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In this episode of the Saturdays at Seven Podcast, Todd Ream interviews Russell Moore, Editor-in-Chief of Christianity Today. They discuss his forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America and being caught in two alter calls. They also talk about current issues surrounding church-related universities and how churches can better support them.
Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.
Our guest today is Dr. Russell D. Moore, theologian, minister, cultural commentator, journalist, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, and author or editor of 10 books, including, most recently, Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America. Thank you for taking the time to join us .
Russell Moore: Oh, thanks for having me.
Todd Ream: When opening Losing Our Religion, you talk about being caught between two altar calls. The altar call of your youth, in which you are confronted with the questions about what we believe in terms of our faith in Jesus Christ. And then the altar call in terms of our commitment to organizations, which we may eventually be called to serve and the loyalties that we own.
On a personal level, would you please unpack a little bit more how you came to terms with that commitment in terms of your first altar call?
Russell Moore: Well, I think it’s very difficult to pull those altar calls away from, from each other because obviously when we respond to the Gospel and follow Christ that includes a willingness to go forward in, in service of whatever kind he would give. And I think sometimes it’s really easy to confuse that ministry calling with whatever institution that one finds oneself in. I mean, I think that’s a challenge for everyone because, loyalty and belonging, these are good, created things, but they can be distorted like anything else.
Todd Ream: Whether in churches or in any number of parachurch organizations, how can we see when the commitments of those second altar calls are eclipsing our commitments to those first altar calls?
Russell Moore: It’s difficult to do. I was just telling someone yesterday, I remember being on a panel years ago with Tim Keller, in which the moderator asked us, what are your blind spots? And Tim’s response was, well, if we knew, they wouldn’t be blind spots. And I think that’s the case really for all of us.
There are ways that any of us can filter out information we don’t want to hear and talk ourselves into things that we feel we need to do. So I think what that requires is just an ongoing examination.
I mean, the vulnerability is not knowing one’s vulnerability at that point. The minute that you realize, I have to check myself and check every loyalty and every place of belonging over and against my ultimate loyalty and my ultimate place of belonging. And that’s not foolproof and we will get it wrong many times, but that’s the goal.
Todd Ream: What virtues would you suggest we need to cultivate to allow for such differentiation to become more possible than perhaps it is for some of us?
Russell Moore: I think that one of the reasons we fall here is because we have a truncated view of faith and hope and love. But we have a truncated view of faith and by that I mean it’s easy not to see the long term, in terms of the next billion years because one is looking at the short term of the next 30.
And so if we really have a sense of living a life before God and having an accountability before the judgment seat, when that’s absent, then we try to fill it with something else. And often in this kind of culture right now, that usually has to do with tribal identity.
Todd Ream: Yeah, I was going to actually ask, depending on what virtues we’re drawing from, you know, is there a way to see further into the future than is often possible for us? Or we think, you know, as perhaps possible, can we cultivate an imagination that allows us to see where that greater identity is, and then define. Our current existence?
Russell Moore: I think we can, and I think there are a couple of ways that we can and one of those ways sounds like Sunday school answer, but it’s because Sunday school is the answer this case. I think that being, inhabiting the text of Scripture.
Todd Ream: Mm-hmm.
Russell Moore: Not only in terms of knowing where to go in Scripture to find arguments for controversies or to find principles for living but to actually be in the text has a renewing of the mind effect. And also shapes and forms what we really need, which are moral intuitions even before we get to our reasons to have intuitions that, that notice what is true, good or beautiful and what’s gone awry.
And that’s usually the problem. I spend a lot of time saying to church leaders, the most important and dangerous issues facing your people right now are not the things they’re arguing about on social media. They’re the things we’re not arguing about at all because we have a sense of consensus to the point that we don’t even see those things.
And that requires, that requires, I think, a biblically shaped conscience and set of intuitions. It also requires models and I think that that means having the imagination stirred by seeing what is possible. I know that was true in my own life. I was shaped and formed watching a pastor in my home church, who had a kind of Gospel tranquility about him. In the sense that he was not thrown by whatever situations he, he faced. He really did know who he was in Christ. He knew what it is that he was called to do in Christ.
And that gave him the freedom to minister to us in ways that I don’t think anybody else could have like that and even if one doesn’t know, well, how does a person do that? I don’t think he would even necessarily know how it is that he does that, but it gives a picture of possibility. This is a way of of living. It can be done.
