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    stained glass artwork of a dove surrounded by light

    Integrity and the Future of the Church

    Why are so many young people losing faith?

    By Russell Moore

    October 5, 2021
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    • Tom Lawrence

      This is an excellent article that hits at the core of the problem with the "church" now days. Thank you Russell Moore for having the courage to say these things, particularly coming from you background and employment. Interesting that the article also mentions where I live (out of passing mostly), Athens GA.

    • Casie Dodd

      By the grace of God, the Church is more than its people. Otherwise, it would be left even more fragmented and frayed at the edges, somehow, than it already is. But how can those who long to be faithfully “in the world but not of it” continue to cleave to an evangelical culture now often (though not always) so radically antithetical to the Gospel in fundamental ways? What do we do with the in-betweeners, the pseudo-“ex-vangelicals” who simply stop claiming membership anywhere because they see so little of the Christ they longed to imitate themselves—or more to the point, who were hurt too deeply by those who claimed to represent Him? I have floated along these boundaries, swallowed these questions whole for most of my adulthood. After growing up surrounded by multiple generations of genuinely good Southern Baptists, a few terrible experiences left me a little more broken (though no less committed) and a little more curious to see what more there might be of faith beyond the version I’d always known. When I moved into a soup kitchen after college as part of a full-time volunteer program, my family prayed for my soul for all the wrong reasons. Most of the time, they only wanted to know why we didn’t “witness” to our guests in the kitchen or why I was suddenly hanging around Catholics. They feared that I was getting too interested in “liberal” ideas because I felt safer among books than in church services. Even my closest mentor—who remained supportive of what I saw as my new calling—also continued to support someone he knew had mistreated me (a pattern unfortunately also pervasive in the Catholic Church, the institution I now claim as my own. But that is beyond the scope of this response). When I returned to my hometown, as far as I can remember, no one from the Baptist church I had once called my own expressed any interest (or even concern) in what I’d been doing with myself. It was like I had disappeared. At the risk of sounding jaded or self-centered, I should add that up to that point, I’d been an integral part of that community in every way possible: the church camps, the youth sponsor opportunities, the Bible studies and “small groups” and borderline inappropriate relationships, the Baptist college credentials. I was one of those Russell Moore describes in “Integrity and the Future of the Church”: What seems different about this quiet exodus [away from evangelicalism] 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. Still, perhaps it’s understandable that, in my case, there was a certain amount of “losing touch” that tends to take place as people move on to build their own lives—or simply drift apart. For a long time, I wanted to believe that was simply what had happened. I carried the guilt of feeling incapable of meeting them halfway in a faith or a vocabulary that now felt completely foreign to me. But no one was there. The wall had gone up, and I had nowhere else to go. I was one of the lucky Millennials who eventually managed to wander back to the Church through Christ himself. Catholicism waited patiently for me to respond to its inevitable, irrevocable pull as I slowly discovered that all the questions that had been faint whispers during my Protestant youth had already been answered in a tradition larger than I’d ever known possible in the suffocating solipsism of the church I’d inherited. Every day, though I often continue to hover close to the edge, I am grateful not to have fallen into the abyss for good. But what happens to those who do? Why do so few in the remnant seem to try to find out? We are waiting.

