Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

How do I know?

Written by: on March 11, 2017

One day a psychological anthropologist from Stanford University shows up at your church with a brilliant idea. She wants to spend two years attending your services and participating in your small groups in order to better understand how people experience their Christian faith. She attends Bible classes, church retreats, and everything that can help her understand your Christian experience. Throughout those two years she observes, participates, takes notes, and interviews your church family. Then, she writes a book about her findings, interpreting the data based on her understanding of psychology, the brain, anthropological studies, and the historical background of Christianity in America. Yet, she does not consider herself a born-again believer, even though she believes in some concept of the divine. What will she discover?

Dr. Tanya Marie Luhrmann, professor in the anthropology department at Stanford University published her findings in her fourth book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. In this research, Lurhmann seeks to understand the neo-Pentecostal Christian experience as embodied in the Vineyard Christian Fellowship denomination.


In light of the scientific advances of our secular age, many scholars predicted that people would eventually abandon religion. However, the current trend in American society shows that charismatic churches are growing faster than any other denomination. This trend is also found across the globe. In light of this trend, Luhrmann tries to explain how, in a secular age, there are still people who are reasonable and educated yet they experience a personal God who talks back to them.

She states,

“This book explains how this new use of the mind allows God to come alive for people. It explains what people learn, how deep the learning goes, and how powerful it is. My goal is to help nonbelievers understand this learning process. This will not turn the skeptic into a believer, but it will help to explain how a reasonable person could choose to become and remain this kind of Christian. Perhaps that will serve as a bridge across the divide, and help us to respect one another.”[1]

Thus, writing for an audience of skeptics, Luhrmann explains that the way many evangelical Christians experience God feels very real because they train the mind to interpret reality in a way consistent with their belief system. She argues that these mental processes have many parallels with many studies of the mind found in the field of psychotherapy. Thus, there is a logical explanation why these reasonable people speak of God as if He were real, even though He is invisible and the Bible is full of apparently absurd beliefs.

She concludes,

“In the end, this is the story of the uncertainty of our senses, and the complexity of our minds and world. There is so little we know, so much we take on trust. In a way more fundamental than we dare to appreciate, we each must make our own judgments about what is truly real, and there are no guarantees, for what is, is always cloaked in mystery.”[2]


As a Christian who was not familiar with the Vineyard churches, this book helped me understand the historical background and the mindset that characterizes much of neo-Pentecostalism. It also helped me see the perspective in which a person who is not a born-again believer may perceive evangelicalism.

I grew up in a Baptist church, and I had my conversion experience at age six. I was taught the importance of praying, but I was never taught that I needed to expect God to talk back to me, or that I had to visualize pictures as I prayed. My theological training emphasized a hermeneutical system  shaped by a cultural/grammatical/applicational approach to the biblical text (What does the author mean? How does it apply to my life?) rather than an emotional approach (What does it mean to me?). My relationship to the Holy Spirit has been one of sanctification and guide rather than one who provides mystical experiences and comes and goes into rooms in response to the level of faith that the congregation displays. Therefore, the book functioned as a window into a different theological framework from the one that has shaped my Christian experience.

When I hear people say things like, “God told me” I wonder what the person really means, because I have never heard God’s voice loudly. Luhrmann helped me understand what different people mean. I can therefore identify with the epistemological question that the author explores. How do I know that what the person is saying is true? How do I know that it is not imagined, misinterpreted, or made up? How do I know? I believe that God can speak, or perform miracles, or be experienced in a different way from the way in which I have experienced Him. I just don’t trust people’s perceptions.

This mistrust in the human perception has shaped the way I communicate my own perceptions, because as a pastor I have to be careful not to misguide people by speaking from God in areas in which God has not clearly spoken. If it is biblical revelation (and not a gray area of interpretation), I feel much more free to say “God says” (because He did!). However, in experiential matters, instead of saying, “God told me” I may say instead, “This is what I been thinking.” As pastors we encourage, give advice, and confront in many areas of life. Therefore, because the level of influence that pastors have over the sheep is rather delicate, we must be careful in how we communicate God’s perspective.

As objective as Luhrmann attempts to be in her book, she writes from the experience of one who is not born again. Thus, her very perception is limited by her own experience and assumptions. For instance, an anthropologist may want to research marriage by living with a married couple for two years. Yet, if the anthropologist has never been in love and experienced marriage herself, everything she describes may seem to her as mechanical and hard work. She cannot really perceive it adequately until being married to a person she loves. Only then she can see marriage for what it really is.

