Our Faddy American Church Mess & The REFORMED Dilemma
I am so tired of arguing against the next fad that comes at me from American evangelicalism. Just when I think I have heard it all, some new idea, some new thing comes across my desk challenging what is perceived as the dead orthodoxy of the past. And, once again, I am off to the races just trying to keep up with next fad that has already traveled through to the four corners of our hedonistic worldly-minded American church market. From the pulpit to the plexiglass to the stage, from “Shine, Jesus Shine” to Christian rap, from the mega-church to the emergent, and from the squaring off of the affluent church boomers with the grungy Gen-Xers and the Millennials; is there ever an end to this abyss, this sea of fads that are allegedly claiming to provide us the way to real spiritual enlightenment?
At least years ago lines were better demarcated. You had the mainstream denominations and then some independent Bible churches, but you knew where they stood. A Baptist was a Baptist, a Presbyterian, a Presbyterian and so on; churches, for the most part, were consistent with their convictions and were at least somewhat uniform in practice and belief. Today, it is tragic that I can’t be confident about where any church stands on doctrine or practice. There are so many new coffee-shop churches popping up in reaction to something else, there just is no way to keep up with it all.
Never would I have dreamed, however, that this problem would become so acute in the Reformed world. I had an old well-known Reformed minister once say to me, “You will see a lot of fads come and go here in America, most churches lack confessional integrity, they are tied to shifting sands of new ideas; but not Reformed churches, history has shown that when all is said and done, Reformed churches have remained unaffected by these faddy trends.” I loved hearing that. It made me feel safe. I wouldn’t have to deal with these worldly worship trends in Reformed churches. I wouldn’t have to deal with people challenging the integrity of our confessions that over the last four-hundred years have allowed us to walk together in the spirit of unity and the bond of peace. Reformed churches were safe, so I thought; we have our confessional fence to keep out the wolves.
Well, it is no shock as to what might happen even to the Reformed in this stoplight saga of the American church. “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile” used to be Oldsmobile’s catch line for the next generation of auto buyers. “We have something new and hip; something that isn’t like what your fathers bought”. Ironically, Oldsmobile couldn’t adapt to the next generation and the division died within a few years. In the American church, the phenomenon has been similar. The boomers thought their kids would like the praise bands, the new hip storytelling approach from the stage, the big buildings, the nice parking lots, the youth church barn and all; but, it just didn’t work, they couldn’t buy the souls of their children. Slowly they watched them leave.
I was struck by this phenomenon locally. Last Saturday night around 9:00 PM I went through the drive-up of a local coffee shop and it was packed inside with grey heads. I asked the barista, “What is going on tonight”? She belted back, “Church just got out”. I couldn’t believe what I saw, a room full of baby-boomers who, I generally suppose, once attended a mainstream denominational church in town. Ironically, I didn’t see any young people in the coffee shop. So where are they going? Why weren’t they with their parents? It doesn’t take much to figure this out. Others have critiqued the problem in much detail—just read David Wells' book The Courage to Be Protestant. The next generation is tired of the empty religion of their parent’s mega-churches. They want substance. They want meaning, spirituality. Where have they found it? Reformed theology is a theology of substance; everyone knows that. Here you can have what has been so lacking in the evangelical world, a God! And this is where the new generation has parked for a while.
Those in Reformed churches who have held the post for the last four-hundred years, while thankful for a recovery of Reformed soteriology to some degree, still remain concerned for a few legitimate reasons. What is being accepted as Reformed today, in practice, looks nothing like the heritage and convictions that arose out of the Reformation. It’s a strange phenomenon, and, some would argue, dangerous. This new generation of “Reformed” haven’t broken as far from the values of their boomer parents as some might expect; in other words, they really haven’t rejected the menu-style approach to religion that they have been so accustomed to in the their parent's suburbia narcissistic lifestyle. They are used to picking and choosing what they like, rejecting whatever might remind them of the “heartless” religion they experienced in their past. So in this pursuit for Biblical relevance, what has been left-behind in the process?
What we are seeing play out before us is a strange combination of Biblicism with an attraction to the soteriology of the Reformed churches. But in the process, the very confessions that define Reformed faith and practice are de facto rejected upon the same premise shared with the previous generation; namely, that the problem has always been the cold authority structures of the church expressed in the demand to hold to “heartless” creeds and confessions. Well, it doesn’t take much to figure out what is going to happen in this sea of chaos. Both groups (the evangelical boomers and their children) have the same starting premise, both travel different paths in search for relevance, and both will meet at the same dead end of religious biblicistic subjectivism, disillusioned as they grope for relevance.
