Online Conversation | An Altar Call: Renewal and the American Church with Russell Moore
Illustration by Bruce Van Patter

Amid the growing polarization, covered-up abuses, schisms, and scandals roiling evangelicalism, studies show that many American Christians – and even many pastors – are increasingly disillusioned with and exhausted by what they experience at church. Wisdom is required to confront the challenge: how can we refocus on the Good News and its transforming power, and together be amazed by grace once again?

Trinity Forum Senior Fellow Russell Moore, current Christianity Today Editor in Chief, former President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention, and author of the new book, Losing Our Religion, joined us on Friday, July 21 to discuss the possibilities for repentance and renewal in the American church. In this Trinity Forum Online Conversation, convened in partnership with The After Party, he helped us think through addressing the challenges to the church without cynicism or complicity, and reviving the hope of new life.

Thank you to our sponsors Scott and Cindy Anderson for their support of this event. 

Online Conversation | Russell Moore | July 21, 2023

Cherie Harder: Good afternoon and welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with special guest Russell Moore on “An Altar Call: Renewal and the American Church.” I’d like to thank our friends at The After Party who are co-hosting and helping to sponsor today’s Online Conversation with us, along with Scott and Cindy Anderson, who are also sponsoring today’s event. So Scott and Cindy and The After Party, thank you so much. We really appreciate your generous support, which has made this program possible.

And we’re delighted that so many of you are joining us today. I believe we have over 1,700 registrants from all over the world and just really appreciate the honor of your time and attention. And we’d like to give a special shout-out to those of you who are joining us for the very first time. I believe we have over 150 first-time registrants, as well as our international guests, over 200 of you joining us from at least 35 different countries that we know of, ranging from Bosnia and Brazil to Taiwan and Tanzania. So if you haven’t done so already, drop us a note in the chat feature. Let us know where you’re from. It’s always great to kind of see the folks joining us from all over the world. And a special welcome to you.

If you are one of those first-time attendees or are otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and to offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so and to come to better know the Author of the answers. We hope this conversation will be a small taste of that for you today.

It’s not news that the last several years have been challenging times for the American Church and for evangelicalism in particular. By some estimates, if the category of “lapsed Protestant” were a denomination, it would be the largest religious body in the South. Religious deconstruction has become a trend, even a hashtag. And by survey after survey, each generation is more secular and unchurched than the one preceding it. Sexual abuse scandals and the unwillingness to deal with them justly have split denominations and eroded moral authority. The increasing politicization, polarization, and susceptibility to conspiracy thinking within congregations have radicalized some members of the laity, exhausted others, demoralized pastors, and distorted many ministries.

Our guest today has argued that the resulting crisis of evangelical credibility, authority, and integrity requires not a rebranding but repentance. The Church is losing hearts, minds, and members, he argues, not because young people are rejecting belief in God, particular doctrines, or even the Church’s moral or spiritual teachings, but because they think the Church doesn’t believe what it preaches. And he ultimately issues an altar call to leave the path of fear, anger, and the pursuit of power, and to return to the good news of amazing grace.

It’s a provocative and a compelling summons, and one made with remarkable wisdom, clarity, and courage by our guest today, Russell Moore. Russell is the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today and, I am very proud to say, a senior fellow of the Trinity Forum. He previously served as the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and earlier served as provost and dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he also taught theology and ethics after receiving his ordination as a Baptist minister. He’s the author of several books, including The Courage to Stand: Facing Your Fears Without Losing Your Soul, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, The Storm-Tossed Family, as well as his most recent work just released earlier this week, Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss.

So, Russell, welcome.

Russell Moore: Hello, Cherie. Good to see you.

Cherie Harder: It’s great to see you as well. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation. So you mentioned in the first part of your book—and we just talked a little bit about it as well—there’s been a dizzying surge of secularism going on. It’s less than half of Americans are now affiliated with a church or a house of worship, which is down from 70 percent just a couple of decades ago. Less than 10 percent of millennials identify as evangelicals. And not only has there been a surge of what’s been called the “nones,” those who basically affiliate with no religion, but there’s a huge surge in what you call the non-verts, the people who have actually detransitioned or deconstructed from Christianity. And you’ve talked about how the difference between the non-verts and the nones are essentially the difference between the uninterested and the embittered. But you’ve chosen to make your book an altar call not to the people who have left the faith, but to the Church itself. And so as we start out, I just wanted to get your thoughts on why you believe that evangelicalism needs repentance and where could that start?