This is perhaps the underlying fallacy of the book. A non-born-again person may observe and explain things in scholarly terms, but unless the person has experienced the supernatural love of God that the Holy Spirit gives us when we are born again, her very perception will be distorted by her spiritual condition. As Saint Anselm of Canterbury puts it, this level of understanding in the Christian experience is the result of fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding), not the other way around.



[1] Luhrmann, T.M. (2012-03-27). When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


[2] Ibid, 325.

About the Author

Pablo Morales

Pablo Morales serves as the Lead Pastor of Ethnos Bible Church in Texas. He is currently pursuing the Doctor of Ministry degree in Leadership and Global Perspectives at Portland Seminary in order to understand what it takes to develop a healthy multiethnic church.

14 responses to “How do I know?”

  1. Claire Appiah says:

    Thanks for a great summary and reflection of Luhrmann’s book. I concur with your concluding remarks that were spot on. You stated, “This is perhaps the underlying fallacy of the book. A non-born-again person can only observe and explain things in scholarly terms, but unless the person has experienced the supernatural love of God that the Holy Spirit gives us when we are born again, her perception will be distorted by her spiritual condition.”
    But, I am left with wondering how you personally know when you have heard from God. I understand why you may be skeptical about the experiences of others. But, has there been a time in your life when you were convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that you heard directly from God?

  2. Pablo Morales says:

    Claire, in all of my years of being a Christian, I have never “heard directly” from God. In fact, I never even thought that I was supposed to “hear” from God because the Scriptures do not command me to. I am called to love God, to pray to Him, to grow in knowledge, to grow in godliness, to trust, to obey, to serve. At the same time, the Bible teaches me that God leads us, and that the Holy Spirit guides us. How do I discern God’s leading? It has been a mix of paying attention to his written Word, to the advice of people I respect, to the circumstances that surround me, and to the peace that God gives when a decision is made. I understand that even in those ways of discerning God’s leading there is the “human interpretation” element, so I am always reserved in the process.

    With that in mind, there have been several experiences in which I have felt God’s leading in a clear and timely manner. There are key moments that come to mind. When I was in college, I was seriously considering pursuing my ThM. Yet, there were so many unknowns and the cost was beyond what I could afford. I remember praying about it and one day I started feeling anxious in light of the impossibility of it. As I was so absorbed in my anxious thoughts, I picked up a book from the shelf in the library, and as soon as I opened the book, there was a card inside that said, “Do not worry about the future, God is already there.” Because I was worrying about the future at that very moment, it felt as if God was talking to me directly through those words. Eventually I got my ThM and everything was paid for through a scholarship. On another occasion, when I was considering marriage, I was concerned about the age difference with my wife (7 years). I had been praying for God’s guidance during all of those months. One day, when I arrived to my apartment, I was lost in my thoughts wondering if the age difference would be a problem. I felt the need to turn on the TV, and there was a talk show in which they were interviewing couples with a big age difference. Their conclusion was that the age difference did not affect their marriages at all, because the friendship was what mattered the most. At that moment I felt a similar sensation as when I was in college. The timely manner in which my circumstances addressed what was going on in my mind made me feel that God was leading me through it. Now I have been married to my wife for sixteen years, and our relationship is great. Before I became the pastor of Ethnos, my wife and I were praying about a ministry opportunity after seminary. One day I was walking on campus looking down as I was asking the Lord in my mind, Lord, what do you want me to do next? Suddenly, I was forced to stop walking when a man was standing in my way. I looked up and he was an Elder from Ethnos looking for me. He said, “Pablo, I’m glad I found you! I have a ministry request for you…” That was thirteen years ago, and I’m still at Ethnos. Finally, the day my daughter died, my wife and I were trying to assimilate everything that was going on. As we were talking in our grief, we both looked at the table and noticed a craft that my son had made in Sunday school at a church he visited with his grandparents that morning. It was a paraphrase from Isiah that said, “Do not look at the past. Focus on the future and the great things the Lord will do.” At the moment, the words spoke directly into our hearts. We both felt like it was really from the Lord. We ended up framing the craft and put it on display in our living room. For some reason, the craft was made in a pink plate.

    All of these experiences have marked me, and they were important points in my walk with the Lord. Yet, they are all very personal. I know the impression I felt at the moment and that God used those moments to guide me, even though I did not “hear” Him.


    • Claire Appiah says:

      Thanks so much for your explanation through those examples. Those are some of the exact same ways I consider myself hearing from God. I have to admit, when I say I have heard from God I do not mean that I have heard God’s voice audibly in His God-type tone. What I mean is that God through His Holy Spirit has given me an inner witness within my spirit that He is revealing or relating something to me.

