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A Parody of Ourselves

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly saying, hooray for our side
It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
- From “For What It’s Worth” by Stephen Stills

Every so often I’ve contemplated what a Saturday Night Live type of variety program might look like if the topic was “Christendom.” There’s definitely enough material. One of the recurring skits would involve some Christians from the 1400’s about to be burned at the stake. They would be visited by contemporary Christians who would thank them for their sacrifice and tell them how such a great sacrifice gained later Christians ________. You could fill in the blank with all sorts of things. “Your sacrifice has helped give us a world in which our children can learn theology from talking vegetables. Your suffering will all seem worth it when a handsome Texan with a great smile can renovate a sports stadium and broadcast feel-good, gospel-free theology to all the world. Thank you for your noble sacrifice, brother.” Tyndale might have been willing to face the stake for the sake of the Bible, but would he have faced it for a Bible-zine for girls that looks and reads like Cosmo?

I’m a writer, not a comedian, so perhaps it’s not that funny. But the point is that real people died real deaths to pass to us a heritage of the gospel. They were serious, dead serious, and weren’t in the business of printing silly bumper stickers. We evangelicals have long done a remarkable job of trivializing that heritage. Maybe this is what happens when the danger of persecution passes and we enjoy a time of safety, a time of freedom. Or maybe this is what happens when we lose sight of the seriousness of the gospel and the countless sacrifices that made it available to us, when we begin to replace theology with something else, something less.

A friend of mine became the Senior Pastor of his church in 2003, when everyone and their grandmother was writing and talking about how to make church relevant and more attractive to postmoderns. My friend had read Rick Warren and Bill Hybels but found them unsatisfying. Then in the spring of 2004 he had the opportunity to attend a 9Marks conference. He had not heard of Mark Dever and knew nothing of 9Marks but it was close to home and it seemed to him like such an event might be helpful to his ministry. It ended up being far more than that. It was life-changing.

The 9Marks conference, as it has done with so many other pastors, drew him back to the heart of what the Bible says about church, ministry and the gospel. And as a new Senior Pastor (with 23 years already behind him as an associate in the same church), it gave him a clear and renewed sense of direction for the conduct of his ministry. It pulled him out of anything-works-pragmatism and steered him toward a gospel-centered, gospel-focused, gospel-infused ministry.

Through 9Marks he was introduced to the world of what has now come to be known as the Young, Restless and Reformed (or the New Calvinism depending on who you ask). He had been a Calvinist for most of his ministry, but he had found most Calvinists he met tended toward the grumpy, the provincial. This new movement joined people like him to a Presbyterian crowd and even a Charismatic crowd. It built something that was unique, at least in our day and something that was really and objectively delightful—a people united around theology, not methodology. The church rediscovered theology that in so many circles had long since lay dormant.

His story is not at all unusual; it’s representative, perhaps, of the stories of thousands of other pastors who have revolutionized their understanding of the church, of its function and message and importance. And for every older pastor who has joyfully adapted his ministry, many more young pastors have grown into just this kind of ministry through mentors or through seminaries. All indications are that the movement continues to grow, to gain strength, to gain a prominent voice in the church even if not far beyond. And I am genuinely thrilled to see theology supplanting pragmatism at the center of the church.

So maybe this is a good time to ask, what’s next? Will we remain faithful to the gospel and look for more ways to be faithful to it? Or will we get, well, goofy?

Back to the martyr’s skit. What will we bring these guys? What will we have to show Huss and Tyndale and Cranmer and so many others like them? No doubt there will be good things to bring to the places of their sacrifice—evidence that the gospel they worked for and in some cases died for was alive and well and being passed on to another generation. Much of the theology they mined from the Bible is alive today in the Young, Restless and Reformed. But I fear that along with the good, and maybe eventually overwhelming much of the good, we’d bring our clutter, our junk, our nonsense, our bobble-heads. And there is an increasingly large pile of it waiting to be sorted through.

A friend recently told me “Slap the word Reformed on anything and I’ll buy it.” He was joking, thankfully, but he makes a point. We baptize products, people, musical styles, ministries, stores with the word Reformed to initiate them into our camp, to say that they are now part of the in-crowd. Slap the label Reformed on it and we suddenly do develop a new interest in it.

We have our Reformed celebrities. When John MacArthur speaks there is an immediate dissection of his words to see if he is tacitly critiquing someone or something. Mark Dever calls paedobaptism a sin and the headlines blare. When John Piper sneezes, the blogosphere is abuzz. Taken in isolation these may not mean very much at all. Taken together they start to sound like a Reformed edition of People magazine. Are we about the gospel here? Or are we about the people, the leaders, the voices? Want to hear some gossip about why a famous pastor took a sabbatical? Check the back pages of Reformed People.

I’ve got nothing against Edwards t-shirts or Luther bobble-heads or Calvin rally towels. Put it all together, though, throw it all into a box or lay it all out in a bookstore table, and it starts to come into focus. We’re always in danger of becoming a parody of ourselves, a deformed version of the very movements we have come out of. We could so easily become as much about the stuff as the theology, as much about the swag as the doctrine. If it happened to them it could happen to us, right?

I love the word Reformed; it has a long and noble heritage. And yet somehow it seems that Reformed has transitioned from a kind of theological short-hand, a useful way of describing a lot of theology in just one word, and has instead become an identity, a flag which I run up a flagpole as a means of self-identification. Reformed used to be a terse and convenient short-hand to express “I believe in the doctrines of grace, I believe in God’s total sovereignty, I adhere to certain creeds and confessions, and so on.” In one word we could summarize an entire theological position. Today, though, I fear that it is associated far more with names and personalities than theology. Reformed means “I listen to this pastor, I read these books, I go to these conferences.” But my theology may be vastly different from the Reformed guy beside me. It is an identity, not a theology, a connection to a group, not a belief. It’s a pass card, credentials allowing admittance into a community, an experience. And as such it generates swag, it generates junk, it generates all of that stuff like talking vegetables, Bible superheroes and Bible-zines.

We will need to work hard to prevent Reformed from becoming a mere fad. Fads come and fads go and usually they go on for just a bit too long. By the time they disappear we are glad to see them go since they’ve long since outlived their usefulness or their enjoyment. Rickrolling was funny for three days but lasted for six months; WWJD made a few people think over the course of a few weeks but stuck around for years. But both were fads and both eventually died an inevitable death. No one shed a tear for either one. We need to be all about the gospel lest we become yet another passing fad, a puff of smoke in the wind.

Up the street a little way sits a small Baptist Church that must subscribe to a newsletter for the world’s worst church sign slogans—things like like “Become an Organ Donor—Give Your Heart to Jesus.” Quality stuff. I drive by there often and, while fighting to keep my car from running it down “by accident,” I wonder if anyone takes them seriously. How could they? It’s a sharp display of the way the Gospel can be trivialized. “Prayer—Wireless Access to God with No Roaming Fee.”

I know that kind of nonsense has been going on for decades. But are we next? Could this Reformed movement become a parody of itself? I hope and pray that it’s not but I can’t deny that it’s beginning to show some hints that it could become that way. Sure it’s fun and inspiring even, but am I the only one who is starting to feel that if we aren’t careful we will just become “a thousand people in the street, singing songs and carrying signs, mostly saying, Hooray for our side.” I think it’s time that we paused to consider whether we’re all about the gospel, all about what the Bible commands us to believe, or if we’re increasingly becoming about who we are. The difference between the two is immeasurable.

It certainly wouldn’t hurt us to stop, hey, what’s that sound, and everybody look what’s going down.

*****

Thanks to my friend Peter Bogert for help with writing this one…