Russell Moore: Well, something really unusual has happened over the past several years. And one of the ways that I could pick up on that were the kinds of problems people would bring to me. And so, for instance, there was a woman who came up to me at my church and said, “I’m really worried about my daughter who’s gone off to college and is in a spiritual crisis.” That’s not an unusual prayer request, that happens all the time. People go away. They encounter new ideas. They start to become disoriented by that. But she said the spiritual crisis was because she was encountering atheists and agnostics who demonstrated peace, joy, love, patience, gentleness, self-control. And she was seeing that there more than she was seeing it in the Christian church writ large. And that sort of conversation, which wasn’t happening that much when I first started in ministry, is everywhere. And so I’m worried about a slide into cynicism more than I’m worried about secularization. I think we can handle secularization with a strong Christian witness, but we can’t with something else.

Cherie Harder: You know, I’ve already used the term “evangelical.” Your book is addressed to evangelicalism. But we’re kind of at a point where there’s some confusion about what we’re actually talking about, in that historically evangelical was a creedal term—and there have been different definitions, whether it’s Bebbington’s quadrilateral or something else—but increasingly it seems like it’s not used that way so much. And most of the people who self-report or self-describe as evangelicals, it’s more often to be a tribal term rather than a creedal one. And so when issuing an altar call to evangelicals, I guess maybe we should start by saying, who is this being addressed to?

Russell Moore: Well, one of the issues wrapped up in that question is the fact that we now have this confusing situation where sometimes people who don’t go to church, don’t have spiritual practice, define themselves as “evangelicals” because they’re posting Christian memes on Facebook. And people who are leading campus ministries and mission organizations and active in their congregations are reluctant to use it because it’s so confusing right now. I understand that. There are many people who will say to me, “Why do you even want to use the word evangelical?” I wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post in 2016 that said, I don’t want to call myself an evangelical anymore because of what it’s what it’s come to mean. But I changed my mind. And the reason was because I don’t think— I haven’t found an alternative, for one thing. And I don’t think we should yield a word that really does point to at least the aspiration of something that I believe to be beautiful, and that is that personal aspect of Christianity. So I think one of the things that combines or joins together several of these or all of these renewal movements and revival movements that we call “evangelical” has been a commitment to the truth that people come before God, not nation by nation, village by village, family by family, or even church by church, but person by person. And that has implications for how we emphasize the gospel, for how we talk about Bible reading and being under the authority of Scripture. There are all sorts of implications to that. But I think that personal aspect of Christianity is key.

Now that’s often distorted and there will be sometimes people who will say, “Well, evangelicalism is not anything about theology or spiritual practice. It’s just about a political agenda or militarism or misogyny or something else. And it always has been.” Now, obviously, I disagree with that. But even if I didn’t, if that’s the case, if there’s not a theological or spiritual component to it, then we don’t need to worry about evangelicalism. We just need to deal with the militarism and the misogyny and all the other issues. But what if the power that comes with some of those things is by hitching on to a theology and a spiritual practice? Then it becomes even more dangerous. So it’s kind of the question of was the Protestant Reformation about people selling indulgences or was it about a set of theological issues, about justification and other things? Well, it was both, and they were bound up together. And I think that’s important to understand when we’re looking at such a fuzzy category as evangelicals.

Cherie Harder: Yeah. You know, you mentioned the importance of the personal, and your book is not only an altar call, but you’ve also described it as a testimony. And I think, just to look at your words: “a testimony of what one fellow wayfarer has learned about how to survive when the evangel and evangelicalism seem to be saying two different things.” And so I want to ask you, what have you seen and what have you learned?

Russell Moore: Well, I tell people often that sometimes looking back over the last 25, 30 years in evangelicalism as I’ve been, is kind of like watching the movie The Sixth Sense for the second time, because the first time through there are all kinds of little signs and hints that one doesn’t really recognize that then become really obvious once you know the twist ending. I can look back over all of this time and see all kinds of times where I’ve thought to myself, “This seems crazy to me, but I seem to be the only one who finds it to be crazy. So it must just be my problem.” And, you know, can’t idealize the church. We have to understand there are going to be these bumps along the way.

Over the past several years, though, I think that what we’ve seen is, one person used the language of apocalypse. And I very quickly agreed with that because apocalypse is not just the way we use it in popular culture, a terrible thing. It’s an unveiling and a revealing of some things that have been there all along. And I think that one of the things that we have seen over the past several years is that we really do have a crisis in American evangelicalism when it comes to, for instance, race, when it comes to women, when it comes to a pull toward authoritarianism. These were not brand-new sorts of issues. They were vulnerabilities that were there all along.

