Onward, Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel by Russell Moore

Onward was Christianity Today’s 2015 “Book of the Year.” It is written by Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and a rising star in both the SBC and in evangelicalism. Onward, in essence, is an overview analysis of our times and especially of the Christian subculture. We, in America, live in a post-Christian (pp. 2-10, 24-26, 30, 32, 46), or perhaps pre-Christian (p. 218) era, in which the culture around us is becoming increasingly secular. Even the Bible Belt is collapsing, yet Moore is happy to see it go for a number of reasons (p. 3). First, much of the Bible Belt, and much of evangelicalism for that matter, preaches not the true gospel but the “almost-gospel” (see p. 172) in which Christian values have been misunderstood as the gospel (pp. 6, 16, 30, 178). Secondly, much of today’s church has become worldly, and a worldly church is of no value to the world (p. 88). Third, patriotism has replaced the kingdom of God as primary in the hearts of many (p. 138). Fourth, Christ has become a “life coach” rather than a crucified Messiah (p. 152). Fifth, anger, even rage, characterizes our opposition to things with which we disagree instead of kindness (pp. 187-205). Finally, Moore has strong confidence in a sovereign Christ (p. 204), a pure gospel, and the opportunities a secularized society affords us (pp. 5-7), even as he warns that our message will increasingly be seen as freakish (pp. 218-222).

Moore writes well, knows how to turn a phrase, and is motivational in style. He makes many insightful observations of both the culture and the church which will cause the reader to pause and ponder, but not always agree. As a matter of fact, throughout the book this reviewer wished for opportunity to debate and dialogue with the author over many issues. This was partly because of the abundance of generalized statements and lack of specifics (e.g. pp. 5, 21-22, 36, 43, 50, 70-72, 92, 132). Broad accusations are constantly made but no names are attached and there is only a minimum of footnotes (32 in a 224 page book). I found myself constantly asking, “Who really believes this?” or “Is this merely a strawman constructed by the author because it is easy to tear down?” Without names and specifics there is no way to know. For example, when Moore claims that nominal Christians are vanishing from the pews (p. 24), I have to wonder how he draws such a conclusion which seems contrary to both common observation, and his accusation that the church is becoming worldly. And when he claims that the pro-life movement was a gospel-driven social witness of the church (p. 128), I have to wonder if he has examined both the protesters (who are not all Christians) or the witness, which has often been counterproductive due to some of the methodology.

Many of Moore’s ideas are wrapped around his understanding of the kingdom of God, yet his theology concerning the kingdom is a confusing mess. He, of course, accepts the “already but not yet” understanding of the kingdom which is currently in vogue (pp. 55-63). At times he equates the kingdom with the church (p. 79), and at other times he claims Jesus is the kingdom (pp. 57-59, 74, 76-77, 87), or that we are in the kingdom if we are in Christ (p. 63). He uses Scripture describing the millennium as if the millennium was the eternal state (p. 51) and Christ is now ruling from David’s throne (pp. 73, 79).

The popularity of Onward to the Christianity Today staff and their readers is no doubt due, however, to its emphasis on social issues. The church, according to the author, should actively be working toward solving social concerns and injustices (pp. 3-9, 26, 29, 38, 52-69). Moore recognizes the danger of adding a social component to the gospel since historically such has always led to disaster for the church, but he is convinced it will be different this time (pp. 97-103). The author understands that the New Testament does not add a social dimension to the faith, but thinks this is apparently only because the first Christians did not live in a democracy (pp. 107-111). Therefore, according to Moore, Christians should unite to fight poverty (pp. 132-133), and ecology issues (pp. 113-134), and for a good justice system, welfare reform and immigration policies (pp. 132, 183). He does not recognize the difference between personal choices and actions and corporate (church) ones. Moore bases some of this on the common, but misguided, belief that the cultural mandate, given to Adam and Eve in their pre-fall state, is still in effect for the church (pp. 4, 122, 133-134), and on an out-of-context use of Matthew 25:45 (p. 120).

I appreciated much of Moore’s analysis of our culture and the state of the church. I also applaud his non-defeatist attitude. Far too many Christians live in fear of secularization of our world rather than seeing opportunities for the cause of Christ. But I believe he is confused on the role of the church and the merging of a social agenda with the biblical Great Commission mandate to the church. Because of these concerns, as well as the many over-generalizations and expanded understanding of the gospel, I would only recommend this book for those desiring a good understanding of much of the present thinking prevalent among evangelical leaders today.

Onward, Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, by Russell Moore (B8H Publishing Group: 2015) 224pp., hardback $24.99

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel