The longing to know and love God, to bask in his presence, is core to evangelical life and faith as I understand it. The famous Bebbington quadrilateral describes evangelicals as those who emphasize the authority of Scripture, Christ’s death on the cross, the need for conversion, and a life of service, in both word and deed. That is good as far as it goes, but it does not go deep enough, in my view. There is something that energizes our action, that initiates our first and sustains our ongoing conversion, that draws us repeatedly to the Cross, that compels us to read and obey Scripture. That something deeper is the yearning to know God. (My previous essay, “Monomaniacs for God,” outlines what that looks like in Scripture and church history.)

One can still find this passion in our movement today, to be sure. But it is no longer something that characterizes us. It is not what we’re known for.

One reason I believe desire for God, as such, is core to what it means to be evangelical is what happened at our birth, when the desire for God did indeed characterize the movement. The following historical survey is woefully inadequate to prove this and the subsequent decline of our desire. But I nonetheless believe that, in broad strokes, it is a fair summary of where we’ve been and where we are today.

‘The town seemed to be full of the presence of God’

In the beginning, the American evangelical movement sprung up when, in the 1730s and ’40s, George Whitefield and John Wesley began preaching about the need to be born again. Their preaching revived a dying portion of Jesus’ church, which reanimated a people so that they might enjoy a vital, living, and loving relationship with our Savior. The movement blossomed as the message and experience of being born again spread (often with painful contractions as the larger body of Christ resisted the movement). But nothing could stop what was happening. Before long, there stood a movement of men and women, boys and girls, washed clean of their sin “by the blood of the Lamb.” They cried out with the joy of being alive, really alive for the first time. And they praised our Savior—and loved him more than anything, more than life itself.

The pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards did his best to describe what he saw happening around him:

This work of God, as it was carried on, and the number of true saints multiplied, soon made a glorious alteration in the town: so that in the spring and summer following, anno 1735, the town seemed to be full of the presence of God: it never was so full of love, nor of joy, and yet so full of distress, as it was then. There were remarkable tokens of God's presence in almost every house. It was a time of joy in families on account of salvation being brought to them; parents rejoicing over their children as new born, and husbands over their wives, and wives over their husbands. The doings of God were then seen in His sanctuary, God's day was a delight, and His tabernacles were amiable. …

In all companies, on other days, on whatever occasions persons met together, Christ was to be heard of, and seen in the midst of them. Our young people, when they met, were wont to spend the time in talking of the excellency and dying love of Jesus Christ, the glory of the way of salvation, the wonderful, free, and sovereign grace of God, His glorious work in the conversion of a soul, the truth and certainty of the great things of God's word, the sweetness of the views of His perfections. …

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Evangelical faith soon became characterized by a lively, personal relationship with God, grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, with a deep and abiding trust in the Bible as God’s personal Word to us, with an active desire to spread this gospel to others. These emphases—especially that lively and personal relationship with God—can be seen in many eras of church history, and in this sense, evangelical religion goes back to the beginnings of the Christian faith. But its modern, American form finds its birth here, in a season when whole towns “seemed to be full of the presence of God.”

After the Revolutionary War, as the exhausted nation moved West in the late 1700s, the enthusiasm—en theos, the yearning to be in God and to know God in us—was replaced by more other concerns. On a trip to Tennessee in 1794, Methodist bishop Francis Asbury noted, “When I reflect that not one in a hundred came here to get religion, but rather to get plenty of good land, I think it will be well if some or many do not eventually lose their souls.” Andrew Fulton, a Presbyterian missionary from Scotland, observed anxiously that in “all the newly formed towns in this western colony [around Nashville, Tennessee], there are few religious people.” Others still worried that many Christians had become universalists and deists, the latter especially asserting God’s distance from this world. (See “Revival at Cane Ridge” for the above quotes and the description and quote below.)

