Why Evangelicals Forgot God

Why Evangelicals Forgot God

Collin Hansen interviews Mark Galli


The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy. 

Collin Hansen: It might be my greatest fear. What if I’m so busy in evangelical activity that I forget Jesus Christ and the purpose behind it all? What if I’m just spinning up religious projects covered in religious language, but there’s no spirit behind these works? Mark Galli thinks we have an evangelical crisis. And if Mark says so, we’d be wise to listen because mark serves as editor-in-chief of Christianity Today magazine. I was blessed to work for him in my stint as associate editor for CT, and Mark has been documenting his view of this evangelical crisis in his CT column, The Elusive Presence. He wisely points out that evangelicals are experts in self criticism, so you need to take this diagnosis of crisis with a grain of salt. Seems like they come fairly often. But I think Mark spot on when he writes, “I’ve believed that American Christianity has been less and less interested in God as such and more and more at doing good things for God.”

Well, if desiring God is the sum and substance of life, as Mark points out, then this crisis couldn’t be cured with a thousand sermons on how to have a better marriage or job or a bigger bank account. We’ve lost our way because we’ve shifted from the vertical axis of God toward the horizontal axis of this world and that’s what I want to talk with him today on The Gospel Coalition Podcast. Thank you for joining me, Mark.

Galli: Good to be with you. Glad to have the opportunity.

Hansen: Well, Mark, it’s scary for evangelicals to realize when we don’t love God or at least we don’t feel that affection because that’s, in many ways, the essence of the enterprise as evangelicals or, at least, some of the problem as you point out. But what do we do when that happens? When we have that realization that we don’t love God or feel it at least?

Mark Galli: Well, I think the first thing is to kind of look into, all I can say is, and this is what I do because when I first started to become aware of this in my own life, I realized I not only didn’t have a passion for God as such, but when I really press myself, I found, I discovered, I didn’t think I really wanted that. There is all sorts of reasons for not wanting that. I mean, God can be a real nuisance in your life for one thing, two, to really be and then to be, the more intimate you are with God, the more you are called to do what he calls you to do. And many days, I have absolutely no interest in doing what God wants me to do, I want to do what I want to do.

So I think to me, the root of the problem, I think we have to admit that because of our sinful hearts, we actually really don’t want God in our lives. To me, that’s a pretty fundamental thing to admit. There’s a large part of us that simply doesn’t want it. And so the first prayer I often pray is, Lord, help me to want to want you. And that’s kind of the ground zero beginning of this whole exercise is an admission that as much as much as I work for him and speak in his name, there’s a large part of me that just rebels against that. I think the word rebellion is a pretty good word. We don’t tend to use it a lot of nowadays to talk about sinfulness. But it’s just that for me in a lot of cases.

Hansen: Well, years ago, Mark, when I was working on a book on revival or documenting the history of a number of these different revivals, the question was why don’t we have experienced revival today? And one of the things that I found consistently is that we don’t want revival because revival does the things that you’re talking about right here. It forces us out of these comfortable places in our relationship with God. And it really, God comes into our lives with this palpable presence that we can’t avoid and calls on us to do incredibly difficult things. And that’s not something that I think we really want. And we’ll talk more about that in a little bit and something you write about in here, Jonathan Edwards as well. And one of the things he talked about in the First Great Awakening is just this palpable God talk.

Wherever you went, people were talking about God. He also then wrote in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, to show how that’s not always a sure sign of true spirituality. But years ago there was a friend in ministry, a good friend in ministry who asked me why we don’t talk about God more often. Like you’re saying, God as such, God as God, not merely these manifestations of him. And I was taken aback and I resolved to change that dynamic in my life. But as I began to do that, Mark, it only became more apparent how little we evangelicals talk to each other about God, at least compared to how much we talk about our work and each other. And I wonder, Mark, do you think it’s always been this way and maybe you and I just didn’t notice that or was there a time when you think actually evangelicals began to forget God?

