When Did We Start Forgetting God? – Mark Galli

When Did We Start Forgetting God?: The Root of the Evangelical Crisis and Hope for the Future by Mark Galli
Published by Tyndale on April 7, 2020
Genres: Non-Fiction, Christian Life, Theology
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The former editor in chief of the acclaimed magazine Christianity Today offers a compelling look at the state of evangelicalism and hope for the future.In arguably one of the most divisive and polarizing eras, evangelicals are faced with a profound crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that has many dimensions―political, biblical, and theological―as well as a crisis of spiritual formation and discipleship. What ultimately is at the root of this crisis?

Mark Galli encourages us to turn our attention away from the politics of the moment, the social issues being discussed online, and the debate du jour among Christians. He asks us instead to take a long and hard look at what's missing in our spirituality. In an incisive and thought-provoking book, Mark Galli helps us slow down and spend time reflecting on our ultimate priority.
A must-read for anyone interested in contemplating the future of the church.

Let’s just get this over with from the outset: While Mark Galli has been well-known in evangelical circles for some time, his prominence in the “real world” came when he, in a final opinion column before retirement, called for the impeachment of Donald Trump. I have many thoughts on this, but few of them are relevant to this book. Whatever your opinion of that article or of the President, When Did We Start Forgetting God? stands separate from that political opinion.

The book is divided into three parts:

  1. The Crisis
  2. The Church
  3. Deepening Desire

The Crisis | When Did We Start Forgetting God?

Mark Galli doesn’t actually spend too much time on setting up the crisis. Just two of the twenty chapters are dedicated to defining and outlining the problem. It’s here that Galli sets his tone, pulling from a variety of historical and theological sources—quoting Lewis, Augustine, and St. Bernard. It’s not exactly an academic treatise, but it’s weightier than most of your typical lay-level Christian non-fiction.

This isn’t When Did We Start Forgetting God’s primary purpose, but it’s a really good overview of the development of twentieth century American Christianity, detailing the impact of the Great Awakening, the beginnings of the social gospel, Azusa Street, and so on. It’s a needed look to set the context for any discussion of evangelicalism’s failures, but will be new material to most Christians.

The Church | When Did We Start Forgetting God?

Eight chapters are then spent on the church, where Galli picks at our—meaning typical evangelical—ways of doing things and asks if we could do better. He’s going to raise some eyebrows when he calls us to a deeper understanding of communion and speaks of a desire for more formality and liturgy. He’s going to offend any number of ultra-modern churches when he criticizes the missional mindset. And he’s going to pick at some sacred cows when he asks us to really consider how we worship.

At the heart of these chapters is his deconstruction of the missional mindset that upholds the purpose of the church as making the world a better place. He moves deftly from Rauschenbusch to Newbigin to Christopher JH Wright to present this as being the position of the evangelical church for nearly one hundred years. Interestingly, I think, most evangelical churches would very much agree with the “missional” moniker, but stand opposed to the social gospel theories of Rauschenbusch and Newbigin. (But that’s a larger conversation than this review can handle.)

Galli insists that the church isn’t called to make the world a better place. Instead, it’s called to invite the world into the better place—the church. The church’s main mission is not horizontal, but vertical. It is to glorify God and worship him.

My conclusion after surveying the biblical landscape is this: the church’s mission is not to go out and make the world a better place, to be a blessing, to transform culture, to bring justice to the earth, to work for human flourishing. The church’s destiny and purpose is to live together in love in Christ, to the praise of God’s glory.

The primary example that he uses to illustrate this in When Did We Start Forgetting God? is that of a youth pastor who is asked with both outreach into the community and discipleship of the churched. As a youth pastor…yes. Yes. This is relevant. Galli, somewhat uncomfortably to our evangelical minds, redefines the primary goal of the church as discipleship over outreach.

He suggests that “the church is not a very efficient institution for making a difference in the world” and suggests that it is the infrastructure of government that best handles and cares for these things. (I agree, but would respectfully point out that this is the point of those missional social gospelers he says get it wrong earlier in the book.)

In the rest of the section, he calls “low church” styles back toward a more reverent and sacred “high church” style. While all of Galli’s criticisms are valid, I wonder if he makes too much of these stylistic choices. Coming from a church that has both a more low-church and more high-church service, I see the benefits and holiness in each.

Deepening the Desire.

The final ten chapters outline how Galli would retain evangelical distinctives while still promoting this higher view of the church service and sanctuary. And, while I don’t agree fully with every point to the distance he takes it, his desire for evangelicals to take church—the building, the body of believers, and the worship experience—more seriously.

From small groups to and Sunday service, to communion and baptism, from beginning to end, When Did We Start Forgetting God calls on believers not to trivialize our worship but really take God and the institution of the church seriously.

Galli pokes at the church with reverence and respect, just asking us to consider if we’re worshipping God or the Americanized system of church that we’ve set up. It’s a thought-provoking read that will challenge you and change you, whether you agree with him or not.