A couple months I began some thoughts on the current state of reformed theology, and particularly areas where it must adapt if it is to remain a vibrant and relevant expression of the Christian faith. This post is my second on this theme.One of the basic principles guiding the “mega-church” movement is homogeneity. For many churches, homogeneity is a deliberate strategy and goal, for many Reformed churches, homogeneity is a reality. The vast majority of American Reformed and Presbyterian churches are primarily white, middle-class, cultured English-speakers. While homogeneity may be a sociological phenomenon and a desired result for some churches, stagnation in this state is a failure in realizing the identity and mission of the church.
I am happy to say, I am a member of a church which attempts to break the standard reformed sociological straightjacket with a significant Hispanic ministry, and have had the privilege of serving another groundbreaking church in Camden, New Jersey. Sadly, churches such as these are the exceptions, and true anomalies within the broader Reformed community. The OPC as a whole has a small but significant outreach into the Spanish culture in the United States, which really excited me. Yet there are numerous other American sub-cultures, African-American, the urban poor or younger individuals, which have had no significant contact or outreach by Reformed churches. Unless Reformed theology desires to remain an insignificant fringe movement in the American church, it must deliberately find means to interact with and influence the existent American society.
Perhaps the greatest reason for the sociological isolation of Reformed theology is its cultural history. Reformed theology and Presbyterianism in America are closely connected with Dutch and Scottish cultures, and continue this connection today. In terms of missions and growth, Reformed theology is having a significant impact in Africa and Korea, yet in America it struggles reaching out beyond its own cultural tradition. Perhaps this is because much of the expressions and forms used in Reformed churches have appeal only to a particular sub-culture. The singing of metrical hymns may be a rich part of the Presbyterian heritage and a great contribution to the history of liturgy, yet it has little appeal for others. Responsive readings from Scripture and from historic creeds and confessions has little impact on a larger culture struggling with literacy. Are we as Reformed churches willing to lay aside out liturgical history in order to connect meaningfully with our culture?
A second contribution to Reformed theologies lack of wider cultural influence is its close identification with a particular subculture. It is commendable that the preaching of the Word, pure and simple, forms the center of the service in Reformed churches. Biblically, this is the way it must be. However, in many churches the sermons are geared towards a small minority of the possible listening audience. Much of the language used in the sermon is well-suited for the churched and the theologically astute. Many times, sermons are rich with information to feed the mind, but poor with food to nourish the soul. Further, many churches in the Reformed tradition balk at the idea of a primarily evangelistic sermon. If this pattern continues, will Reformed churches grow beyond their own borders into an increasingly alien culture? Other forms used in worship likewise contribute to the alienation of much of the wider population. Worship wars generally rage around issues of instrumentation and style of music. By and large, as is evident by looking at the “official” songbooks of most Reformed congregations, a traditional and high-culture orientation is the norm. But does the average Reformed orientation connect with the average American? Does music more familiar to listeners of Public Radio have much connection with the average American listening to the Top 40’s on the radio? Like other Evangelical churches, but perhaps to a greater degree, Reformed churches struggle with retaining their youth not only in the church but the faith. Considering Reformed theology’s view of covenant children, this is not simply a misfortune, but a grave catastrophe. Does the musical choices of a congregation contribute the loss of the church’s youth? I am sure I am not alone in feeling the disconnect between the music style on I participate in on Sunday and the music I listen to the rest of the week. Is it possible that these and other accidental elements of the service, slavishly held on to, contribute to the alienation many young people feel about their church, and their faith? Shall we commit ourselves to a high-culture orientation at the cost of the church’s youth?
A third reason for the isolation of the Reformed community is its attention to matters of doctrine. Doctrinal purity and concern is a great strength, but any strength can become a weakness when abused. Reformed theology does well in fulfilling the Great Commissions’ mandate to make disciples by teaching them to observe all of Jesus commandments, but less so on the “going.” While there will always be dissatisfied Baptists and other evangelicals who trickle into a Reformed church; cross border growth is not viable growth option. Reformed theology must find a way to communicate meaningfully with the “man on the street,” and not only those making the journey into Calvinism. In order for Reformed theology to connect with the “man on the street”, we must not practice theology in a vacuum. Are we are Reformed churches willing to spend less time quibbling about the mechanics of justification and more time considering, by the light of Scripture, the struggles of fallen men and women in a fallen world? Will our study committees and our General Assemblies condemn social injustice and racism as strongly as it does certain movements in Reformed theology and New Testament Studies? Will we spend as much time considering how to meaningfully minister in Christ’s name to the urban poor, the immigrants (legal or otherwise) and the developmentally disabled as we spend considering who can do what and say what in a service?
Reformed theology has much to offer
Reformed theology has much to offera church needing reform and a world needing a redeemer. Will we be those who hoard these riches for ourselves, or are we willing to do everything we can to share these riches with those who need them?