Galli: Yeah, I think it’s one of those things that takes place over a long period of time. So as I mentioned in one of my essays and you just noted, I mean, Jonathan Edwards described the First Great Awakening, people, whole cities had a palpable sense of God’s presence and they delighted and talking about God and worshiping God. Now, of course, awakenings are especially intense occurrences. So you can’t, and I’m not arguing for the idea that we would just be on a constant awakening.

Hansen: It’s not normative. It’s not normative.

Galli: Yeah, it’s not normative. But, you know, in reading the history of the church and the history of the saints, it does strike me that it is well within the realm of possibility to live with an ongoing sense of God’s presence in the midst of our activity. I mean, that’s one thing I’m trying to make clear to people because some of the criticism of the essay so far is people say, “Well, I still think we need to evangelize and do mission.” Well, duh, yes we do. But when we do it in such a way that God is just an afterthought, that’s when it’s a problem. So what happens after you have an extraordinary experience of God’s love in your life, it’s very natural to wanna do something, A, to share that with other people in word and deed. I mean, that would be the main thing.

So actually it does lead to some really quite incredible sacrificial, impressive action. But human beings being what they are, that action just, if we’re not alert to it, becomes an end in itself. And because action is outward, we get a lot of credit, we get a lot of praise for that, it affirms us. We should be affirmed for doing that. But then it speaks to a part of our heart that says, well, if I want more affirmation, I need to do more sacrificial doing and somewhere in that process we start to get mixed up. God is gracious enough to bring along people who allow us to remember what our first love is. So we have the First Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening, the Holiness Movement, various and sundry times when people are called back to their first love. But it’s kind of ironic that the very thing that that first love generates, action in love on behalf of other people sometimes then ends up forwarding the original love.

Hansen: Sounds like Wesley talking about money. His view is that there’s an evangelical morality that helps lead to thriftiness and activity, but that leads to wealth and wealth undermines the evangelical spirituality that produced it in the first place.

Galli: Exactly. There’s just a lot of ironies like that in the Christian life.

Hansen: Yeah, absolutely. Well, the psalms, Mark, had been maybe my greatest help in this struggle not to forget God and you write in one of your columns. “The psalmists were driven by a desire to know God, not just to know his will, not just to do his will, not just to be wise, not just to be righteous, but to know God, to be with God, to bask in his presence.” It’s a simple question, Mark. Would it help maybe if we went back to singing the psalms in our churches and home worship?

Galli: Well, not only singing them, but I think getting into the regular practice of praying the psalms through the week and even through the day. I think one of the most interesting things, well, let me back up and just say, yeah, I think the psalms are key to that because they are, you know, most of them were written by David who was a man . . . you know, we think of him as a man of action and he was. So it isn’t like we’re saying to love God means you can’t be a person of action. But the psalms are a good reminder of a number of different things that are going on in this spiritual life. But this constant refrain of how much the psalmists, whether it’s David or another one, love God, search for God in the sanctuary, try to discern God in the word, yeah, that would be great. But I think for a person like myself, I’ll just say, doing that on Sunday morning is not enough. And just doing it once in the morning, every morning, that’s a step in the right direction.

What I’m trying to do, I’m trying to follow the practice of what’s called morning prayer and evening prayer. I’m pretty good at morning prayer, if I must say so myself, but I think if I could punctuate my day, like, a prayer book that I’m using has a very short psalm reading and a prayer at noon. You know, it’s just stunning to me how often I forget to do that, how little I do that. And then when it comes to evening prayer, that hardly ever happens. But I think if we could figure out a way to punctuate our day with psalms, and with prayer and scripture readings, even if it’s just 5 to 10 minutes, that would be a tremendous discipline to just remind us of in whose presence we are working in this day.

