I regularly receive an email that says:
We love what we hear on the White Horse Inn and what we get from WSC and the HB and the like and we’ve visited ostensibly Reformed congregations in our area and none of them are any different from the broadly evangelical congregations we left behind, as it were.
This is not a direct quotation from any particular post but a summary of the sort of posts I get.
What if we convince evangelicals of the Reformed confession (our theology, piety, and practice) and then have no place to send them? It happens. Readers and listeners become convinced of the Reformed confession, they seek out a congregation that is supposed to be Reformed, that confesses the Reformed theology, piety and practice. They enter the narthex with great anticipation. They’ve been hearing about “law and gospel” preaching, about “the means of grace,” about worshipping according to God’s Word, and and about fulfilling their vocation in God’s World. If I get the sort of post represented above it means that they haven’t found it.
What they often find is a poor imitation of what they left behind: manipulative preaching, sermons that neither drive sinners to Christ nor offer Christ to sinners but rather that consist of colorful illustrations (not bad in and of themselves) and advice or worse. All too frequently the services to which the anxious would-be convert to Reformed theology, piety, and practice attends, in the nominally Reformed church, are less devout than those the would-be convert (WBC) just abandoned.
Remember, these WBCs are often folks with deep roots in their evangelical congregations who, perhaps, have gone to considerable lengths to introduce the Reformation to their pietist/revivalist congregations. These are often folks who have already suffered a good bit for the sake of Christ, who, only after months and perhaps years of personal struggle, have broken with their evangelical congregation only to find themselves in a sort of wilderness: outside of their old evangelical congregation and unable to find a Reformed congregation that actually embraces and practices the Reformed confession.
The great irony of all this is not only that the WBC too frequently can’t find any place that will help them convert to Reformed theology, piety and practice but that what the WBC finds is that their new “Reformed” congregation wants to find all about the evangelical congregation the WBC has just abandoned. Of course this is just Israel trying to catch up on the latest fashions from Egypt or perhaps Samaria, if you like. “What scripture songs is your congregation singing? Do you have a praise band? How many programs do they have? Do they have an emerging service?”
All the while the WBC is weeping inside. Hoping for psalms and sacraments she has found puppets and playdoh. Instead of gospel and exposition she is given advice and assimilation to evangelicalism.
The other great irony of the case of the WBC is that the point of accommodating Reformed theology, piety, and practice to modern revivalist and pragmatic evangelicalism is to “grow the church.” So here comes in the door someone who is looking for what only the Reformed theology, piety, and practice can offer and she finds nothing because the nominally Reformed congregation is busy looking for someone else, someone who, according to the latest statistics, isn’t coming.
Is that WBC not a visitor? What if our “church growth” programs are actually “church death” programs? What if we’re questing for something that, in ten years, we shall see to have been a chimera, an illusion, something that never really existed?
The narcissistic boomers settled for puppets and playdoh years ago. Their children are divided. Some of them are enthused about the Reformation but the others are not. The grandchildren of the boomers, by and large, have turned their back on that in favor of the emerging/emergent movement. The only way the grandchildren of the boomers know how to rebel is to become eclectic and quasi-papist.
The Schuller model for Reformed church growth (adapted by Willow Creek and Saddleback and by entirely too many of our congregations) is a failure. Bob said that he was going to teach the Reformed faith during the mid-week. It never happened and, as far as I can see, it doesn’t happen in the nominally confessional congregations that have tried to adapt that model. James Montgomery Boice was right: What you use to get them in the door is what you will have to use to keep them in the doors.
The only good thing about this tragic and unnecessary scenario, is that, like the old Greek Orthodox churches, if those congregations that are actually, practically confessional, can just hang on long enough so that some great-grand children of the boomers might one day find us interesting again.
Or, we could skip the whole boom and bust cycle. Instead we could worship, preach the Word, administer the sacraments and discipline like Calvin rather than worshiping like Muntzer. We could raise our children in the covenant of grace and be ready to receive the evangelicals when they get tired of being beat up and abused in their hip but vacuous congregations. We could reach out to the lost by lay witness to the gospel and chiefly through gospel-preaching from our pulpits. Imagine what might happen if we prayed for the lost in our community and made our congregations ready for the moment when we bring our lost neighbor to worship and imagine if, on that Sabbath, the minister actually sounded like Christ’s minister, like a man who has been possessed with the vision of the crucified and ascended Christ instead of a poor-man’s Tim Russert or Bill Hybels?
A man can dream.
[First published in February, 2008 under the Title, “One of the More Distressing Posts”]