Briefly Noted: Christ is Better than Anything Rome Can Give—or Martyrdom Can Take Away

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on February 25, 2013.]

One of the most striking memories of my childhood is a small newsletter that carried the photograph of an emaciated elderly man. Beneath the photo was a story detailing this man’s arrest at the hands of the Russian secret police for the crime of worshiping Christ together with other believers in an “underground” church. This man’s story was the first of many stories I read about in the newsletters my parents received several times per year during the last years before the fall of the Soviet Union. I learned of believers who were dragged from their homes, thrown in concentration camps, tortured, and killed because they worshiped in underground churches, owned Bibles, shared the gospel, and pledged allegiance to an Authority higher than the Soviet state.

In the evenings, when my father called the whole family into the living room for evening devotions, sometimes he would read from one of the newsletters. We would listen to the stories and then pray together for these Christians who loved God and worshiped him even under the threat of persecution and death. I always wondered what it was that enabled these men and women to stand strong in the face of such pain and horror. What power did they possess that I did not have? What had they experienced in their relationship with God that I had not? It seemed to me that their brutally oppressive environment was in one sense a blessing—it forced them to reflect upon the value and worth of Christ. They were compelled to determine whether Christ was indeed supremely precious, even more valuable than other good things in life such as friends, family, freedom, health, and long life. And their answer was clear: intimacy with Christ is better than anything that life could give or that suffering, persecution, and death could take away. They believed—upon the backdrop of extreme risk—that they had entered into relationship with the one true and living God, that he should be worshiped supremely, and that all of life was to be lived under his reign.[1]

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On Russell Moore, Evangelicals, and Political Engagement

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on January 27, 2014.]

The sharp-sighted cultural commentator Russell Moore strikes again. In “Evangelical Retreat?”, published in the December edition of First Things, he responds to the concern that younger Evangelicals’ drift away from conservative political activism is underlain by closet liberalism, political disinterest, or perhaps some other infelicity.[1] His answer, which I think is correct, is that most young Evangelicals are not withdrawing; instead, they are engaging in ways which are more deeply theological and ecclesial.

Moore begins by noting certain concerns expressed by Christians outside of the Evangelical orbit: “Dispensationalist fascination with prophecy has waned in recent years, as Evangelicals seem to be recalibrating to the larger church tradition on eschatology. But I find that in talking to Catholic and Orthodox friends, some of them fear a Rapture of a different kind. They worry that Evangelical Christians will soon evacuate not the earth but the public square” (p. 46). The concern stems from several factors, and central among them is the breakdown of the religious right as a centering force for Evangelical cultural impact. In the wake of this breakdown, where and how will Evangelicals engage the culture? Will they try? This is a concern held not only by Catholic friends, but also by old veterans of the Moral Majority.

Moore notes that “engaging the culture” has changed in Evangelicalism because the present generation defines these terms differently from previous generations. No longer does “engage the culture” mean “get out the vote.” Rather, young Evangelicals regularly engage the culture at the congregational level primarily and the political level secondarily. As Moore points out, “They focus on helping the poor by, among other things, working for marriage stability [the healthy union of one man and one woman], family accountability [including the sanctity of life], and personal responsibility [the practice of purity and community]” (p. 46). These actions are underlain by deep and profound theological and ecclesial concerns.

For this generation of Evangelicals, faithful and appropriate public action sprouts from the rich soil of orthodox theology. Moore observes:

As Evangelicalism grows increasingly estranged from American culture––especially from the evaporating culture of the Bible Belt––it grows increasingly committed to the ‘strangest’ aspects of the evangel itself: atonement, resurrection, reconciliation, and so on. Some younger Evangelicals’ flight impulse from issues deemed ‘political’ isn’t a move to the political left as much as a move to the theological right. (p. 46)

In this case, “engaging the culture” will not look like Evangelical public action of the past. “As a matter of fact, today the center of American Evangelicalism is, theologically speaking, to the right of the old religious right.” Evangelicals have begun to realize slowly “that they are no ‘moral majority’” in America (p. 47). So a more expansive theology, rooted especially in the Reformed Tradition, has replaced extensive campaigning.

Such theology also undergirds a more rigorous church polity and accountability. “Unlike the Bible-Belt congregation of the twentieth century, the new kind of Evangelical church has strict membership requirements . . . The pastor typically preaches forty-five minutes to an hour of verse-by-verse exposition . . . He is pro-life and pro-marriage” (p. 47). The challenge for many “young Evangelical” pastors and elders (a growing trend, too) is not whether to teach all that Jesus has commanded (Matt 28:19–20), but whether public engagement fits within the mission of the local church. This is because he has most likely seen attempts at packaging “a transcendent message for decidedly worldly, and often cynical, purposes of pulling the levels of power” (p. 47).

