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.
Right. Sometimes we make the choice without a corresponding feeling, and there are plenty of times when we love without feeling love.
Spiritual directors hear people say, “My spiritual life is dry, I don’t feel like praying, I don’t feel like going to worship. If I go to worship I can’t concentrate. Nothing’s happening, and this has been happening for months.” Most spiritual directors will say, “Okay, yeah, that’s kind of typical.”
The best thing we can do is to pray and worship.
Yeah, you’ve just got to keep at it. We pastors—I used to be a pastor, I’m not a pastor now—we are taught to be really anxious when people are spiritually dry. We’d love to be able to give them a solution or provide an experience that will move them out of that. We are super-helpers and we really want to solve people’s problems, when actually sometimes the best way to solve people’s problems is to allow them to live in the problem for while and also just be with them in the problem. The reasons for spiritual dryness are complex, but at its core, just to be bored or tired or listless in worship is not in and of itself necessarily a problem. It can be part of a person’s spiritual growth.
Throughout the book, you’re comparing and contrasting high-church and low-church traditions. In the context of your main idea—how to love God—what can other traditions learn from Protestant evangelicals?
Well, I had an interesting conversation with the bishop of Sacramento, back when I was serving in Sacramento. I forget the occasion of our meeting. We got to talking about of the number of evangelicals who are becoming Catholic. He said, “Here is the one thing I really wish: that when evangelicals become Catholic, they would bring Jesus with them.” I thought that was such an interesting line, because he just said, “We need more of Jesus.”
What do you think he meant by that?
People like me who are a little more intellectual like to make fun of people having a personal relationship with Jesus, but that’s the kind of thing we bring to the table. And we remind people what a friend we can have in Jesus. He can walk with me and talk with me along life’s narrow way. When you are in liturgical traditions, you understand the magnificence of God and the glory of God and the beauty of the service. But evangelical Protestants at their best bring Jesus with them, and I think that’s something that liturgical churches can benefit from.
You’re asking readers to rekindle their love of God through both individual and corporate practices. How are you doing that in your own life?
In my ideal world, I’d like to be the person who wakes up in the morning and prays to God, and then interrupts his day at noon and has what the Catholics and Anglicans call “noonday office.” Really ideal would be evening prayer before I sit down to dinner, maybe. But if I get two of those done in a day, that’s an amazing day. So I will be the first to admit that sometimes it’s a matter of “I just don’t feel like doing it,” and a lot of times it’s a matter of “Oh my gosh, I forgot.”
I am pretty consistent about that morning prayer. I try to do a little lectio divina. I meditate on a passage of the Gospels, then I go through the morning office, a morning prayer. I’m very faithful at weekly worship. And I do attempt to pause during the day and reflect on the thing I’m enjoying or watching or observing, to put a divine frame around it and understand it from a larger Christian perspective. But I don’t want to fool anybody. I hate to say it, but I encourage people to not do what I do but to do what I say. Any preacher has to eventually come to that conclusion, don’t you think?
Absolutely. But I would say, as someone who has been participating in a daily office for decades, that any kind of real rhythm is somehow contingent on community.
Yeah, I think it’s absolutely crucial. It’s not so much a matter of people holding each other accountable and then girding up our loins in discipline in the most negative sense. It’s being part of a community that is shaping the way you actually think about the world and how you interact with it. People will just talk about faith practice: “I was reading the Bible the other morning,” or “I’ll pray for you; will you pray for me?”
That’s what is so vital—to be a part of both a worship service and a smaller group of Christians. Evangelicals are some of the leaders in rediscovering the power of small groups and why they’re so vital to the spiritual life of the church. We meet together with other people who share our passion for Jesus.
Let’s close with a personal question. A few months into your retirement, you went into quarantine. How are you spending your time these days?
Fishing and praying. I’m an introvert, so my lifestyle hasn’t changed all that much. I’m remodeling my trailer, and I have a few hobbies, and I’m working for World Relief as a volunteer, to help refugees with their unemployment applications. I love the peace and quietness of this time, but I will be happy when the pandemic is over, that’s for sure.
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