All Dressed Up With Nowhere to Go

An HB Classic on Recovering the Reformed Confession

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.

Recovering the Reformed Confession-FeaturedWhat 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”]

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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21 comments

  1. Do we really have to wait that long for your book, Dr. Clark? Bummer.

    Maybe P&R needs to change their name to R&R to more accurately reflect their turnaround time!

  2. Great Post!!! Very encouraging.

    I can’t wait for the book. Just make sure you talk about union with Christ . . . every paragraph . . . on every page. It doesn’t have to make sense, just throw the phrase in. That way we won’t have to put up with all the silly reviews.

  3. Dr. Clark,
    This post is very timely. As a frequent listener to the WHI, I have found the scenario you gave at the top of your post to be true in my experience. I used to go to a PCA church, but you would have never known it was PCA in its style or preaching. A woman led the “music” “praise-style”, about 30-40 minutes worth, and then we would have a 20 minute homily…(sermon). The Pastor said he was dedicated to “Law and Gospel” preaching but never did it. Instead we had large topical series…

    It does seem that the message has not gone from the head to the sould (experimentally). But all is not lost, we have found a church that is and does what it believes. Albeit we looked for a good long time.

    We need a Reformation among the Reformed.

    Gage Browning
    Post Tenebras Lux

  4. Dr Clark,

    I am one of those you speak of in your article. God took me to my knees about 8 years ago and I saw myself from His eyes. I mourned in sack cloth and ashes almost to the point of suicide. Then I arose with a desire to study scripture and I did, at first 60-80 hours a week sometimes hitting 120, and now I’ve leveled off to about 40 and been there ever since.

    I had thought I was saved in my former dispensational/arminian belief only to find the fully reformed faith to be the truth of scripture. Armed with all this knowledge, I have no place to worship. I’m craving the fellowship of like minded reformers and I know hundreds of others, just like me, who have no place to call home. If I have run across hundreds who have been called to the same path I have then I can only surmise the number out there must significant.

    Dreaming about it won’t get us anywhere. What can be done to fix the problem? Can we set up an accountability system and let them know it’s going to be published. Will that humilate them into tightening up their doctrines and teachings or force them to remove the name reformed from their doors. Does it take someone going “face to face-in their face” to force change? I don’t know. I do know this – if we do what is right in the “eyes of God”, we can move mountains.

    AMEN to the “We need a Reformation among the Reformed.” The question on the table for everyone here is – What are YOU doing about it? I’m willing to volunteer.

    This may be a crazy suggestion, but it’s a thought. Set a date of compliance out in time. Set up a website demanding that reformed Churches teach a list of criticial doctrines. Get it in the hands of every reformed minister. On that date, surveys will be introduced into their congregations and they will be graded on their success and on their adherence to the teaching to the reformed faith. Results will be published. We could call the campaign “Truth in Reformed Advertising”. Refusal to participate results in the Church receiving an “F”.

    As you may be able to tell, I’m a little militant about the topic. Sorry if I come across strong. I’m tired of seeing “reformed” on the door and it being anything but. I’m one of those in the wilderness crying out for change.

    Thanks
    Dorothy

  5. Scott,

    The way I have come to describe this phenomenon varies:

    As one is coming in the front door of an ostensibly Reformed community, having left the Evangelical fiesta down the steet, they are darting out the back door to go the same party. Like I have been saying for years now, “Turn around! Come back! There’s nothing there.” I only see a collective yawn and shrug given the treasures they have. At best, they treat their heritage with a condescending and patronizing demeanor. When it really matters they turn to Willow Creek and all that’s left is an empty shell nobody really cares about.

    Zrim

  6. Have any of you checked out Protestant Reformed Churches? Their web site is http://www.prca.org . I have gone through the wilderness, thirsting and panting for a true Reformed church. I have studied denominations, and in my opinion, they are at the bullseye of true and pure Reformed doctrine, and they also do the best job of practicing it in their churches and in promoting Reformed doctrine.

    They do have a directory of churches to see if there is a church in your area. In any event, at that web site, you can read articles and even listen to audio sermons and read articles. Check them out! You will be blessed.