Todd Ream: Yeah. No, that’s great. Yeah. Hopefully something that we afford all people, but especially younger people whose sensibilities are arguably open to greater formation due to their age and such.
In graduate school, my advisor once announced in a class that leading always demanded contending with some measure of hypocrisy, which we as idealistic graduate students at the time immediately leaned back and threw up our hands and said, no, no, this can’t be true. But to him, the difference, and this is what he was trying to get us to think about at the time was between contending with that which is tolerable and intolerable levels of hypocrisy was when he ceased doing his job and he focused on just keeping his job.
In the light of what you, and dare I say many others experienced in recent years, how would you evaluate his description about the tolerable and intolerable levels of hypocrisy, knowing that perhaps this side of eternity, there will always be some measure of that?
Russell Moore: I think there’s some wisdom in what he’s saying because or what he said, because there is a kind of personality that is constantly morbidly introspective and trying to weigh every motive of one’s own heart. And of course, we’re sinful beings, where we’re always going to have sinful motivations mixed in with good and gracious motivation. So I think that’s true.
I think he’s also right to say that there’s a way to have a focus on keeping one’s job or keeping one’s ministry. But people often don’t realize they’re doing that. I think again sometimes it’s a subconscious way of paying attention to the facts that are useful and filtering out those that are not. And I think we’ve all seen that in our own lives in various ways. And we’ve seen that in people we’ve worked with over the years. So it’s, that’s true. I just think it’s often hidden.
Todd Ream: Yeah. I want to ask a little bit more about your vocation, then, now. As I was introducing you, I mentioned, you know, you serve as a theologian, minister, cultural commentator, journalist. What are the common commitments that define your vocation and the service you’ve been called to offer the kingdom?
Russell Moore: Well, I don’t think of myself as a journalist. I think that’s a specific guild to which I don’t belong, although I work with a lot of journalists. My ministry has been pretty much the same from the very beginning, in different contexts. So I really don’t think there’s much difference between what I was attempting to do as a youth pastor in a Baptist church in Mississippi, from what I was attempting to do as a seminary professor or administrator or an entity president or leading Christianity Today.
It’s a, did, they’re different contexts but the same ministry. And I think that’s, I think that’s often the case. I think about in the biography of Eugene Peterson. There’s a reference to when Peterson’s son said to him one day, he said, yeah, that’s your sermon, Dad. That’s the sermon that you preach in every different way, but over and over again.
And it said that Peterson at first was kind of offended by that, and then he realized, no, that’s true. There, there is a calling that is underneath all of these other activities, and that’s actually the way it’s supposed to be. Sometimes one’s not aware of that, it takes looking back and saying, okay, what are the unique contributions and callings that I have, what’s important to me and what’s not. And sometimes that means when I’m hiring people, I almost always say, I don’t really want you to spend a lot of time looking at what your predecessor did.
Because often I’m hiring not for a specific job, merely. I’m hiring a set of gifts and a set of intuitions a, a particular kind of calling, and often that can express itself in very different ways, and one can adjust a team to make that work. But I think that that’s where people thrive the best is when they really see their calling, even if they don’t know how to articulate it and are freed up to do it.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. As the Editor-in-Chief of Christianity Today now, what details define your days?
Russell Moore: My days are everyone different from the day before. It’s a very unpredictable sort of, life and it always has been. So on a typical day I might be speaking at an event. And then meeting with a team member by Zoom and then writing a column or a newsletter, recording a podcast, doing a set of media interviews talking with pastors and leaders and elected official. I mean, it’s, every day really is, every day doesn’t follow up template. They’re quite different.
Todd Ream: Yeah. When measured against those commitments that we were just talking about a few minutes ago then, which details, efforts you know, from which one of those do you yield the greatest satisfaction?
Russell Moore: I see myself primarily as a Bible teacher, and I always have. A Bible teacher with different jobs at different times, but that’s the primary calling. And in my unique situation that has turned out to be often with two different audiences and two different sets of overhearers. So I speak to a Christian audience often knowing that they’re going to be- that the conversation will be overheard by people who are in the outside world looking in.
And I do the reverse. I’m often in context with- I mean as recently as this morning I was just with some atheists. And I’m always in those sorts of context with people sometimes with people who’ve never really met an evangelical Christian before. And I know that there are also going to be Christians who are overhearing that because everybody has to do that to some degree in their neighborhoods or in their places of work.
