JOIN US MAY 20-21 FOR RESTORE CONFERENCE

Mary
DeMuth

Scot
McKnight

Screenshot 2023-01-13 at 1.50.18 PM

Naghmeh
Panahi

Reporting the Truth.
Restoring the Church.

The Author of ‘Jesus Calling’ Died Last Year. Why Is A Denomination Investigating Her?

By Bob Smietana
sarah young jesus calling
Author Sarah Young (1946-2023) pictured with her book "Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence." (Courtesy images)

Evangelicals love to talk to Jesus.

And often, they say, he replies — giving them advice, comfort and words of encouragement.

That is one reason why “Jesus Calling,” a book of daily devotions that combines Bible verses with friendly messages written as if Jesus were speaking, has been one of the bestselling Christian books of the past 20 years.

Written by a former Presbyterian Church in America missionary, “Jesus Calling” and its ancillary products have sold more than 45 million copies since 2004. The book is currently fifth on the Evangelical Christian Publishers bestseller list.

Author Sarah Young, who died last year, never claimed the book recorded the actual words of Jesus, which she believed were found only in the Bible. Instead, she said, she was trying to convey what she felt during her prayer times.

Your tax-deductible gift helps our journalists report the truth and hold Christian leaders and organizations accountable. Give a gift of $30 or more to The Roys Report this month, and you will receive a copy of “What If Jesus Was Serious about the Church?” by Skye Jethani. To donate, click here.

sarah young jesus calling
The late Sarah Young, author of ‘Jesus Calling’ (Courtesy image)

“The books are designed to help people connect not only with Jesus, the living Word, but also with the Bible, the written Word,” she told Religion News Service in an email interview in 2021. 

Some of her fellow Presbyterians are unconvinced. They worry the book falsely claims to speak for Jesus and that for some readers, it has overshadowed the Bible and Young’s success challenges the authority of male church leaders.

During their recent General Assembly, leaders of the PCA voted to ask a denominational committee to assess whether “Jesus Calling” is appropriate for Christians to read and to recommend further action if the book is not. They also voted to require Mission to the World, the PCA’s missionary organization — where Young’s husband, Stephen, is employed — to report on its relationship to the book.

The denomination’s action, known as an overture — which passed by a vote of 947-834 — fell short of condemning the book or calling for an investigation into whether it was heretical. The original language of the overture, written by a former PCA pastor from North Carolina, called for an investigation into whether the book violated the Second Commandment, which bans making graven images.

“My overture was a real poke in the eye — telling the PCA that they are complicit in the single greatest tool for idolatrous worship in our day,” said Benjamin Inman, the PCA elder who submitted the original overture.

Inman has called “Jesus Calling” an “abysmal book” inspired by an “occult practice” known as automatic writing, in which a devotee channels a divine message. Any proceeds from the book that went to PCA causes were tainted, he said in an email.

 Last December, Inman said he’d read a negative review of the book a few months after Young’s death and decided he needed to take action. He believes the PCA did a disservice by not spiritually correcting Young for her writing.

Young’s widower, Stephen, who is a PCA missionary living in Nashville, Tennessee, opposed the overture, saying his wife was a faithful church member who wanted to point people to the Bible.

sarah young jesus calling
Stephen Young, widower of Sarah Young, speaks against an overture into her book, “Jesus Calling,” during the Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly in Richmond, Virginia. (Video screen grab)

In an email to media, Stephen Young and the couple’s daughter, Stephanie van der Westhuizen, said she had read about the proposed overture a few weeks before the PCA’s General Assembly, which was held June 11-14 in Richmond, Virginia.

“However, several people we talked to assured us there was nothing to worry about as an overture such as this was sure to be voted down,” van der Westhuizen said in the email.

Stephen Young and van der Westhuizen said “Jesus Calling” has been misunderstood. The book, they said in an email, was inspired by Young’s “deep biblical prayer life” — and not out of any new-age practice. While Sarah Young got the idea of writing in the first person from “God Calling,” a 1930s spiritual book written by two anonymous writers who claimed to be channeling messages, Stephen Young and van der Westhuizen said the book was not a work of automatic writing.

They also said Sarah Young never claimed to be writing scripture.

