Mark Galli, former editor in chief of Christianity Today, spent the majority of his career mapping the trajectory of evangelicalism and asking critical questions about its past, present, and future. What are the enduring strengths and weaknesses of our movement? How have we fallen prey to therapeutic culture? And how has low-church worship both helped and hindered our conception of personal faith? Galli proffers some answers in his latest book, When Did We Start Forgetting God?: The Root of the Evangelical Crisis and Hope for the Future (Tyndale, April 2020).
Current editor in chief Daniel Harrell spoke with Galli about the call of obedience and what it means to love God even when you don’t “feel the love.”
Tell us about the spark that lit this project’s fire.
I really have to say I don’t know. I can tell you the first time I recognized that my spiritual life was adrift, and that was maybe three or four years after I went forward at an altar call in an Evangelical Free Church, and I was talking to one of my friends who was older than me by one year. I was so impressed with how kind he was and how loving he was toward me and other people around him. For some reason, I put two and two together and realized that I had thought of the Christian life mostly as keeping a certain set of rules, and it occurred to me for the first time that maybe it was more about love.
That’s not necessarily a profound insight, but you asked about a spark. I was moving one direction, then all of a sudden I get this neat revelation that things were not right. So in some sense, the project started when I started going deeper in my Christian faith. A lot of the stuff I wrote in the book a careful reader could probably find hints of all throughout my writing over the years. But this was the moment in my career when it was time to sum some things up. It was in my last year as an editor in chief, and I thought, “Let’s just put down on paper all these things that have been brewing within me for decades and see what comes out.”
When was this altar call?
It was December 19, 1965. I’m a really good evangelical. I can remember the date, the time, the place, and the hour. It was probably around 11:45 a.m. at the Evangelical Free Church of Felton, California. I had been attending the church with my mom, who had recently converted. In our family, when my mom got into something, everybody did, except my dad. So we’d go to this church, and there would be an altar call every week, and the preacher, I later discerned, was just a master at making people feel guilty.
I thought, “I am not going to go through Christmas without solving this problem.” So on December 19, the week before Christmas, I went forward and tearfully welcomed Jesus into my life. Then I was surprised and appalled that the next week, I felt just as guilty during the altar call. But for some reason, paltry motive that it was, the Lord has held me fast to that commitment, and I’ve not been able to shake it.
In the book, you talk about the idea that worship for many people has become more about what they’re getting out of it, rather than about the worship itself. Tell us what you see, both in terms of the problem and the solution.
You and I, old fogeys that we are, tend to think of worship as an experience where the focus is on God. And what’s happened over the last 20 or 30 years is that worship has become something that I do and something that I feel. That’s been a remarkable shift. It’s not surprising, in a culture that’s been characterized as a therapeutic culture. We take something that’s supposed to be outward-directed and begin to make it inner-directed.
I’m sensitive to this because for years I attended a charismatic Anglican church, and the extraordinary, wonderful thing about the charismatic Anglican church is that there are moments of shekinah glory, when you experience something of God that you don’t normally experience in day-to-day life. What happens, though, to a person in a therapeutic age is that they begin to start focusing not on the God who in fact gave them this moment of deep spiritual pleasure but on the deep spiritual pleasure itself. And so they want to come back to church mostly because they want that feeling again, not because they really want to worship God.
I speak personally here. I struggle between wanting God and wanting the experience of God. It’s a subtle but very profound difference. In this therapeutic age, the preacher and the bandleader and others feel this pressure to give people an experience. The continuing and ongoing temptation is to make the worship service into a spiritual pep rally, so that when people walk out, they are enthused for Jesus and ready to go out and change the world. As anyone who has been involved in worship for a long time knows, that’s a very thin spirituality in the long run.
Let me push back a little bit. Yes, these distinctions exist. And yes, we’re always deceiving ourselves with how we feel. But isn’t there a place for a love of God that gets expressed through human emotion?
It’s both/and. Sometimes love is simply obedience. That’s how love expresses itself. So worshipping together with other Christians, reading the Scriptures, listening to the preached Word, participating in the sacraments, loving your neighbor—these are expressions of love for God because they are simple matters of obedience and doing what he calls us to do.
But if one’s spiritual life is merely obedience, there is something missing, yes. In the phrase “love God with all our heart,” there is an emotional component there. Our love will not be complete until all of those factors are in play—heart, mind, soul, strength.
Of course, we’re called to follow the commands of the Old Testament, as they are carried forward in the New Testament. But that’s only one dimension. What my experience has taught me is that there is something that transcends these rules but doesn’t necessarily take those rules away.
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Source: Christianity Today