Hansen: Yeah. Let me stick specifically on this theme of the music. I agree with you that it’s not gonna be enough and yet so much of angelical spirituality, then and now, has been shaped by what we sing together collectively in Sunday worship. And the “Jesus is my boyfriend” motif of evangelical worship music has earned a lot of deserved critique. But interestingly, Mark, you cite in your essays a number of biblical examples of romance as a metaphor for our relationship with God. So I’m wondering, Mark, have we been too hard on contemporary songwriters?

Galli: Well, you’re asking the wrong person. I’m a lover of the great hymns. So I can never speak to you on contemporary song writing. That being said, I’d have to consider the specific lyrics of the song. But yeah, I mean, just as a general idea, I think you bring up a good point. I hadn’t really put two and two together on that, but I don’t think a song that just and speaks of God in terms that are romantic is in and of itself a problem. When I talk about my concerns about either contemporary or even classic hymns, again, we’re really fine tuning this business of the spiritual reaching out to God and asking for him to come into our lives when I make a critique like this. But it’s been my experience in my own life that sometimes I sing those songs, either contemporary or traditional hymns, because I’m actually not interested in God. I’m interested in a certain type of spiritual feeling.

Hansen: Yeah. Right. Exactly.

Galli: How do you discern between those two, I don’t know. But one of the great discernments for me is when we sing songs about, God, we wanna see your glory, we wanna experience your glory. What we usually mean is we want to feel really spiritual, super spiritual at that moment. But we have to remind ourselves that when people in the Bible experienced God’s glory, they often fell on their ground in abject fear and shame because they were in the presence of the Holy One. So if I really want the glory and I’m willing to endure that type of experience, okay, that made me and I’m really seeking after God. But too often we equate a seeking after God in our music as merely a wonderful spiritual experience, spiritual feeling. And how you discern the difference between a spiritual feeling and the song that actually brings you closer to God, I have to admit, I haven’t thought that through enough. I just know that there is a difference.

Hansen: Yeah, I agree with that. I think maybe that theme is gonna continue to come up in this interview, because it’s one that I have a lot of the same challenges trying to discern. But let me ask this question, going back, talking about just this basic overall issue of our forgetfulness of God. I’m wondering, Mark, do you think it coincides with an over-realized eschatology? In other words, do we just expect too much of this world? Are we settling for shadows perhaps instead of the sun? And I’m wondering, would it help with this problem of forgetfulness with God if we spent more time focusing on longing to be with God in eternity?

Galli: Yeah, I think you’re really absolutely on to something there. We do live in an age of realized eschatology. And in a sense that there’s this feeling that if we, on the one hand, we see it in the language, in social justice and social action worlds where we talk about the talk moves in the direction of, if we just did a little bit more and a little harder, we could bring the kingdom in, some way. No one actually says out loud in front of everybody that if we work harder, we can actually usher in the kingdom. But some of the language moves so close in that direction that I just fear for people that are in that mode because their hopes are going to be dashed. Same thing is true of our prayer lives or anything. I think one of the things I would say is there is a sense in which realized, you know, eschatology can be realized or that is to say we can experience the future kingdom now.

But I just need to always remind us that it’s not to be equated with a positive emotional experience. We have to remember that when Christ was with us in his most dramatic and loving way, he was suffering. And so one of the things I’m calling us to discern is that, how can we discern God’s presence when we’re feeling a spiritual high? How can we feel God’s or know God’s presence when we’re feeling desperate and like we’re dying of thirst or we’re just dying? Because it seems to me that if we’re called to live into the full stature of Christ, that includes going through experiences of suffering as well.

Hansen: The fellowship of sharing in his sufferings as Paul says to the Philippians specifically. And one of the more consistent promises from Jesus that if you follow me, you will lose your life in the worldly sense and you will be persecuted for righteousness sake. I mean, across the sort of theological and political spectrum with evangelicals, not prominent themes that we often see.