And as somebody who has lived through some of that, my situation, I could feel myself moving toward cynicism, and I had to work through that and correct that. But at every point I kept thinking, what about the people who don’t have the support system that I have of friends and fellow wayfarers through this? What must they be going through? Because I think my situation over the past several years might have been high profile, but it wasn’t all that unusual. There are many people who are finding themselves in a situation in which they say, “I don’t really recognize my church anymore and have I been out of step all along?” And as I mentioned in the book, there’s this feeling of have I been mistaking the Shire for Mordor all along, or has something really changed? That’s really disorienting. And it was for me.

And so this book was really about helping people along who might be in a similar situation of feeling maybe as though they’re being drawn to despair. And I don’t think there’s reason to despair. But when I say that, I know there are also going to be all kinds of people who will say, “Well, just talk about the good things that are happening in evangelical Christianity.” And there are a lot of them. That leads to the same sort of cynicism and the same sort of manipulation of power because it doesn’t recognize where the problems are. I mean, when we think about ourselves as persons, the way that we change and the way that we’re transformed is not by denying that we’re sinners. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. And the same is true, I think, for our work together. So we have to be honest about what’s there. 

Cherie Harder: You know, the sentence about mistaking the Shire for Mordor I actually thought that was one of the most chilling and memorable sentences in your book. That really packs a punch. One of the things I wanted to ask you about just in regards to what you even say now about losing one’s illusions and the confusion is, you quoted, I think it was Kierkegaard, who said that the most dangerous illusion is a paganism that thinks it is Christian. And I wanted to ask you where you see that happening. What’s the paganism that we have conflated or confused with orthodoxy?

Russell Moore: Well, I think there are a number of them. One of them would be the use of Christianity as a means to an end, whatever that end is. But we see that quite a bit with Christian nationalist movements that are emerging all over the world, not just in the United States, but all over the world, for whom Christianity is a tribal identity marker. You’re Christian because of who your enemies are or because of what your blood and soil might be. That’s a really dangerous thing, I think, not just for norms and democratic institutions, but for the gospel. It’s a different religion.

And then even apart from that, I think what we see is a kind of paganization of the way we do things, the sorts of people and instincts that we admire. And so there’s this sense of—. Someone sent me a comment that an evangelical had made about we need to reclaim the Roman understanding of masculinity, the gladiatorial sort of imagery of masculinity. And I thought to myself, you know, there are a lot of things that we don’t have direct language from Jesus on. This is one we do. Jesus completely repudiated the Roman understanding of heroism and masculinity. And so you have that kind of moving from the way of Jesus in just the way that we carry things out. And where I saw that most strikingly was the fact that often in raising some of these issues, the response that would come from people would not be, “Oh, that’s not happening.” The response would be, “Come on, get real. This is the world that we live in, and that means we have to do things like this.”

I mentioned in the book about how reading Jayber Crow years ago, as a huge Wendell Berry fan, but I found one part of it kind of unconvincing, when he gives the example of Jayber, who’s a barber, cutting someone’s hair and the person’s railing about his enemies. And Jayber says, “Well, I think maybe we should turn the other cheek.” And the person says, “Well, I think that’s liberal nonsense.” And it’s of course Jesus Christ. I thought, “That’s a little on the nose.” And yet over the past several years I have had countless pastors who have had that exact experience of just parenthetically quoting “turn the other cheek” and having people say, “Why are you so weak? Why are you surrendering?” And what’s chilling to me is that when those people are told, “Well, I’m just quoting Jesus Christ literally,” the response is, “Get real. That’s not the sort of world that we live in. You have to fight.”

So I think there’s a transformation of even what Christianity is. And when we look at the outside world, the New Testament makes very clear that the outside world does not overcome the Church. The problem is what goes on within the Church and the witness that then comes out of the Church. And so that’s what’s really distressing because you can’t advance the gospel if you have a church that has a confused witness.

Cherie Harder: You know, the eagerness to fight or the equation of reality with fighting— you had a comment in your book about referring to Mark Noll’s work on The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and argued that actually we have a different or perhaps an additional scandal, which is what you call that of the evangelical limbic system—essentially our fight-flight-fear response. And, you know, our limbic system is activated or over-activated when we perceive ourselves to be under threat, ready to fight. Usually when that happens, our ability, just humanly speaking, our ability to analyze it breaks down, where we’re less able actually to perceive context. We focus only on what’s in front of us. Tell me more about why you think that there is a crisis of the evangelical limbic system and what is it that we are so afraid of?

