“Onward” Book Review: A Refreshing Vision for Engaging Your Church on Social Issues

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Nearly two years ago, when Russell Moore’s Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel appeared on bookstore shelves, America had just begun to think about the upcoming 2016 Presidential campaign. We were nearing the end of three consecutive controversial two-term Presidents. Multiple people had declared themselves candidates to be the next White House occupant, including a former secretary of state and a charismatic entertainer and real estate mogul. Both would emerge quickly as clear frontrunners within their particular political parties. A severely divided nation prepared for what would become the most controversial and rancorous campaign in generations—and maybe ever.

For those who read Moore’s book soon after publication, it provided an eschatological (i.e., “end times”) lens through which to look at the coming political firestorm.

Moore himself has come under fire from his own Southern Baptist constituency for his often harsh critique of candidate Donald Trump (and more specifically, his supporters) during last year’s campaign. (Russell Moore leads the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.)

Yet as much as the book mattered in 2015, it matters more—exponentially more—20 months later. As Christians come to terms with a new President whose early decisions have divided the country and the church along racial and denominational lines, Moore’s book provides deep insights into how we engage the issues of the day.

Most churches want to engage Millennials and Gen Z more effectively. Most members of these generations want to be involved in the important conversations of our day. Onward can help your church do that.

Although he doesn’t delve into this until chapter three, Moore rests his argument about the church’s political and social engagement upon the eschatological hope of the Kingdom of God.

Calling the church “a signpost of God’s coming Kingdom” and a preview of “what the reign of God in Christ will look like,” he urges Jesus-followers to engage the culture in such a way that prepares us to be joint heirs with Christ in that coming Kingdom. Moore describes our Christian social engagement as a witness to the world about how Christ-followers will serve in their future role as co-heirs.

Moore writes, “The first step to a renewed vision of our mission is to see the Kingdom of God, in its future glory and in its present reality. In the Kingdom, we see how the gospel connects to culture and to mission. We start to be patterned toward what we should long for, what we should lament, and what justice looks like. And, perhaps most importantly, in the Kingdom of God, we see who we are and where we are headed. That changes both the content and the tone of our witness.”

A Prophetic Minority

Moore seems to instinctively understand the discomfort many American Christians feel these days about their shrinking social and political influence over the larger culture. Casting doubt about whether the church has ever really been a “moral majority” in America, Moore centers his call on believers to become a prophetic minority. In doing so, he looks toward a middle way between a minority that basks in a siege mentality and drifts toward isolation and a majority viewpoint that soaks in triumphalism and seeks to force its views on others.

What we’re left with, the former theology school dean asserts, is a prophetic minority that speaks clearly where the Bible speaks clearly (and responds generously on topics that the Bible doesn’t directly address). In the long run, he believes the church is better off in this new, often uncomfortable, minority role.

Moore explains, “The shaking of American culture is no sign that God has given up on American Christianity. In fact, it may be a sign that God is rescuing American Christianity from itself.”

This prophetic minority is best suited to achieve the church’s mission, as laid out by Moore in Onward. With values shaped by the biblical witness to the present and not-there-yet Kingdom of God, Moore embraced a sense of gospel mission centered upon reconciliation—with God and one another. The Kingdom of God sets the priorities for the church’s redemptive mission.

“A mission of redemption that leaves untroubled our place in unjust systems is far too safe, as is a mission of social activism that leaves untroubled our guilt before a holy God,” notes Moore.

The Kingdom Lens for Today’s “Hot Button” Issues

The second half of Moore’s book focuses upon three broad and largely controversial areas of Christian engagement with political issues—human dignity (sanctity of life issues, such as abortion, torture, race relations, euthanasia, etc.), religious liberty (for both Christians and non-Christians), and family stability. Although Moore’s political positions stand firmly within the mainstream of his conservative Southern Baptist roots, he addresses each with what he terms convictional kindness (which he addresses in depth in chapter nine). His focus isn’t so much on changing the political persuasion of conservative evangelicals (or liberal Christians for that matter) as it is changing the manner in which they engage the issues.

Throughout the book, but particularly in these three chapters, Moore sides with the weak and vulnerable over the powerful, urging compassion for those often on the wrong end of Christian castigation.

For example, Moore asserts, “After a generation of Christian churches emphasizing, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, financial and social and political prosperity, is it any wonder that when being pro-life moves from voting for candidates to dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, so many church members slip off into the darkness of the nearest large city with a guilty conscience and an envelope full of cash? Mammon is a jealous god, and he’s armed to the teeth.”

On the topic of religious freedom, he pushes beyond typical Christian platitudes about protecting the rights of fellow evangelicals and asserts a need to defend the rights of all religious people. He notes how some Christians throughout the years have tried to advance the Kingdom “by law and by force.” This, he states, can get ugly.

Moore’s alternative vision for religious liberty includes the church fighting for the freedom of Muslims to practice their faith, worship in mosques, and even persuade others about the validity of their beliefs. He writes, “If we really believe the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, we don’t need bureaucrats to herd people into cowering before it.”

Moore’s message culminates in chapter 10 by demonstrating how our social and political engagement impacts our sense of mission. Presenting great hope for the future of the American church, he centers that hope not in the triumph of Christian values but in churches “filled with people who never thought they fit the image of ‘Christian’.” He pushes back against the pessimism that has become common in today’s church by reminding readers that the next great leaders of the church might not be sitting in church right now. Instead, they’re likely people who—prior to conversion—don’t even want to step foot in a church.

A Theological Primer for Today’s Church Engagement

You’ll find lots of different books out there to help you and your church refine its political and social positions. Some of those books will focus on specific areas, such as abortion, race relations, or the family. Others will tackle broader social trends. Don’t read Moore’s book to find new political positions on the controversial issues of our age (remember, Moore’s positions still fit firmly in the mainstream of conservative evangelical thought on all of these issues). Instead, read Onward for how he pulls back the skin on the way Christians should engage these issues.

An oft-quoted narrative of evangelical political engagement has said that they hibernated between the “Scopes Monkey Trial” of the 1920s and the candidacy of Jimmy Carter in 1976. Whether that’s true or not, few would argue that the late 1970s and early 1980s marked the beginning of a new era in how evangelicals responded to the surrounding culture. It has been close to four decades since the birth of the Moral Majority and the movement’s success has been, at best, mixed.

Moore’s book provides evangelicals—and the church at large—an opportunity for another reset in how it tackles the tough issues of our time. Even if you don’t agree with his conservative politics, you’ll appreciate Moore’s handling of the issues. No church can successfully duck forever its call to live as a prophetic minority, as described by Moore. Onward provides your church a theological primer for a new generation to do this in a way that is both faithful to the scriptures and persuasive to the broader world.

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