Galli: Yeah. And that business of losing your life. I think that’s probably the main reason I am reluctant to give myself to disciplines that would in fact make me aware of God or that I’m wary of actually coming to know God too closely cause he is gonna ask me to give up my life. And that’s, those moments when it’s just really hard to give up something that I cherish and I made into an idol, that’s when God has really close sometimes. But that’s when it doesn’t feel all that comfortable. So when I’m calling for this greater intimacy with God, I’m calling for a life that has a range of emotional responses to it, but they all to me indicate, at least according to scripture, that God is present. You may not feel great about it, but actually, God is pretty present right now. And you call to respond to that.

Hansen: In addition to forgetfulness about God, we’re also talking here about this passion for God, that evangelicals, we think that we’re supposed to be known by. It’s essential to evangelicalism identity distinguishing us. I know for me, growing up in a mainline church tradition, that’s how you knew an evangelical, somebody who radiated this sense of passion for God. And the rest of us did not. That’s why we were mainliners in that case. I’m not universalizing that to everybody, but that was my experience.

Galli: The two big phrases are “what a friend we have in Jesus” and you can have a “personal relationship with God.” That’s two of our phrases.

Hansen: Absolutely. So, historically speaking, and I actually saw Roger Olson talk about this recently in a way that I really resonated with him, talking about this sense of loss of the seriousness, I think, and distinctiveness and the holiness of evangelicals that characterize the movement, even perhaps a generation ago in some ways, or maybe a generation and a half ago, maybe pre-Jesus movement and some of those ways, I’m not really sure. But I wanna give you an opportunity here to just talk through one of the great difficulties here, which is what we are known for instead. And you actually had a list in one of your essays. I don’t know if you wanna rattle it off the top of head. People can find it, we can link to it there as well. But if we’re not known for our passion for God or our remembrance of God, well, what have we become instead?

Galli: Well, we become hyper activists and that’s what we’re kind of known for. We’re known for building mega churches. We’re known, increasingly, for our interest in issues of social justice. We’re known for, our political views, the largest part of our movement it seems to be known for its support of Donald Trump. But then there’s a pretty loud and vocal part of our movement that’s known for being not only anti-Trump but fairly progressive on political issues. And so, you know, you always have to back up and say, all those things that we’re doing for God are really good and we should can teach you to do them. But the fact that we’re not known as people who have this ongoing dynamic relationship with God and that he’s in a sense or all in all, why we’re doing everything. That’s just not the case. I mean, let me give another example of the confusion that we have right now.

So one of the big trends, evangelicals just don’t read their Bibles anymore. You know, the younger evangelicals just don’t know their Bible anymore. And there’s all sorts of methods we use to help people get into the Bible. So we’ve come up with a thousand and one translations. We have various and sundry editions, without first markings, we rearrange the order of the Bible so it’s easier to read. My view is that as helpful as all those things are, I think one of the main reasons we don’t wanna read the Bible is because we don’t wanna meet God or we honestly don’t think we can meet him there. And of course as evangelical Christians, and you’re especially a Reformed Christian, we know that it’s in scripture. It’s the reading of scripture that we meet God, not just with our heads but our hearts. And so, we’re not even known as people who know their Bibles very well anymore.

Hansen: I think that’s a bit of what I was struck by in Roger Olson’s comments there and there’s some sense in which we’ve equated disciplines with legalism. At least some people have, at least in a popular parlance, just like we’ve associated formalism with dead religion. I do think a lot of this is an unintentional byproduct of the good things that came with the Jesus People movement and those revivals of the ’60s and ’70s, that’s maybe an opportunity for a different podcast there, but I had agree with the same thing. I go all the way back to the famous Willow Creek Reveal study and said simply, what is the number one marker of sort of spiritual maturity, somebody who reads Bible regularly and that would seem to be so basic to evangelical identity, but you’re exactly right. That is not really what you would think if you dropped into our churches.

I’m much more likely to hear people joking about some sort of history where they used to have to know their Bible really well and almost a sense of liberation that they don’t anymore. And you’re thinking, well, if you’re not reading your Bible, what are you doing instead? What do your spiritual disciplines look like if you even have them? And I don’t mean to, I’m in the same position you’re in here of like, I don’t mean to say that Bible reading is the only thing you should be doing, but if you’re not doing that, then I don’t know where else I’m supposed to start.