“The Bible is the only infallible, inerrant Word of God, and I endeavor to keep my writings consistent with that unchanging standard,” Young wrote in the intro to “Jesus Calling,” adding that readers should have their Bible open when reading her book.

“Jesus Calling” was published in 2004 when Young was in her late 50s. After a modest beginning, the book became a huge and unexpected hit — spawning a series of related products, including children’s books, journals and podcasts.

Stephen Prothero, a religion scholar and author of “God the Bestseller,” a history of popular books about religion, said “Jesus Calling” reflects a very common form of evangelical piety. When he studied evangelical Christians, he said, they would often claim to get private revelation from God all the time when trying to make life decisions, such as whether or not to take a job.

prothero
Stephen Prothero. (Photo by Meera Subramanian)

“If you pray and ask God for something, that requires no revelation,” he said. “But if you pray and ask God to clarify something for you — that does require revelation. And it’s not that unusual.”

Where Young might have crossed the line, he said, is in writing down what she heard from God and selling it. That has always made church leaders nervous, he said — especially when women are involved. Prothero said that claiming to hear from God can be seen as a challenge to the authority of the Bible and the authority of church leaders — which he suspects is what makes some Presbyterians wary of her writing.

Kevin Twit, who leads a PCA campus ministry in Nashville, agrees. Twit voted against the overture, saying it was unnecessary. But he said that in the PCA, claiming God spoke to you is discouraged.

“It’s a big deal to say, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’” he said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I feel like God might be leading me.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘God told me to do something.’”

Katelyn Beaty, an editor with Baker Publishing and author of “Celebrities for Jesus,” said church leaders can see female Christian writers as a threat to their spiritual authority.

beaty
Katelyn Beaty (Courtesy image)

“The book-buying market is more powerful than denominational leaders,” she said. “I think there is a real reckoning with the power of a product intended for evangelical Christians compared with the weakening power of denominations.”

The thought that a female missionary — rather than a pastor with church authority — was able to connect with such a large audience probably irks some pastors as well, said Beaty, who co-hosts RNS’ “Saved by the City” podcast.

William Paul Young, author of “The Shack,” a bestselling Christian novel that also fell afoul of church leaders for not being orthodox enough, said that criticism often backfires. “Some of those guys sold me more books than anybody else, just by declaring it off-limits,” he said.

Young, who is not related to Sarah Young, said he never got angry at evangelical critics. Instead, he hoped God would speak to them about why the book made them so mad.

“Those are my people,” he said. “I have a lot of love for them.”

A spokesperson for Mission to the World said this is the first case in which the agency has been asked to report on its relationship with a missionary. Instead, any questions were handled by the church that sent out the missionary or a local presbytery.

The spokesperson declined to comment on whether the agency received donations from the proceeds of “Jesus Calling,” citing donor privacy. The agency also has no control over the books missionaries write.

Jeff Crosby, president of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, which gave Young a posthumous award honoring “Jesus Calling” and its impact in the world, said the group stands behind that decision. 

“We believe both the author and the publisher made clear from the initial publication date what ‘Jesus Calling’ was and was not purporting to be,” he said. 

Stephen Young and van der Westhuizen said proceeds from the book had been used to fund new churches and overseas missions, as well as well as other Christian charitable work. “Sarah always wanted to use the proceeds to benefit God’s Kingdom rather than accumulate earthly wealth herself,” they wrote.

Sarah Young, who was publicity-shy, would likely have been praying for her critics, if she were still alive, her family said. And she would have trusted that God works out things for the best.

“She likely would have not given this controversy much attention, as she knew that her conscience before God was clear, and that God would continue to use her book to bring people to Christ no matter what her critics said.”

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.

SHARE THIS:

GET EMAIL UPDATES!

Keep in touch with Julie and get updates in your inbox!

Don’t worry we won’t spam you.

More to explore
discussion

36 Responses

  1. Isn’t the PCA a day late and a dollar short on this one? Shouldn’t they have objected when the first book was published almost two decades ago? Doesn’t the PCA have real issues they could tackle?