  7. I wholeheartedly acknowledge the problem. I feel as though we have “been through the mill” as far as churches having a reformed confession, but almost totally ignoring it in faith and practice. We have finally found a PCA church in SW Florida which lives up to the standards it confesses and preaches Christ , and Him crucified. I pray that we would continue to be faithful to the King of the church.

    There are sermons online at http://www.nfmpresbyterian.org

  8. Dr. Clark:

    Coming late to this post in search of materials on Hybels and R. Warren.

    Some indications that R. Warren is feeling some pinches from the internet and online world. Warren is playing the trump card of “Pharisees” to objectors and Confessional types bringing criticism. If he’s feeling the pinch, good.

    Issues, etc. offered a rejoinder on the trump card. Sort of like the race and gender card has been played in socio-political contexts. At: http://issuesetc.org/?p=4

    May we “actively profess and confess” our Confessional faith.

    Regards.

  9. This post was first written 5 years ago. It was true then. How bizarre that it is so much more true now. I have seen the Reformed world go bonkers… and then bark at others for staying true to Reformation worship and doctrine.

    I have seen ministers get ostracized and suffer in their profession for being faithful to the Reformation- and this from the hands of other “Reformed” ministers and professors who have more power and are part of the right clique.

    I am one of these that you described in the post, who is in a wasteland. One really is left in the wilderness… and it seems so odd that there are not basic Reformation churches that hold to the simple worship of God in sincerity…

    … without the Christian counseling palooza (as though Christ crucified and the true forgiveness of sins are not enough),
    … or the hipstah Reformed cool boys who are pastors,
    … or the “praise teams” and their funky songs that mean nothing,
    … or the fuzziness on the freeness of the gospel and the finished work of Christ (i.e., the Law/Gospel distinction),
    … or the Covenant Blenders © (collapsing the covenants of works and grace),
    … or the freedom police who blow the whistle and release the german shepherds if they find someone who is actually believing and enjoying the grace of God.

    The other day, I actually said to my wife, “Let’s move to Savannah and be members at Independent Presbyterian and just quietly worship God and mind our own business.” Savannah is a long way away from our homestead.

    By the way: My name is not really Jud Budkins. I am using a false identity to protect myself. Where I live, you can lose the farm for writing what I just wrote.

    Dr. Clark, thank you for writing this. It is very true. I just wish I knew what could be done about it.

    • Bud Judkins !

      I love ‘Covenant Blenders’ (or ‘Covenant Smoothies’?). And Freedom Police is straight out of 1984. Then maybe ‘Holy Ghostbusters’ for the Grace-deniers?

      Seriously, and for RSC too of course, how can we tell who is Reformed and who is ‘Reformed’? At least over here in the UK, both have the right confession on the wall. It is the fuzziness over the Law-Gospel divide that is key, and even then it is often only seen in the small print footnote: ‘You are gloriously free…….Note 1:but avoid grace abuse’.

      I always think Phil 2 12 can sort out the pastors from the impostors (or the great ministers from the grace mincers)

    • Thanks, Richard UK.

      Sounds like things are kind of sloppy over in the United Kingdom (i.e. mixing of Law and gospel, etc.)… I hope the very best for you, brother, and that you find a great church that is clear on the gospel and reverent in it’s worship of God at the same time.

      I fear that we Americans have exported a cheesy Christianity and worship that lacks God centeredness. It’s sad… I find reading Calvin is such a wonderful boon to counteract man centeredness… yet doing it in a way that is full of joy at the same time.

      As far as the gospel goes, have you ever read the full and unedited version of Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians? It is incredible! I think it must be one of the tope 3 best books written since the 1500’s.

      God bless you!

