A Review of
When Did We Start Forgetting God?:
The Root of the Evangelical Crisis and Hope for Our Future
Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
Former Christianity Today editor Mark Galli rightly recognizes the crisis in American evangelicalism. Or, rather, he recognizes the interrelated crises. A theological crisis, sure – that seems to be embedded in the culture’s structure, a doctrinal quibbling can largely proceed as planned. But in recent years, more cracks have become visible. The biggest of these runs through politics, a crevice very noticeable during our last presidential election. But if the center doesn’t hold, we’ll see these splits zigzagging throughout the church, and Galli notes our problems in family life, worship, social issues, and more. With rise of terms like “post-evangelical” and “exvangelical,” the modern movement looks like it’s in a tailspin.
With that context and recent history in mind, Galli writes When Did We Start Forgetting God? not simply as the bearer of bad news (if, in fact, it’s even bad news), but with much more in mind. He first acknowledges the crisis, provides a diagnosis for it, and then looks at specific applications for his proposed treatment. There is a way forward, but Galli’s optimism – if you could call it that – doesn’t lie in his insights or in the church’s wisdom. “The future of the church in America does not hinge on the health of evangelicalism; it hinges on the power of God,” he writes. “I’d say we’re in good hand” (8). With that perspective, Galli pushes into difficult territory with determination.
One central problem lies at the heart of all these issues, he explains. “We have forgotten God” (9).
The point, he acknowledges, sounds absurd in a culture that seems to obsess over God. It turns out that we mostly just think we obsess over God. Galli traces Biblical ideas about what a longing for God actually looks like – the thirsting, the romancing, the endless desire – and finds that it doesn’t look much like even the Christian world around us. Drawing on Augustine, he notes how “we make idols out of the penultimate things we desire” (27). Evangelicals are no longer characterized by “the yearning to know God” (29), and that change leads to crisis.
Galli’s incisive study deserves careful reading, but in broad strokes, he delineates areas where we’ve turned from centering on God toward a focus on the God-related. We’ve skipped God to find spiritual experience; we’ve scooted past God in favor of missional technique or political transformation. We’re doing good things, but we’ve lost sight of the person in the middle of it all. Gallie writes as “a wake-up call that there is something better that awaits us” (43). That alarm rings in multiple areas.
The most challenging area that Galli addresses is our very concept of church. He believes that evangelicalism has “an inadequate and truncated doctrine of the church” (47). For that reason, he wants to rethink the very purpose of church, moving away from the missional mindset that dominates certain schools of thoughts (and often has an implicit prominence otherwise). The purpose of the church, he argues, is the church. The church is not to reach out so much as it is to invite in. “Rather than the world being the purpose for the church,” he writes, “the purpose of the world is to become the church” (70).
Galli’s later chapters don’t necessarily hinge on this particular argument. Someone with a different ecclesiology will still benefit greatly from the rest of the book. Even so, it’s worth pausing, because Galli offers a challenge. He turns us away from busyness and activity – from counting heads and raising funds – back toward God. While it sounds obvious on one level, it goes against years of church teaching. In his most demanding moment, Galli explains that the Great Commission was given not to all the church, but only to the eleven disciples. The apostles were sent out, but not every Christian is an apostle. Evangelism is important, he argues, but not the church’s central purpose. The church is to be the people of God, “to live together in love in Christ, to the praise of God’s glory” (70).
With that in mind, we can start to reshape the workings of the church, largely by doing the same things with a clearer focus. Galli proposes changes that are often modest but that could have sizable impacts. Small groups, he suggests, too easily get lost in the horizontal. They develop community well, but can lose track of God. It’s not an uncommon experience to go to a small group that shares well, eats together, goes deep into each other’s lives…and then throws a few minutes at Bible study or prayer (usually for traveling mercies). Galli wants us to meet together, but to pay attention to our orientation during this time. Similarly, he addresses preaching, music, and other aspects of contemporary church life.
The final third of the book addresses our need to shape our desire for God. Part of its strength lies in his creative approach to the problem while staying in conversation with current public interests, like more liturgical thinking or contemplative practices (both, admittedly, old themes simply experience renewed attention). Galli doesn’t address either James K.A. Smith or Tish Harrison Warren, but both of those authors sit well in conversation with Galli’s thoughts.
If what we’ve lost is our wanting God, how can we want to want God? Galli answers that question in various ways, first pointing out that “our passions are formed as we give ourselves wholeheartedly to something” (142). We are able to develop our passions. God gives us the means to love and enjoy Him, and we can embrace that and choose to act in ways that will deepen our desire. As we develop these practices, we will come “to know the true God and to wean ourselves off the God of our imagination” (193). We will grow in Christ and learn to love God. In doing so, we won’t retreat into an isolated monasticism, but we’ll more properly engage with those around us. He writes, “To seek after God is not to retreat from the world but to enter into the world and to perceive the world with the mind of Christ, to see God in, with, and under everything we see and everything we do” (228). In restoring a proper focus to church and self, we can find the right value in all that we do.
Galli’s book at times provides simple approaches to big problems, and at times delivers paradigm-adjusting work through straightforward thinking. He writes with ease on both the big picture and the little details, and his argument develops nicely into practical applications. With his work in mind, we should quickly move the book to second tier and remember what (or who) it is that we’ve forgotten.
Justin Cober-Lake a pastor in central Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music.