American evangelical Christianity needs to be born again to an embrace of the cross of Christ, Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore said in a lecture on the Princeton University campus.
James Madison Program, Princeton, screen capture
The president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) told an April 17 audience in Princeton, N.J., “Any evangelicalism that is worthy to face the future must be cross-shaped, must call all people everywhere to repent and believe in Christ, must call all people everywhere to demonstrate love of God and neighbor in our various communities and callings, but most importantly, evangelicalism must point to the cross.”
Moore’s comments – under the title “A Rebirth for the Reborn: American Evangelicals and American Culture at the Cross” – came in the annual William E. and Carol G. Simon Lecture on Religion in American Public Life. The Witherspoon Institute and the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions co-sponsored the event.
American evangelical Christianity, while also marked by a “gospel-centered resurgence,” appears to find itself in a couple of categories at this time – “triumphant ascent and plummeting catastrophe,” Moore said. “On the one hand, evangelicalism seems to be triumphant, seems to be in the media quite a bit as a political phenomenon with no small amount of influence. On the other hand, survey after survey after survey shows trouble demographically with millennials and Generation Z churchgoers or ex-churchgoers.”
He told the audience, “Younger evangelicals are not yielding to the inevitability of secularization, nor are they leaving churches in large numbers because they want to liberalize historic doctrine or ethics. The obstacle, it seems to me, is not secularism but cynicism. Many are wondering whether evangelical Christianity is just another badge of tribal identity or another vehicle for political action, or, even worse, just another marketing scheme.”
Moore’s call for a cross-shaped evangelicalism comes while American Christians identified with the movement continue to debate what the word “evangelical” means and whether it is a label they should continue to embrace. The 2016 presidential campaign and election played a critical role in prompting the discussion.
While some associate “evangelical” with a political or cultural identity, others who profess to be evangelicals apply the word to people who are outside biblical orthodoxy or morality, Moore said. “[S]o often in 2018 America, ‘evangelical’ is associated more with Iowa caucuses than with the empty tomb.”
By “evangelical,” he refers to the “informal link of renewal and revival movements that are united in historic confessional orthodoxy with an emphasis on the necessity of personal conversion and evangelism.” He referred to historian David Bebbington, who defines the word in terms of “biblicism, conversionism, activism and cruci-centrism,” Moore said.
The centrality of the cross is the beginning and end for evangelicals, he said. By the cross, he means the death, burial and resurrection of Christ as the apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 15, Moore said.
At its best, the so-called “gospel-centered resurgence” in evangelicalism aspires to be an application of the gospel not only to the steps required for conversion to Christ but to the entirety of the church’s self-understanding “and the grid through which the church interacts with the outside world,” he told the audience.
While American culture “will not see the relevance of an evangelicalism that is lashed to an explicit and robust theology of the cross,” the gospel progresses not because it is familiar but because it introduces people to the strangest concept imaginable – a “God who justifies the ungodly,” Moore said.
“God does not need the evangelical movement, but the evangelical movement desperately needs God,” he said. “And to that end, those of us who are evangelicals should work for reform – for a multi-ethnic, theologically robust evangelicalism that can pass the torch to a new generation with the message that we first heard down at the cross. To that end, our reform efforts should start and end not with another political slogan or another cultural cliché but with a prayer: ‘Make evangelicalism born again.’”
The answer for evangelicals is not found in market-driven messages or a leftward effort to “save the church,” Moore said.
“A cross-shaped Christianity” will communicate “a deep sense of both God’s righteous judgment against sin and his gracious mercy in forgiving the sinner who comes to him through Christ,” Moore told the audience.
Such an evangelicalism will be marked by gentleness, calmness and support of the vulnerable, he said.
“We ought not to see people categorized as ‘with us or against us,’ ‘winners and losers,’ ‘my tribe versus your tribe,’ or ‘my ethnicity versus your ethnicity’, or ‘my nation versus your nation,’” Moore said. “Our theology means that people are divided up as either crucified or un-crucified, and those in the latter category are in the precise position as those in the first, before the gracious intervention of God.
“[T]he centrality of the cross in an evangelical movement upends the Darwinian values of worth through power and prestige, and puts the church where the church has always been – on the side of the vulnerable,” he told the audience.
“A cross-shaped evangelicalism will also bear a certain sort of tranquility, it seems to me, in the face of cultural tumult, which we do not often see in a kind of siege mentality that is often present in American life.”
During the question-and-answer session that followed the lecture, Moore cited two wrongly conceived approaches evangelicals can adopt.
“The sort of evangelical movement that becomes obsessed with politics easily turns into a vehicle to be used by the state and by parties,” he said. “And an evangelical movement that overreacts to that by saying we will speak simply to evangelism and discipleship and not speak to political matters becomes just as political as the first and sometimes more so by baptizing the status quo.”
Video of the lecture is available at jmp.princeton.edu/events/rebirth-reborn-american-evangelicals-and-american-culture-cross.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)