American evangelical religion, whether one traces it to Edwards, Whitefield, and Wesley or to the nineteenth-century revivalists (e.g., Charles Finney), has always been oriented around personalities. Reasonably, American evangelical Christians nurtured in the personality-oriented tradition assume that pattern as the norm when they evaluate other traditions. This can be a challenge for evangelicals discovering Reformed theology, piety, and practice.
Most evangelicals seem to encounter the Reformed doctrine of salvation before anything else. Particularly, evangelicals are fascinated by the Reformed doctrine of divine sovereignty and in popular presentations the impression frequently left is that once one has embraced the doctrine of divine sovereignty—an Augustinian doctrine long before it was “Calvinism” or Reformed—one is now Reformed. The newly “Reformed” evangelical proceeds to synthesize his Reformed doctrine of salvation with his evangelical doctrine of the church and evangelical assumptions about the nature of church life. When evangelicals on the road to Geneva find themselves in a Reformed church they can be in for a bit of a culture shock.
Where evangelical congregations, especially megachurches, tend to be oriented around popular personalities, a Reformed church is not. Indeed, in the confessionally Reformed world we have relatively few well-known personalities. For one thing, the entire confessional Reformed world in North America is not much greater than 500,000 people. By contrast, the Southern Baptist Convention is approximately 13.5 million people. American evangelicals (depending upon how one defines evangelical) number between 60 and 100 million people. The Roman communion is about 70 million people. So, the confessional Reformed world is a tiny sub-culture in North America. When someone becomes well known among evangelicals, there is a possibility of becoming known to a significant number of people. By contrast, even were one to become known to every confessional Christian in North America, one will have become known to a relatively small group of people.
We can probably count genuine, living confessional Reformed “celebrities” on one hand: to name them would be invidious, but it is a short list. Remember, we are talking about confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches where celebrity is not something that is encouraged and that is for a good reason.
The Reformed churches are intentionally confessional. Our theology, piety, and practice are God centered and Christ focused. The truth is that ministers come and go but the Word of God abides forever. Our pastors, teachers, and ministers are servants of the Word of God and the sacraments. Their vocation is to point away from themselves and to God in Christ. Their calling requires them to recede into the background. In times past, when ministers dressed more formally to conduct public worship services, they even wore black robes (something like a judge’s robe), which signified their office (minister) and which had the effect of further reducing their physical presence or their individual personality.
That is a rather different culture from the evangelical culture, where personalities and even brands have been a part of the attraction of evangelical religion for a long time, as Harry Stout noted in his 1991 book, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism, Library of Religious Biography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991). Whitefield was, what we today call a star. He had charisma—not in the theological sense of a supernatural gift given by the Holy Spirit—his was an attractive and powerful personality. As Bob Godfrey reminded us in seminary, he could make people cry simply by saying the word Mesopotamia. The history of American evangelical religion can be fairly told as the history of a succession of powerful, influential personalities from Whitefield to Billy Graham. Indeed, for the first time in a very long time, American evangelicals are somewhat adrift in part because there is no guiding evangelical personality. There is no evangelical pope right now.
Evangelical congregations (and this is especially true of the megachurches) tend to be organized around a single personality. Consider Mars Hill church in Seattle. The whole thing was built around Driscoll and when he fell, the whole movement fell with him. It was, or it became, essentially an episcopacy or even a papacy. Presbyterian and Reformed churches have a decentralized church government. We are connected but we are not hierarchical. There is no single (merely human) person to whom we must all give all give account. Authority and power are shared by ruling elders and ministers. Local ministers and elders are accountable to regional elders and ministers and they, in turn, are accountable to national bodies of elders and ministers. The system works against the rise of celebrities and de facto popes. It also creates a different culture and different expectations within the church.
In our churches we expect the minister to do his job, i.e., to preach the Word in season and out, to administer the sacraments, to visit, to teach, to catechize, and to counsel, but when he is called to another congregation, ours does not collapse. We get what we call “pulpit supply” and we call another a minister. The process usually takes about a year. Most of the time our congregations remain fairly stable. If worse comes to worst, we even have written sermons that our ruling elders can read to us. Our elders and catechism teachers carry on until the new minister comes. Our ministers are a gift from God (as Paul says in Eph 4:8) and we appreciate them and their office very much, but our faith does not hinge on them. Should one of them apostatize, we would grieve but we would carry on because our hope is in Christ, who was faithful to the end and is our faithful high priest (Heb 2:17) and chief pastor (1 Pet 5:4). He never fails us.
We rejoice that you are joining us, but it is a journey to leave behind the evangelical personality-oriented culture and to embrace the culture of the Presbyterian and Reformed churches. We think you should continue, however. You will be glad that you did and so will your children and grandchildren.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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