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Still, there were some who, at the first sign of a flagging spirit, prayed for God to make himself known again. They prayed at home, in their churches, at denominational meetings, and at retreats that would climax in the sharing of the Lord’s Supper. And their prayers were answered at Cane Ridge in 1801, when some 20,000 people showed up to be touched by the Spirit of God.

Their enthusiasm for God spread into what is now called the Second Great Awakening. It eventually found expression in circuit riders and Methodist camp meetings and periodic revival meetings of local churches. One observer at small revival previous to Cane Ridge described what was to happen to so many in the years to come: “No person seemed to wish to go home—hunger and sleep seemed to affect nobody—eternal things were the vast concern.”.”

From the Sublime to Technique

Historians have noted that these revivals were in some ways a reaction against Enlightenment rationality, which often marshaled reason and science to question and marginalize religion. The larger reaction—Romanticism—encompassed the arts, literature, music, and philosophy, which together exalted the role of intuition and emotion in human affairs. Many Christians expressed their disdain for Enlightenment values by pointing to revivals and noting that they could not be explained rationally but only as products of divine intervention.

But some Christians, already deeply influenced by the Enlightenment, looked at the revivals rationally and noticed sociological patterns. And they began applying them to their ministries. The most famous is Charles Finney. In his Lectures on Revivals of Religion,he argued that a revival was “not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical [meaning, scientific] result of the right use of constituted means.” To be sure, he believed God gave these means to produce revivals, but as Tim Keller puts it, “Finney insisted that any group could have a revival any time or place, as long as they applied the right methods in the right way.

This morphed into a religion of crisis, a religion of decision, and a religion where the manipulation of emotion became the centerpiece. Instead of a genuine encounter with the living God, the movement became infected with too many who sought not so much to know and love God as to have a remarkable religious experience. This has been our Achilles heel ever since—more of that below.

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Some were alert to this corruption early on and reacted against it. One reason: Try as they might, this genuine religious ecstasy never came to them. One such person, Phoebe Palmer, after a crisis of faith, determined that “She didn’t need ‘joyous emotion’ to believe—belief itself was grounds for assurance,” as a Christian History article summarized it. “Reading Jesus’ words that ‘the altar sanctifies the gift,’ she believed that God would make her holy if she ‘laid her all upon the altar.’” She fine-tuned John Wesley’s teachings about perfection into a three-step process: “consecrating oneself totally to God, believing God will sanctify what is consecrated, and telling others about it.”

Out of this grew the holiness movement, where complete sanctification stood erect at the center. The life of faith became for many not so much a pining after God but after moral perfection, not so much seeking grace as pummeling the will into submission. No question that there was a need to depend on the power of the Spirit, and to be sure, many rigorously pursued holiness that they might see God. This movement produced more than its share of Protestant saints. But much of it also predictably degenerated into religious narcissism. For many, it was more and more about the pursuit of personal holiness and not so much the pursuit of the Holy One.

This passion for personal reform soon spilled over into the social realm, so that evangelical believers also became known for striving for the reformation of society—from prison reform to abstinence to the abolition of slavery to care for the urban poor. And for some, this blossomed into the social gospel movement, whose gospel origins and godly motives one cannot deny.

Walter Rauschenbusch in his A Theology for the Social Gospel, said, “The new thing in the social gospel is the clearness and insistence with which it sets forth the necessity and the possibility of redeeming the historical life of humanity from the social wrongs which now pervade it.” Though evangelicals today reject Rauschenbusch’s theological liberalism, his emphasis on the nature of the church’s mission has woven itself into the very fabric of evangelical religion. Mission, and all the horizontal activity surrounding it, has become the very reason for the church’s existence. More of that in coming essays in this series.

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It must be said—and I’ll say it over and over in these essays—such activity for God is laudatory. It is to be commended and encouraged. One of the jobs of the church is indeed to love the world. But when mission becomes the center, the focal point of the Christian life, I believe that life will inevitably degenerate into an active and busy religious life void of God. It will become a life increasingly fascinated with technique as it seeks to efficiently accomplish mission. We may begin and end our missional meetings with prayer, but we know deep down, we don’t even need God’s special blessing if, as Finney argued, we already have the means at our disposal to accomplish our ends.