    • Kevin Vitalis

      Russell Moore's essay in the Autumn issue of Plough brought up for me issues such as: the importance and complexity of the Church, the Holy and human dimensions of the Church, the responsibility that I have in reflecting the joy and wholeness that a relationship with Christ and His Church have brought me, and the necessity of not getting side-tracked by what often feels like an unprecedented rise of secularism. Although I am a “cradle Catholic” (that is not an Evangelical Protestant), I have also gone “through a prolonged spiritual crisis” (p. 103) in which I absented myself from the Church for many years. When my spiritual starvation became so great at the end of this absence and I wanted to come back to “services”, I did not choose to come back to the Catholic Church. I attended a Christian Science church for several years, until the grace of the Most Blessed Sacrament of Holy Communion (and the intervention, patience, and wisdom of my wife!!) led me back to the Catholic Church. I believe the Church, regardless of denomination, is so vitally important because I am reconciled to God in and through Christ and His Church. I am not a solitary pilgrim in the spiritual life (though I had often fantasized that I was!), but I have come to know about God and His amazing “courtship” with the human race because other people (parents, teachers, priests) told it to me. I think that one of the paradoxes that Mr. Moore's essay reminded me of, is that I am transformed and nourished by an on-going, daily relationship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and yet, for me it cannot be “just me and Jesus”. I give thanks and credit to people in my life who have reflected the joy of their relationship with God. For a brief example of what I mean by the complexity of the Church: I firmly believe in the Sacramental graces that Christ Jesus has conferred upon the 7 Sacraments found in the Catholic Church, yet I also deeply desire and pray for ecumenical unity. I have found much that I identify with in the writings of John Wesley, as well as Martin Luther, and consider all who acknowledge the beliefs that Lewis dubbed “Mere Christianity” to be my brothers and sisters in faith. The complexity of Christ’s Church is further extended when one considers its Divine and human natures. As the Body of Christ on earth, we are blessed and graced to inherit and pass on a Sacred calling and Power that is not of our own making. What the Church has to offer is no mere humanistic activism to redress the world’s failings. Christ’s love heals us from within and nothing in this world can compare with what God has in store for us who consent to His offer of Love. That is what is so heartbreaking about what Russell relates about the woman who is in danger of “losing her church”. As a Catholic, I have heard so many who have left the Church because of the sexual abuse committed by some of the clergy. The temptation for many has been to feel as though they have been duped by the Church, as if it has all been a charade. But human beings, even ordained clergy, can resist the redemptive power of Christ and stay enslaved to sin. I often return to listen to a sermon on the Holy Spirit by the late Episcopal priest Samuel Shoemaker. In this sermon, Rev. Shoemaker makes the analogy of the Church to a hospital: that is, people who are unwell go to a hospital to enter into the process of being made well; similarly, when people are searching for faith, the Church is the place to go where not everyone is “overly saintly” but are in the process of spiritual renewal. I have often been told by people that I work with, how much they appreciate my sincerity, candor, and playful sense of humor. They also observe how much of my joy in life is attributable to my daily walk with Christ. I believe that when people, especially younger people I know who have never had any faith formation (the “Nones”), ask us Christians what our faith and Church involvement means to us that we have been entrusted with an awesome responsibility of sharing the profound joy of the gospel. Finally, I must certainly admit my irritation with what feels to me like ever-increasing secularization of our culture. I inwardly bristle against the “I’m spiritual, but not religious” slogan because it sounds akin to the other ways our current culture so greatly exalts autonomy. “I decide what leads to my happiness and fulfilment without any interference from God. I decide who I am because everything I have been given, I disavow because nobody knows what’s best for me other than me”. However, I feel as though what Russell Moore is suggesting that we look at is how well we as Christians are doing in presenting the gospel to the world, instead of pointing the finger at what is wrong with our secular culture. Shortly before our last national election, I had some correspondence with a Catholic media giant. In short, the agency wanted to ensure that the only issue that should affect my vote is ensuring an anti-abortion stance. When I questioned them how they could possibly promote their favored candidate as sound in conscience given all that he spewed forth in his term at office, as being the exact opposite of Catholic Social teaching: caring for the poor and vulnerable as especially precious in God’s eyes. No reply came from them, other than if I wanted to protect life “from conception to natural death”, it should be clear whom I should vote for. I ended the correspondence with, “What about the years of living between conception and death? Why is it okay with DJT to mock, despise, and treat like dirt any human being?”

    • Anne Jamieson

      In the UK no-one is especially concerned about the 'politicisation of religion' but we are alarmed about a similar steady loss of young people from the Christian Church over recent years. The reprehensible behaviour of some of our leaders and members has caused the UK Church to suffer also, but while lack of integrity is undoubtedly one factor influencing young people to leave the Church it is by no means the whole story. So Moore is angry. Unlike CS Lewis whose tone and posture in argument he respects, however, Moore offers no such grace to his opponents. As an observer of American politics and literature, I see the same ugly polarisation of secular political views seeping into christian dialogue. Moore isn't calling this out, he is merely joining in the fray. Yes, the Church of Jesus Christ will weather any political and/or cultural storm. But in the meantime we all (regardless of which side of any political debate we find ourselves on) must reflect on our tone and posture toward other Christians, and consider how our interactions may look to a watching world. Might they look as ugly as those casting lots for the garments of Jesus at the foot of his cross? Will this hypocrisy be yet one more reason for young people to walk away from the Christian Church?