Todd Ream: If I may then, reverse question which one of those then yields the least satisfaction? You have a lot of activities that are very energizing and exciting, but I’m sure it comes with some details too that, you know, perhaps may be less satisfying than others.
Russell Moore: Well, I early on determined that I was going to try to be as self-aware as I could be about where my gifts are and where they’re not. And so I am not- for instance, people on my team know, I’m not much good in a brainstorming meeting. I’m not going to have much to contribute to that because that’s just not how I think.
I can sit down- every week I sit down and write a newsletter and I genuinely don’t really know what I think until that’s done. Because that’s just how I process how I process what it is that, that I think. So, those sorts of things just are not, it’s not useful for me to be, one’s not going to get much good out of me in those sorts of contexts.
Todd Ream: That’s really interesting. Thank you. The historic flagship of what is now Christianity Today International is the print magazine. And as you and your colleagues think through how publishing and journalism have changed over the course of the last 30 years, what lessons proved most instructive in terms of where you find yourselves right now?
Russell Moore: CT was a fairly early adopter of, of internet content largely because there was one person or maybe two people who started suggesting hey, I think the internet is going to be a thing way back in the, way in the day. And they were, I think they were able to prevail largely because a lot of people didn’t even pay attention to what they were doing, thought thought, ah, this is a passing fad and it will go away.
So they were fairly early adopters with that. Our conviction is that right now, there are a multitude of different channels from which people get information and ideas. And we need to be present in as many of those as possible. And they’re usually not overlapping.
So, people who primarily get their information from a print magazine often will be a very different group of people than get it from YouTube. And that will be a very different group of people from those who get it through podcasting. And that will be a different group of people who get it through newsletter platforms. And that will be a different set of people than those who get it through TikTok.
So we, we try to as much as possible, be present in as many media platforms as possible with that same message of telling the stories of the kingdom of God and articulating ideas from the kingdom of God.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Upon what lessons are you presently depending the most, as you navigate the future or at least the foreseeable future when it comes to publishing and journalism?
Russell Moore: Well, one of the, one of the truths that I think everyone has learned over the past few years is that contexts are fast changing. And so it is not as important to have a detailed plan for the next 20 years as it is to have the kind of nimbleness and to seek the kind of wisdom to see what is changing. And so, I mean, and I often have this conversation with with church leaders and did just last night, when someone asked, can you tell us, it looks like 2024 is going to be a contentious year. Can you tell us how to get through that? And my answer was, no, because I don’t know what waits for us in 2024.
If a person had asked me in October of 2019, what’s 2020 going to look like for the Church? I would have never guessed that a microscopic virus would upend our entire lives. And with that then, the sorts of cultural and technological changes that that, that followed. So, I think there has to be an adaptability.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, thank you. I think I’m going to make sure that students at least, who I ask frequently the question, where do you see yourself 20 years from now? May have to hide that bit of wisdom from them at least.
Russell Moore: But think about how that, how that, how much that has changed. When I started in ministry, if I saw a person who had been in a just a series of different jobs or ministries, that probably would have indicated someone who, had difficulty discerning his or her calling or something else. Now that’s the entire world.
Todd Ream: Right. Right. Yeah. No, I remember evaluating CVs and resumes in a comparable way was, you know, looking at the dates and the length of the dates and length of service and, you know, how they fit together in terms of, you know, how someone understood herself or himself. And yeah it’s very different now in terms of length of time and sometimes even the types of, you know, at least explicit duties that people carry out so…
Russell Moore: Yeah. And I think that’s going to change the Church more than we realize. I really think that bi-vocational and tri-vocational ministry, is going to be, these are gonna be central in the future. And the reason for that is not because I don’t think churches will be able to afford full-time ministers or leaders, as much as that that there, there are many leaders who are reluctant to be in a situation in which they’re entirely dependent upon one situation.
And I’ve seen a lot of people right now who’ve been in church context facing very difficult circumstances and they live in a parsonage next to the church. And if they, if something goes wrong, everything seems to fall apart.
Todd Ream: I want to go back to talking about your recent book, Losing Our Religion, which I would commend, you know, to, to all who are listening and take time to, to sit down and consider what you’re offering here.