Russell Moore: Well, part of it is not specific to the church. It’s something that’s going on generally in American culture and in some ways in global culture. And there are various reasons for that, in which it seems that the whole world is going through a nervous breakdown. People are scared and lonely and disconnected, and there’s a lot of that. But that is showing up also in the church, except it comes with a specific kind of power because you can use, for instance, the language of spiritual warfare. Now, I believe in spiritual warfare. I think that the New Testament speaks quite clearly about the fact that, as Paul says, we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but principalities and powers in the heavenly places. It’s just that when I hear the words “spiritual warfare” now, nine and a half times out of ten, it will be someone referring to their cultural or political enemies, which is the exact opposite of what the Scripture says to us. We’re not to fear what can happen to us. We’re to fear God. And I think we’ve lost that in this moment.

And then you add to that the fact that it’s very difficult in American society and within the Church to come in and say, “Okay, here are some real challenges and problems. And the gates of hell will not prevail against you.” People usually in that limbic crouch want one or the other. Either we’re threatened and we’re losing completely or we’re victorious and everyone’s with us completely. That’s just not the vision of the Christian life that the Scripture has given to us.

Cherie Harder: You know, in contrast to that, one of the recommendations that you make in terms of how we navigate and live wisely through our crisis is to focus on ways and means and not just ends. But of course, [if] you’re operating out of a limbic crouch, one sort of naturally is like, “Well, forget the consequences. It’s all in.” And, you know, this is something we certainly see all around us, too. There are think-tanks whose big slogan is “What time is it?” Meaning, you know, that the time is so dire that caution should be thrown to the wind. We should be all in. Would-be authoritarians usually either declare or manufacture some kind of state of emergency, to essentially give the idea that it’s all or nothing, do or die, now or never. And for most of us who don’t really like to fight all that much, there’s definitely a disadvantage if you are engaging with someone who is all or nothing, operating out of a limbic posture, and you’re attempting to love and reason with them, to persuade, to extend hospitality. One often feels not just at a real disadvantage, but likely to emerge from such an encounter being taken advantage of or somehow the worse for wear. So what do you say to people of faith who on one hand say, “Well, you know, yeah, I get that. We’re called to the ways of Jesus, and his ways are to love our neighbor. But every time I do that, I come away feeling sucker punched”?

Russell Moore: Well, I mean, yes, a person is at a disadvantage by having a character shaped by the way of Christ when it comes to people who will do anything to fight for what they want. Short-term, yes, that’s true. In the same way that you’re at a disadvantage if you go to your Thanksgiving dinner table and Uncle Ronnie is there with a gun shooting it into the ceiling. Your response to that is not going to be, “Okay, next year I’m going to come armed.” Your response is going to be, “What has happened to my family? We need to get some help and accountability for Uncle Ronnie. And maybe I’m not coming to Thanksgiving anymore.” There’s that disadvantage. It’s kind of like saying, well, somebody who’s committed to marital fidelity is at a disadvantage compared to somebody who is involved in polyamorous kinds of relationships. At a disadvantage for what? Well, if the end is simply the replication of genetic material, then, yes, there can be multiple children if there are multiple people involved. But that’s not the end. The end is a different end. 

And so I think there are many people who are looking at this time, and when they ask that question you mentioned “what time is it?”, that question has already been answered by Jesus Christ. We are in the time that has been inaugurated by his resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father and a lot of this frantic sense of state of emergency fighting is because we’ve lost confidence in that. And so because we don’t really believe in the judgment seat of Christ, we want to erect judgment seats all around us. And that’s a dangerous place to be, spiritually speaking.

Cherie Harder: Yeah, absolutely. Another one of the suggestions that you offered for navigating these times wisely I thought was really fascinating, which was to maintain attention on the right things. And we were talking earlier, it kind of brought me back to an earlier Online Conversation we’d hosted with psychiatrist Curt Thompson, who had talked about attention being essentially the ignition key of the mind. What we attend to is how we think. It’s what shapes our imagination and shapes our sense of reality, so ultimately what we become. What is it that we should be maintaining our attention on in the midst of all of the spectacle and limbic-system overdrive around us?

Russell Moore: Well, one of the things that we know as Christians is that so much of what shapes us, for good or for ill, is unconscious to us. That’s not a new idea coming along with Freud or Jung. This is something that Jesus said when he said to his disciples, “Beware the leaven, the yeast, of the Pharisees and of Herod.” There are ways in which you can become like sometimes even the very people you’re arguing against. But it’s happening imperceptibly to you in a subterranean sort of way. And in the same way, so much of what is happening, what God is doing in making us like Christ, is also unconscious to us at the moment. And so someone said to me— there was an older Christian who said to me one time when I was going through one of my darkest moments, he said, “You know, if you look back and you ask, where were the times when God did the most, when there were things that were happening that God was doing that changed things for you for the rest of your life? I’ll bet it wasn’t in moments of victory and triumph. I’ll bet it was, instead, in those moments when God seemed very hidden and very silent and yet was doing all kinds of things within you and around you.” And I think that’s true.

