Saturday, May 03, 2008

Young, Restless, Reformed

Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists by Collin Hansen is about a group within evangelical Christianity that has 'emerged' as a result of various ministries over the past 25-35 years that have emphasized 'the doctrines of grace." For someone like myself who has lived through this time it is a little bit like "deja vu all over again" (to quote the famous philosopher Yogi Berra!).

I say that because I was in my teens in the 1970's when I first heard the doctrines of grace and they have had a profound effect on my life and ministry. But down through the years there has also been a recognition that my initial understanding of the reformed faith needed refining and shaping by the word of God. I came to see that theological statements and historic confessions of faith are not to be treated the same as the Bible. Furthermore, as time went on, some of the early zeal to be thoroughly reformed in faith and practice ran headlong into the stubborn reality that perfection is reserved for the world to come. Of course, this is not an excuse for disobedience, but it means that in spite of our best efforts, we are sinners saved by grace and our understanding as well as our practice of the word of God is never all that it should be.

Personally, I am thrilled that today so many are "young, restless and reformed." But at the same time, I have lived long enough to know that unless we are careful all of the buzz will be disappointing in the end. From my vantage point there are five things (interestingly enough) that need to be said in this regard.

First, those who are young, restless and reformed must not become too self-conscious. This is always a danger when the media picks up the story. More important than the headlines is our loyalty and commitment to Jesus Christ. If we start to read and believe our own press-clippings we are finished before we start. The world does not need another lobby group or evangelical Christian faction. What it needs are authentic followers of Jesus who keep their eyes on the master and are deaf and blind to the recognition of others. Self-consciousness leads to pride of reputation which short circuits God's blessing.

Second, we (and I include myself in all of these things) must avoid a triumphalistic attitude. It is good to gather in the name of the Lord Jesus and to give him praise, but as fallen creatures who are imperfectly sanctified it is so easy for our praise of Jesus to morph into praise for our group and then for us to feel superior to others who do not see what we see. The gospel of God's grace is deeply humbling. It reminds us that we are debtors to mercy alone. But even here we can be proud of our humility, and we can glory in the repetition of our unworthiness in such a way that it comes across as arrogant and self-righteous. One mark of true humility is an appropriate silence in the presence of God and a reticence to speak about ourselves to others. Ironically too much talk of humility smacks of deeply seated "Aren't I something! Look at me!"

Third, we must put our hope in God and not in our theological systems. It is easy to criticize others for trusting in their programs and techniques to build their churches and evangelize the lost and then turn around and do the same thing in a different way. I have seen people adopt reformed theology, just like people adopt the tenents of the church growth movement or the emergent church, because they believe that if they get their theology right that will guarantee revival and blessing. However, it is not that simple as a survey of church history will reveal. God is sovereign and he reserves the right to use whom he will to accomplish his purposes. Theological precision is important but there are many times when God has used those whose with imprecise theology in powerful ways. Our relationship with God is first and foremost. Dotting all our theological 'i's' and crossing all our theological 't's' will not guarantee revival, nor will setting up our churches according to the regulative principle, etc. as important as these might be in the grand scheme of things.

Fourth, with regard to the way we structure our churches we need to give people some breathing room. The Bible has much to say about the worship of God and it clearly outlines various things (like, prayer, the reading of scripture, the preaching of the word) which should be part of Christian worship. But at the same time it does not give us an 'order of service' nor is it so explicit that there is only one right way of worshiping the Lord. In the 70's and 80's there were too many fruitless discussions and more and more extreme positions taken with regard to 'reformed' worship. Generally, I think people had the best of intentions, but they got carried away by their own logic and needlessly restricted the freedom we have in Christ to creatively use our gifts and abilities within the overall boundaries of God's word.

Fifth, we need to work and pray when it comes to evangelism. Although there are many who have been reached for the Lord Jesus by those committed to reformed theology, there is more to be done. Too many in our "church plants" come from other churches rather than from the world. Even though there is definitely a place for ministering to and instructing those who are not being fed elsewhere, our primary concern should be to take the gospel to those who have never heard it before. One reason, from a human standpoint, that we have not been as effective as we should be is that we forget how to talk to those outside our circles and we are not meaningfully involved in their lives. If we are 'restless' it should be to see more people won to the Lord and not just to our theological position, or our particular style of worship, or pastoral ministry.

There is much to be thankful for, much good has been done, churches have been established, seminaries put back on the right track, and much, much more. But we must keep our focus, we must not take ourselves too seriously, we must make much of God calling upon him to move in our lives and in the lives of others. If we combine our zeal for the word with a passionate love for God and a lost world then great opportunities lie ahead. But if our zeal turns inward and we start judging and dividing along party lines as if we alone have the truth, God will raise up help from somewhere else, as he has done many times before.


Lisa Nunley said...


Anonymous said...

I am so thankful for your article and hope the Young Reformers (and the teachers who teach them) take it to heart. My own (previously growing) 150-year old church split tragically last year when our young pastor was "converted" and proceeded to do everything you have cautioned NOT to do. And sadly, it is happening in more and more S. Baptist churches. It must be making Satan very happy to see so much turmoil and loss of focus on the ultimate goal: Loving God and our neighbors and living that out.

Kirk Wellum said...

Anonymous, thanks for your comment. The situation you describe is sad indeed because often times those who are causing the havoc do so with a clear but misinformed conscience. Leaders and mentors must do everything they can to instill balance or Satan will have a heyday.

One problem is that many of the men that these young pastors look up to work in church settings where their word is 'law' (no matter how much they deny it). Most young men starting out in ministry will not enjoy this luxury (although it is more of curse in the long run) and need to learn to work with others to build consensus. They must patiently earn respect and bringing people into the truth by gently instructing them and faithfully walking before them.

Personally I think that one of the reasons some are so anxious to talk about 'church plants' is because they imagine it gives them greater freedom to do what they like. What they don't realize is that this is only a temporary 'freedom' that will eventually harm them and their ministries if they do not learn how to get along with others.

neil said...

"Young, Restless, Reformed" was a great entry that I hope gets a wide reading.

Thank you!

Andy Rowell said...

Thanks for this. I would be up for people's response to my:

May 14, 2008
Putting the Conservative Reformed Theology movement (Piper, MacArthur, and Dever) in perspective

Andy Rowell
Doctor of Theology Student
Duke Divinity School
Durham, North Carolina
Blog: Church Leadership Conversations

Jon said...

Thank you for this post! I stand exhorted and encouraged. There is a sense particularly in my circle that we must hold to historic confessions, yet in a way that brings as many as possible along with us.