Galli: Yeah. One of the ways I’ve become more, I can drink to that. I am in a Jewish-evangelical dialogue with an Orthodox Jew, and those people really know their Bibles. They memorized it in the Hebrew. And he always praises me and says, “I love talking with evangelicals because they know their Bibles,” but he says, “When I talk to mainliners, they just don’t know their Bibles very well. So I can’t have a very interesting discussion with them.” But he knows his Bible a heck of a lot more than I know mine. So, I think there’s ways to go on that.

Hansen: Well, we’ve got just a few more questions here and I could go on and on. I miss all of our chats, I appreciate today, Mark. I’m wondering, I mean, I think we’ve probably talked about this, but if you’re sitting there in your leadership position here with your editor-in-chief hat on at the flagship magazine, Christianity Today, for evangelicals, you’re serving that landscape there from the Chicago area and you’re like, I think revival’s actually broken out here. What would that look like? Maybe we’ve already talked about some of that, but you’re thinking, let’s put this on the cover. I think revival has come. What would it look like?

Galli: That’s a good question. So, I don’t necessarily think it would result in outward manifestations like at Cane Ridge.

Hansen: Or Toronto, to use a more recent one.

Galli: Even though sometimes it’s mixed up with, you know, the genuine meeting of God, gets mixed up with all sorts of crazy human things going on.

Hansen: Even including the First Great Awakening, major challenge that Edwards faced.

Galli: I think the thing that interests me about the First Great Awakening was the how quiet the passion started with, that’s to say the the First Great Awakening . . . no, I’m sorry. The Second Great Awakening. The Second Great Awakening began with people wanting to have communion retreats. So they would go and they would gather for a weekend to pray and to listen to preaching and the climax of the retreat would be taking communion on Sunday. Well, the very fact that people felt that was something they wanted to do, even if it didn’t lead to a massive revival, that very yearning of wanting to go and be with other Christians and to pray together and to listen to the preaching of the Word and the reading of the Word. I think the first sign I would be looking for is that, kind of an increasing desire to just be with other Christians and to pray together, to worship God, to read scripture.

That happened at Wheaton for a brief period. And it wasn’t an outward manifestation. In fact in that one, as I recall, it just led people to come together to pray and then people felt a need to start confessing their sins. So I think that would be part of it as well. But it wasn’t emotional. It probably was emotional at the meetings, but wasn’t something that the newspapers needed to come by and report on. But we all in our evangelical community, something really extraordinary was happening there.

Hansen: Yeah, in some historical context there, I would probably say then that you would be looking for something that would look more like the prayer meeting revivals of 1858, or the businessmen’s meetings, or maybe the Shandong revival of China in the early 20th century. A lot of that confession going on there, restitution, but more quiet. It strikes me, one of the books that I’ve been using here to prop up my mic is Darkness Falls in the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in 18th Century New England, by Douglas Winiarski and it’s a UNC press book and it’s really a challenge of the more new light view of the First Great Awakening.

But it’s interesting as you talk about the manifestations here and everything, that’s one of the things he critiques was how quickly, even the First Great Awakening, which for Reformed people in particular is the paradigmatic revival, especially compared to The Second Great Awakening, which I want to talk about in a second. He points out that this overwhelming lust for spiritual experiences also was characteristic of the First Great Awakening, specifically the radical branches that we associate with James Davenport and the like, but became a major problem for Edwards. But one that some Edwards fans like me sometimes like to sweep under the rug there, and just blame Charles Finney for, which you do a little of as well. So I wanna follow up on that.

