Something was happening at the Vatican; I cannot remember if the issue was another sexual abuse cover-up or a contentious synod meeting. But I do remember seeing a woman I knew to be a serious Roman Catholic post on her social media an old music video, with no commentary. The video, R.E.M.’s 1991 song “Losing My Religion,” prompted friends to ask if she had lost her faith. She responded that she hadn’t, but was afraid that she was losing her church. No wonder her friends were concerned. The song, after all, has entered popular culture as the soundtrack to almost any story of an ex-Catholic or an “ex-vangelical.” To a haunting tune, the lyrics communicate both loss and confusion:
That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you,
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough
R.E.M. lyrics were always cryptic, and, at least according to American Songwriter magazine, the lyrics to “Losing My Religion” are often misunderstood. The song is actually about anger – based on an old Southern expression: it’s less “I don’t find the ontological argument for theism believable anymore” and more “If I wait in this DMV line for one more minute, I’m fixing to lose my religion.” In light of the current crisis of religion – seen perhaps most starkly in my own American evangelical subculture – I’m not sure that these are entirely different things. Perhaps “losing religion” now is about both interpretations of the song, if not as much about intellect and argumentation as about grief, betrayal, and anger.
When I was fifteen years old, I considered suicide – and it was because I didn’t want to lose my religion. As I’ve written about elsewhere, I went through a prolonged spiritual crisis because of what I was seeing all around me in Bible Belt Christianity. Not only were there televangelist scandals all over the news, I knew that wasn’t the half of it. Just as those in political journalism have long known how to interpret “Sen. Smith has decided to spend more time with his family,” I knew how to interpret “the Lord has called Brother Jones from the pastorate into itinerant evangelism.” I knew of “Christian people” who beat their children for listening to “secular music.” I knew of “Christian people” who denounced vulgarity in the culture but seethed with racism. I heard prediction after prediction after prediction tying current events to Bible prophecy that was all “just about to happen.” But nobody ever said, “Remember I told you Mikhail Gorbachev was probably the Antichrist? My bad,” or, “Now that I also am using these supermarket scanners, maybe they’re not the mark of the beast after all.” These folks just moved on with their next confident assertions, as though the others had never happened at all.
And this was even more the case with politics. Even as a teenager, I could see that the voting guides that showed up in Bible Belt America were like the horoscopes in the newspaper – “today you will find a surprising new opportunity.” A certain sort of credulous person is amazed at the accuracy without ever realizing that it’s true for virtually everyone, virtually every day. Likewise, the voting guides divided the “Christian view” from the “anti-Christian view” on a list of issues that just happened to line up with the favored party’s platform. Somehow, the Bible suddenly offered a “Christian view” on a balanced budget amendment or a line-item veto, things that had never been noticed until the favored candidates started emphasizing them. And along with all that came apocalyptic warnings that if these candidates weren’t elected, or those policies weren’t enacted, we would “lose our entire culture.” But when those candidates lost, no one headed for the bunkers. The culture didn’t fall – at least not any more than it had before.
I started to wonder whether religion itself – or at least the kind of Christianity that showed up in the slogans all around me – might really be about something else: Southern culture or politics. If so, I thought, that would mean that Jesus is not the Way, the Truth, and the Life, but a means to an end. And that would mean that the gospel is not “you must be born again,” but “you must be one of us.” All that was terrifying to me because I really believed that Jesus was the Son of the living God. I really believed that Jesus loved me. And if the gospel I had been given was really just about finding ways to get voters to back party bosses or to fund prostitutes and cocaine for some preachers on TV, that would mean more than just an adolescent’s cynical awakening. It would mean that the universe is a random, meaningless void; that the preacher who beat his daughter for dancing wasn’t an aberration but was instead the way the cosmos is, right down to the core. And that was a horrible thought.
I had read The Chronicles of Narnia repeatedly as a child, so I recognized the name C. S. Lewis when I saw Mere Christianity in the bookstore – and the book re-oriented my life and my faith. What made the difference for me were not its arguments, but something much less describable, its tone and posture. I could tell that Lewis was not trying to sell me anything, to mobilize me, to prop up Bible Belt culture. His was not a means-to-an-end Christianity. And that was the wardrobe I needed to enter. This would seem to be just a part of my personal story – or “testimony” as we would put it in my corner of Christianity – except that my fifteen-year-old self haunts me. I know that the reason I even went looking for C. S. Lewis is that I had been taught the Bible, in a good, loving church. I had seen genuine love and community and authenticity, week after week in Sunday school and Training Union and worship services and Vacation Bible Schools – I knew that it could exist, and what it would look like when I found it. But I wonder what would have happened to fifteen-year-old Russell Moore had I been born in 2001 instead of 1971. Would the things I saw have prompted a crisis at all? Or would I just have walked away altogether? Would I have ended up the sort of atheist or agnostic or “deconstructing ex-vangelical” that I find myself counseling almost every day now? I suppose I should just conclude that, with apologies to Paul Simon, I was born again at the right time.
