Confessing Churches in Confusing Times (2)
Having served as an ordained Christian Reformed Church (CRC) minister since 1967, I have seen rapid changes in church and society. Second services with catechism sermons were the norm. In my second congregation, a large men's society regularly met to discuss the Reformed confessions. Christian organizations and Christian education were promoted to the best of our ability. For years, I could preach in a CRC church without having to ask a week ahead of time about its order of worship. All churches had the same format of worship. Now many churches are changing and adapting their order of service to respond to the wishes of postmodern people. CRC Synod 2005 said there is continuing need "for a fresh, contextualized, theological reflection that addresses the culture of our time." The Task force stated, "it is also our belief that expressions of the gospel must be open to insights we gain from our brothers and sisters in places such as China, Honduras, and Nigeria."
Traditions are no longer considered important. Many argue that tradition is hanging on to something outdated. But Charles Colson rightly claims, "If you lose the community of memory of one generation, you can make it up. But after two generations, you've severed the arteries of civilization that transmit truth and virtue. Clearly, the stakes are enormous, not just for the church but also for our culture." As I look in the mirror of the present, I wonder whether confessional Reformed churches will have a future. In his essay What about a Bicentennial? Mr. and Mrs. CRC (Pro Rege, Sept. 2007) James Schaap wonders,"Will there be a bicentennial?" He says that the answer to the question will likely be determined by the social and cultural forces outside the denomination, which are both powerful and destructive on all denominations - not just the CRC.
I am not opposed to change. But we must be aware that the tradition that gets radically changed every generation is not really a tradition. For tradition to be tradition, it must have a considerable amount of permanence and changelessness. Tradition can become tradition only when it is passed from one generation to another. This then is my concern: What are we going to pass on to the next generation? As a church we must preserve the ability to absorb the meaning of what it means to be a Reformed Christian. And then we must transmit it to our children.
Our Postmodern Culture
Is it still possible in our postmodern-relativistic culture for confessional churches to survive, let alone grow? Our culture is a fragmented place of choice and freedom, rampant consumerism that yields little comfort or meaning. It is less and less formed by the great traditions and Christian heritage. We witness the secularization of modern life, which undermines religious authority and beliefs. As a result our society has become deprived of the wonder of worship.
In Canada, multiculturalism is official government policy, sanctioning a plurality of life-styles, whereby every individual is offered a diversity of opinions to form his own world and life view. Consumerism and personal choice have become a lifestyle for many. Increasing value is put upon our decision making. Many claim, "I have a sovereign right to my own conscience." No wonder Time Magazine argued the real Person-of-the-Year for 2006 was and is the individual. Moral absolutes are said to be old-fashioned. Relativists claim that nothing can be known for certain, except one thing, that nothing can be known for certain. Thus they protect themselves from the smiling scorn with which they regard everyone else. TV programs supply ongoing stimulation with major demands on the viewers' attention or interpretative faculties. This supply of information and entertainment has a drug-like effect on a vast number of people. Against this background of the explosion of entertainment, the word of God comes across to many people as simply boring.
The General Church Scene
Many argue that religious tastes have greater currency than religious heritage. Denominational loyalty is disappearing. Some churches give themselves names such as "Community Church", "Worship Centre", or "Neighbourhood Fellowship". Some relativize the importance of the church. They say, "No one is going to ask me when I stand at the gate of heaven, 'Of which church are you a member?'" Starting with the priority of the individual, people are told that they must find "the church of their choice that best fits their needs." Seeker services have to meet the aspirations of potential "religion shoppers." Not God's choice, but individual preference then constitutes the gathering of the church. This consumer 's mentality has become one of the major heresies of our century. A subtle distinction is now made between saying the church is Christ's body, apart from which a Christian cannot live, and saying that a Christian should find a church meeting his needs.
The church has little authority when individual choice reigns supreme over our decision-making. Consequently, church discipline has become extremely difficult to exercise. If a church member doesn't agree with his/her council or has acquired a different taste of music and worship than offered in his/her congregation, he/she simply moves to another denomination or a non-denominational church. (In a recent series of articles, "The Circulation of the Saints", I addressed this phenomenon.)
The emergent postmodern way of doing and being a church is another growing phenomenon. This new way of doing church finds its focus in the postmodern holy grail of tolerance, diversity, generosity, openness, inclusion, anti-dogmatism, and subjectivity. Emergent leaders have little interest in theology and an understanding of its importance. Consequently, they are in no hurry to become confessional churches. In fact, they are either dismissive or even disdainful of the formulation of doctrinal statements. They stress their provisional, their non-binding character, claiming that they are the product of human effort, not to be confused with the changeless truth that is in the mind of God and beyond our reach.
Some also claim that the formulation of binding confessions contradicts the self-sufficiency of Scripture and destroys Christian liberty. And often when confessions are discussed, the cries of well-intentioned believers tell us that we should preach only Jesus. "No creed but Christ," is their slogan. But we cannot preach Jesus without arriving at an increasing clarity of God's great plan of redemption. Others have the slogan: "Deeds, not creeds." They speak of a life of discipleship rather than assent to any confessional standard, right conduct rather than right teaching. But they are mistaken in their belief that the deed is more important than the content of faith. No one has been shot for being nice, but thousands have been martyred for their verbal expression of their faith.
Church development experts speak about "meeting people's needs." Religion is re-packaged by mega-churches. No commitment and no obligations are required. Doctrines are either abandoned or modified by cultural context. The mention of sin, repentance, and the doctrine of justification by faith are taboo, and replaced by a therapeutic message. The focus is on marketing techniques. The warning against "Hell" is seldom heard. But Jesus talked much about the coming judgment. We must also ask the question, "Do we warn against the judgment to come?" If not, the next generation won't believe it. One generation neglects the belief; the next generation rejects it.
The Disunity of the Church
Johan D. Tangelder