Moore to the Point
Hello, fellow wayfarers. How a pastor’s kid taught me to love the exvangelicals … A reader wonders whether to pursue further study … Books … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.
Russell Moore
How My Father Taught Me to Love Those Hurt by the Church

A year ago last week, my father died. If anything, the one-year anniversary was even more grief-inducing than the actual day of his death. I suppose that’s because, a year ago, I plunged immediately into activity: writing an obituary, preparing a eulogy, managing the logistics of a funeral. And now, a year later, none of those things are before me—just the fact that he’s gone. With all the reflection that’s come about over the past year, I’ve realized one thing that I never really knew before: My father taught me to love the "exvangelical."

Exvangelical, of course, is the catchall term describing people who have walked away from American evangelical Christianity after being disillusioned and sometimes even traumatized by it. The word is slippery, though, because it can include a whole variety of people—everyone from committed orthodox churchgoers who no longer claim the word evangelical because of all the nonsense they’ve seen under that name, all the way to those who have actually walked away from the faith altogether.

As I’ve written here before, one of the most difficult days of my life was when, as a twenty-one-year-old, I had to tell my father that I thought God was calling me into Christian ministry. It felt, I suppose, like how people feel when they have to tell their parents they’ve been arrested or have been using their skills to cook meth. That was because I knew my father wouldn’t approve.

The dread I felt was not because my father was against the church or religion, like some people I’ve known; he was not. And it wasn’t because he was putting some sort of pressure on me to succeed in a way that would mean making a lot of money; he never did that. When I finally worked up the nerve to tell my father (I think it was the night before I told my church), he responded better than I thought he would. He said, "I wish you wouldn’t do it; I don’t want to see you hurt."

My dad, you see, was a pastor’s son.

Through the years, the Bible Belt became a source of dismay and spiritual crisis for me, as I’ve written about here and elsewhere. But the church was not. To me, my church meant home and belonging and acceptance. To this day, if I so much as smell anything similar to the scent of my church foyer or a Sunday school room or those Vacation Bible School cookies, I immediately calm down. And every time I hear the hymns we sang together week after week after week, they bring to my mind peace—or whatever the opposite of trauma might be.

But I had not grown up in a parsonage, as my father had. His father was his hero.

Though my grandfather died when I was five years old, I grew up always around his reputation. He had been pastor of my home church. Most of the people who taught me Sunday school or who led my youth group or who sang in our choir had been led to Christ by him, baptized by him, and/or married by him. My grandfather was revered by all of them, and by no one more than my father. And he was the subtext of my father’s conflicted relationship with the church.

That night, as we talked through my call to ministry, my father said, "I’m going to say this this one time, and then I’ll never say it again. I’ll support you completely, whatever you decide to do. But I wish you wouldn’t do it. I just don’t want to see you get hurt the way they hurt my dad."

My grandfather was a Purple Heart veteran of World War II, blown out of a tank in the Battle of the Bulge. Raised a Methodist, he came to faith at a revival meeting after the war and then searched the Scriptures, seeking which Christian tradition was, in his view, closest to the New Testament. He decided that it was that of the Baptists. My Presbyterian great-grandmother was horrified when he and my grandmother chose to be baptized by immersion in a creek in the middle of winter. She feared they would catch cold and die, leaving her to raise their infant son.

And then my grandfather became a pastor. People in my church told me that the deacons had to start giving his paycheck directly to my grandmother for fear that he would give it away on the way home to someone in need.

My father’s disillusionment with the church never seemed to fit to me. My grandfather did not seem to be hurt by anyone. I had listened to his sermons on tape and heard the people around me talk about him. If anything, he seemed ebullient and energetic. Yet my father was talking not about some big issue but about a thousand and one little matters. He had observed, close up, the sort of seamy side of church life—the Darwinism and Machiavellianism that can happen in even the smallest of congregations. I’m not sure that such things even affected my grandfather. But he had a child who was watching.

My dad kept his word. He never said another word about wishing I wouldn’t go into the ministry. Never. He was always there if I was preaching anywhere around him. He was there for my ordination. When he had multiple opportunities to say, "Didn’t I warn you?" he never did. Not once.

But what I realize now is that I judged my father too much for what I saw as a deficient spirituality—because I didn’t know what it was like to experience what he had.

We talk about "trigger warnings" often in a joking or sarcastic way these days, but we know there actually are triggers—the sights or sounds that transport our limbic systems to some other experience, sometimes without our even knowing why. Only in recent years have I realized that my aversion to the sound of a beating heart (when it shows up on, say, a television commercial or a film trailer) is probably due to my reading Edgar Allan Poe as a child. And I never realized until just a few weeks ago why, though I love the sound of a grandfather clock or mantle clock or even a cuckoo clock, I recoil at the sound of a stopwatch.

