The following is excerpted from Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America by Russell Moore, in agreement with Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Russell Moore, 2023.
A generation ago, a historian pondered the question of why evangelical churches were growing while mainline Protestant churches were hemorrhaging members. He explored the possibility—offered by some sociologists and church-growth experts—that “conservative” churches expected more of people (in terms of both belief and behavior), and thus had more “buy-in.” And he studied the idea that conservative churches were more attractive to people because they provide a kind of certainty that human beings need. “Thus saith the Lord” is just more definitive than “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” Johnny Cash could record a song called “The Preacher Said ‘Jesus Said,’” with recordings of Billy Graham sermons interspersed throughout that wouldn’t have worked as well titled “The Theologian Said ‘The Ground of Being,’” with Paul Tillich lectures. And yet, the historian suggested, these factors, important as they might be, were not as critical to evangelical success as the fact that evangelicals knew how to create the right kind of crisis. There’s a human longing, he wrote, to start over again—to die to an old self, to cross a threshold to a new life.* Human beings have a need for rites of passage, for rites of initiation, and not just those that are slow and organic but those that are definitive and decisive too. What if, he wondered, this longing for a certain sort of crisis was created by God as a way for human beings to, as the apostle Paul put it, “seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:27)?
Whether expressed in a literal or just in metaphorical altar calls, the sense of the personal is at the heart of the experience summed up in what we call “evangelical.” And, in that sense, the altar call represents not just the worst but also the best of evangelical Christianity in America. The emphasis on the personal in evangelical Christianity can, and has, gone too far, into an individualism that erodes the visible, palpable nature of the church. We are, after all, the people who engineered individually packaged plastic communion cups of grape juice, with wafers affixed under a seal on the top. Because of the Tower of Babel and the atom bomb, I can’t say this was the worst human invention of all time, but it took a minute to think about it. Even so, just because an emphasis can be overdone in ways that obscure other essential truths is no sign that the emphasis itself is untrue or unneeded. And maybe now much more than we think. I was wrong to be exasperated hearing my fellow evangelical preachers say that the gospel is “not a religion but a relationship.” Yes, the Bible speaks of Christianity as a religion (James 1:27), and it’s a perfectly good word. On that I haven’t changed my mind. But I wasn’t paying enough attention to what those preachers meant by religion—namely, a cold, lifeless dogma or a tribal belonging or a moralism directed at earning favor from God.
What if, when I am addressed as a sinner, this is not just a generic category of fallen human nature but is directed at me—for my sins, no matter how I spin or justify them. What if there really is a Judgment Day, and what if on that day I am not hidden in a nation-state or a family tree or a political tribe or a religious institution? What if I stand there alone, as a person, to account for my sins? The metaphorical walk down the aisle, then, is not an ideology and it is not, first, about group belonging. One acknowledges not only that “God loves the world” or that “Christ died for humanity,” but “Jesus loves me; Jesus died for me.” Evangelicalism is not meant to be in crisis; evangelicalism is meant to be a crisis. That’s what being born again is to the person, what revival is to the church. And that means asking—just like those old gospel appeals did—what we have to find and what we have to lose.
One evangelical convert to more liturgical forms of Christianity famously said, “Evangelical is not enough.”* He was right. Left to itself, evangelical revivalism is unbalanced, disconnected from the regularity and rhythms of liturgy and from the deeper history of the church. That’s why we need the rest of the church. But what evangelical Christianity does offer is needed too—a sense that any given Sunday could result in even the most far-gone sinner radically turned around, finding the carpet on that church aisle or the sawdust on the tent floor to be a Road to Damascus. One respected evangelical biblical scholar attempted to define what an “evangelical” is this way: “An evangelical is one who believes in the God who justifies the ungodly.”† Each of those words requires an entire chapter of the book of Romans to unpack. But, as definitions go, it’s not a bad start. And that’s what, at least in North America, we are in danger of losing.
*Martin Marty, “‘Baptistification’ Takes Over,” Christianity Today, September 2, 1983, 34–35.
*Howard Thomas, Evangelical Is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament, (Nashville: Nelson, 1988).
†Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 575, n. 6.
Excerpted from Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America by Russell Moore, in agreement with Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Russell Moore, 2023.