From God to Spiritual Experience

In the midst of this drift toward action, another movement arose, a new spiritual romanticism that tried to check our fascination with the horizontal and re-engage us with the vertical. The Pentecostal movement exploded on the scene at the turn of the 20th century and made its way into mainstream churches as charismatic Christianity beginning in the 1960s. It began well enough—more than well enough—as men and women enjoyed the immediate presence of God as he came to them in the Holy Spirit. People came to these meetings in droves because they wanted God; they yearned for God.

But once again, it didn’t take long for the yearning for God to turn into a longing for an experience for many. Instead of God, people began wanting, and leaders began demanding, that people experience the gifts of God. Tongues became not so much a means of conversing with the living God as a sign of one’s spiritual condition.

This is not throwing stones, believe me. As a person who has been blessed with experiencing some extraordinary spiritual gifts, I have longed for a spiritual experience for its own sake, for a certain type of exquisite feeling and emotion—and truth be told, I wanted this more than I wanted God. Most people who have experienced such extraordinary gifts know of this temptation.

From Holiness to Virtue to Justice

Today we also see a contemporary expression of the holiness movement and its concern for the moral life. A fair number of evangelicals have become fascinated with virtue ethics or character formation. They are less interested in creating or adhering to a list of dos and don’ts than how habits and disciplines can shape a person’s character so that we are exemplified by love, joy, peace, patience and so forth.

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This is to me a salutary development, but again as Christian virtue ethicists themselves acknowledge, such an emphasis can get stalled since there is a constant temptation to look at one’s self and one’s progress as one pursues the virtues. The emphasis is on my transformation. God too easily becomes a means to my end.

It’s not too much of a stretch to see that the newly rediscovered passion for social justice in many ways parallels virtue ethics but with the emphasis on the community rather than the individual. In its more extreme forms, we hear evangelicals adopting critical theory, in which power dynamics are front and center, especially in race and gender relations. Anyone with even a brief familiarity with history already is aware of these dynamics, as well as the role that class and economics can play in all this. One problem with critical theory is that everything is about power, just as class was everything with Marxism. Another is that it is impervious to criticism—those that disagree are considered trapped in power dynamics.

But as with virtue ethics, passion for social justice is tempted to forget God, in particular in three ways, which many social justice advocates are the first to acknowledge: First, there is increasing passion, and often anger, regarding justice between people, eclipsing the passion for justice, or justification with God. Second, there is an increasing assumption that it is our job to bring in the kingdom of God. Third, when there is an acknowledgment that God is critical to the work of social justice, God can become a means to an end. For example, prayer helps sustain my social justice efforts, the thing I’m really passionate about.

One cannot but be thankful for our newfound passion for social justice. Christians whose hearts don’t sink at the injustices that infect every society—well, it’s hard to believe they can truly love the God of the Bible. But the Enemy has a way of twisting our passions so that God slowly gets put in his place.

From God to Spirituality

One more feature of our common evangelical life needs to be noted: the spirituality movement, which seems to undermine the thesis of this essay! Again there is much to be lauded here, and one can only be grateful that, even if it engages only a small percentage of evangelicals, that is not nothing. But the fact that the interest is small and sporadic suggests that evangelicals are not much interested in practicing the spiritual disciplines in an effort to know and love God more deeply.

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The same temptations apply here as to every one of our efforts—and again, it’s the very leaders of the movement who worry about “spirituality” becoming popular: All of us who have tried to practice the spiritual disciplines know these hazards. One temptation is to want to become spiritual, whatever we conceive that to be; we want to become a certain type of religious person more than we want to meet God. And, second, we start counting the number of disciplines we’re practicing and the amount of time we give to them as markers of our spiritual condition. This is all so silly, but as I said, anyone who has attempted to practice the disciplines knows whereof I speak.