    • Jud Bud

      In the US it is fashionable to wear some Christian identity, so easy-believism is common. If an easy-believist is not in fact a believer, then he needs the gospel. If he is a believer drawn to licence, then he still need the expulsive power of the new affection – the gospel. Using the law to scare him away from licence simply whitewashes the outside

      In the UK most people are (as I was) post-Christian, hardened atheists, so our Christian rump is muscular ‘iron man’ stuff inherited from our Victorian Empire stiff upper lip days. Almost all denominations (including the charismatics) call themselves evangelical and love moralism (except the liberals found in the Anglican and United Reform churches). As evangelicals we know we must leave works at the door to be justified sola fide, but we love picking up those works again once inside the door. We much prefer the safety of servanthood to the bold but ‘risky’ appropriation of sonship. When the outside world stays away from our joyless moralism, we assume we are undergoing persecution!

      Incidentally the number of Presbyterian or Lutheran churches in England is laughably negligible (Scotland and N Ireland are better off); and many Reformed churches adopt the aphorism ‘the Law sends you to Christ, and Christ sends you back to the Law’ – don’t you love it!

      I indeed read the full and unedited version of Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians in the late 1980’s and I still think it is the most exciting book (with Steve Poulson’s full-version Lutheran Theology coming second). I remember metaphorically looking over my shoulder thinking that I could be arrested as a heretic for reading such an inflammatory freedom manifesto. It is a crime that abridged versions cut out some of the best bits (the Syro-Phoenician woman)

      • Richard,

        It’s true that in some places it’s relatively easy to call oneself a Christian but increasingly in urbanized areas that’s not true. Hostility to Christians seems to be on the increase in urban and suburban areas in the USA. Much of the USA is post-Christian.

    • Hi Richard,

      So good to hear of someone in the UK who has read and loves ML’s “Lectures on Galatians!”

      I also enjoyed hearing your thoughts re: the Victorian era… That is something I’d like to study more in the future. Martyn Lloyd Jones seemed to despise it- I guess he thought it was moralistic.

      Recently, my wife read Spurgeon’s (who was a “good” Victorian!) autobiography, where he constantly shared that he was a sinner and law breaker and saw his ever present need for a Savior. At the same time, I was reading “Radical,” one of the popular bandwagon books infesting America. In it, the author seemed to be barking, “Get Radical! I’m doing it. My friends are doing it. My church is doing it. You can do it.” I.E., You can keep the 2 great commandments! Just try harder… and this time, really mean it!

      I thought it ironic that Spurgeon, who was constantly confessing that he was not “radical” or failing in his commitment lived a much more “radical” life than the author of the American book has ever lived!

      Spurgeon was not self deceived. He knew he was a Law breaker, even as a Christian. All he had was grace and a bloody cross that was lifted up on a Friday afternoon. Yet, his life was beautiful (to use Victorian verbiage!) The “radical” author loads us all down with burdens he himself can’t carry… and doesn’t carry.

      Romans 3 says, “There is no one righteous, no not one.”

      My wife, getting at the sense of this text for our day, says:

      “There is no one RADICAL, no not one.”

      We all need the Savior.

      God bless you,

      Jud

  10. Could it be that people are not actually going to Reformed churches? Perhaps they are going to churches with no historical connection to the Reformed tradition and with ministers like Mark Driscoll? Perhaps they are going to “Reformed charismatic” churches? It is quite interesting that they also tend to withhold baptism from infants.

    I just found this video of Driscoll where he says “cessationism is worldliness,” and the description refers to his teaching as “Reformed” and cessationism as an “enemy of the gospel” (I am assuming this is a description by the person who uploaded the video and not Driscoll or his church). Sounds like fighting words to me.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7nq_L4ME94

    But hey, it is confusing when you have guests like Driscoll on the WHI, or someone from his church on a recent program on sexual abuse (Justin Halcomb) who happens to teach at Reformed Theological Seminary. http://www.amazon.com/Justin-Holcomb/e/B00418WRX0/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1

  11. From a pastor’s perspective who has become more confessionally reformed (Baptist).

    We too feel like there is no where for us to go. Trying to have an ordinary means ministry in an evangelical church growth model church is exhausting.

    Perhaps these visitors should talk to the pastor and see what the situation is… maybe he’s trying to bring them back to confessionalism after the church has been in attractionalism mode for a long time. Maybe he needs some help.

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