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Favorites from the Past

New Horizons

The Very Latest Thing

"Glen Roberts"

Dear James,

I am glad to hear that you have settled into your sophomore year at school, though "settled" seems hardly the word to describe campus life. Ben told us about your visit to the new church planted close to campus. As shocked as you seemed to be, it does not surprise me to learn that something called "the Journey" would prove so popular among your classmates.

To be sure, this and other so-called "emerging" churches are challenging the predictability of the megachurch and its white, suburban complacency. I grant legitimacy to this reaction. It is good to see older hymns bring more reverence and formality into worship. But Protestants should not dabble with candles, incense, and icons. I begin to wonder whether these "Gen-X churches" resemble the megachurch more than they care to admit. The Internet has replaced the mall, but these seekers are still shopping for faith. For the life of me, I cannot tell the difference between one generation's appeal to "felt needs" and another's talk of "spiritual experience." As hard as you might find this to believe, those big-box churches on Highway 44 were once "emerging" and "cutting edge" for your classmates' parents.

Peering at the Journey's website, I was struck by the claim that the modern church has failed to communicate with a postmodern generation. If that is true, the answer hardly lies in creating another generationally defined comfort zone. This is adolescent determinism, and it threatens to divide the people of God simply on the basis of cultural style.

Notice too, if you visit the website, how the Journey treats personal and anecdotal experience as the main source of truth. For them, experience is intrinsically genuine. To deny that is to live "inauthentically" (whatever that means). Simply affirming any kind of experience creates no sense of right or wrong experience. Is Mormon experience welcome? Why not? It could be that something more is involved in experience—like the Bible, or doctrine—than feeling.

What really caught my attention was this comment by the pastor: "We see Christianity as a way of life." In a sense, he's half right. J. Gresham Machen argued that Christianity was a way of life founded upon doctrine. The Journey's apparent indifference to doctrine is frighteningly similar to old-fashioned liberalism. Pastor Reggie talks about a journey without reference to a destination. Being authentic has replaced orthodoxy. The Bible is valuable for its relevance, not its truth.

Of course, the "emerging church" is not monolithic, and it has relatively conservative people. Along these lines, I am encouraged to hear from Ben that the message you heard last week discussed the substitutionary atonement. At least the pastor recognizes some theological essentials. But orthodoxy is seldom served by a spirit of incessant experimentation.

I am also aware that these "vintage churches" claim a connection to the church's past. But to rummage through church history for liturgically appealing samples is not to recover tradition. Make no mistake: this is not a new Reformation. It is one thing to reform the church on the basis of what Scripture teaches and quite another to reinvent the church on the basis of what culture seems to demand. This pursuit of novelty should not be confused with a connection to the past. Chances are that emergents want precisely what the megachurch craved: TVLT: The Very Latest Thing.

I remember Calvin's arguments against novelty that the beloved Dr. Morton taught your dad and me (and how I wish you had the privilege of studying under him). Innovations in the church, Calvin warned, are always dangerous and sometimes harmful. Calvin was making the point that the church does not need to be culturally engaged as much as she needs to conform her practices to the Word of God. It is sheer generational conceit that prides itself on being something different from your grandmother's church. If your grandparents' generation was faithful to God's Word, why shouldn't we continue the patterns they followed?

Unhappily, many churches appear to be infected with this disease. Remember when your family joined us at our cabin in Maine three years ago? Every year the cabin is the same and the lake is unchanged, but Moose Point Community Church and its ministry change like the weather.

Even when I was an undergraduate at Rutherford, the "in church" rotated every year, from charismatic to Episcopalian. You have just begun your sophomore year. Brace yourself for more "Journeys" and other purveyors of TVLT. And prepare to see another group renting the downtown theater on Sunday mornings six months from now.

It is hard to accept, but the church will address the modern age only when she abandons her quest for what culture demands and contents herself with the Word of God. So rather than being obsessed with "now," churches make a greater impact by proclaiming irrelevance—that is, the irrelevance of the world and its allurements and entanglements to a pilgrim community marching to Zion. The flower fades, the grass withers, and church styles become dated.


Glen Roberts

"Glen Roberts" is a pseudonym shared by two prominent ruling elders in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Reprinted from New Horizons, September 2008.

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