And so learning how to give attention in the right places in a time when there’s so many distractions around is a fundamental importance. And I’ll tell you what excites me about that and what I really see as hope is the fact that, you know, I’m on college campuses all the time or other places where there are people who are in their late teens, early 20s, and I almost never get questions about culture-war issues. And I almost never get questions about the kinds of theological controversies—Calvinism versus Arminianism—that would have been coffeeshop debating points a while back. Instead, the question that I keep getting, the number one question is, “How do I pray?” “How do I read the Bible when I can’t even maintain the attention to do it?” Well, the very fact that those questions are being asked is a sign of hope. Because the danger comes when we’re so numb and we’ve so normalized everything around us that we don’t even see that we’ve lost attention. So I think God is doing something there in calling us back.

Cherie Harder: That’s hopeful. One of the things that really struck me in reading your book and even just more broadly, too, is it’s not only we, the laity, who many of us feel kind of caught in the crossfire, wrestling with the distraction or disillusionment. But ministers are also, at least in the aggregate, really struggling. There have been different Barna studies that have shown that, I think just last year, around 40 percent of pastors had seriously considered quitting within the last year, which is way up from what it had been. There have been other studies showing that far fewer pastors feel happy with their own sort of spiritual place, struggle more with a sense of isolation, just with all that’s going on. And so I wanted to get your sense of what do we do? What does the altar call look like, both for us personally as individual Christians, but also for the Church, for individual churches, for the pastors who are struggling?

Russell Moore: Well, one of the misconceptions I find myself arguing against constantly with a lot of my secular friends, especially sort of secular journalist friends or elected-official friends is the idea that all of the craziness that we’re seeing in evangelical Christianity is coming from the pastors. And I always say that’s almost never the case. Yes, there are some very high-profile examples of pastors who are leading some of the craziness. But usually at the grassroots level, the pastor is dealing with the same sort of dysfunction as the rest of society. And that shows up often in the fact that there can be a small group of people in a congregation that can completely upend the congregation by using a lot of the same strategies and sometimes a lot of the same motivations in coming against the pastor in a time when maybe 90 percent of the congregation isn’t even aware that that’s going on. 

So I would say if you are in a good church, then keep it that way. And that means remain engaged in that congregation and encourage one another, including your pastor, who, if you’re in a good congregation, probably is bearing a great deal of weight. And that happens church by church, congregation by congregation. But it’s necessary. 

Cherie Harder: Well, we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. And I see we have quite a few of them. And if you are tuning in for the first time, you can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” a question. It helps give us a sense of what some of the most popular questions are. And we don’t go just by popularity, but it’s always helpful to hear. So our first question comes from Janet Gilbert, who asked, “When the Church could not maintain influence through moralism, should we not have expected that political power would be where the Church turned? We’d say, ‘Give us a king.’ Fear of loss of control and influence is at the root, is it not?”

Russell Moore: Yes, she’s exactly right about that. Part of the problem is there was a system, at least in a lot of parts of the country, in which the culture propped up the Christianity because the Christianity propped up the culture. And this was often with a very moralistic sense of what it means to be a Christian. As that has changed and secularized—all over the place; I mean, even in the Bible Belt, it’s no longer the case that somebody who’s not a member of a church is completely out of step with the culture—as that has happened, there have been a lot of people who’ve been really alarmed by that. They feel like they’re losing something. And so they assume the way that we get that back is with power. And we’re in a time in which power is defined politically, largely. And so, yes, I think that observation is right on.

Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Kurt Behrens. And Kurt asks, “Where does courage fit into the conversation? It appears that many pastors, Christian politicians, and even lay leaders have real concerns or even suspicions about what they support, but few have the courage to speak up. What gave you the courage to speak up?”

Russell Moore: I don’t know. I don’t think of myself as a courageous person at all because I’m the kind of person who has great fear, and also I see myself as being, in many ways, very weak. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like controversy any more than anyone else. But there’s Sunday school and there’s Christian discipleship as to what it means to be a follower of Christ that one cannot avoid. 