A friend’s experience drives home our confusion today.

He explained to me that, indeed, he has been striving to make God his be all and end all, one for whom he pants after as a deer after water. So he’d given himself to punctuating his day with prayer, especially morning and at bedtime, and if possible once or twice during the middle of his busy days. The prayer time includes reading the Psalms and other Scripture, as well as quiet meditation and brief prayer. All of this lasts no more than 10 to 15 minutes, but he says he finds it is a practice he enjoys, not in the sense of checking off a box but in the sense that he is slowly but surely finding that his love for God is growing.

But he also told me how confused his heart remains. One day recently he left work early to take care of some personal business. On the way home, he determined to have a prayer time at home as he picked up a few papers. Yet he found himself in the car 30 minutes later, having completely forgotten about his intent to pray for a mere 10 minutes before he left home.

Why was he so intent on getting these tasks done that they consumed his mind? Why did his to-do list fill up his imagination rather than prayer or God?

And why is it, he also wondered, that many mornings he notes a reluctance in his heart to sit down to pray, especially when there are so many things to get done? Why doesn’t he consider prayer one of these absolutely necessary things to do, or why doesn’t he look forward to it if, in fact, God is the source of all life and joy and the deepest satisfaction of our deepest desires? If he loves and desires God, as he says he wants to, why do the loves and desires of so much else actually shape his day and his heart?

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He concluded, “When it comes down to it, I’m a practical atheist. I’ve learned to live most of my life as if God is a nice add-on—when I have time and when I really want him—but otherwise I’m content with living as if he is not a living presence.”

As I noted in the introduction, I deeply identify with my friend’s dilemma. (That phrase “practical atheist” is from Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to Pray). In talking with many friends, I’d say we’re not alone. So it’s not quite true that we’ve completely forgotten God. But our spiritual Alzheimer’s has progressed to dangerous levels.

To let grace have a word: This is a common human condition and certainly no surprise to God, who is still willing to work with us despite our attempts to use him for our ends. It is not remarkably evil that we are so distracted by life and responsibilities and earthly desires that God takes a decided back seat. We needn’t whip ourselves with guilt and shame over this. This essay in particular and this series is intended not as wholesale condemnation but as a wake-up call, or at least the start of a larger conversation.

I think it is incumbent on evangelical Christians to take this with special seriousness. We have rightly prided ourselves in practicing a form of faith that emphasizes the personal relationship with Jesus one can enjoy. And among us are many who can be characterized in just this way. But overall I believe our movement has degenerated in ways I have described above, with the vast majority of us falling into patterns that emphasize the horizontal at the expense of the vertical.

We were once people whose lives were characterized by the presence of God, as if we “walk with him and talk with along life’s narrow way” as the old hymn puts it. Today, we are known for our politics (left and right), our voting patterns, our ethical hypocrisy, our compromise with materialism, church-planting techniques, growing churches, entrepreneurial skill, and a relentless activism to improve ourselves and our society. A living, vital, and personal relationship with God, a relationship that floods the heart and mind as it did the psalmists and so many others in the Bible and in our history—well it’s hard to find that among us today.

(Next week: Rethinking what the church is about. Hint: It’s not about being missional.)

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today. If you want to be alerted to these essays as they appear, subscribe to The Galli Report.

The Elusive Presence
In this column, I reflect on American Christianity, but especially evangelical Christianity. I’ve been embedded in the movement for over five decades, so I should have something to say by now. And what I have to say about the movement is more or less what I have to say to myself, as I see in myself the same shortcomings and potential that I see in the movement at large. The title of the column, “The Elusive Presence,” is deliberately borrowed from The Elusive Presence: The Heart of Biblical Theology by Samuel Terrien, originally published in 1978. I read the book soon after it was published, but today I don’t consciously remember much from it except the title (though I suspect it has formed me in ways I remain unaware of). As this series goes on, the careful reader will understand why this is an apt title for the column.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
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