With every theology and polity comes a worldview, or vice versa. As such, Moore observes, “To understand the Evangelical tension on public engagement, one must understand that Evangelicals are a narrative-driven people.” This refers to the biblical narrative but also to personal narratives. Personal testimonies demonstrate the reasons young Evangelicals worship, for example, in Reformed and liturgically oriented churches. These churches are decidedly different from, for example, the theologically vacuous and/or super casual churches in which they grew up. And as Moore notes, “What’s true at the personal level is true also at the level of the movement” (p. 48).

Moore also clarifies that the term “young Evangelical” is also confusing for many. The theological conservatives of whom he speaks are quite different from the “young Evangelicals” often sought out by the national media. “It would be a mistake to lump the convictional Evangelicals of whom I speak with the professional dissidents who make a living marketing mainline Protestant shibboleths to Evangelical college audiences by questioning everything from biblical inerrancy to a Christian sexual ethic” (p. 46). So “liberal” does not describe the “young Evangelicals” of whom Moore writes.

The current status and ethos of Evangelicalism, then, reflects a return to the evangel. “Evangelical Christianity, it seems, is moving back to a confessional centering on the Gospel.” But this does not mean that such “Gospel-centered Evangelicals” should retreat from public engagement (p. 48). The past mistakes caused by divorcing the Gospel from the kingdom cannot and must not be repeated. How then do we engage?

Moore argues for prophetic distance and prophetic engagement. He contends that the increasing secularization of America “ . . . will ensure that Christianity must either capitulate or engage. The engagement will not be at the level of voters’ guides or consumer boycotts––and thank God. The engagement will be first congregational . . . ” (p. 49). Moore also encourages Evangelicals to look to Rome for help: “Rome’s witness to a Christian sexual ethic will keep the question alive . . . .” Likewise, though, Evangelicals can remind Catholics that natural law is as good as far as it goes, but that the universe “is shaped around the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 50). So Evangelicals are still here, still engaging, albeit in new, more theological ways. “You can call that a ‘Rapture’ if you want, but don’t call it a ‘retreat’” (p. 50).

I agree with Moore’s assessment, and add only a few thoughts.

First, I hope that Evangelicals in general, and Southern Baptist Evangelicals in particular, will take Moore’s lead, learning from him how to engage in public political conversation in ways that are not only theologically robust but also gracious and kind. If we fail to do so, the resulting combination of theological vacuity and dispositional snark will kill our gospel witness. If we succeed in doing so, the potent combination of truth and kindness in civil discourse portrays the gospel faithfully and strengthens our ability to be persuasive.

Second, I hope that Evangelicals will not neglect the fact that politics is a function (and a part) of culture, and at the heart of culture is religion. Religion’s influence expands outward across the entirety of culture (through the arts, the sciences, business, schools and universities, sports, home life, the public square, etc.), and it is this entire culture-religion complex which influences and underpins the political sector. For this reason, Christian “political” involvement must be “political” in the very broad sense (concern for the public well-being, including the spheres of culture listed above) as well as the narrow sense (concern with public policy, public administration, etc).

Third, such broad-based political engagement does not, of course, preclude activism, but such action must always come from something deeper and broader. We have a hope that paves the way for us to simultaneously move forward with boldness and lay down our swords to pursue interactions in a civil manner. We aren’t fighting to protect a Kingdom that is dependent on us for its very survival. We are on mission as part of a Kingdom that is already here.

[1] Russell Moore, “Evangelical Retreat?” First Things (Dec 2013: 45–50).


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From Moralistic Therapeutic Deism to Gospel-Driven Realism: A Renewed Student Ministry

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on May 13, 2013.]

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Popularized from the findings of The National Study of Youth and Religion by Christian Smith and Melinda Denton, the term encapsulates the way the Bible has been communicated to young people in recent decades. Smith and Denton argue that the Western church has actually done an effective job of communicating to students. The problem lies in the content being communicated. According to the study — and my anecdotal observations over the years would concur —  we have communicated too well a Christianity epitomized as behavior modification and too little as the matchless work of a grace-bearing God who reigns supremely at the center of it all.