But I want to ask, where does this book fit into the arc of your calling then, as you’ve experienced it to date? So if you look back then on projects, those 10 or so books that you’ve written and edited over the course of your career, where does this one fit into that?
Russell Moore: It fits into it in the sense that every book that I’ve ever written has been a way of sorting through something, either in terms of my own mind, or in terms of the counsel that I’m giving to other people. And so this book, I was noticing a pull toward cynicism in some people, a pull toward despair in some other people, and a pull toward apathy in even others. And I wanted to talk to all of them, more or less at the same time.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Thank you. If I may, then what book if you’d be willing to, do you anticipate may follow in its wake then?
Russell Moore: I have no idea. I know there are some people who kind of have a a mapped out sort of plan for the things that they’re going to write. I don’t. It, it’s something that will come out of some wrestling that I’m doing with some issue. And I don’t know what that will be exactly.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Yeah. Perhaps one way, then, of sort of capturing these threads as you’ve experienced them to date in terms of your calling is as what often is referred to as a public intellectual.
If that’s an apt description then, what lessons would you offer others, whose work led them to a point of discernment concerning whether to embrace a calling as a public intellectual?
Russell Moore: Well, I’m not really sure what a public intellectual is and isn’t. What I would say is carry out your ministry and the context will define itself over time. And I have just, in the providence of God, been placed in situations where I’m often speaking to people outside of the Christian faith.
Everybody to some degree has to do that. I think there are a set of temptations that come along with any aspect of ministry. And there are sets of opportunities that come with them too. I’m not sure that one can see those ahead of time, as much as one can see, this is the kind of person that I’m committed to being by the grace of God through the Spirit.
Todd Ream: How if at all would you then offer to a young person or someone whose career and calling has brought them to this point, what would they need to do then to assess dare I say for a lack of better way of explaining it, sort of the risks and the rewards that come with such an engagement in the culture in which we live?
Russell Moore: I often tell people to weigh their own vulnerabilities to the extent that they can see them. And of course, none of us have- we don’t have perfect knowledge of ourselves. But we don’t send recovering alcoholics into the bars to do nightclub evangelism for a reason. If some, someone really needs to determine, do I have more of a temptation toward quarrelsomeness or more of a temptation toward timidity? And what that’s going to tell you is which way you’re going to have to more self consciously pull yourself. That’s an important part of it.
And then the other part of it is I think that there are many Christians who assume that first, one has to find out what the calling is in detail, and then to go and carry it out. And I find that that’s rarely the case. Instead you serve in various ways, and you pay attention as you do, where the areas of of giftedness actually are. And then if you just concentrate on cultivating those gifts the context will take care of itself.
Todd Ream: In terms of that, you know, sort of context in which many people find themselves offering this kind of input or insight today social media is often a component of this or a dominant component in this as a means of exchanging ideas.
As one whose calling paralleled the emergence of social media, what would you offer in terms of advice?
Russell Moore: Social media has changed dramatically over the past 10 or 15 years. And I don’t mean simply in terms of the technologies involved. Social media can give an artificial sense of what’s actually happening. There’s a fascinating book called the, I think it’s called the Social Prism that, that taught, that does a lot of research and surveys into who are the people who are actually on social media.
And what the finding was is that most people actually aren’t the extremist conflict entrepreneurs. Most people instead are reasonable, non-quarrelsome kinds of people, but they tend to disengage. And that gives an incentive then for the social media arsonists to continue to become more and more extreme in order to get attention. And as that happens, the normies retreat even more. And that happens really from one platform to the other.
There are amazing benefits that come with social media. There are people who are now very close in real life friends, that I first knew as Twitter avatars, and there are people that I’ve been able to learn from and to talk to that I never would have without it.
But it brings with it all of these challenges of atrophying attention and and also an unrealistic sense of what’s happening. Sometimes I can tell if a person is overly online based upon what that person is worried about, because sometimes these will be ephemeral social media sorts of hysterics that don’t really translate at all into real life.
And so that, that brings with it its own set of challenges. And then when you add to that, the challenges for the formation of people at those key moments early in life. There’s a book that I’ve read the galleys of that will come out I think in March from Jonathan Haidt the social psychologist at NYU. It is a tour de force when it comes to demonstrating what phones have done, smartphones have done in terms of anxiety levels and a host of other mental health problems because they are introduced and ubiquitous, in that really key formative 11 to 14 age.