And I think that’s right about this crisis of courage that takes place, because it’s usually not the case that somebody just doesn’t know what’s right, at least at the beginning. Instead, it’s this calculation. And I know the calculation because I’ve made it before, which is to say, “Okay, if I speak to this right now, I’m not going to be the adult in the room later on. And I have to sort of let this go because I have to conserve my influence for later on.” The problem is there is never a point at which one says, “Okay, well, now everything’s settled down, and I’m going to use my influence to award what’s right but not popular.” That moment never comes. Instead, what happens is the conscience adjusts to one’s own self-interest. And I think just recognizing that, to come back to attention, recognizing that is important. 

I think for me, somebody asked me one time, “Why are you still a Christian? How did you not lose your faith over everything that’s gone on in evangelical Christianity?” And particularly in my denomination of that over the past several years. It really was because I’d already been through a small-scale crisis. And that’s, of course, as the dad of some teenage boys. One of the things that parenting adolescence is all about is helping them through manageable crises to give them the tools to be able to face big crises later on. Well, that’s exactly what happened to me as a 15-year-old. I went through a crisis of wondering, is Christianity just politics or just Southern culture? And I worked through that by the grace of God. That helped me with the big crises.

So sometimes just notice the ways that you’ve had to, with fear and trembling, step up anyway and tap those inner resources by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Cherie Harder: So Ellery Armstrong asks, “How would you counsel adult Christians who are struggling to navigate spiritual faithfulness and living out their lives balanced against honoring their parents who are completely sold out to their political team?”

Russell Moore: Well, when I mentioned a few minutes ago that the number one and number two questions I get from young Christians is about prayer and Bible reading, that’s number three. The question of—. And here’s what’s encouraging about the question, both this one and what I usually get, is that it’s not about how do I defeat my parents’ viewpoint? Or how do I win the argument with my parents? It’s usually coming from people who want to remain connected with their parent or some other family member, and they don’t know how to. And what I would say is, you know, Scripture says, “So far as it’s possible with you, maintain peace with all people.” Sometimes it’s not possible, but often it is. And often I think the way to do that is to say, “Hey, Mom. Hey, Dad. Hey, whoever. I love you. I want to spend time with you. We tend to get really tense when we talk about this particular issue, whatever it might be. Can we just sort of not do that so that we can spend time together?” That’s not yielding the rightness or wrongness of whatever the issue is. It’s instead saying, “I want to remain connected to you.” And that means connecting at the human personal level. And often people will do that. Sometimes they falter and fall. And I think you can have kind of a maybe even a humorous way to say, “Uh oh, we’re going into the area here.” And people usually respond to that. But as far as you can, I would say maintain connection.

Cherie Harder: So Brian Backy asked, “Because of the ministry I am a part of, I speak with about a thousand pastors each year. Many of them are feeling abused by their members and want to leave the pastorate. What do you say to these pastors to encourage them?”

Russell Moore: I see the same thing. I’m hearing that every single day from pastors. And I just said to someone the other day who was asking what do I see as the future of pastoral ministry? I said bi-vocational and tri-vocational ministers, but not for the reasons one might think. It’s not because congregations can’t afford, in the future, full-time ministers. It’s that the ministers themselves are in such a place of vulnerability. If you’re in a congregation where dealing with an issue that’s unpopular will mean your kids lose their school, you lose your home, you lose all of your friends, that’s a very vulnerable place to be.

So what I usually say to pastors is, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news, and they’re the same thing. This is happening everywhere. That’s good news because it means you’re not alone.” Because a lot of times pastors are thinking, “I’m a failure. I’ve done something wrong because this is happening.” And you’re not. This is happening everywhere. The bad news of it is that there’s not an island of refuge to which to swim. And so a lot of pastors are thinking, “If I just get to another church, then this will all go away.” Sometimes that’s true, but a lot of times it’s not. And so the main thing is to find people who are in similar situations. And I know this has been essential for me. And I actually—the question before, I actually should have said this—having people in your life who love you not for your gifts, but for who you are and also who are in similar sorts of situations that you can talk to honestly and openly and vulnerably—find those people and that helps a lot.

Cherie Harder: Make sense. So Mindy O’Bannon asked, “How much of this is a problem of evangelical media/publishing conflating the American story with the gospel story and even pushing false teaching? We seem to be discipled more by the latest big sellers and popular news outlets.”