    1. That is exactly my reaction to this. I always thought the claim expressed in the title was problematic, but the time to investigate was when the author was still alive and able to respond

  2. It’s hard to buy the defense that Young didn’t consider these to be real words from Jesus. This article fails to mention that in the intro to the first edition of Jesus Calling, Sarah Young’s description of her inspirational process is fairly transparent. In subsequent editions the publisher changed this and scrubbed her reference to the channeled book Jesus Calling. The reason seems obvious.

  3. It’s a daily devotional guide — nothing more, nothing less. Such books start or end your day with a focus on God. It’s not a commentary or Bible study, nor does it purport to be.

    Could a reader misinterpret the content to contradict primary doctrines? Perhaps, but unlikely if regularly attending a church faithful to the Scriptures, reading the Bible at length, and not substituting the book for consistent worship or fellowship with other believers. The same could be said for many Christian publications.

  4. I haven’t read them all but I recently received one as a gift and it’s a beautiful way to start my day focusing on Jesus. I don’t get it. I really think they (the PCA) need to stop this. It’s her book, it has her as the author not them, it leads many, many people to and toward Jesus every day. He speaks to people through many different ways. What is the problem? Focus on real problems please! For there are many in the church and this isn’t one of them!

    1. No. It is wrong and unorthodox for males or females to claim extra-biblical revelation. Period. Honesty would “Examine all things” (2 Thess 5:21), not think you can assume to read their minds and slander all you disagree with accordingly.
      That’s decidedly anti-biblical.
      “Some Concerns about Jesus Calling, and Thoughts on the Sufficiency of Scripture”
      https://www.epm.org/resources/2018/Jun/18/some-concerns-about-jesus-calling-and-thoughts-suf/

      1. And who claimed extra biblical revelation? Men claim all the time God spoke to them and revealed the sermon they’re about to preach, what’s the difference?

        1. That is correct. I have heard it many times from men who said that God talked to them about becoming ministers.

    2. Sarah–that is a patently untrue statement. We do not hate women and we would be concerned with any one, male or female, who claims to be offering new revelations. This entire issue was about content, not gender.

      1. Do you say the same thing to your pastors when they say God told them the sermon they’re about to deliver? Sorry if I don’t believe followers of a religion that demonizes women doesn’t hate women.

        1. You make a good point.
          We should be wary of what is preached from the pulpits as well. There’s a lot of interpretation going on – “different gospels”. Think Joel Olsteen and the prosperity gospel teachers. Heresy and false teaching from the pulpits leading people away from truth.

          That is why it’s so important to follow the examples of the Bereans in Acts 17, they “studied the scriptures daily to see if the things Paul and Silas said were true.”.

          People unquestioningly rely on their pastors to feed them, no wonder Christianity is so poorly represented in this day.

          1. Thank you for this response. Yeshua said there is no male or female in Christ, so the same scrutiny used to pick apart the work a woman has contributed should be used for men. But I don’t see that, at all, as we are continually hearing about men committing crimes in the church and absolutely nothing being done, but Sarah wrote a book she was inspired by Spirit to write and now she’s being demonized, postmortem. Every day I read some new story that turns my stomach about what goes on in the church and I lived, first-hand, the amount of vitriol it has for women. As soon as women speak up about it, we’re called all sorts of things and discredited.

  5. The author mistakenly attributes the concern over the book to be about gender. As a voting member of General Assembly and a member of the overtures committee that reworked the original proposal, I can testify that was not the case. Our denomination has a large number of women who write devotionals and Bible studies that are not only used in the churches, but sold by our denominational discipleship ministry. Tim Keller’s widow Kathy gave a review of the book years ago raising the same issues that the overture did and recommended against using it. The only reason that the book came up at all is because, though most churches knew of the book and often recommended against it’s use because of it’s questionably claim to be speaking the words of Jesus and the nature of automatic writing, we didn’t know that the writer was in the PCA. On her passing, she was put in a memorium article in the denominational publication. That surprised many of us. So the approved proposal only asks 2 PCA agencies to share their history with the book, why it was removed for sale by our discipleship ministry and to offer any guidance regarding its future value for use in the church.

    1. Thank you for the background on how this investigation was initiated (after the death of the author which was puzzling to me).

      It is unfortunate that Bob Smietana did not include this information in the RNS article, but instead included assumptions about the underlying motives. The commenters here then took that narrative up as a fact.

