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

Book Suggestion: Recovering the Reformed Confession
The Courage to Be Protestant

Related Posts:
The Contextualization Mess
The Cult of Personality
The Great-Sex Controversy


  1. We're very dismayed as we battle this same shift in the PCA, our background is much more confessional and conservative, but this is the only option anywhere near our location. Thanks for the clear presentation. May the Lord continue to bless His faithful servants in the URC!

  2. Yes Zepmom you are right. Clear presentation...

  3. Rev. Gordon, wrote, "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."

    Yet, I'm also often perplexed how many classic confessional reformed people attempt to defend their traditional worship practices or preferences - over and against new forms of preferences in public worship.

    Take for example, having a preference for the traditional organ and traditional hymns to satisfy the element of praise in public worship. How is this preference better than guitars and contemporary spiritual songs? Either forms of doctrinally sound praise, whether old or new, are equally just praise "preferences".

    When it comes to matters of public worship, shouldn’t we humbly bow before God and seek what he requires of us rather than implement what we prefer?

    Retaining or allowing a little preferential will-worship here and there (even if doctrinally sound) in our public worship will always provide justification for generations to defect a little further as time allows. Once the principle is compromised it is compromised.

    If classic reformed people insist on the implementing the regulative-principle-of-worship (RPW) then the result will be a simple worship service instituted by God with no human invention or strange fire.

    The elements of worship are clearly known and have been revealed throughout reformed history. What worship God accepts he has commanded. What type of worship we prefer is not relevant.

    It begs the question, Does God accept our worship and how do we know that he does?

  4. So is it not possible to have a Reformed church of "confessional integrity" that preaches from the Scriptures attended by grungy Gen-X'ers and hippies wearing shorts? Need the pulpit be made of wood, or can a Reformed pastor preach from a music stand, drink out of a plastic water bottle, eschew the "lecture style" and still preach in a God-honoring, Bible-honoring way? Can we sing from the Psalms with a guitar and drum set? Has nothing been written since the Blue Psalter was published that is worthy of being sung in church?

    I don't intend any sarcasm, although I'm a little frustrated by this post. I would just like your honest answer.

  5. Hi Tim,

    Yes, at the LURC we invite all to come and sit under the preaching of the gospel--Boomers, Gen-Xers (of which I am one), and even hippies.

    There seems to be lacking in your questions an understanding of the differences between the elements and circumstances of worship. I would recommend Michael Horton’s book, A Better Way. It will help you sort through these questions.

    Yes, using a raised pulpit of wood with the ordained minister standing feet planted behind it is Biblical (See Neh. 8:4), it communicates that the Word is central. There was a reason in Europe that the pulpits were raised and the ministers had to walk up into them and plant their feet. Re: drums, what do you think would have happened if someone brought drums into the Holy Place? As for your last question, we are working on that!

  6. I have similar questions as Tim, and am curious as to your response.

    I would imagine that the response to drums being brought into the Holy Place would be about the same as bringing a pipe organ in. Would you agree?

    If Neh. 8:4 is your reasoning for having a wooden pulpit, does that mean that services at LURC also last from daybreak to noon, the pastor is flanked by 13 men during the service, and the people in the congregation respond with loud "Amens"? That is how the service is described in the verses surrounding that text.

    When you talk about looking "other-worldly", are you talking about our surface appearances, as in our clothing, hairstyles, and musical preferences? Or do you mean the way we conduct our lives? The way I read this post, it seems that it is referring more to surface appearances, and if they fit a tradition or not. Isn't what we do more important?

    I attend a church that incorporates worship styles ranging from a praise band to organ to a choir in robes to liturgical dances (based on references of David dancing in worship in the Psalms). Our congregation ranges in age from young children up to those in their eighties. We also have numerous outreaches to the community including a community garden, Spanish ministry, a homeless ministry, outreach to the youth of town, and multiple overseas missionaries. Is this what it looks like to be “other-worldly”?
    Like Tim, I don’t intend sarcasm, but from how I read your post, it seems that I would be viewed as blending into the world because I wear jeans and attend a church where we worship with musical instruments besides the organ. I am curious what you think.

  7. Hi Philip,

    Alright, I found some time to answer you. Thanks for your questions, and I hope my answers help you sort through some of these issues.

    You write, “I would imagine that the response to drums being brought into the Holy Place would be about the same as bringing a pipe organ in. Would you agree?”

    My point is that certain instruments are more appropriate to the circumstances of worship. I have heard drums in rock concerts, but corporate worship? It’s a recent phenomenon and hardly provides for harmonious leading without completely making what is holy feel common. Certain instruments are more appropriate to the setting for worship, and I am certainly not arguing for an organ as opposed to another instrument that leads in a harmonious way without drowning out the voices of the hearers.

    You Write, “If Neh. 8:4 is your reasoning for having a wooden pulpit, does that mean that services at LURC also last from daybreak to noon, the pastor is flanked by 13 men during the service, and the people in the congregation respond with loud "Amens"? That is how the service is described in the verses surrounding that text.”

