Despite the “evidence of ongoing vitality, the evangelical movement shows disturbing signs of dissipating its energies and forfeiting its initiative.” While this sentiment has pervaded discussions about evangelicals over the past decade, the close association of Donald Trump with “evangelicalism” has raised it to a feverish pitch.
Only the concern isn’t that recent: evangelical stalwart Carl Henry wrote it in his 1976 lament, Evangelicals in Search of Identity. Henry worried that the vigor of evangelical institutions in the 30 years since he had published The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism was eroding because of disunity over inerrancy and evangelicalism’s social and political witness.
Now, some 40 years later, Mark Galli—who has most recently stewarded Henry’s chair at Christianity Today—has brought forth his own diagnosis of evangelicalism’s ills, as well as remedies for its future. Galli writes with a light touch, similar to the accessibility of Henry’s journalistic prose. Though Galli lacks Henry’s polemical edge, he shares Henry’s ability to embed real theological learning within a colloquial style.
When Did We Start Forgetting God?: The Root of the Evangelical Crisis and Hope for the Future
Mark Galli encourages us to turn our attention away from the politics of the moment, the social issues being discussed online, and the debate du jour among Christians. He asks us instead to take a long and hard look at what’s missing in our spirituality. In an incisive and thought-provoking book, Mark Galli helps us slow down and spend time reflecting on our ultimate priority.
Yet the difference between their efforts is illuminating. Henry spends the bulk of his book worrying about the impotence of evangelical leaders and the fracturing of our institutions, the absence of a persuasive social and theological program, and the expending of our energies on internal fights about the Bible. “What evangelical renewal does require,” Henry writes, “is recovery of the larger sense of evangelical family in which fellow-believers recognize their common answerability to God in his scripturally given Word and their responsibility for and to each other within the body of faith.”
Galli’s diagnosis starts elsewhere, with the simple, if difficult, claim that the root of the evangelical crisis stems from a single source: “We have forgotten God.” For Galli, such forgetfulness is especially damning, as the “yearning to know God” has distinctively characterized “evangelicals” since Whitefield and Wesley began touring America with their gospel message.
Yet the enthusiasm for God has often been replaced by an interest in technique and outcome: the holiness movement moved sanctification to the center, while the social gospel made mission the reason for the church’s existence. The Pentecostal movement replaced God with spiritual experience, while those who wanted “transformation” did the same. Despite the diversity of the sub-movements within evangelicalism, each has been inclined to make God a “means to an end,” displacing the emphasis on the vertical with a concern for the horizontal.
Despite the diversity of the sub-movements within evangelicalism, each has been inclined to make God a ‘means to an end.’
At the heart of Galli’s diagnosis, and his remedy, lies the oft-stated contention that evangelicals have an “inadequate and truncated doctrine of the church.” More precisely, Galli contends evangelicals have adopted the wrong doctrine of the church, effectively reducing it either to either an evangelistic society or a movement to “make the world a better place.” Yet the church, Galli insists, isn’t “instrumentalist”; rather, the church is “its own end.”
In Scripture, the church’s mission isn’t to “be a blessing, to transform culture, to bring justice to the earth, to work for human flourishing.” Instead, the church’s mission is to “live together in love in Christ, to the praise of God’s glory.” To his biblical arguments Galli adds pragmatic ones: the church is “not a very efficient institution for making a difference in the world.”
Few aspects of church life escape Galli’s censure. Evangelicals’ shallow engagement with the Bible, our self-indulgent reliance on personal anecdotes in preaching, our relative disregard for the sacraments, our proclivity to replace the worship of God in our music with techniques that effectively elicit “spiritual jollies,” our small groups—Galli’s diagnosis of evangelical churches is comprehensive, and excoriating.
Rightly Ordering Our Love(s)
Even if the church is its own end, it still lives in the world. Galli’s emphatic call for a “monomaniacal” love for God risks re-inscribing a social and political quietism into evangelical churches. Paradoxically, evangelical churches have sometimes been so acutely concerned that political judgments or action would take their eyes off God that they remained silent while their neighbors suffered—and, in that way, effectively lent their sanction to injustice.
Given this risk, it’s unsurprising that Galli’s final section on how Christians should purify our desire for God culminates in his reflections on how we can love our neighbor. Galli insists his book isn’t a retreat from the work of loving our neighbors, but rather an attempt to recenter that love within God’s love—which means praying and working that “they might love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, so that their hearts will find rest in God.”
Galli insists his book isn’t a retreat from the work of loving our neighbors, but rather an attempt to recenter that love within God’s love.
In pursuing justice within the horizontal, we mustn’t forget God: the penultimate must remain the penultimate, as we keep the ultimate before our eyes at all times. If we successfully accomplish that through God’s grace, the work of loving our neighbor will take on a different character and hue than it would otherwise. For Galli, the endurance and energy to serve those in need is ultimately founded within a life of prayer in the church.
It’ll be tempting for many readers to dismiss Galli for being too cranky, as though his time near the center of institutional evangelicalism has made him cynical and jaded, rather than wise. Such a response would be a mistake. As a call to return to our roots, When Did We Start Forgetting God? is meant to be more hortatory than sociological. As such, Galli leans almost exclusively on his own observations from his time inside evangelicalism. Yet while Galli might seem to be setting up various straw men, he’s best read as trying to replace one set of emphases with another: he wants to chasten and correct our focus on horizontal matters by helping us remember God.
For Galli, the endurance and energy to serve those in need is ultimately founded within a life of prayer in the church.
The value of that exhortation doesn’t depend on his sociological accuracy: while his book will especially resonate with evangelicals who are growing weary of the never-ending attempts to renew evangelicalism’s witness, its basic message isn’t so different from John Piper’s call to keep God and his glory at the center of our lives in Desiring God—a work that has born fruit of the sort Galli seems to think is peculiar to evangelicalism within the Reformed evangelical wing.
Did Galli Forget Our Neighbors?
Even so, one wonders whether Galli has adequately given the love of neighbor love its due. Given the stress that Galli lays on the vertical in his book, it’s more than a little ironic that he’s best known for his political commentary: his article calling for the impeachment of Donald Trump erupted into controversy.
In pursuing justice within the horizontal, we must not forget God: the penultimate must remain the penultimate, as we keep the ultimate before our eyes at all times.
Galli’s account resists quietism. Yet, it’s hard to avoid wondering whether his approach to political commentary while editor at Christianity Today is symptomatic of a deeper struggle to integrate pursuing justice and his vision of the church. Under his tenure, the magazine rarely took stands on discrete matters of political action—which is a wise course for maintaining unity across an eclectic group of people, but which made his denunciation of Trump more shocking. A more extensive history of political judgments animated by the gospel would’ve made his op-ed in December seem less out-of-character, less provocative, and would’ve paradoxically allowed his own witness to the priority of the ultimate to not be conflated with his singular judgment about the penultimate.
Evangelical’s Identity in Our God
Even so, Galli’s wisdom is worth hearing. Which brings us back to Henry. Though Henry doesn’t figure into the story, the book has its own indictment of Henry’s worries in Evangelicals in Search of Identity.
While elsewhere Henry made much of the priority of the knowledge of God for the Christian life, his animating concern in that book is almost exclusively horizontal: Henry’s basic worry, even then, was that evangelicalism had become “a lion on the loose that no one today seriously fears.”
If evangelicals were in search of an identity then, Galli’s critique today would suggest they were looking in the wrong place: evangelicals will only find their identity when we begin again to search for the triune God.