      So, there have been times when I have had thoughts that were so pressing and persistent for me to take a certain action, that I could not ignore them. But, I tried to ignore them because I didn’t want to follow through. Such as, retiring from my job and going back to school. The recurring directive in my spirit was RETIRE RIGHT NOW AND PREPARE FOR SERVICE. I procrastinated and the job became increasingly more stressful to the point that I sensed that it was going to make me very ill or kill me. So, I finally obeyed and now have the blessed opportunity to interact with you in this Dmin program. As in your own case as well, there are countless instances like these that we “hear” from God throughout our lifetimes.

      • Pablo Morales says:

        Claire, I can identify with those pressing thoughts. I’ve had a similar experience. Whenever there is an idea that does not go away, I start wondering if it is from the Lord. That is how I also ended up studying this Doctoral program. Pastor Andy Stanley says in his book Visioneering that every God-given vision starts as a concern, an idea that God is pressing in your mind. Our goal is to pray, investigate, and take action if we think that this is from the Lord. I can look back now and say with confidence that the Lord was leading me to this doctoral program. However, it is much easier to see it clearly after the facts. Right now, for instance, I feel the need to relocate our church. I have felt this way for a while, but it wasn’t until last year that we investigated some options and we ended up deciding not to move. However, the desire to relocate remains in my mind. As I am going through this unresolved story, I try to be prudent in how I communicate this to our church. How do I know that this is from the Lord? The truth is that I do not know. So we pray for His guidance in the process. In situations like this one, some people would stand in front of the church and say, “God told me that we need to move.” I do not think that doing so is right. I can, however, tell people, “I feel the need to move, but I do not know if this is from the Lord or not. Let’s pray for Him to guide us and confirm His direction for us.” Once this episode of my walk of faith is resolved whether by staying or moving, it will be easier to look back and know what God was doing. In the meantime, I must be prudent as a leader not to manipulate or force things just because I feel a certain way.

  3. Kevin Norwood says:

    Do you believe that men and women in the Bible heard from God? Do you believe that Paul heard from God to write the scripture that we study? I know these are direct questions but they lead to this question, was the author’s viewpoint of us a human’s shaping our minds to fit our theology correct?

    I don’t know that I have audibly heard God speak to me but I know he has clearly “spoken” to me about specific things that I was the only one who knew what was going on.

    Your summary and illustration of marriage was very brilliant and clear. It is always interesting to get to the end of the book and find out that the person who has written all of these things is not a Christian. These are the “mysteries” of the faith. When you become a believer you understand things differently that when you were an unbeliever. In light of that Saul’s conversion to being Paul dropped scales from his eyes. Maybe that is the difference, God reveals himself to those who trust in him instead of just to those who write about him.

    Thanks for the stories and illustrations of when God spoke to you.


    • Pablo Morales says:

      Kevin, my answer to your first question is “yes.” Definitely the Triune God has spoken to people in the Scriptures. I also know that he did not communicate with everybody in the same way. That’s why I do not have a problem with believing that God speaks. Who am I to say what God can or cannot do today?

      My answer to the second question is a partial yes. Even though there are many real experiences that we cannot deny in our days, it is also true that many people imagine or make up things. The very Scriptures warn us about false teachers and false prophets. They are deceivers who take advantage of people. The Scriptures also warn us to test the spirits and use discernment when people claim to speak in God’s behalf. Do some people see what they want to see even when is not there? I think so.

      We all have a real relationship with our Triune God. We are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, and we are convicted, guided, and used by Him. So I have no doubt that God uses different means to guide us and impress in our hearts what His will is for our lives. Much of those impressions are very personal. Part of the problem that I see is the tendency to standardize the Christian experience, as if God deals with everybody in the same way. The more I understand how we are wired so differently, the more I wonder how much of our spiritual experience is also meant to be different. The book made me wonder about this idea.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the blog. I’m looking forward to reading your blog tomorrow!

  4. Phil Goldsberry says:


    You said:
    This is perhaps the underlying fallacy of the book. A non-born-again person can only observe and explain things in scholarly terms, but unless the person has experienced the supernatural love of God that the Holy Spirit gives us when we are born again, her very perception will be distorted by her spiritual condition.

    Is this not the world that we, as pastors, live in all the time? Unsaved people making verbal “stabs” at what we hold as truth? Bar the Vineyard connection, could Luhrmann walk into your church and walk away with some of her same statements?


    • Pablo Morales says:

      Phil, you are right. After all, the Apostle Paul tells us that the person who is not born again is spiritually dead and is under the influence of Satan. So the world cannot understand God’s ways because they can only be understood with the mind of Christ. I commented on Jason’s post that I would be nervous to read the book if Luhrmann conducted her experiment in my church. I’m sure there would be misrepresentations too.