The stopwatch is the opening sound of the television news show 60 Minutes, which airs on Sunday evenings. When I heard this sound as a kid, it meant I was running late to get in the car with my grandmother for Training Union/Discipleship Training, which was sort of like Southern Baptist Sunday school at night, right before the Sunday evening worship service. What evokes bad memories for me is not the running late but the fact that I knew my father would not be going with us. And I couldn’t understand why.

He would attend on Sunday mornings for great stretches of time, but this would often taper off and then disappear. The only time I ever argued with my father—literally the only time about anything—was when, as a young adult, I made a snarky comment about my father’s spotty church attendance. Let’s just say, he was not happy. And I realized that there was a reason I had never engaged my father in a debate before that (or since). But I remember in that argument his saying something along the lines of "You haven’t seen what I’ve seen." And indeed I hadn’t.

After I was grown, I asked my grandmother why she had insisted that I was with her at church every time the doors were open—Sunday school, worship services, Training Union, Royal Ambassadors, Wednesday night prayer meetings. She said, "I wanted you to be a Christian." I asked why she also insisted that we would skip one Wednesday night every month, the only explanation being "No church tonight; it’s business meeting." She said, "Because I wanted you to be a Christian." She didn’t want me to see the sort of carnality that could break out in a Baptist congregational business meeting.

My dad, though, never had that option. The business meetings came to him. They were in his living room or at his kitchen table, and he knew that, at any time, a business meeting gone wrong could result in his losing his home, his friends, and his school and ending up somewhere entirely new. Maybe even more than that, he could see a man he revered cut apart by critics, while smiling through it all and then showing up to those same people’s hospital rooms when they were sick or standing over their caskets to recite words of comfort when they died. I never had to see that.

I suppose I never thought about all of that until, as I’ve also mentioned before, my fifteen-year-old son asked my wife in early 2021 whether I had had a moral failure or something, given the accusations swirling around—of my being a "liberal" for not supporting a politician I believe to be unfit, of being a "critical race theorist" for saying that African Americans are telling the truth about racial injustice still being a problem, of being funded by George Soros because I think that the immigration system should be fixed, etc. etc. etc.

I invited my son to come with me to one of those "business meetings" where they read out their grievances against me. When we walked out, I asked, "What did you think?"

He responded, "That whole meeting was so angry and so stupid. Why do we want to be a part of that?"

I didn’t have a good answer. But as I looked into his eyes, what I resolved at that moment included two things. The first was that my son would never have to ask again if I had failed morally because of the machinations of such people. And the second was that I was going to make sure, as much as possible, that my sons never have to see the church the way my father had to see it.

I have realized only over the last several months how, despite the fact that I loved and revered my father, on this one point I was judgmental. I chalked up to deficient spirituality what was, I now see, mostly the result of pain. It wasn’t that my father had a low view of the church; it was that he had a high view of his dad.

Just this past week, I had multiple conversations with people who grew up in evangelical churches. Some of them had been very committed and devoted. And they had been hurt. They saw the church turn against them because they wouldn’t adopt as Scripture some political ideology or personality cult. Some had seen people they trusted revealed to be frauds or even predators.

Not one of them walked away because they wanted to curry favor with "elites" or because they wanted to rebel. If anything, the posture of many of these people was not at all like that of the Prodigal Son off in the far country and much more like that of his father, waiting by the road for a prodigal they loved and wanted to embrace again: their church.

My counsel to them was different than my counsel to many of you. To them, I talked about the dangers of cynicism and how to distinguish between the failure of an institution and a failure of the One worshiped by that institution. To one person I said, "If you look at Jesus in the Gospels and you decide you cannot follow him, that’s one thing. But it would be a shame to avoid even looking at the claims of the gospel, all because you want to avoid at all costs what a church that hurt you said they believed—even more so when your problem with that church is that they didn’t seem to believe what they said they did. And it’s even more the case when Jesus warned you (in Matthew 24 and Mark 13 and Revelation 1–3 and, by the Spirit, repeatedly in the letters of Paul, Peter, John, and Jude) that such things would happen and would happen in his name."

But to you—to us—I would counsel this: Let’s believe in Jesus enough to bear patiently with those who are hurt, especially those hurt by the church. Let’s not assume that, in every case, people who are disappointed or angry or at the verge of walking away are doing so because they hold a deficient worldview or because they want to chase immorality.

There are some people for whom that is true, in every age. But many, maybe most, are not Judas seeking to flee by night. Instead, they are Simon Peter on the seashore, asking, "To whom shall we go?" (John 6:68). And many of them, like Peter himself, will conclude, "You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God" (vv. 68–69).

To many of these, Jesus will say, as he did to Peter, "I have prayed for you … that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22:32).

Let’s not mistake hurt for rebellion, trauma for infidelity, or a broken heart for an empty soul. We can convince people not to give up on the church only if we likewise refuse to give up on them.

Jesus doesn’t need us to do public relations for his 99 sheep still in the pasture; he needs us to go looking for the one who’s lost in the woods. At some time or another, that was all of us. And we counted on a church loving us enough to send in someone after us—not with bullying and shaming but with patience and love. And it might even be that the one who came to help you in your darkest moment is right now what’s called an exvangelical.