    I reject the premise of this argument, Philip. As I said to Tim, there seems to be lacking in your questions an understanding of the differences between the elements and circumstances of worship. The pulpit was a place for the Word to be set, as the Minister proclaimed the message directly given to him by God in the Scriptures. It communicated to the people that the element of proclamation is in place and not to be tampered with. This is hardly done today as most ministers prance around the “stage” telling stories and entertaining the people with topical homilies that have no real obedience to the command to preach “Christ and him crucified.” The other things that you reference are circumstances.

  8. You write, When you talk about looking "other-worldly", are you talking about our surface appearances, as in our clothing, hairstyles, and musical preferences? Or do you mean the way we conduct our lives? The way I read this post, it seems that it is referring more to surface appearances, and if they fit a tradition or not. Isn't what we do more important?"

    Anytime we get into dress, people get real sensitive. The question is, what are you doing on Sunday? This issue gets to how you view worship. If you understand what it means to be in the presence of God, it is going to have a bearing on how you look, and act. I reject your distinction between the two. But often, the way people dress today in worship completely defies any sense that we are coming before a holy God. Fact is, the Lord’s holiness doesn’t matter much to people anymore. I am not speaking of promoting rules for dress—I do react against a certain kind of legalism that way. But don’t we have commands from God regarding dress? 1 Timothy 2:9 "in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing” Some of the women dress like they are going to a night club. Surely you are not going to tell me that mini skirts and daisies are permissible in worship. Why? Because “surface appearance" does matter. To dress like that defies God's holiness and causes stumbling blocks for others. I am also speaking specifically to the grunge dress of many young people as they wear sagging pants, hats/beanies on in worship, t-shirts out, etc. There is no respect anymore in coming before a holy God. We treat him so casually, just as one of the boys. Why wouldn’t you give God your first-fruits of dress too? You do it in the culture, don’t you?

    Years ago, “surface appearance” meant something? Why doesn’t it now? Try your mentality at your next job interview; it wouldn’t even work there. The honest answer to this is that, in the church, we are embarrassed of anything that feels churchy or formal. And why is this, well… it all runs together in the preaching, in the service, etc., we look at lot like the world both ways.

  9. You write, I attend a church that incorporates worship styles ranging from a praise band to organ to a choir in robes to liturgical dances (based on references of David dancing in worship in the Psalms).”

    Yes, I know well what the CRC does as I grew up in one. We had the same thing as you experience—two services, one contemporary and the other more traditional. It was amazing what became allowed, and what were the limits? Our Belgic warns against doing things outside of the expressed commandments of God in corporate worship. This violates the Reformed RPW.

    Liturgical dances? Philip, with all due respect are you read in our history? I would encourage you to read Calvin on worship. These things are totally unacceptable in worship, and violate God’s holiness and are rejected by him. If you want to liturgical dance down main street, like David did, you are more than welcome, but David would have been incinerated, as Uzzah was for just touching the ark, if he would have done this in the Holy Place. We have boldness to enter the holiest now by the blood of Christ, that demands, as Hebrews says, that we fear and tremble, and worship God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. Liturgical dancing hardly honors this. As David Feddes, a CRC pastor warns, be careful, you are in a danger zone in worship—“Psalm 50:22-23 Now consider this, you who forget God, Lest I tear you in pieces, And there be none to deliver: Whoever offers praise glorifies Me; And to him who orders his conduct aright I will show the salvation of God."

  10. Some other thoughts, God does not change. In Leviticus 10, when Nadab and Abihu offered a profane fire before the LORD, we read that fire fell from heaven and consumed them. The principle of worship was then declared by the Lord in Leviticus 10:3 "By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; And before all the people I must be glorified." Since the Lord does not change, the same principle is restated in the NT in Hebrews 12:28-29, "Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may worship God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.”

    What is acceptable worship? First, remember that Colossians condemns all forms of will-worship (imposing our own inventions and ideas into the worship of God) when it states that there can be an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed worship. We do not decide how best to worship God. The elements are defined for us in Scripture; namely, prayer, confession of sin, reading of the Word, preaching of the gospel, singing of Psalms, sacraments. Since much of contemporary worship profanes God's holiness, and disregards his clear commands to worship with reverence and godly fear, modeling the service on entertainment, much of it is rejected by the LORD. For some reason we think that worship in the Spirit means that God has left us with a free for all when we come before him. But, in all actuality, to worship in Spirit and truth means that we are not kept away by shadowy types and veils, and bulls, etc., but now are in the face of God so to speak, having direct access through the work of the Spirit because of Christ's blood.

