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Two Directions

There have been numerous books that have been published over the last couple of decades about the state of the church, especially the way in which it has compromised with the modern and postmodern strains of thought found in western culture today. In particular, D.A. Carson’s The Gagging of God, David Wells’ God in the Wasteland, and Marva Down’s Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, all analyze the culture of the last two decades and how many churches have been corrupted by the teachings involved. Everything from the church growth movement to many of the “outreach methods” are analyzed, and I believe rightfully lampooned, which brings me to the main point of this post.

When churches in the Evangelical/Protestant world (I can’t speak for Roman Catholics or Orthodox), put an inordinate amount of emphasis on a “personal relationship” and a “conversion experience,” this is often combined with capitulations to modern (in the chronological sense) culture, at the expense of Christian tradition and history. This is often done to “not intimidate” or to be “relevant.” This has bred a vicious cycle of perpetual immaturity and historical ignorance, where the local congregant, often attending church for decades, cannot tell the difference between Augustine and Aquinas, Bach and Palestrina, and the differing views of the Eucharist/Communion.

For a new believer, this is of course understandable, but for a supposedly “mature” Christian, it is inexcusable. In fact, this “seeker” mentality has become so anti-intellectual, and anti-art in some circles, that Down talks about how classically trained musicians actually are unwelcome in many churches, because they are not “relevant” to outreach and the “worship experience.” In other words, some of the most gifted, and rigorously trained individuals are being shunned because of this sort of culture compromise. Intellectual types have had similar experiences, which brings up the “two directions” idea.

For the classically trained musician above, the intellectual, the historian etc…, there seems to be two options for those who do not want to compromise with the toxic, surrounding culture. One path leads towards more “fundamental” styles of Protestantism/Evangelicalism, where being separate from the culture has always been a trademark, and where things such as traditional gender roles, a high view of scripture, and fairly traditional or austere worship has been maintained. I also believe this is why rigorous Calvinism is enjoying a resurgence of sorts, because of its high view of God’s sovereignty and transcendence, in stark contrast to the “Jesus is my buddy” and “self-esteem” pablum that has dominated evangelicalism.

The other path leads to the Catholic, Orthodox, or the conservative “high-church” Anglican and Lutheran traditions, which have a rich cultural and intellectual history, and seemingly have been untainted by the decadence of modern culture (Orthodoxy in particular has an appeal this way). I know someone who attended an evangelical school with me and joined the Orthodox church because he “already had the conversion experience and personal faith,” and now wanted the historical church, and accepted the doctrine that came with it.

So for those of you Evangelicals reading this, what is the solution? As one who has attended a Free Lutheran, then Missionary Alliance, and now an Independent Baptist church, I find some of the “high church” traditions to be highly attractive, especially for cultural, historical, and artistic reasons. Some of the “mainline” denominations have compromised so much that morally and theologically they are almost unrecognizable as Christian. What say you?

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3 Comments

  1. Julie says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. Honestly, my husband and I haven’t attended church in over a year, primarily because we both leave feeling like we could glean more from our 4-year-old’s sunday school class than from the sermons we’ve heard. I marvel at ministers who ramble on Oprah-style for an hour and only reference two verses of scripture! My husband and I belong to the “let my people think” movement, the idea that Christianity is deserving of a more philisophical, historical, and analytical approach–a stark contrast to the “snuggly” religion most mainliners are practicing. I would rather be soundly convicted and challenged in my faith than hand-fed some choice pickings from scripture, carefully packaged so not to upset me or force me to actually process information on my own!

    In all fairness, I believe the mainstream church faces a daunting task in modern evangelism. Frankly, our culture doesn’t seem to value intellect and actual talent anymore. We glorify the pop-artist culture, famous more for curvaceous figures and crude humor than wit, intelligence, or actual talent. Church has become a circus act, complete with flashing lights, dancers, waving banners, and electric guitars, and frankly, this environment breeds soft Christians. It breeds an pleasure-oriented culture. It breeds complacency. The attitude of the modern evangelical church, especially the youth, can best be summed up in the words of Kurt Cobain, “Here we are now, entertain us.”

    The church needs to walk the delicate tightrope of dedication to God and His WHOLE word, while still maintaining relationships with those who have not yet recieved the gospel. We must be firm in our faith, and yet able to mirror God’s love, grace, peace, patience, and forgiveness to those around us. We must maintain our rich traditions without becoming “stuffy.”

    I love your comments about the modern intellectual gravitating toward “high church” experiences. I am in full agreement on this point. I have often considered attending a more “liturgical” church, for no other reason than a deep longing for something that grants God the reverence he is worthy of. However, I can’t completely shun the emotional, experiential side of relationship with Christ. I still long for the “abba father” releationship, a deep Knowing of God that transends tradition and liturgy. I want to dwell in the midst of a marriage of theology and personal relationship with God…in that rich, full place where his Holiness and Glory meet His mercy, grace, and fatherly love.