Many of us have observed a hemorrhaging of younger evangelicals from churches and institutions in recent years.
My story, though, is hardly the only story. The number of Americans now affiliated with a church is just 47 percent. What’s significant is not just the low number, but also the speed of the plummet – from 69 percent twenty years ago to 47 percent now. And the numbers are even worse than they appear. Generation X is less affiliated than Baby Boomers, Millennials less than Gen-X, and Generation Z looks likely to be even less affiliated than them all. In recent years, even some who were less apocalyptic about the prospects of evangelical Christianity – because of growth in the global South or the cyclical nature of revivals and awakenings – have grown more apprehensive about the prospects of evangelical Christianity in the twenty-first century. Referring to the “Nones,” those claiming “no religious affiliation,” Philip Jenkins contends that the future of the United States is None. Indeed, the most reliable studies available show us that as little as 8 percent of White Millennials identify as evangelicals, as compared to 26 percent of senior adults. With Generation Z, the numbers are even more jarring – with 34 percent (and growing) identifying as religiously unaffiliated.
What’s more, the “culture wars” narrative of this secularization is increasingly demonstrated to be false – at least in the way it’s been presented by and to American evangelicals over the past fifty years. Some disaffiliation, to be sure, is due to liberalizing cultural norms, decreasing fertility, and increasing mobility. But the evidence is mounting that a significant amount of secularization is accelerated and driven not by the “secular culture,” but by evangelicalism itself. Many of us have observed, anecdotally, a hemorrhaging of younger evangelicals from churches and institutions in recent years. What seems different about this quiet exodus is that the departures are heightened not along the periphery of the church – among “nominal” or “cultural” Christians who grow up to rebel against their parents’ beliefs – but among those who are most committed to what were previously thought to be the hardest aspects of Christian religion in modernity: belief in “the supernatural,” accepting the rigorous demands of discipleship, longing for community and accountability in a multigenerational church with ancient roots and transcendent authority.
Where a “de-churched” (to use an anachronistic term) “ex-vangelical” (to use another) in the early 1920s was likely to have walked away because she found the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection outdated and superstitious or because he found moral libertinism more attractive than the “outmoded” strict moral code of his past or because she wanted to escape the stifling bonds of a home church for an autonomous individualism, now we see a markedly different – and jarring – model of a disillusioned evangelical. We see young evangelicals walking away not because they do not believe what the church teaches, but because they believe the church itself does not believe what it teaches. This secularization comes not from scientism and hedonism but disillusionment and cynicism. Many have pointed to compelling data showing that the politicization of American religion is a key driver-away from religious affiliation. Some would suggest that most of those leaving would identify politically as somewhere from moderate to progressive, to suggest that they are better off outside the church in the first place. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that’s true, which comes first here? The demand to line up politically to follow Jesus or the decision to reject the politics of those making such demands? It seems to me that the problem is not actually specific political planks or ideas or personalities as much as it is that many have come to believe that the religion itself is a vehicle for the politics and cultural grievances, not the other way around.
It’s not difficult to see why. Twenty years ago I watched people suggesting that it was liberal Baptist theology that allowed many to wave away a president’s sexual behavior as irrelevant to his office. Then I lived long enough to watch the same people suggest that those who did not wave away such behavior from another president might not be “real Christians.” People can change their minds, of course. But – as with the prophecy charts a generation ago – there is no talk of minds changing, just certainties in one direction and then certainties in the opposite. The only difference is the tribal affiliation of the leaders under discussion.
What happens when people reject the church because they think we reject Jesus and the gospel?
Trends toward secularization mean that people do not need the church in order to see themselves as Americans or as good people or even as “spiritual.” And they certainly do not need the church in order to carry out their political affiliations – even when those political affiliations are those preferred by the church. If evangelicalism is politics, people can get their politics somewhere else – and fight and fornicate and get drunk too, if they want. A religion that calls people away from Western modernity will have to say, with credibility, “Take up your cross and follow me,” not “Come with us, and we’ll own the libs.” You can do that on YouTube and not even give up a Sunday morning.