    2. What’s the difference between “automatic writing” and being inspired by the Holy Spirit?

      1. Coming via “the spirits” vs “The only and only Holy Spirit”

        True automatic writing involves emptying your mind of your own conscious thought and allowing spiritual forces to guide your pen. Sarah Young claimed Jesus as the spiritual force

        1. If one is filled with the Holy Spirit, there is no way they are filled with anything else to speak to them to begin with. Demonic doctrine is many things, including indoctrinating Christian people to believe that they can be possessed by demons; a planting into the mind that a person can be controlled by forces that are not of God when they have given their life to God. God protects His children, so this is a lie. Are people scrutinizing Sarah’s salvation, as well, or just how she communed with the Holy Spirit? Either way, it’s disgusting to bother, or even think about bothering, to slander this woman, her intentions, her connection to God, her heart when she is dead.

    3. Thank you for the background on why the investigation was started after the death of the author.
      Not sure why the assumptions were inserted about it being a gender thing, and didn’t include any of this info that I think answers a lot of questions.

    4. Thank you for sharing from your inside perspective…now here is mine.
      I have spent most of my adult life in a PCA church, my children were educated at a PCA- supported school, my husband and I participated in a PCA church plant and we are currently financially supporting another one. Also, I have used this devotional over the years and I have been spiritually supported by it’s guidance. However, I cannot see how anyone would find anything in it that was not firmly based in traditional, biblical doctrine.
      That said, I am extremely disappointed that the PCA did not investigate Kathy Keller’s concerns at the time. If it wasn’t important then, it certainly is less so now. It is insulting to her memory and, likely, painful to her family. It makes me think of the verse at Matthew 23:24.
      Let it go.

  6. PCA: tell me you never read the book without tell me you never read the book…
    What Young does in JC is no different than what I’ve heard many PCA (and other) preachers do. Take the written words of Christ and expand and illuminate on them for the benefit of the listener and to make a broader point. Ever heard the phrase from the pulpit: “what Jesus is saying here is…”

    it’s no different and nobody is ever confused. AND – if they did actually read it, there’s not anything heretical in her illuminations. Numerous verses are cited and it doesn’t contradtict the gospel so….how about the PCA just says “thank you” and went on their way?

  7. I’ve been in ministry long enough to see books come and go, like the Prayer of Jabez, the Left Behind series, and Piercing the Darkness. Christians get really excited about them, despite their theological weaknesses or shallowness, until the Next Big Thing comes along. The PCA is about 20 years late in voicing their concerns about this one, which seems typical for a lot of denominational types.

  8. I haven’t read any of her works so I’m not willing to praise or criticize, but years ago I received a daily devotional online from someone who wrote in the first person but the words were written to be received as if coming from God not the author. He never claimed that they were but never had any kind of disclaimer either, but over time it became uncomfortable and I stopped receiving them. I believe he had the best intentions to encourage others, as probably Ms. Young did. I have the same uneasiness when I’ve seen The Chosen, almost all the disciples’ dialogue is created, as is a lot of Jesus’. Altho they have a short disclaimer before the first episode of the first season, it’s not very transparent. The Chosen is essentially a work of historic fiction, and altho it’s well done and its author well-meaning, I’ve heard Christians share it as if it’s true. It’s not and that’s not helpful.

  9. Problematic doctrine in all forms of media is not at all new, and increasing as time goes on.
    On this very site Colin Stitt is continually posting his heretical book.

    I know people who read Jesus Calling as if it is scripture. I was gifted a beautiful leather copy it actually looked like a Bible. I read from it and did not find anything outwardly untrue, but felt like it was taking someone’s personal relationship with Jesus to be the Jesus for everyone. The uncomfortable part is using the voice of Jesus that should only come from scripture.

    The average Christian does not have a strong foundation of Biblical truth in order to know how to test spiritual influences for how they align with God’s revelation to us, and the full collection of the teachings of Jesus. The focus should be on spiritual formation through strong local church leadership, mentoring and discipleship.

    Christian media is a huge business and having a denomination “investigate” a book that has been around for 20 years and is in millions of homes isn’t really going to have much of an impact.