    • Al Owski

      Moore is spot on. The loss of integrity always leads to the loss of credibility. “But we believe that... maximal credibility is a function only of consistent mercy, precisely because mercy is the thing most absent from the world today. A church of consistent mercy is at least credible. If it is not consistently merciful, *it will seek credibility in vain through other means*.” (Fr Jon Sobrino, The Principle of Mercy). The Integrity of Jesus got him driven out of a sanctuary and down a cliff after his first sermon. Jesus embodied truth because his life was fully integrated. There was no distance between his life and his words. Those in power recognized the threat Jesus posed. Here was a person of such impenetrable integrity, whose words, life, and being were so unified that no carrot or stick could corrupt him into complicity or silence. I have hope that one day, "the church" will realize the importance of mercy, integrity, and credibility. If not, God can tear down the stones and build another one.

    • Rev. Dr. Kenneth Kinton

      The article, "Integrity and the Future of the Church" by Russell Moore was so compelling I used it as the basis for a recent sermon. The small rural church I pastor is like so many other churches, declining membership and dwindling financial resources. I agree with Russell Moore that today's church cannot succumb to cynicism but I also believe it cannot cave in to political pressure. A case in point is the Catholic Church's reluctance to enforce church doctrine regarding allowing politician's who are pro-abortion to receive the Eucharist. The Church must stand firm or risk standing for nothing. If politicians like President Biden or Speaker of the House Pelosi are free to sanction the killing of unborn children, with no fear of reprisal, how can we expect the members of the laity to respect the doctrines of the Church. I commend Plough on a very timely, and thought provoking article.

    • Ed Barrett

      Why are so many young Christians losing faith?” Why indeed? As for me, I am way beyond young. There is a visible light at the end of my tunnel. I can’t judge how far off the light is. Neither can I tell whether the light is some sort of idyllic future bliss or a demonic freight train with the engineer not backing off the throttle. All I know is that sooner rather than later the answer will become clear, and that my present emotions of hope and dread alternate in equal measure. I can relate to all of the reservations, all of the cynicism, all the feelings of detachment felt by the gens X, Y, Z (what comes next – the Greek alphabet?) I share them. I deplore the abuses and corruption in God’s Church, past and present. I am grieved by innocent young lives traumatized by priests, by preachers with $500 hair do’s telling gullible adherents God wants them to finance a corporate jet, by TV evangelists living in million dollar homes equating earthly wealth with godliness. But my anger, my angst goes beyond that. It is more visceral, more personal. As a cradle Catholic educated in Catholic grade school, I received at the same time a superior education and the full bore of Catholic doctrine. I lived and breathed Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, venial sin, mortal sin, confession, the Catechism, “Yes, sister”, “No, sister.” I knew there were multiple ways for me to end up in Hell, whether by blowing somebody’s head off or eating a cheeseburger on Friday with a seemingly endless myriad of possibilities in between. One would think that an intelligent, well-read, well-traveled, well-educated individual would in the last decade of his life be able to look back on all this and say, “Oh, bull****!” and move on. One would think such an individual would once and for all consign to a mental ash pit all the lurid images of Hell, all the visions of embodied spirits begging for a drop of water as they writhed in the flames, all the old men past and present playing dress up in fancy robes as they tell us mere mortals how deficient we are for our human needs and desires. And yet I have the greatest respect and affection for Pope Francis and a number of priests and bishops of my acquaintance past and present. One would think I could be content with visions of eternal peace and harmony, letting the rest go. But as the great philosopher John Belushi would say on Saturday Night Live, “But nooooooo!” I envy the young. I wish I could declare all the rules, all the posturing by religious “leaders”, all the corruption, all the false piety irrelevant to me and just go on with my life. How I wish I could sing along with Doris Day, “Qhe Sera, Sera.” God knows (more than anyone) I have tried. But I can’t. Suggestions are welcome.

    • Merhawit Girmay

      What a wonderfully profound essay. I'm so thankful for Dr. Moore's commitment to truth even as the consequence is often chastisement, slander and rejection from those who would identify as believers in Christ. One poignant statement he made was the following,"But the evidence is mounting that a significant amount of secularization is accelerated and driven not by the “secular culture,” but by evangelicalism itself." I've come to see this as accurate assessment over the 10 years of college ministry I've engaged in from schools in California, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. It also aligns with my own testimony and how it was evangelicalism that led me to be disillusioned with christianity not the secular world. I found God, however, and that came through a plain reading of scripture and living life on life with a community whose greatest mission was to make the gospel known to college students. An acts2 church in every college town continues to be our mission. But if we take the scripture serious, there is a lot of exhortation and rebuke against false teachers who subvert the scripture to push forth their own agenda which, over time, looks less and less like the word of God they claim it to be.

