Six years ago, the leadership at LifeChurch.tv took an intentional shift, beginning to provide its resources for free. Now, YouVersion is the fastest growing Bible app with more than 50 million users. Senior pastor Craig Groeschel told Christianity Today that once the church began giving away resources, it removed the competitive attitude he felt towards other church leaders. He uses that decision to illustrate a way to battle envy, one of the toxic attitudes he identifies in his new book, Soul Detox (Zondervan). He founded LifeChurch.tv, which now has 14 campuses, in 1996. CT Online Editor Sarah Pulliam Bailey sat down with Groeschel at his church in Edmond, Oklahoma, to talk about toxicities, what a cleanse looks like, and what made him shift in his ministry.

How did you decide which toxic behaviors to identify?

A lot of it came from my personal experience and leadership observations. For example, we believe lies about the world or we believe lies about ourselves and end up really being deceived on how we are being poisoned by the world. People can literally step into toxic behaviors or mindsets or allow even influences from the culture to poison the way they think or poison their souls without even really knowing it.

When you describe toxic behaviors, is it identifying sin? Or do you think it's less obvious than sin, per se?

Oftentimes it is sin. Sometimes it may be less obvious. I don't know if having a bad attitude is sin or not, but I think that's something that's obviously harmful.

How do these behaviors impact a church and its leadership? And where do you see that as you're trying to help people get detoxed?

Toxic mindsets, toxic influences, toxic attitudes can hit everybody at every level. They can impact marriages, through the poison that we allow to hurt our soul through negative self-talk. Or, for instance, are we transferring ownership of ministry to others or are we afraid of that and holding it to ourselves?

With negative self-talk, is there a danger in too much positive self talk or a self-help mentality? How do you balance knowing our sin nature and need for confession?

I'm not describing "name-it-and-claim it," or if I just speak this enough it's going to happen. I'd rather somebody be positive than negative, but I don't go so far as to say you can create everything with your words, and if you just speak positive words then life's going to be great. If you speak faith-filled words consistent with the Bible, then it might actually change your perspective in a hard time but it might not stop the hard times.

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How can people engage in culture in a serious way that isn't toxic? How do you identify when it turns from something analytical, "let's discuss this piece of art," to influencing your mind and behaviors?

I don't believe we should run and hide from culture. It's not something we should be afraid of, and as Christians, I think we can help create culture and help redeem culture. I do think that there are a couple of extremes that are probably dangerous. One is, I'm going to run and hide. The other is, Everything is okay and nothing is bad. There is wisdom somewhere in between, and what's maybe right and helpful to someone may not be right and helpful to someone else. For instance, we had a nice meal out with some friends and we were talking about our faith and talking about our church and spiritual growth, and then we went to a movie where there is literally a ghost raping a girl. I walked out afterwards kind of facing what I've said in the past, which would be, "If it doesn't bother me, why would it be wrong?"  

It sounds like you'd like to cultivate a stronger sensibility with content that could be unhealthy.

If certain things don't bother me, I might want to look at my own relationship with God and ask myself why. At the same time, I don't think I should run out of a movie screaming that I'm never going to go back to a movie. I don't want to go into legalism at all. At the same time, I think, our culture is more leaning toward license, and I think we need to find a stance of wisdom in between.

You described a point when you were going to tell a joke from the pulpit and then you looked at your daughter and thought, "I wouldn't want her to repeat that." Do children set the standard of humor and what's appropriate, or is there a context where you know you're talking with just adults and it's okay?

Context definitely does matter, but context isn't the bottom line, isn't the only thing that matters. I was preaching a message not just to kids but to adults, and I wouldn't want my daughter to say what I was about to say, and so I think a fair question to ask is, If it's not right in front of her, when would it be right when she's not there? There may not be a real clear answer but it would certainly make for a good discussion.

You seem to distinguish behavior from ideas, as it seems easier to identify behaviors than ideas. Is it helpful to think of those separately in how they relate to each other?

I like to think in categories, but I don't think practically speaking we have to separate them. I think a good question is, In anything, whether it's my behavior or my attitudes or my thoughts or the words that I speak, is this beneficial? Everything is permissible, Paul said, not everything is beneficial. Is this beneficial? Is this helpful? Is this helping me to become more like Christ or less like Christ?