We might reassure ourselves, when we see the proliferating “Nones” among our youth, that the reason they are leaving is because they want to run their own lives and pursue the sexual hedonism the church (rightly) forbids. Some of that is no doubt the case. But if one believes the Bible one knows that wanting to run one’s own life is not a modern development. And one need only know a little bit of high school biology to know that the desire for sexual hedonism didn’t start in the Obama administration. First-century Athens, Greece, was just as intellectually averse to Christianity as twenty-first-century Athens, Georgia – and far more sexually “liberated” too. And the gospel went forth and the churches grew. The problem now is not that people think the church’s way of life is too demanding, too morally rigorous, but that they have come to think the church doesn’t believe its own moral teachings. The problem is not that they reject the idea that God could send anyone to hell but that, when they see the church covering up predatory behavior in its institutions, they have evidence that the church believes God would not send “our kind of people” to hell.
If people reject the church because they reject Jesus and the gospel, we should be saddened but not surprised. But what happens when people reject the church because they think we reject Jesus and the gospel? People have always left the church because they want to gratify the flesh, but what happens when people leave because they believe the church exists to gratify the flesh – in orgies of sex or anger or materialism? That’s a far different problem. What if people don’t leave the church because they disapprove of Jesus, but because they’ve read the Bible and have come to the conclusion that the church itself would disapprove of Jesus? That’s a crisis.
Will the church die? No. The church moves out into the future not on the strength of its culture or its institutions but because of the promise of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi. And – however buffered the modern self might be from the so-called supernatural, the tomb is, in fact, empty. The apostles were telling the truth. The stories are true. And that means Jesus is alive – and seated in heaven until the kingdom of God has come on earth. That doesn’t mean that the institutions as they are will continue to exist: any church can lose its lampstand, and any church “culture” can lose its credibility and die. The church will be reborn in every generation, but, as the prophet Jeremiah warned Jerusalem, “Don’t be fooled by those who promise you safety simply because the Lord’s temple is here. … Do you really think you can steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and burn incense to Baal and all those other new gods of yours, and then come here and stand before me in my temple and chant, ‘we are safe!’ – only to go right back to all those evils again?” (Jer. 7:4, 8–10 NLT).
In 2 Kings 20, we find a strange incident with the king Hezekiah – an incident so significant it is repeated almost verbatim later in Isaiah 39. Hezekiah – one of the few admirable kings described in the books of Kings and Chronicles – was healed of a disease, granted fifteen more years of life. His life, though, happened against the backdrop of the existential threat of Assyrian forces eager to conquer and overthrow. Envoys from Babylon traveled to Hezekiah’s throne bearing from the Babylonian royal family letters and a gift, for they had heard of his sickness. “And Hezekiah welcomed them, and he showed them all his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his armory, all that was found in his storehouses,” the Bible recounts. “There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them” (2 Kings 20:13). The prophet Isaiah approached the king, to ask what these envoys had seen. “And Hezekiah answered, ‘They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them’” (2 Kings 20:15). Isaiah’s response was foreboding: he relayed an oracle from God that everything Hezekiah had stored up would one day be carted off to Babylon, and that some of Hezekiah’s own sons would be exiles, eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon. God’s denunciation is not (in this case) of the Babylonians. The problem is not that nations act as nations do, but Hezekiah. He had displayed before a potential geopolitical ally, and a potential geopolitical adversary, his power – his military might and economic wealth. At the moment, his values are their values. This is understandable; Hezekiah no doubt viewed the moment as a binary choice between the Assyrians and the Babylonians.
Hezekiah, though, had seen a different sort of power in the past. He had, after all, been rescued from the valley of the shadow of death by God’s mercy. When faced with the Assyrians’ taunts of their might and power, Hezekiah took their letter and “went up to the house of the Lord and spread it before the Lord” (2 Kings 19:14). Hezekiah had seen how the bronze serpent – previously a sign of Israel’s vulnerability (those dying from serpent venom looked to the image of the very thing plaguing them to be healed) – had been twisted into a totem of power, with the people of Israel making offerings to it (2 Kings 18:4). Just as Hezekiah’s forefather David erred in seeking security in a census counting the people of God rather than the promise made to Abraham of a people more numerous than the sands of the shore or the stars of the sky, Hezekiah sought to counter verifiable strength with verifiable strength – as though Israel were just another nation, with just another transactional tribal god who would exchange protection for worship. What’s instructive for American evangelicalism at the moment is not only Hezekiah’s crisis of integrity, but also his response to the message of coming doom. “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good,” Hezekiah replied to Isaiah. “For he thought, ‘Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?’” (2 Kings 20:19).