    This, all the more, requires that we honor God in the way he desires to be worshipped since we are right in the holy of holies. There is a lot written on this. I would commend Michael Horton's book, A Better Way, and In the Face of God. I also have a little book by W. Robert Godfrey on Honoring God in our


  11. I have a couple comments... one is this:
    Psalm 150 says "Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,praise him with the harp and lyre,praise him with tambourine and dancing,praise him with the strings and flute, praise him with the clash of cymbals,praise him with resounding cymbals."
    These few verses actually bring in several of the things that you have spoken of in this post. One, drums. Yes, drums. Cymbals, resounding cymbals - are a percussion instrument. Drums.Many instruments are mentioned here, leading me to be convinced that they are perfectly acceptable in worship so long as they are used as that - worship. Not for a concert, but for the worship of the One, True, Holy, Almighty God, the Creator of heaven and earth.
    Additionally, it brings in dancing - praising God in dance, also acceptable, even good.
    Now, I must admit that I always am a bit (read: a LOT) skepticle about many of these things, especially dancing that is planned as part of the service. To me, that becomes too much of a show - but to dance before the Lord as David and Miriam did for the things that He has done, where is that condemned? Are we to pay more attention to the teaching of Calvin in terms of the traditions of worship within the Church, or to how the Bible says to praise the Lord? Praise Him with the sounding of the trumpet, with the resounding cymbals, with the harp and lyre, with the tambourine and dancing.
    Additionally, at the times of greatest celebration the number of used instruments was huge! All the Levites who were musicians playing cymbals, harps and lyres, and 120 trumpets (2 Chronicles 5:12-14). I don't think this is forbidding instrument use, besides that of an organ, in worship.

    To finish - I want you to know that I am a very conservative person and I long to be in a church and to sing with an organ again - there is simply not a church near me with solid theology that uses an organ. I do think,however, that occasionally we (myself included) put too much emphasis (as the pharisees did) on our own traditions and what Calvin said and forget to remember that there is not (PLEASE correct me if I am wrong in this statement) an instrument mentioned in the Bible that God has forbidden to use for His glory - and that Calvin is not inerrant.

  12. Interesting discussion.
    I like your description: "reformed" soteriology without reformed worship or sacramental observance. That does some up this group (which, yes, includes Driscoll Mahaney and Co.
    Have you read "Young, Restless, Reformed." It consistently uses "calvinist" to describe the groups in question. And yet Calvin would probably roll over in his grave.

    I'm a part of the generation that is seeking after this new "reformed" church. I can see the hunger on today's college campuses. At one point, our church had an influx of about a dozen students from a public university 30 minutes away, many of whom became members. Their desire for confessional theology was apparent and several of them have since pursued seminary -- few of them had grown up in confessional churches. It was gratifying because we didn't even have to pursue them with novel worship practices.

    In light of that hunger, I'm afraid confessional reformed churches are going to loss a precious opportunity to these newer forms.

    I've even seen some people from churches as liturgically orthodox as the CanRC leave for Driscoll satellite congregations -- that shocked me. I'm glad to see your concern as well.

  13. I'm curious (since the discussion seems headed this way) about two things:

    How does the issue of Mosaic (old covenant) worship play into the discussion of the RPW? How do we pick from scripture when, perhaps, some of this was exclusive to temple worship and needs to be left behind in favor of the new covenant institution?


    I'm trying to divine whether some of the posters here are under the impression that the organ defines orthodox worship.
    While it may in current practice, the organ, I believe, (correct me if I'm wrong) was strongly denounced by Calvin himself and he had no intention of his psalms being accompanied at all. I believe we can thank the Dutch for bending his method (probably because they couldn't sing well).

    I find even in some "orthodox" reformed churches, that the organ has become a performance. While beautiful, I find some of these congregates have determined an elaborate musical performance during worship is ok as long as it is in a minor key or has a baroque appeal.

    Honest question: I enjoy the organ immensely and find it capable of, when in the right hand, of producing some truly inspiring music.
    Am I being "emotionally raped" as you say when I go to one of these worship services?

    This is an important question for me mainly because I suspect some proponents of the Genevan Psalter of promoting it based on its current form (accompanied by organ), and then on the other hand trying to defend them because, "this is Calvin's music." Most of them seem to have no idea what they are talking about and are just appealing to a style of music they grew up with.

    Ok...I should stop now.

  14. Shouldn't we make a distinction between corporate worship and personal praise/worship. Certainly the old testament made a distinction here and the church should as well. I agree that we should praise God with our whole being, and that the psalms are used for this purpose. God has also commanded corporate worship to be done according to his design, even with the fulfillment of the law in Christ, this is still to be practiced in the new testament church.

    What are your thoughts on this?

  15. Hi Mark, Good questions, have you looked a Scott Clark's book Recovering the Reformed Confessions?-- he deals with a lot of these issues. You're correct that often what is familiar to us is the basis for what we believe is Biblical and orthodox--thus, your concerns via the organ are legitimate. As for the emotional rape questions, I don't know, are you singing the truth as it is in Jesus? I think you know the distinction here, right?

  16. Hi Jason, you ask, "Shouldn't we make a distinction between corporate worship and personal praise/worship." Absolutely, and I believe a failure to make this distinction has led to much confusion. King David dancing in the street with the linen ephod is quite a bit different than how he acted before the ark of the covenant--see 1 Sam 6. Thanks!