  10. I see articles like this, and the comments, and wonder what happened to the Holy Spirit? I guess scripture just isn’t clear enough for people about why Jesus had to go to the Father, and then they just don’t ask for the Holy Spirit to help them live the way Jesus called us to live. It is called the indwelling Holy Spirit, and wow…He never stopped talking to people…they just don’t seem to want to listen or believe the Words of Jesus as to why He had to go to the Father. I am not afraid or ashamed to say that the Holy Spirit speaks to my heart daily because of daily meditation and devotional time that I spend seeking God. I feel sorry for the churches of Sardis and Laodiceans, where the Holy Spirit no longer speaks directly to God’s people, and the world takes precedence in people’s hearts. I believe it also grieves the Holy Spirit that He even had to speak such things to these churches. The Holy Spirit is kind, convicting, wise, and would never contradict His own Words in the scriptures. It is that simple!

  11. Is there no editorial control on this site? The author here claims that Young never said that the book was the words of Jesus, even though the name of the book is Jesus Calling (what else could that mean?) and this direct quote from Young:

    “I had been writing in prayer journals for years, but that was one-way communication: I did all the talking. I knew that God communicated with me through the Bible, but I yearned for more. Increasingly, I wanted to hear what God had to say to me personally on a given day. I decided to listen to God with pen in hand, writing down whatever I believe He was saying. I felt awkward the first time I tried this, but I received a message. It was short, biblical, and appropriate. It addressed topics that were current in my life: trust, fear, and closeness to God. I responded by writing in my prayer journal.”

    If these “revelations” from these “spiritual encounters” with God are “the same” as what Scripture teaches, what exactly is the need for Young’s book? And why was the reference to God Calling in the first edition taken out in subsequent editions? And why were these “words of Jesus” edited and changed in subsequent editions?

    It’s obvious what the danger is here. It has nothing to due with Young’s gender (Bob is showing his true allegiance with this angle). The danger is actually claiming (contra Bob’s made-up assertion) to relate God’s words, and then backing down when challenged, because any Bible-reading Christian knows what God thinks about people to claim to speak for him but do not.

    1. Sweet reply…simple, to the point, and the best altar there is! The place where it’s You and me alone, God.

  12. I am going to point out that the PCA has no credibility on anything when it comes to what is biblical, or theologically, or doctrinally correct. They openly endorse sexual sin in the church by ordaining homosexuals into the clergy so the biblical and theological bar is set pretty low for them. A book written by one of their members is the least of their doctrinal problems. They may want to repent of sins being committed daily by their own hierarchy.

    1. I am pretty sure that you’re thinking of the Presbyterian church USA. From what I understand, they ordain homosexuals. The PCA stands for presbyterian church in America. As far as I am aware, they do not knowingly ordain Homosexuals.

    2. Mr. Cremer,
      Please get your facts straight. This must be another denomination to which you are referring. The PCA definitely does not endorse homosexuality as a godly lifestyle.

  13. Regardless of what is believed about the books, it is cowardly to pursue this after 20 years and only after the author’s recent death.

    If only the PCA were as concerned about the clergy misconduct and abuse of the sheep that has taken place and is taking place in its own churches!

    1. Right on Tom! If there is an inclination to censor, don’t buy it. If you have it and don’t want it, burn it. And find something major to go after.

  14. My mother was given this book by a hospital chaplain. It has brought her so much peace and joy reading the Bible verses and the author’s reflection upon the reading. Nothing wrong or contradicting to the teachings of Jesus in this book. Be careful how you judge. Remember His Teachings on judgment. May God have mercy on us all.

Leave a Reply

The Roys Report seeks to foster thoughtful and respectful dialogue. Toward that end, the site requires that people register before they begin commenting. This means no anonymous comments will be allowed. Also, any comments with profanity, name-calling, and/or a nasty tone will be deleted.
 
MOST RECENT Articles
MOST popular articles
en_USEnglish

Donate

Hi. We see this is the third article this month you’ve found worth reading. Great! Would you consider making a tax-deductible donation to help our journalists continue to report the truth and restore the church?

Your tax-deductible gift helps our journalists report the truth and hold Christian leaders and organizations accountable. Give a gift of $30 or more to The Roys Report this month, and you will receive a copy of “What If Jesus Was Serious about the Church?” by Skye Jethani.