So let’s have love for the exvangelical. Let’s have the kind of community that can counteract the business meetings.

It took fifty years, but my dad taught me that.

A Reader Question: Should I Get a PhD?

A newsletter reader who serves as both a public librarian and a pastor wrote in to ask about pursuing a PhD—whether he should attempt this with a young family, a job, and a church. He wrote, "I don’t necessarily want to be a college professor and really just love learning and would love to grow in order to better serve the church. But this is where I find myself, and I’m just looking for any insight that might help me make a wise decision for the future."

My answer is this: I don’t think you should. I write that not because of your young family and your jobs—lots of people juggle all those things. Instead, I just don’t think a PhD is the best route because of the reasons you give.

Here’s why. A PhD almost never gives someone a breadth of knowledge or skill. A PhD does two things: First, it gives you a depth of study in one particular area and then further narrows that area into whatever your dissertation subject might be. Second, it teaches you how to research—in an academic setting. We need people who can do this and who are called to it.

If, though, you are interested in a subject and want to study it more deeply, I would encourage you to study that area and maybe get a master’s degree with someone who’s an expert in the field. Or look for the sorts of webinars and seminars that many colleges, universities, and seminaries offer.

For a PhD to be really worthwhile for you, I think, you would need to feel called to serve the church specifically in academic scholarship or teaching. Otherwise, there are many, many other ways to learn a subject you’re interested in and be better equipped to serve the church.

Now, that’s just my opinion, based on what you wrote. Maybe you really do have a submerged calling to just that type of ministry. Great! If so, ignore what I wrote above. But I would hate for you to go through all the blood, sweat, and tears of a PhD only to realize you were looking for something else.

Desert Island Bookshelf

This week’s submission is from the respected foreign policy and international affairs expert Knox Thames, who writes this:

If stranded on a desert island, I’d initially use the time as a spiritual retreat for the first few days.

·         A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society by Eugene Peterson would be a must. Such a deep, reflective read on steadily pursuing God and ignoring the distractions of our oversaturated society.

·         I’d also want to reread Jesus of Arabia: Christ through Middle Eastern Eyes by the Reverend Canon Andrew Thompson, former Anglican priest of St. Andrew’s Church in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. His retelling of Jesus’ parables through Arab culture opened an entirely new level of understanding.

After reflecting on my shortcomings and the sinfulness of humankind, I’d want to read books with a cautionary warning and practical advice.

·         The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer, a journalist in Germany in the 1930s and 40s, personally covered the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism, the Holocaust, and World War II. It’s considered the definitive study at 1200 pages. Well written, with many insights.

·         Across That Bridge by the late Rep. John Lewis is a moving account of his philosophy of nonviolence and loving those who do you harm, told through his remarkable life. A deeply spiritual book, it should be required reading for all seeking to change regressive systems.

For some entertainment, I’d want to keep myself distracted from the rigors of desert island living.

·         Grant by Ron Chernow (who wrote the biography inspiring the musical Hamilton) paints a very human picture of the general who won the Civil War, his mistakes as president, and his challenges after office.

·         I’d reread Dune by Frank Herbert, also set in a desert environment. Industrial-strength science fiction. Futuristic cities and space travel but also religion, ecology, and anthropology. It makes Star Wars seem like a fairy tale and Star Trek … well, Star Trek.

But after a few weeks, I’d need inspiration on how to survive on the desert island.

·         Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson is a wonderful book about the famous Lawrence of Arabia and how he learned to become a Bedouin, survive in the desert, and lead an insurgency against the Turks during World War I.

·         To also inspire, albeit in a different environment, I’d want to reread Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, about the ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition from 1914 to 1917. Great story and an excellent example of leadership overcoming incredible odds.

Lastly, after reaching a point of desperation, I’d need to build a way to escape. (How is Amazon delivering me all these books anyway?)

·         I’d find David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers. It chronicles Orville and Wilbur’s remarkable and self-taught achievements in building the first flying machine. They ignored initial ridicule and later fame, and they changed the world. "No bird soars in a calm" (Wilbur Wright).

What do you think? If you could have one bookshelf with you to last you the rest of your life, what volumes would you choose? Send a picture to me with as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

Quote of the moment

The speeches that I and others were forbidden to give were not a danger to our country; the danger to our country was the silence that they wanted to command of us.
—Karl Barth


Currently Reading

Andrew Peterson, The God of the Garden: Thoughts on Creation, Culture, and the Kingdom (B&H)

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Letter to the Romans: A Short Commentary (Eerdmans)

Brad Kessler, North: A Novel (Overlook)

This Week’s Podcast

On this week’s episode of The Russell Moore Show, I answer listener questions about "purity culture," political tensions, church divisions and polarization, and lots more. You can listen here, and be sure to send your questions to me at

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