What these “reformed” newcomers don’t realize is that this experiment was already tried in Europe years ago with the Enlightenment & German Romanticism. What I hear today echoes paradigmatically the ideas of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834)--I suppose there is a reason he is called the "father of modern liberal theology". Schleiermacher writes, “Religious forms should not in themselves hinder any man from developing a religion suitable to his own nature and his own religious sense.” Creeds and confessions, dogmas, propositional statements, belong to the religious experience of the community at the time of their origination, but they should not deprave anyone of the immediate sense of the God-consciousness upon the heart. Hmm...as the saying goes, those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.
The dilemma for those in classic Reformed churches is that now they are confronted with a whole new wave of so-called Reformed people who are picking and choosing what they like about the tradition. It really has created a challenge for those who want to remain confessionally Reformed and actually hold to the tradition of their fathers. The challenges are immense. Take a confused young person who has had some bad experience with catechism instruction and lecture style preaching; hey, the new “Reformed” group down the street gives you the best of both worlds, cool music and the five-points of Calvinism, and you can even wear shorts. It’s only a matter of time until the departure.
Let me be fair in my critique and not pass the buck too quickly. Much of what claims to be Reformed today even from the established tradition itself leaves little to be desired in terms of the historic convictions of classic Protestantism. It’s painful to admit, but I do. On one hand there is the problem of a certain kind of traditionalism that seems to do a lot of law pounding and little gospel preaching. On the other hand, many Reformed churches from the tradition itself have completely assimilated into so-called American evangelicalism. In other words, we too have walked the line so close to evangelicalism that it’s a bit unfair to criticize everyone else for picking and choosing what they want to throw out from the Reformed tradition, while we have done the same thing. There are just too many half-way houses in the tradition itself, why not let a few more come in from the back-door? I say this only to be fair in assessing that the same problem lies within our own house, and, sadly, very few see anything of real difference in some Reformed bodies than what they experienced in evangelicalism.
But all said, how should confessional churches move forward when the lines have become so blurred? Part of the answer is to recognize how dangerous these religious fads are. If we are any bit perceptive to the course of religious movements in history, when thinking of our current Reformed dilemma, I suspect that the new generation of “Reformed” before us will not ultimately be satisfied, because, again, it is too tied to the shifting fads they have always been exposed to. Why do I say this? The core issue here still seems to be over worship. And if you have come to disregard what the Protestant Reformation recovered in dialogical simple worship based on the LORD’s expressed commandments (RPW), then it is painfully evident that these new “Reformed” people are still on their Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE). That is a time-bomb.
Reformed churches holding fast to their confession have always found great satisfaction and fulfillment in worshiping as God commands because such obedience defines Biblical freedom. For Calvin and the Reformers, true Reformation always started with worship. Much of what is being accepted today as Reformed worship is a serious defection from the Word of God and our Reformed confessions. There are, of course, other questions that need to be asked. If I were involved in one of these new networks of Reformed churches, I would stop and ask, why are we all of the same age? Why do we all look the same? Why do we dress the same? Why, as David Wells has observed, do we keep kicking the same denominational dog if we really believe it’s dead? Why don’t we represent the church of Jesus Christ as we should, not only of every tribe and tongue, but also of every different age-group? Why doesn’t our model look much like 1 Cor 12? Why does nothing about us look or sound "other-worldly" or separate from the world as the BIble calls us to be? And, why are we so tied to personalities? Answering honestly these questions may painfully expose that people are caught up in just another American fad while fulfilling the need for a substantive soteriology that the Reformed faith provides.
When all is said and done, and this new fad breaks apart with some new idea, some new practice, some new doctrine, we will have to pick up the pieces--especially if some of our young people have gotten caught up in the trend. I suggest we start now. As Reformed Christians, we should remain diligent and steadfast in recovering our Reformed confession. We are called to hold fast to what defines the Reformed faith, even when our children seem to be attracted to these half-way houses. Right now the lines aren’t so clear for our people, and, therefore, we have a great opportunity presented to us to speak with clarity as to what it means to be Reformed. Not sure what it will take to shake people out of the faddy form of Christianity they have been so exposed to, but I know that a good place to begin is to recognize that the Holy Spirit has worked in the lives of many of those who have gone before us; maybe it’s time to start listening to our fathers of the past. CJG
THE GORDIAN KNOT
n. 1. An exceedingly complicated problem or deadlock. 2. An intricate knot tied by King Gordius of Phrygia and cut by Alexander the Great with his sword after hearing an oracle promise that whoever could undo it would be the next ruler of Asia.
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