’s opened different doors for me. I’m just trying to walk faithfully through those with a tone and a posture that is important to have, for now. But I would say, at the core, I’m very proud to have had that experience, and I think God used Jerry in so many ways to help ignite in me that sense that I have a mission and a call to play in the midst of this broken world.

We’re here in Nashville having this conversation, just a couple minutes from your home. It’s a new home for you. You were in New York for a lot of years. What brought you to Nashville? We’ve loved being in New York but, man, we’ve loved coming back to the South. I was in Atlanta for many, many years before going to New York, and we had a great time in New York. We were able to be part of a couple missions with the local church. Trinity Grace Church was our home church there, got to see a couple parishes planted during our mission there. 

Jon Tyson, the pastor of Trinity Grace, is well-known because he’s a writer and people might be listening to his podcasts. Jon is a wonderful, wonderful leader. Incredible vision for New York. We wanted to join with them for that season. … For us, our oldest son, Cade, who’s 14 now, has Down syndrome. He was doing fine in the city schools, but … we were trying to map out the trajectory. What are the next five to 10 years going to look like? It just looked like it might be more sustainable for him to have a more flourishing life in another type of an environment. 

Here in Nashville, we have found a wonderful environment where there’s just a ton for special-needs children going on. It’s just been beautiful. Our family has gone through resettling into that. We’re almost a year into it and really enjoying it.

You have two other children as well. Your wife, Rebecca, is involved with you in ministry and has her own thriving writing and speaking career, right? One of the cool gifts about New York [was] God really used that in her life to awaken her to her calling in a way she was never expecting, in a way that was somewhat of a surprise, to help other women who might go through some of the same struggles she was experiencing, of panic disorder and anxiety. Obviously, many of those things can also be tied to and lead to depression. … God really has rescued her and restored her, and now she has a great mission of helping other women start to discover their own calling and purpose and to find healing in that.

God used her to teach me a lot about surrender. What does it look like to put ourselves out before God and ask him to use us and not hold too tightly to the things we create or our identity being found in anything other than Him? She’s doing wonderful. She probably travels more than I do now with invitations to speak to hundreds of thousands of women.

Did having a Down syndrome child contribute to learning how to trust God and depend on God? Absolutely. God uses all of these moments in our lives that are unexpected. You have certain expectations of what life’s going to be like, [such as] for Cade when he was born, our first born. I was an athlete in high school. I had all these expectations. My first-born son, he’s going to be a quarterback, he’s going to do this and that. While children like Cade have all the potential in the world, and I’m sure some are quarterbacks, for him, that hasn’t been his story or his journey. I know when he was born, that first year, that was actually when God got a hold of my heart and reminded me of what life was about. This calling toward doing what we’re doing now became more crystal clear when I surrendered that future and said, God, I don’t want to care about my reputation, I don’t want to care about pursuing ambition or other things that aren’t what you would have for me. I don’t think those prayers would’ve happened. I don’t think I would have had a surrender of the heart had it not been for Cade entering our life. Now Rebecca would say, as well, he is the joy of our life, our family. I have Pierce who’s 12 and Kennedy who’s 10, our little girl. We can’t imagine life without Cade. It’s just beautiful. He brings so much, not just only to our life but our church, our friends, our entire community.

Has that also energized your pro-life commitment as well? Absolutely. I think when I discovered that 91 percent of children with Down syndrome are terminated, … it blew me away.I couldn’t believe that only 8 or 9 percent of these little children are surviving. There should be nine more running around whenever you see one, mostly because of a lack of information, lack of the truest story being told about their lives and what they contribute. There’s a lot of fear. Women find this out, they go home and Google “Down syndrome,” and they think their life’s going to be taken away from them. They think their siblings aren’t going to have a fulfilling life, they’re going to have to quit their job, their whole life is going to be spent caring for this individual, and they’re missing the true story.

It’s a longer story, but a group of us actually created a book that is called Understanding a Down Syndrome Diagnosis. People could Google and find that for free, an eBook in full color, telling a truer story about not only the challenges but also the wins and how much they contribute to our life. That’s become a book nationally now that’s distributed around the country to women who now are experiencing that moment. We hope it’s making a little bit more of a difference.

My children are going to be a part of my life for the rest of my life, but in a very different way than Cade is going to be a part of your life. There are some challenges that are going to go on well into his adulthood, right? We don’t know. Rebecca and I pray that he’ll be married one day. Maybe he’ll meet a sweet little girl, maybe with Down syndrome, maybe not, then live in a little place near us or something, and we can still be a part of helping and serving them and supporting them. We do pray for that, yet we also know that as Rebecca and I think about date night when all the other kids are gone, Cade might be sitting there with us at a nice dinner for date night. That’s just part of our future, and you know what? I would’ve said a decade ago, that would have really bothered me. That would have been one of those expectations where it’s like, no, this just isn’t right. I would say today, Rebecca and I both, we’d laugh about it now. It’s just fun, it’s not a downer. I think that’s the thing that’s hard to communicate to a new mother or a new parent. There’s all the fear of the unknown and I think for us, we’ve come to understand that God knows what He’s doing and our life’s better because of Cade. It’s not more of a drag or harder. It’s better.

Listen to Warren Smith’s full conversation with Gabe Lyons on Listening In.

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is vice president of mission advancement for The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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