I really think, Mark, this was a key, if not the key to your whole argument. You call it our Achilles heel and you described the change from the First to Second Great Awakenings and the rise of Charles Finney and his new measures. You write this: “Instead of a genuine encounter with the living God, the movement became infected with too many who sought not so much to know and love God as to have a remarkable religious experience.” You’ve already talked about this a little bit, but after say even for a review that I wrote years ago about the Lakeland revival for Christianity Today, saw the same problem, even things that we call revivals. There’s this sort of lust for experience that’s attributed I think erroneously to the Spirit and we turn them into a sort of miracle dispenser or experience dispenser. And I wonder, I’m kind of just setting you up here, but how much does this contribute to us forgetting God as we look for these manifestations instead?

Galli: Yeah, I mean it is a huge challenge of course. I think, as I said, one of the big benefits of contemporary Christian worship is it has allowed people to, I mean, one of the things that characterizes the worships is a feeling, the general sentiment that people do really want to know God and become more intimate with him. But then that constant temptation that comes along right side, it is that we’re looking for a certain type of spiritual experience instead of being willing to let God meet us and in whatever way he is gonna meet us could be euphoria, it could be a shame, it could be conviction of sin, it could be being led into a period of suffering and all that.

And you see the results of Finney in these contemporary Christian services. I go to a church that’s charismatic Anglican. And so you see this. The lead musician musicians know exactly how to manipulate people’s emotions and they do it deliberately and consciously. We start with a slow, meaningful song and we work our way up into something that shouting and clapping and hand-raising. And, you know, I don’t know when music leading becomes leading people into worship and just leading people into a certain emotional experience. But I bet if you sat down and talk with worship leaders, they would be some of the first to admit that they’re kind of uncomfortable with their role and how it goes back and forth between those two things.

Hansen: Yeah. And how do you measure “success” in that environment? I mean, how many hands are raised? How many people’s eyes are closed? How many people seem to . . . I had not actually thought of, I’d never, before you just said that, Mark, equated a sort of standard evangelical worship set with the new measures, but I can see exactly what you’re talking about.

Galli: The new measures thing happens in every dimension. So we’re really good at planting churches. We know exactly the type of demographic. We know how to map out the demographic of a neighborhood. We know how to send out marketing material to get people to show up in the church doors. We know how to construct a worship service that would be affirming and friendly, especially to the young families, which are the target, the main target area of most church growth things. And we can then talk about all the churches we planted and all the people that are coming. And yet, now, you know, I may be rightly criticized for this, but when I read that literature, I read stuff about the number of people coming to worship. I do read sometimes about the number of decisions for Christ. I just don’t hear much conversation about, well, actually the point planting a church is not just so people can be excited about planting another church. But it might be helping them come into the presence of the living God. Now, again, I don’t know how you measure that, but it seems to me we at least be talking about that this is one of the goals of all our new measures of church planting. And yet I don’t see it happen that much.

Hansen: Yeah, I usually fall, Mark, into the categories that Edwards used in Religious Affections. And I want to consistently say, and this is a major challenge for me, numbers are not a sure sign of the work of God. That is so difficult for evangelicalism to understand. Now, empirically, we know that it’s true because you might be able to point to a church that you think would be heretical or something like that and see that there’s lots of people there, but my goodness, this is the default setting for us. Numbers mean God is doing something right. But you’re exactly right. Numbers are actually not that impressive because the new measures of demographic targeting and differentiation from other churches is actually not that difficult. I mean, I’ll certainly say it’s not difficult in Birmingham, Alabama. It might be a little bit more difficult in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Certainly seems to be after having spent a number of years there. But, I mean, I keep coming back to . . . I just . . . a few more questions here.

One of them is, you know, Edwards was one of the people to help me to understand the difference between the gift from the Giver. And that the point of this whole religious enterprise is to come into the presence of God, like you said, to appreciate the character, the essence of the Giver. But what scares me, Mark, is I wonder, do you ever wonder if it’s actually possible in this world where everything is designed to separate us from any sense of our need for God or connection to transcendence? I mean, I don’t mean to simply say blame everything on an iPhone or whatever, but I just worry about how compromised we are just by the circumstances.

