Pilgrims (And Their Hosts)

pilgrimA wise traveler adapts to the customs and languages of the host country. When we lived abroad, people never asked us about our health. It is considered rude. The day we left England, however, we were peppered with questions by an American woman who was being polite. What was rude in England was polite in Dallas. Changing theological traditions is like traveling abroad. Upon arrival, the visitor is likely to find new language and culture, that is, a new theology, piety, and practice. This cross-cultural encounter creates opportunities and obligations for hosts and pilgrims alike.

There are about sixty-million evangelicals in North America. By contrast, the confessional Reformed communions number fewer than one million members. One effect of these disproportionate numbers is that the theology, piety, and practice of American evangelicals shape the expectations of many Christians. That ethos is the product of a series of religious revivals that began in the eighteenth century and continued through the nineteenth century. These two episodes were different in significant ways but they were similar in important ways too. They were both organized around various kinds of religious experience. They differed on how to arrive at that experience and even on what the experience means. Nevertheless, the common thread of religious experience, whether it be a sort of direct encounter with the risen Christ or a conversion experience at the anxious bench, ties them together. Since the early eighteenth century, all American evangelicals have been shaped by a desire to have an intense, personal religious experience.

By contrast, the theology, piety, and practice of confessional Reformed congregations has been shaped not so much by religious experience but rather by a certain kind of confession of faith, worship, and approach to the Christian life. These confessional churches believe strongly in Christ’s work in us, by His Spirit, through His gospel, but it all begins with what Christ did for sinners in history. For the revivalist traditions, the present work of the Spirit in us often displaces the objective work of Christ for us.

American Protestant denominations trace their roots to the Protestant Reformation, and many invoke memories of that heritage. Most of those denominations and churches, however, came to agree with the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century critics of Christianity and thus rejected the old Reformation tradition. Like the revivalists, they too turned to religious experience. They replaced the Jesus of history with the “Jesus of faith,” or the Jesus of personal experience.

There remain, however, churches that not only trace their roots to the Reformation but who also continue to believe the same faith confessed by Calvin and his successors. Those churches confess the same worship and the same approach to the Christian life that marked Calvin’s church. These Reformed churches have a vital theology, piety, and practice, but it is of a different sort than that shaped by American revivalism. It is more interested in nurture than in crisis. It is more interested in what the Reformed call the means of grace (Word, sacraments, prayer) than it is in the anxious bench or the sinner’s prayer.

Because many parts of the American revivalist traditions retained a memory of their Reformation roots, the confessional and revivalist wings of American Protestantism coexisted and cooperated temporarily. Eventually, however, the underlying tensions surfaced and the relationship failed. Now the confessional churches are isolated from both the old liberal mainline and the revivalist traditions.

Despite these shifts, pilgrims from the revivalist and mainline traditions often find their way into confessional Reformed churches. If you are one of those, I hope this map helps you understand a little better why your first time in a confessional Reformed congregation felt so strange: It was. You crossed a border, an international dateline, and did not know it. If you found yourself in an intentionally historic, confessional Reformed congregation, you may have even done a little time traveling to the seventeenth or even the sixteenth century. Be a wise traveler. Give yourself a moment to get oriented. Enjoy the destination.

Now, a word to those congregations (such as mine) who find themselves host to such pilgrims. Please remember that our new friends are probably disoriented. The language, customs, and food are strange to them. They bring with them expectations not shaped by the Reformation. Our emphasis upon the gospel, sacraments, and the visible church may strike them as overly formal. We have two choices. We can pretend that we really belong to their tradition or we can gently, gradually welcome them to ours. I recommend the latter. It may take time for Americans raised on religious fastfood to learn to enjoy a new diet, language, and culture. If we try to become what the pilgrim has left behind, what use are we to the pilgrim? (Matt. 5:13). Let us welcome our brothers and sisters with open arms, open Bibles, and warm smiles. As we do so we will be imitating our great-grand father John Calvin who both welcomed pilgrims and maintained a faithful witness to the Reformation faith.

This essay first appeared in Tabletalk Magazine, February 2010. ©Tabletalk magazine. 

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  • 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.

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