Russell Moore: Well, it’s kind of a chicken-egg problem because media and publishing respond to markets and so they respond to things that are popular, and it’s almost a circle or cycle that comes out of that. So I’m not sure which we could say is first there. Certainly exacerbated it. And I learned, this was one of the things that I learned as a guest host on a Christian talk radio program—just a guest host—is that I would find that people would not respond to reasoned arguments about theology or spirituality or what have you. People would respond to whatever was the huge controversy at the moment. I remember doing a show one time on Harry Potter and just the wave of callers that came in on that. And I realized, “Okay, I’m noticing this and this isn’t my full-time vocation at all. What must this be like for people for whom it is?” And so you have a lot of people for whom that kind of market-driven populism is at the core of what they’re attempting to do. And so when that’s the case, everything’s always an emergency. Every enemy is always completely bad and every ally is always completely good. And yes, that accelerates, if it doesn’t start, the problem.

Cherie Harder: So a question from Jim Bradley, who says that he has lost all trust in the evangelical community because it seems unable to discern the wickedness of particular politicians and their movements. What do you say to someone like him?

Russell Moore: I would say that there’s no such thing as an “evangelical community” with a capital E and a capital C. Instead, what’s happening is—I think in almost every area of American life, particularly, but certainly within whatever we call evangelicalism—there’s a fragmenting and a breaking apart of old alliances and coalitions. That’s really disorienting to people. But there’s also the bringing together of new alliances and new coalitions. And so you have people who are finding each other. And that’s exactly how change always happens. That’s exactly how renewal and revival always happens. So what I would say is don’t confuse the evangelical movement with Jesus. And be disillusioned. It’s right to be disillusioned. That that means literally to lose one’s illusions. Lose your illusions, but don’t lose the gospel. Because at the end of it all, the question really is, has Jesus been raised from the dead? Is he seated at the right hand of the Father? I believe the answer to those questions is yes. And if the answer to those questions is yes, then that means we don’t let evangelical craziness drive us away from Jesus. We instead set out to follow Jesus. And sometimes that means doing something new. 

Cherie Harder: So a question from Randy Tomlinson, who asks, “Do you think that a part of the issue is our sense that ‘we must win the argument’ as opposed to ‘we must share the truth and let others wrestle with the truth’? My concern is that we as Christians are no longer sure of the truth and confident enough to present/defend it.”

Russell Moore: I think that is spot on. And that’s one of the reasons why I think if you look at how have we gotten here? One of the ways that we have gotten here is a de-emphasis on evangelism in the sense that there was a reaction to the kind of really programmatic “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life; here’s a gospel tract” sort of evangelism that de-emphasized what it meant to share one’s faith with one’s neighbors. That is actually essential not just to being an evangelical Christian, but essential to understanding and knowing that we are persuading people, not rolling over them. I mean, the apostle Paul says gospel goes forward by the open proclamation of the truth, appealing to the conscience. People who really get that aren’t going to demonize their neighbors who disagree with them. They’re not going to give up on them. They’re not going to try to exercise power over them. They’re going to seek to persuade them.

And the question also, I think, is completely right that we no longer even expect people to change or to be persuaded. We no longer expect ourselves to have the possibility of change and persuasion. And that’s because of the way that we do it. When you think about— I can think about all kinds of things I’ve changed my mind about over the years. Some of them I talk about in the book, but not one of them happened at the end of a 30-minute argument, and certainly not one of them happened after a humiliating encounter on social media. They all happened because someone spoke to me that I trusted, and as I listened to what it was that they had to say, I pondered it. And sometimes it took a long time for my mind to change. And I would find even that sometimes I would become even more zealous in defending my position when I feared I was about to be convinced otherwise.

And that’s the way persuasion usually works. If we don’t understand that and we don’t get it, then you’re just going to end up in this theatrical sort of engagement that really isn’t engagement at all, because you’re not actually speaking to the person who disagrees with you. You’re just speaking to the people who are in your tribe behind you in order to say, “See, I’m one of you because I hate this person or I hate this issue or this tribe.” And that’s just not New Testament Christianity.

Cherie Harder: So a question from an anonymous attendee who asks, “How unique is this situation? Is our generation especially fractured, or does every generation of the church endure some kind of battle?”

Russell Moore: Well, that’s one of the questions that I found I would ask every time that I would talk to a historian or a sociologist or even just someone older and more experienced was to say, “Is everything as crazy as it seems? Or is this just life and I never knew it, never saw it?” And to a person, all of these experts have said, “No, something is very different in this environment.” And I think we can see that with almost every marker. What isn’t different is that there is often a moment of crisis that then leads to transformative change. That is true. That has happened historically. And it’s also true that the way that that change happens is not by winning the soul of the evangelical movement, for instance, or the soul of the Church. John and Charles Wesley did not reinvent the Church of England. They instead ended up creating something new that influenced parts of the Church of England and multiple different churches and movements and still is resonating today. I think that’s how God works.