Previously, the challenge was ministry with people who are becoming familiar with social media and know that they need to engage with social media, but are wondering how. Now we’re having people who have been shaped and formed by social media really all of their lives. What, what, that, that brings some unique possibilities. It also brings some unique challenges.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Yep. Thank you. I want to turn our attention now to the church-related university and how, if at all, you might assess what altar calls may be before it. So hearkening back to the way that you framed your book, what altar calls may be before the church-related university as you see it during this challenging season in which we find ourselves?
Russell Moore: Well, there’s always the temptation to put institutional self-preservation over calling and mission. Some of that has to do with just the, the normal pull that we all have into everydayness, which we forget what it is that we’re really doing. And some of it has to do with this kind of cultural context in which institutions writ large are in crisis.
That brings its own set of of challenges. I think what’s necessary will be leaders of Christian colleges and universities who understand the unique place that they occupy and also who see one another less as competitors as co-ministers in this same cause.
And I see a lot of that actually happening. There are Christian colleges, universities leaders who are, who model that all the time. And then you also have what I find is there’s a particularly unique opportunity for Christian colleges and universities for the kind of closeness and mutual support that can happen, not just as students are studying, but for the rest of their lives.
I will often be in secular context and there will be groups of people in a given city who are alums of the same Christian college or university. They all know who everyone is and they support each other. That, that’s a unique opportunity, to cultivate that.
Todd Ream: Yeah. In what ways, if any, do you believe that temptations of that second altar call have impacted the relationship that the church-related university shares with the Church?
Russell Moore: In some ways, the temptation shows up in the way that we have seen institution after institution lose connection with the Church, doctrinally or in terms of organic connection. It also, though, sometimes works the other direction in which churches don’t understand what the purpose of a college or university is.
And so, that, that keeps churches then from being able to really support those colleges and universities. And it prevents those colleges and universities from being able to have an honest connection with churches that’s more than just institutional PR.
Todd Ream: In your estimation, then, what, if anything, can we do, whether it’s on the part of the Church or the part of the church-related university, to begin to reduce the gap that may exist between them?
Russell Moore: Well, I think in many ways the problem is resolving itself in some places because we have a- I don’t think that we’re really aware of just how remarkable it is that we have the set of Christian college leaders that we have right now in a lot of places. I mean, these are amazingly gifted people that would be once in a generation or half-century or ordinarily, but who are all serving at the same time.
And these are all people who do see that temptation and who are actively working to solve it. And those institutions are are really benefiting from that.
So I, and I think some of it is there are stresses that come upon colleges and universities, that if the Church understood, the Church would be able to support those colleges and universities better. And I’m talking about the good doctrinally sound, missionally sound Christian colleges and universities when they are having to live year after year with existential threat.
That doesn’t mean all of them need to survive. I mean, every institution is going to have times when it exists and times when it doesn’t. But, but often I think there are churches who don’t really know what that stress is for those institutions and would actually be more involved in helping to alleviate it if they knew.
Todd Ream: Thank you. As we close our time together today, I can’t help but ask about 2024. And I won’t ask you for a prediction.
But I will ask if I may, what lessons have you learned from the first altar call that we could encourage church leaders and church-related university leaders to keep in mind as we face whatever may come in the next year?
Russell Moore: I wrote about in the book, and I think about it, every day, the setting of Caesarea Philippi. It, it strikes me with wonder continually, the way that Jesus announced upon this rock, I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Specifically there a place that is named after figures in the Roman imperial structure that later would crucify Jesus and Jesus knew it.
And a place that was a hub of pagan worship of the god, Pan. God of- hard to think of a figure more connected with excess and instinctual hedonism.
And He says that there. So I think there is a necessity to keep our understanding of that so that we don’t fall into either this sense of exuberant utopianism or into this sense of hand wringing despair. Because both of those ultimately lead to the same place, which is a numb and lifeless Church. I think that’s important.
The other part of it is to understand why it is that we’re in this situation right now. If people don’t have a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose, they’re going to fill it with something. And so you end up with with politics or culture wars or something else, giving people this jolt of adrenaline that can easily be confused with life. It’s not life and it ultimately strips itself out. But we need to have a Church that’s able to give an alternative to that.
Todd Ream: Thank you. Our guest has been Russell Moore. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and wisdom with us.
Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.