In her book Almost Christian based on the findings of the above study, Kenda Creasy Dean observed, “The National Study of Youth and Religion reveals a theological fault line running underneath American churches: an adherence to a do-good, feel-good spirituality that has little to do with the Triune God of Christian tradition and even less to do with loving Jesus Christ enough to follow him into the world.”

In other words, Dean argues that this study shows the very way many of us have raised children in our churches has worked against any sort of missional impulse we might hope to engage. This is no minor charge. She adds, “American young people are unwittingly being formed into an imposter faith that poses as Christianity, but that in fact lacks the holy desire and missional clarity necessary for Christian discipleship.”

What has been taught, this thing called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, has offered a how-to faith based on the needs of the individual over the redemptive plan of the Creator God. How has this happened, often in churches that stand on the Bible as the Word of God? I would argue part of this comes from our tendency to view students as “kids” who are more silly than serious. In addition, we have fundamentally shifted much of our teaching and living of Scripture from seeing the Bible through the lens of the gospel and the mission of God to understanding the Bible primarily as a road map that will guide us via morality to the place of faithfully serving God in all areas of life.

Unfortunately, many churches have taught the Bible to children and youth not as a book with one central, redemptive message, but as a collection of stories and morals with the gospel as the key story. But the Bible is not primarily about morality; it is mainly about reality. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is “moralistic” because its focus is behavior modification. In a subtle way, acting right becomes more important than believing right. It is “therapeutic,” for it focuses on surface change, turning the Bible into a counseling manual more for the individual than the revelation of God. It is “deistic” because it does not require a God who is intimately involved in all of Creation and in all aspects of our lives, but who generally exists to bring us happiness, most specifically in our spiritual lives.

I call it the Aesop’s Fables approach to the Bible: read a Bible story and then explain the moral from it. It offers ironically a “moral failure,” for by focusing on morality too much we actually hinder students from seeing the lifelong, holistic implications of their faith. Motivation for serving God stems more from changing our behavior than from living a life of radical faith. Such extrinsic motivation may actually seem to work in the short term: show students how sex before marriage will lead to guilt and disease, for instance, or show them how lying will cost them friendships, and they will abstain from these sins, at least for a season. But if moral change becomes the primary focus of our faith, the long-term obedience we seek may actually be the one thing we will not see.

It could well be that our short-term focus contributes to students’ dropping out of church. But the much-debated topic of dropout rates actually fails to emphasize a more critical point, because even those who remain in our churches lack the missional drive to make gospel impact in their daily lives. In other words, how many who stay “in church” still “drop out” of active, daily, missional faith?

This does not mean that behavioral change is unimportant. Our morality marks a vital part of being conformed to the image of Christ. But a growing sense of moral uprightness and concomitant behavior reflecting this is a result of our faith; it simply cannot be the prime motivator. We have confused the point (the indicative) with the result (the imperative), and this has not helped us in discipling students. The way we teach the Bible may in fact hinder our missional focus and our disciple-making.

The practical result of turning the Bible into a series of moral truths is to make assumptions about the gospel and minimize its role in our lives. We move the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the category of “lost person only,” so that the gospel is for unbelievers, not believers. So we have our mega youth events and we share the gospel (or often tack it on at the end), but we do not teach the impact of the gospel for the believer and the redemptive story of God in all of the Bible, and thus its impact on all of life. So students grow up in church, learn a lot of stories, and live their lives with Jesus at the periphery. Many become the dechurched—those who grow up in the church but walk away when separated from the familiar (family, home church, etc.). Others limp their way through life spiritually, never getting the great plan of God for creation and for their lives.

A focus on Christianity as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism explains why so many believers today confuse biblical Christianity with civil religion and the spiritual war for the souls of men with the culture wars of winning political arguments. We read of how young people played critical roles in earlier seasons of revival, and those movements had a searing-hot devotion to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we are to have a missional movement in our time, it may manifest itself in many ways practically, but it will be birthed out of gospel fervor, not moral failure.

But we have good news, the news of a God actively involved in our world whose Spirit works even now. We have the greatest story of all time, the story of a rescuing King Jesus. And even now we can see our God at work in a renewal of gospel focus, a growing missional awareness, and a recognition that if we keep doing what we are doing in student ministry we will keep getting what we are getting. I believe we are on the front edge of a revolution, a missional movement that gives hope in an ever-darkening world. This is why I have given so much of my own life and ministry to the younger generation, because as God has moved in youth in the past in great spiritual movements, He may well be doing so today.

NOTE: The above is adapted from As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students by Alvin Reid (Navpress). Find out more about this book here.