Cherie Harder: A question from Mark Steiner, who asked, “To what degree does the full-throated embrace of American culture by evangelicals fuel many of these problems? How can we see how American culture works as ‘the pattern of this world’ to which we unreflectively conform?”

Russell Moore: That’s a good question. And I think that the most dangerous aspects of American culture are the ones we conform to without recognizing we’re conforming to them. And so I think that when Romans 12, for instance, is saying don’t be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be renewed in your mind, in your inner self, I think a great deal of that has to do with asking what has changed in me. And that’s the reason why I think the most dangerous things for us are usually not the things that we’re arguing about. They’re the things that we don’t even know to argue about. They’re the things we’ve sort of already accommodated to. 

And a lot of times that has to do with, as we talked about before, not just our position on things. And that’s where I think that some of our Christian worldview emphasis went off track in some places is there were some definitions of “worldview” that basically were “here are a set of cognitive assumptions”—at best. At worst, “here are a set of political positions that it means to be Christian and to have a Christian worldview.” Rather than seeing what I think is present in the Bible, which is a transformation of the person, the way that you see the world around you, not just at the cognitive level, but at the imaginative level, at the affectional level, at the conscience level. We can pick up on those things and not even know it. That’s why when I referenced earlier Jesus saying to his disciples, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod,” that had to be nonsensical to them because these were two completely different categories altogether. Herod and the Pharisees were on opposite sides. And Jesus saying not “beware the Pharisees” or “beware Herod.” [But] “Beware the way that you can become like them.” And I think that starts with the recognition that that has happened.

Cherie Harder: Russell, this has been fascinating. In just a moment, I’m going to give you the last word. But before we do that, a few things just to share with all of you who are watching. Immediately after we conclude, we’ll be sending around an online survey. We would really encourage and appreciate you filling out that survey. We read every one of these. We try to incorporate your suggestions into making these programs ever more valuable and enriching to you, and as a small token of our appreciation for filling that out, we will send you a code for a free Trinity Forum Reading download of your choice. There are several Readings that we would suggest that pertain to or go deeper on some of the themes that we’ve discussed. Some of them are even mentioned in Russell’s book. They include Simon Weil’s work “Wrestling with God,” “Politics, Morality and Civility” by Vaclav Havel, “Who Stands Fast?” by Bonhoeffer, and Augustine’s “City of God.”

In addition, for everyone who registered for today’s event, we will be sending tomorrow around noon an email with a link to today’s video. We encourage you to share this with others. Start a conversation and the like, and just wanted to flag that so that you are on the lookout for it.

In addition, we’d love to invite all of you who are watching to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who help advance Trinity Forum’s mission of cultivating, curating, and disseminating the best of Christian thought. In addition to being part of that mission and that work, there are a number of benefits associated with being a Trinity Forum Society member, which include a subscription to our quarterly Readings where we take the best of literature and letters, a subscription to our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated reading recommendations, and as a special incentive and thank you for those of you who join or with your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Russell’s book Losing Our Religion. So we hope that you will take advantage of that offer and really just would appreciate you becoming a part of the Trinity Forum Society and movement.

Coming up on August 11th, we’ll be hosting Karen Swallow Prior on her new book on the evangelical imagination. Hope you’ll be able to join us for that. And we’ll be sending around more information soon on other upcoming Online Conversations, including with Curt Thompson, who we mentioned today, and David Brooks in the next month or two. So be on the lookout for that. And if you’d like to sponsor one of these Online Conversations, please let us know. There will actually be a section in the online survey where you can indicate that we would love to talk with you. Finally, as promised, Russell, the last word is yours.

Russell Moore: Well, Cherie, one of the moments when I realized that I was in the most danger of cynicism—it was sort of a flash of light that came to me when I was baptizing my son, Jonah—teenage son, Jonah, come to faith in Christ in our non-denominational evangelical church—in a horse trough. And right as I was about to baptize him, I realized how jaded I had become and how close to despair I had become and remembered what Jesus said, “You search for a sign and no sign will be given to you but the sign of Jonah.” And the sign of Jonah is that just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the belly of the earth.” Sign of Jonah is that the people of Nineveh repented at that preaching. It’s a sign that says Jesus is alive and the gospel marches forward. That’s all the sign you need. And that’s what prompted some gratitude and a realization. Grace really is amazing.

So the word I would have to you is don’t be afraid. Jesus saves.

Cherie Harder: Russell, it’s been great to talk with you. Thanks for joining us.

Russell Moore: Thank you.

Cherie Harder: Thank you to all of you who joined us. Have a great weekend.