    Frankly, and excuse me for being crass, but I wouldn’t marry a dumb guy. Likewise, I wouldn’t serve a dumbed down God. I love God for his depth, for his strength, for his all-surpassing wisdom and power. I love the Genesis vision of God hovering over the “Tehom,” the deep, and calling forth life and light. That kind of power, that magnificence, is deserving of more than a “dinner and a movie” reception. Conveying that to the unbeliever is a daunting task, but we must rise to the occasion. Otherwise, i think we do the lost…and frankly, the FOUND, a disservice.

  2. Jeremy Woods says:

    Aaron,

    First of all I think it is great that you are using your time to think deeply for the purpose of advancing God’s kingdom! I look forward to reading your posts, and engaging in meaningful, intentional conversation. I truly hope that God’s plans involve us doing ministry together sometime in the future, in some capacity.

    I think it is great that there are so-called “New Calvinists.” I consider myself one of these ranks. Collin Hansen deals with this upsurge in “Young, Restless, Reformed” and he also wrote a shorter article for Christianity Today (I think bearing the same title). It is important to keep God’s sovereignty in mind. The theme of “sin as separation from God” is prevalent throughout the Bible, and so a dedicated focus on the holiness of God is important. This holiness should be shown in all aspects of a church.

    Interestingly enough, my current pastor notes that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) statistics show that 31% of pastors within the convention are Calvinist, and that is growing at the rate of 1% per year. SBC has roots from Spurgeon, so needless to say that the Reformed SBC Pastors are making a comeback! God willing, after my MDiv I will join those ranks.

    I do agree with probably 95% of what you wrote. I went to a conference a few years back, and I don’t remember by heart too much of the conference, but I do remember one sentence that I will take through my ministry career: “A great deal of churches today try to model themselves off of businesses. The problem with this model is that a lot of businesses fail.” We have, in Jesus, the promises that he will build his church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against him. This is encouraging to me, especially when I think of what is important in a church: expositional preaching, biblical theology, sound doctine, sound gospel teaching, church membership and discipline, missional outreach, and growth in Christ (see Dever’s “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church” and Piper’s “Let the Nations Be Glad” for further info on these church essentials).

    These are not particularly popular given our TV-saturated culture– easy-to-follow, humorous, non-convicting entertainment. John MacArthur and John Piper have been helpful here: people who sit around watching TV 7 days a week go to church and expect preaching as entertainment until they can get back home to their TVs. This is a sad culture, and TV plays a huge role in our dumbing down. Now I am not completely rejecting TV watching, IF it can be disciplined. But let me say that I started a TV fast in January of 2009 and am still on it, now by desire!

    Now let me interact with the 5% that I disagree with:

    “This has bred a vicious cycle of perpetual immaturity and historical ignorance, where the local congregant, often attending church for decades, cannot tell the difference between Augustine and Aquinas, Bach and Palestrina, and the differing views of the Eucharist/Communion.
    For a new believer, this is of course understandable, but for a supposedly “mature” Christian, it is inexcusable.”

    My problem here is I think you are being a bit too harsh to say that this is inexcusable (though I do partially agree with you here). I agree that we should work toward appreciating theology and sacred music, but there needs to be some charity along the way. Some may take longer than others, for God grew our seed, some to bear 30-fold, some 60-fold, and some 100-fold (Matthew 13). The point is God has given each of us gifts. A gift I do not have, for example, is telling the difference between Bach and Palestrina (though I do not mind them as music in the church). But I would still consider myself a “mature” Christian. I enjoy sacred music, I love hearing it in the church, and I groan with you that classical musicians are being rejected from churches, but I am not willing to throw out some modern worship music. There are many times I have been lost in worship to God under modern hymns and worship songs. Maybe churches should involve both sacred and modern in their services?

    Regarding theology, I certainly have a gift in this area. I spent my year in Italy in my men’s Bible study trying to put forth sound doctrine, but it seemed some of the men wanted nothing to do with it. This was sad to me. I also consider that my spiritual mentor knows little to nothing about theology, emphasizing more the praxis of the Bible, but I would dare say that he is not mature. Also, Jerry Bridges (who writes numerous books for Navigator Ministries), an 70/80-something year old man, is an incredibly disciplined Christian man- hard for anybody to look at him and say he is not a Godly, mature Christian. However, his theological and expositional skill leaves something to be desired. So while it might be hard for you and me to see how people can be so theologically ignorant even given years as a Christian, but we need to recognize that God made us each uniquely, some with great theological ability, some with great musical ability, some with both, some with neither. The pastor and musical team can be helpful to instill an appreciation of both.

    Am I making sense here?

  3. I think you’re making perfect sense, and I don’t believe I’d take issue with much of what you’ve said. However, the difference between Bach and Palestrina stylistically would be very obvious, even to non-musicians. but to clarify, I am more then willing to admit specializations, we are all one body with different parts after all! So of course a pastor will usually be more able to distinguish between the Real Presence vs. the Spiritual Presence in the Eucharist/Communion, while a mathematician can argue for the pre-existence of information. My overall point, and this is why I chose music, theology, and church history, was to demonstrate overall church ignorance, not the fact that some may have differing expertise. However, I do think it is unfortunate we live in such a “credentialist” and “specialist” age, as we no longer have the Leonardo’s, Leibniz’s, and Jefferson’s of the world.

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