Galli: Yeah. I just read an interesting piece the other day which will appear in a future “Galli Report,” which is a newsletter I publish in which he talks about the fact that he doesn’t think technology, basically cell phones and screens, have caused a problem in the human heart. They just give us another way . . . We love them so much because they give us another excuse not to think about God. So it is . . . But if it wasn’t a cell phone, if it wasn’t a screen, we’re very creative people and we would think of some other way to distract us. And, you know, in our culture there’s so many ways to distract us, like sport, you know, fascination with sports, the entertainment media, cable TV, etc. So, it is a challenge.

So here’s one of the things I do think people ought to keep in mind. I’m not really interested in shaming people for getting too horizontally focused because this is how I think about it. You brought up the issue of legalism and works righteousness before. Here’s how I understand this whole dimension of our life. Because of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ, we are saved. That’s like a done deal. We have not only made the team, we’re in the starting lineup. So that whole issue is settled in my mind. We’re not doing anything in order to make that happen, or prove that it really happened, or make ourselves worthy of the death of Christ. I think that’s a mistake in language in a lot of ways. But what makes us worthy of the death of Christ is our sinfulness really. But okay, once I realized, you know, I’m in the starting lineup and I just wanna play as best as I can. I don’t wanna go out there and just be a lump on a log. I just wanna be the best I can, and in this context it means I just really wanna know God. I wanna be able to love God and I wanna be able to love my neighbor. It has nothing to do with earning anything. It has to do with a passion to do the thing God’s called us to do. And that passion to do that comes from God. It’s a gift of grace.

So that when we look at our lives and go, “Oh, man, I am one miserable sinner this week or this day or this hour. I’ve had an opportunity to do what God called me to do and I didn’t do it.” I don’t think there’s much reason to go flogging ourselves for that other than to simply admit it, “Well, Lord, it happened again. I appreciate, you know, I’m so grateful for your forgiveness and for the spirit to help me take the next step forward and see if I can meet this challenge better next time. So I did wanna make sure that that framing is important because you’re right, if we’re gonna talk about having spiritual disciplines, praying so many times a day in order to increase this notion, people are gonna say, oh, it’s just a bunch of more religious duties. When you’re a football player, and you’re working out in the gym because you wanna be able to move the alignment off the line that you’ll be facing on Friday, it doesn’t feel horrible. It feels like, this is hard. I’m making me sweat. I’m in pain all night because of it. But we do it willingly because we know what the result is gonna be. So, and that’s how I see the disciplines.

Hansen: Yeah. We know what the purpose is as well. All right. Now we get into the last two questions, which are the hard questions. All right. All the easy things we’ve covered already. All right. So in your essay, a provocative one with one of those good titles you wanna click on, “The Church Does Not Exist for the Sake of the World.” You start talking about Ephesians one and you write this, “Church is its own end. It is created by God’s good pleasure and for our good pleasure. As a result of being called into the family called church, our job is to bask in its sheer goodness, by living together in holy love and by together praising God’s glory for doing such a hilarious thing.” And then later on, Mark, you argue that we’re not to make the world a better place, but to invite the world into a better place, the church.

All right. I wanna shout amen to that. Here’s the challenge that I face. I run into . . . and you do a great job of laying out the biblical situation, which is normative for us. I have problems on historical and contextual grounds. Here’s what I’m trying to work through. Where I live in Birmingham, Alabama, churches, specifically, not exclusively, but specifically, made the world a worse place for African-Americans, and you might see what’s happening now as a course correction, some of this activity as a course correction to say that churches should seek good and not evil because a lot of these churches actually need to repent of not being a better place for all. I know you agree with that, Mark. I’m just trying to reconcile here, like, I agree with what you’re saying. I’m trying to imagine going back to 1963 and saying that when that just isn’t the reality of what the churches really were.