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You encourage people to be more positive with our words in marriages and friendships. At what point should someone switch into being prophetic or offer correction?

Whatever you speak let it be true. We're told to tell the truth in love, and so if you lovingly correct me that is actually helpful. That doesn't have to be positive, but, again, that's helpful. I would never want to say everything has to build everybody up when someone might need spiritual correction. I've been totally transformed by people who loved me enough to tell me the truth. If I love somebody and if I care about them, that gives me a little bit more credibility. I've hopefully earned the right to express something a little more difficult.

One of the emotions that you pinpoint is envy, and I thought it was ironic that you brought up technology. Given that your church is so technologically advanced, do you feel like you're attuned to that because of the medium in which your message is sent? Or is that just something happening in general in culture?

Culturally there's just a lot of natural envy toward technology now. We might be a little more attuned to it just because we really believe in leveraging technology to reach people and feel like that's one of our highest callings.

Do you feel like there's a tension that you have to either be aware of or fight against with this envy?

I really don't. I've never stopped to think that if we do this someone's going to envy it at all; my drive to get the new version Bible app in as many hands as possible is out of a pure motive to help people engage in God's Word.

You also said you struggle with comparing yourself to other pastors. Do you think it's just evangelical pastors who deal with that?

It's not as big a problem today as it was in the past, but I think for a lot of men that I know we get our identity sometimes in where we feel like we rank and what we've accomplished. There's a temptation to look to the side and say, "Is my church as big as that one? Is it growing as fast as that one? Are we able to give as much money away as that one? Are we are creative as that one?" I try to applaud the uniqueness of others and recognize they can do things that we could never, ever do, and at the same time be real grounded and secure in our unique calling. That's one of the ways I've worked through so many comparison struggles I've had in the past.

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Have you seen other churches and pastors deal with this in a way that makes you think, Oh, this is one way to battle that envy?

I've got a good friend in ministry who's very visible, in a very strong church, and he said he felt vulnerable, and so one of the things he does is he just forces himself to celebrate the success of others. And so anytime someone else has some kind of breakthrough he will tweet about it or send them a note or call them, and that helps to keep his heart pure in celebrating rather than getting jealous. It seems to have been really helpful for him.

You mention that struggle as maybe a particular thing for men. But just in general do you think it's a tendency in evangelicalism?

It's a tendency for human nature. I don't think it's just in evangelical Christianity; I think in any field there's a temptation to compare and ask how we rank against others. Scripture is pretty clear. We shouldn't compare or classify ourselves, and when we focus less on where we stand and more on what we're called to do it seems like God blesses that more.

Was there a point when you made a decision or transition to stop comparing yourself?

In different seasons, yes. I'm a highly competitive person by nature. I like to win, like a lot of other people do. And so removing ourselves from certain things that would be considered a competition kind of helps purify our hearts. One of the things that really was a real cleansing in my heart is when we decided to give our resources away. There was something about saying we'd take anything and everything we have and make it available for other churches that expanded my heart from I want to be ahead of your church to I want to support your church. That was a real cleansing of my heart, and it helps me to remember it is about the whole church and God's church, not about our church.

Do you feel like that's changed the way your church interacts with the rest of evangelicalism?

I think it's changed the way we think in the last six years. We really honestly believe that we could do more working with other churches. We believe God has called us to radical generosity, and we really want to give away as much as we can. That's one of the best decisions we've ever made in the history of our church.

How does this book compare to the previous books you've written?

Some of the other ones might have been focused more on what is seen outwardly, this one I think is more about an inward heart before God.

Did you look to any figures in history to come up with some of the thinking behind the ideas?

One person I have studied a lot is John Wesley. One of the questions he's known for is, How is it with your soul? That question is kind of grounded within me and would probably be the question of the book.

Soul Detox: Clean Living in a Contaminated World
Soul Detox: Clean Living in a Contaminated World
Zondervan
2012-04-28
240 pp., 7.38
Buy Soul Detox: Clean Living in a Contaminated World from Amazon