Earlier this week I attended the kickoff session for my denomination’s annual Synod meeting, held in my church this year. I don’t know how they did it, but organizers managed to get the much-in-demand Dr. Russell Moore as their keynote speaker for all three days of the gathering. For many years, Moore was the high-profile president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission—and in recent years he was a thorn in the side of the SBC leadership. Finally, in 2020, he left his role, and the denomination altogether. He is now the new Editor-In-Chief of Christianity Today.
Moore severed his lifelong association with the SBC after delivering a scathing rebuke to the denomination’s executive committee—taking the leadership to task for ignoring a sexual abuse crisis in the church and covering up allegations, and for its resistance to promoting racial reconciliation. Since then he’s been a lightning rod for conservative anger, even the recipient of death threats. In the meantime he’s offering his voice and perspective to a wide range of church partners that are tertiary to traditional conservative circles—the Bruderhof Society and the Anglican Church In America, for example.
From a wide-ranging opening session, followed by an hour-long Q&A, here’s a sampling of my takeaways from what Dr. Moore said about today’s church, our mission as ministry leaders, the pitfalls we need to watch out for, and hope for the future…
- About the “decline” of the church—“When one looks at the average age of people by denomination, the figures are daunting to say the least… People wonder about what new curriculum or new team or strategy can we devise to address this decline. They see it as a technical problem. But it is not a technical problem. The issue is perspective. If we could go back in time and weed through the concerns of the church in 1973, separating the concerns that we now know really mean nothing, and focus on only the things we know from our perspective that need to be attended to, we would be in a different place today. The impact would come from a person from the future standing among the church leaders of the past. But today, we do have that—because we have Someone who knows the future among us, Someone who has stepped out of eternity, who said, ‘I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail…’
“There were Christians in the 1990’s who believed they were making great strides of progress because hotel chains were taking pornography off their TV systems. What they could not see is that a technological change was coming that could put pornography available on pieces of glass they could readily access in their pockets. The important matter now is teaching people through modeling and discipleship, generationally connected, to have the imaginative leadership to say, ‘This is worthy to be loved, and this is worthy to be abandoned.’ That doesn’t come with technical strategies, it comes with a person taking the past and bridging to the future.”
- About the difficulty of embracing change—“A young pastor replacing an older pastor will often serve alongside the retiring pastor for awhile, until the older pastor decides it’s time to pass the baton. It’s usually a disaster. It’s putting that retiring pastor in a situation that very few of us can do ourselves. It’s forcing us to consider our own passing, and the feelings of irrelevance that come with that are very difficult. This can be the case in an entire culture—one generation sees its mortality, and the other generation doesn’t see relevance and wisdom.”
- About disillusionment among ministry leaders—“The kind of nostalgia we have today is expressed in anger about a past—real or imagined—that is not here anymore. This anger can often feel like conviction. But it’s more like an angry fist raised to God, that ‘I deserve a better mission field than you have given me. I don’t deserve to be here now.’ In the mid-20th century A.W. Tozer talked about revival. It’s a word that was used so often that it lost its power. He said: ‘We should not have the kind of revival we want. If the church as it is right now is revived, and we continue the same things we’re doing, in the same way we’re doing, then we won’t have life, we’ll have the walking dead.’
“A trauma therapist would say: ‘What is not repaired is repeated.’ What revival means biblically is not simply that there is a burst of success after a fallow period that comes from people doing the same things they were doing before. Revival shakes everything that we thought before was solid. And God does something completely new. These moments come when there is a kind of desperation to seek it. And a willingness to shift in whatever way God seems best.”
- About hope for the future—“I see hope in some things that are always the case–the ordinary means of grace. I see hope particularly now in what is happening with younger Christians. Who often, against great odds, have thought through what it means to follow Christ. There is a kind of sweetness among young Christians that I haven’t seen in a long time.”
Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following Jesus. He’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution,The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.