And I can stand up and say, repent. But the difficult thing here for evangelicals is, like, these were “successful churches” with lots of people and where they “preached the gospel.” Oh, man. That really is maybe the hardest thing for me, Mark, living here in Alabama these years. Not because churches in Illinois or New Jersey or South Dakota or wherever else I’ve lived have no problems, but because we live with such a palpable sense here of the failure of the church to live out that Ephesians one vision that is so compelling and that you identify. How do I think through this?

Galli: Well, first of all, I’d say that although you’re pointing to a specific problem in a specific region, civil rights, prejudice, racism. It is good to remind ourselves that the church as it exists today in the South or in the North, it may have less of a problem with racism and discrimination and prejudice, but it’s still full of sinners. And so, we’ll probably look back 20 years from now and go, how could our churches do this, that, or the other thing when they call themselves followers of Jesus. So, the fact that the church is sinful actually doesn’t take away from its glory. It actually reminds us of the truth of the gospel. One of the reasons I encourage everyone to be a part of a regular fellowship and church, even flawed ones, and every one of them is flawed, is because it reminds us who it is that Jesus died for. He didn’t die for the glorious church. He died for the sinful church that it’s on its way to becoming glorious with the work of the Holy Spirit.

Part of knowing the presence of God is to be in deep community with people who are stupid about God, if I can put it that way. And to be in a relationship with them, knowing that you know that they’re sinners in ways they might not even recognize. They may think you’re a sinner in ways you don’t recognize, but we still gather for the hearing of the word and the preaching of the word and the receiving of the, you know, bread and wine, Christ’s presence in that, however we understand that. So the glory is not that, that we are being a church that is in fact, ethically a model for us. There will be churches that do that and we should strive that our church become that in any way as possible. But you don’t have to be a brilliant ethicist to come into any church and recognize that they’re sinful in a lot of different ways.

But that’s precisely our calling card, is that, yeah, isn’t it amazing that God uses people like us, flawed people? That’s sort of the main principle of church life that strikes me as the first principle is grace. God has chosen to . . . he’s not only chosen to forgive us, Christ has chosen to identify his name with us. You know, we’re all so concerned about our branding of our names and our branding of our churches, that they have a good brand, have a respectable brand. That’s just crazy talk. Jesus took his brand and put it on a bunch of these sinful people who do really terrible things in his name a lot of time. And yet he still leaves his brand on them, still wants to work with them and through them to make them . . . to grow up in the full stature of who he is. That’s the kind of . . . the most glorious news of the gospel is that. We’re trying to get to know this God, this Christ, who is willing to dwell with sinners and be patient with sinners who don’t really wanna be with him.

Hansen: Well, my guest on The Gospel Coalition Podcast has been Mark Galli, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today. If you stuck with us for this long and you’re not fascinated to go check out his essays, The Elusive Presence, I can’t help you. But this is a lot of why I was so eager to have him join us today on The Gospel Coalition Podcast and why I’m thankful, Mark, for your leadership at Christianity Today and for your profound influence in my own life, even through these continued writings and certainly for the years that we worked together. Thank you, Mark.

Galli: Yeah, you’re welcome. Thank you.

It might be my greatest fear. What if I’m so busy in evangelical activity that I forget Jesus Christ and the purpose behind it all? What if I’m just spinning up religious projects covered in religious language, but there’s no Spirit behind these works?

Mark Galli thinks we have an evangelical crisis. And if Mark Galli says so, we’d be wise to listen. Galli serves as editor in chief of Christianity Today (CT) magazine. I was blessed to work for him in my stint as associate editor for CT. Galli has been documenting his view of this crisis in his CT column The Elusive Presence.

Galli wisely points out that evangelicals are experts in self-criticism, so you need to take this diagnosis of crisis with a grain of salt. But I think he’s spot on when he writes, “I’ve believed that American Christianity has been less and less interested in God as such, and more and more at doing good things for God.”

If desiring God is the sum and substance of life, as Galli points out, then this crisis couldn’t be cured with a thousand sermons on how to have a better marriage or job or bigger bank account. We’ve lost our way because we’ve shifted from the vertical axis with God toward to the horizontal axis of this world.

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.