The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention is holding its third annual national conference Aug. 25-26 in Nashville, Tenn. The Biblical Recorder interviewed ERLC president Russell Moore by email to get a closer look at the purpose for the event, which is titled “Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel.” The transcript below is lightly edited.
Q: The 2016 ERLC national conference bears the same name as your latest book, Onward. Why should Christians attend the conference rather than simply read the book?
A: The book was meant to be a conversation starter. The conference is the next level of the conversation. We’re bringing in a variety of voices of people who have been engaging culture well and in different ways, and so there will be a broad conversation of issues ranging from art and film, to politics, to community questions of dealing with people who disagree with us.
There will be rich content from speakers and breakout leaders at the conference and frankly, one of the things I look forward to most at our events are the hallway conversations. What I have found is God tends to do remarkable things with people who are gathering together, talking about some of the ideas they have encountered.
Q: “Engaging culture” is a popular topic of discussion, but there’s a wide variety of opinions as to what exactly that phrase means. It’s said to be represented by everyone from the downtown street preacher to the uptown painter to the rural voter registration assistant, and all sorts in between. What do you mean by engaging culture?
A: Engaging culture is something that every person does whether Christian or non-Christian. If you are not intentionally and proactively engaging the cultures around you, then those cultures are engaging you. One of the reasons we are hosting this conference is because I really believe that the most dangerous cultural issues we are facing are not the things that are being debated most fiercely on cable news or Facebook. The most dangerous cultural issues we face are the cultural issues we don’t talk about at all – either because we’ve accommodated ourselves to them or because we simply don’t know what’s happening around us, what’s coming down the pike.
This conference is not simply about equipping churches to better address the issues they are facing right now, it’s also purposed to serve as a kind of Paul Revere, equipping churches to think about the issues they’re not addressing right now that they will have to in the years to come. For instance, one of the biggest questions I get right now comes from youth ministry and children’s ministry over issues about adolescents who are grappling with gender identity questions. The churches are seeking how to address those very big questions in a culture where the transgender movement has become the new norm. These are the sorts of questions that we weren’t asking or preparing for even just three, four, five years ago.
Q: Most people do not wake up in the morning and decide to lose the gospel. Something about it seems more subtle. How can Christians begin to evaluate their beliefs and practices to remain faithful to the gospel as they engage culture?
A: Losing the gospel is not something most people choose to do intentionally. But if the gospel is not explicitly the priority, the gospel is eventually lost. And so I think in many cases, we engage the culture from a moral standpoint first or from a political standpoint first, and we want to affix the gospel in as one of the steps to fix the problem. That’s the wrong way to approach this.
We start with the understanding of what the gospel is and what it means to be on mission with Jesus Christ in carrying the gospel. So the gospel informs us about what matters and who matters, and is the starting and ending point in all of these conversations. I think the way we typically lose the gospel is to see it as a means to end.
That can happen very subtly, where we see the gospel as a way to make bridges stronger, or a way to make children better behaved, or a way to have a better functioning social order. Now all of those things are important and all of those things are good, but the gospel is an end in and of itself.
The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ is the Lord of the universe and He and He alone reconciles sinners to God through His shed blood and His empty tomb. And so we have to be constantly reminding ourselves of what the gospel is and how to represent that to people, and that means viewing issues through the grid of the gospel.
Why do people long for the things they long for? Why are people afraid of the things they are afraid of? Why are some issues really controversial? Well, the gospel explains all of that for us.
It explains to us why it is that we, left to ourselves, tend to shrink back from the open proclamation of the truth, and why that open proclamation of the truth is the only way that we ultimately bring about real change. Losing the gospel is something that can happen really subtly and before we know it, as the book of revelation tells us, we have lost our lampstand. In which case we have nothing to say to any culture any longer.
Q: Christians believe God has defeated sin, but it often feels like sin prospers in American culture. Take, for example, the crude presidential campaign of Donald Trump that has received support from millions of voters thus far. What should Christians do when they feel like giving up on cultural engagement?
A: As Americans we know that the American republic presupposed a certain set of virtues in the American people. When those virtues are eclipsed or challenged, self-government becomes very difficult. As Christians we know that we always live in a fallen and broken world, and we know that the answer to that is always the distinctive message of the gospel. I think that this year, as troubling as it is, might serve as a wake-up call to the church that we cannot simply outsource our witness to institutions and political movements and political parties.
Instead, we have to be a prophetic people willing to stand by our convictions and principles – even when those convictions and principles are not seen by others as a means to getting votes. And so I’m deeply disturbed by what we see in American political life. I think the only way that we could get to this point is with a generation habituated by pornography.
The coarsening and degradation of American culture is everywhere now apparent. What’s even more alarming is that there are many Christians willing to baptize that degraded pornographic culture as long as it is, “on our side.” I think that we have the opportunity to be a truly distinctive people who are willing to call for repentance across the board and to offer good news across the board.