Our institutions have sometimes failed us; Jesus has not.
In this, Hezekiah seemed to mistake the source of the kingdom’s integrity. This was not about Hezekiah, but about a kingship that was rooted in a covenant with the House of David, to extend into the future as a house for God himself (2 Sam. 7). Hezekiah reassured himself about future judgment because of his present tranquility and safety. He was willing to sacrifice his children’s future for his present moment. This, of course, betrays the way of Moloch, not the way of the Son of David to come, who consecrated himself in order to stand before God with his brothers and sisters and say, “Behold, here am I and the children God has given to me” (Heb. 2:13). Hezekiah should have seen that fatherhood itself is about the future, is, as Christopher Hitchens once put it, a kind of “planned obsolescence” in which in our children we see the truth that they will face a future without us. To sacrifice the future for the sake of the present is a crisis of integrity, a crisis of faith.
Wendell Berry has suggested that some kinds of conservatism may be understood “in an adjectival sense,” that one may be “cognizant of things worth conserving, and eager to conserve them, without being a conservative,” in the sense of an ideological label. Evangelical Christians cannot be “conservative” without knowing what to conserve. This means knowing what to love. Only then will evangelical Christians see themselves as what they are meant to be: a renewal movement within the Body of Christ, charged with conserving for future generations the truth that “you must be born again,” that the grace of God is personal and invitational, “just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.”
This real conservatism will look quite different from whatever slogans are bandied about by demagogues or mobs or even just by those who fear them or wish to remain in their good graces. When the next generation is told that the orthodox Christian belief in a God of both justice and justification is “Marxist,” or that seeing morality as a matter of both personal and social responsibility is “critical race theory,” they can tell that even the labelers do not believe what they’re saying. When the next generation sees sexual abuse covered up – and those who call it out silenced or shamed – they see a use of power quite different from that of a Good Shepherd. When they see evangelicalism as a political interest group, they can easily see where the ground of unity actually is. And what they are really asking is about integrity – about whether all of this holds together. What they ask is not “Can I believe what you are saying?” but “Do you believe what you are saying?” The challenge for evangelical Christianity is whether we will say, with the Apostle Paul: “To them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (Gal. 2:5 ESV). Challenging an evangelical movement about conduct that is “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14 ESV) often prompts a charge of fostering disunity – along with warnings about how important it is to remain unified in such trying times. Yet unity is not silence before injustice, or the hoarding of temporal influence, but a concern for the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, which includes those who came before and those who come after – provided that the scandal they encounter is the scandal of the cross rather than the scandal of us.
Contemplating my warning, some will no doubt ask, “But where is the hope?” In this case, the diagnosis is the cure. What we are called to do is to repent – to turn around. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote: “Set up road markers for yourself; make yourself guideposts; consider well the highway, the road by which you went” (Jer. 31:21 ESV). A drowning Simon Peter did not need a nautical map or the foreknowledge of nuclear submarine technology. He needed to cry out “Lord, save me,” and to grab hold of the hand that could pull him up again (Matt. 14:30-31).
Meanwhile, we must rebuild our integrity without yielding to cynicism. Our institutions have sometimes failed us; Jesus has not. If the church is the temple of the living God, made up of living stones, we must remember how Jesus responds to temples. Faced with a temple compromised both vertically (“a house of prayer”) and horizontally (“for all people”), Jesus overturned the status quo, and spoke of building the temple anew, a claim so shocking it was repeated as one of the charges of blasphemy and political disloyalty he would face on the way to the Place of the Skull. When he overturned tables, the people thought Jesus was violating God’s temple when in fact it was his zeal for the temple that led to anger at what it had become. They thought he was “losing his religion” in the theological sense, but he was losing his religion in the Southern folk-language sense. He can do so again – perhaps he is even now.
The church will survive – even here in America – but, along the way, a lot of fifteen-year-olds will be hurt. A lot of them will conclude that the gospel is just one more aspect of political theater or outrage culture or institutional self-perpetuation or worse. They will be wrong, of course, but, as Jesus put it, “woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes” (Matt. 18:7). We are losing too many of a generation – not because they are secularists, but because they believe we are. What this demands is not rebranding, but repentance – a turnaround. Stranger things have happened, and that’s good, because we will need stranger things. We need to be the people of Christ and him crucified, the people of a Word that stands above all earthly powers and, no thanks to them, abides. Somewhere out there, there’s at least one fifteen-year-old losing his religion who needs to see if we’re such a people.
Maybe, even, his life depends on it.