  5. Rose Anding says:

    Thanks Pablo,
    In regard to this statement, “God says.” However, in experiential matters, instead of saying, “God told me” I may say instead….
    “This is what I been thinking.”When someone begins a sentence with “God told me . . .” it must be followed by a verse of Scripture to validate it. When we read the Scriptures we are not just reading a record of what God has said in the past. God actively speaks to us in the here and now through the words of this amazing book.

    Let’s review what the writer of Hebrews, how he makes this point clear when he quotes Old Testament passages and presents them not as something God said to his people sometime in the past, but as something God is currently saying to his people (Hebrews 1:6,7,8, 2:12, 3:7, 4:7). He writes that “the word of God is living and active” (4:12). It is exposing our shallow beliefs and hidden motives. Because this word is personal. You and I hear the voice of God speaking to us—unmistakably, authoritatively, and personally—when we read, hear, study, and meditate on the Scriptures. God has spoken and is, in fact, still speaking to us through the Scriptures. What we need is illumination, and this is exactly what Jesus has promised the Holy Spirit will give to us as his word abides in us.

    Therefore,it is the Holy Spirit of God works through the Word of God to counsel and comfort and convict (John 16:7-15). Through the Scriptures we hear God teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training us in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16-17). However it is the Word of God that transforms us by renewing our minds so that we think more like him and less like the world. Instead of needing God to dictate to us what to do, we become increasingly able to “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). That is the reason that I gave my blog the topic “God Wants to Talk with you”.

    Thanks for a interesting reading blog, Blessing Rose Maria

    • Pablo Morales says:

      Rose, I agree with you. God speaks through the Scriptures, because I believe the Bible is the Word of God. The Holy Spirit illuminates us and leads us into all truth, so that we can discern His perfect will. Well said.

      At the same time, we must remember that even God’s Word can be misused to attempt to say what God has not said. For instance, there was a man once that opposed the idea of celebrating communion in the morning worship service. He came to my pastor and told him that God says that we should not celebrate communion in the morning service. He proceeded to quote the fact that the Bible calls it the last “supper.” In his mind, God’s word was clear. We do not eat supper in the morning, only in the evening, so we should only celebrate communion in the evening service. Really?

      That’s what I mean when I say that we have to be prudent as leaders in how we communicate God’s word to people. If I say “God told me” when I actually mean, “God says in his Word” it is more prudent to call it for what it is. Even the written Word has to be interpreted, and there are many sections that require more robust hermeneutics than simply quoting the verse.

  6. I appreciate your perspective and your writing. Thank you!
    I like your quote at the end (I had to look it up!). I agree to a point that faith first then understanding. That is actually a big Vineyard value when it comes to education. Experience things first and then go to school to try to learn what happened and is happening.
    What do you think of C.S. Lewis and his conversion experience in this context?

  7. Pablo Morales says:

    Aaron, I’m glad that Luhrmann included a section on C. S. Lewis. His story is a good example of the path that many skeptics go through as they come to believe in Christ. They have believed that the Bible is a myth for so long, that in order to embrace it they have to unlearn what they have believed to be true. This is only possible through conversion, because the Spirit opens the understanding (illuminates). But for the outsider (like Luhrmann) it looks like learning “to pretend.”

    His conversion story made me realize the importance of teaching children about God from a young age. In my case, I grew up being taught the historicity of the Bible, so I never had to go through the experience of moving from thinking of the Bible as myth to thinking of the Bible as history. I can only imagine how difficult it may be for some people to take that step. It may truly feel like having to pretend it is true before they can feel it is really true.

  8. Garfield Harvey says:

    Great summary of the book. As I was getting ready to comment on your blog, I realized most of the group picked the same point. You stated, “A non-born-again person can only observe and explain things in scholarly terms.” I believe this to be true, but I also noticed a growing challenge in recent years and even as I’m enrolled in this global program. As we become more culturally aware, it becomes easy for us to minimize Christianity to tradition or an evolutionary process without spirituality. I believe over the next few years, many churches will reduce their religious practices to that of an observational process as they try to discern the culture, instead of engaging it.


    • Pablo Morales says:

      Garfield, you are right. You see this phenomenon to some degree in the history of the universities. Places like Harvard and Princeton are known as highly secular today even though they began as Christian institutions. The same can happen to the church. In fact, some denominations have suffered divisions because some of them became much more influenced by secularism. As you pointed out, there are some churches that are headed that way nowadays too.

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