    • Jill

      Thank you. I especially appreciate how you explain unity. There’s no “us” and “them” in the Body of Christ. I see the loss of that understanding as devastating the institution.

    • David Barnett

      Focus on Jesus, then everything else will take care of itself. When we take our eyes off Jesus, we lose focus. When we lose focus we go after shiny objects!

    • Edward Hamilton

      One lesson that I've been taught over a lifetime in evangelical circles is to never fall in love with anything for its purity. Each person or institution you love other than Jesus is just grist for a great mill of controversy that seems to swallow whatever is fed into it. Whatever seems to stand above or outside of the argumentative churn will slowly be eroded by it, swept away in fragments until it no longer offers any refuge. I can already see the same traps laid in this piece -- the desire to find and apportion blame to enemies, to craft a narrative that locates fault within the clear boundaries of factions that will, in a few years, be changed into new boundaries that force the process to repeat again. The tribe of tribeless people will always be weaker than any of the actual tribes, and always lose its membership to them. "Ex-vangelicals" leaving the church are quite often searching for a new community that has a stronger, rather than a weaker, priority to entangle itself in political identities -- or at least, this seems to be true for most of the ones I see in my own life. The question of whether they are more being "pushed" (by a debased faith) or "pulled" (by the promise of one that embraces debasement) is hard to resolve and already part of the larger dialogue that Moore provides half of here. I don't doubt it's some combination of both, so I'd tell the story here in a way that blends both accounts more fluidly than this version, but that's hardly to say that I disagree with the majority of the argument here. It's important for everyone to avoid, on both sides, the sort of blindness that says that "my side's issues" are just a matter of basic decency and ethics that stand above politics, while the other side's issues are weird applications of scriptural buzzwords instrumentalized into voting guides. The way you see the other side? Well, that's the same way they see you. Moore, I think, is guilty of straw-manning his opponents far too much in certain places here. Virtually all evangelicals, even the ones at the Baptist church I'm dropping my daughters off at tonight, believe in "justice" -- but there are clearly very different interpretations of what justice ought to look like in practice, and recognizing that those visions have been entangled in secularism in entropic ways that can't be undone is a matter of essential humility. It's possible to believe that *some* applications of social responsibility are appropriate, but others are not, and I wish Moore could be more charitable toward his opponents in seeing that they aren't the atomized individualists he paints them as here. There are various ways to imagine collectivist social obligations that don't involve waving BLM flags, and reopening and maintaining those pathways for traditionalist Christians uncomfortable with the slow leakage of secular academic language into the church would be more helpful than lashing out at them as pawns of some opposing political machine -- even in the cases where they are, though I think those are somewhat rarer than Moore supposes. A strong cause will always squeeze out a weak one, and right now there's a terrible danger in the way that the gospel feels like such a weak cause when placed along the endlessly churning imperatives of the culture war.

    • Chris

      I am fifty-six. But I am also the fifteen year-old in this essay - even now. Thank you for saying this so very, very clearly.

    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.

    stained glass artwork of a dove surrounded by light

    Holy Spirit, stained glass in the Church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, Paris, France. Photograph by Guilhem Vellut (public domain)

    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.

    stained glass panel with blocks of blue, yellow, green, purple, and red glass

    Detail of a window at St. Ignatius College Preparatory Chapel, San Francisco, California. Photograph public domain.

    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.

    stained glass panel with blocks of blue, yellow, purple, and red glass

    Detail of a window at St. Ignatius College Preparatory Chapel, San Francisco, California. Photograph public domain.

    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.

    stained glass panel with blocks of blue, yellow, and red glass forming a star

    Detail of a window at St. Ignatius College Preparatory Chapel, San Francisco, California. Photograph public domain.

    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.

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    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.

    stained glass panel with blocks of blue, yellow, and red glass forming a lily

    Detail of a window at St. Ignatius College Preparatory Chapel, San Francisco, California. Photograph public domain.

    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.


    Watch Russell Moore deliver this talk at the Plough Writers Weekend on August 7, 2021, at Fox Hill Bruderhof in New York.

    Contributed By Russell Moore Russell Moore

    Rev. Dr. Russell Moore recently took up the position of public theologian at Christianity Today. Prior to that, he served as president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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