The Nameless One

Article by   September 2009
Over the last few months, I have been asked in numerous contexts what I think about the young, restless and reformed (YRR) movement(s) described in Collin Hansen's book of the same name.  I did do a quasi -review of this book some time ago, in which I argued that the existence of the movement seemed to indicate that all the hype surrounding the emergent business was probably overwrought and that there was no need for complete panic in Reformed circles.
 
In retrospect, however, there are a number of things which should give some cause for critical reflection on this new interest in Reformed theology.  Let me preface this by saying that the more people reading the Bible, the better, as far as I am concerned; the more people going to church and hearing the gospel preached, the more we should all be rejoicing; and the more people studying the writings of  Calvin, Owen and company, the happier we should all be.  Only the modern day equivalents of the Scottish Moderates of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would grumble and complain that more people are spending more time hearing more sermons, reading more scripture and studying more classic Christian literature.  But just because a movement has good effects does not mean that we should be blind to its shortcomings and potential pitfalls.

One striking and worrying aspect of the movement is how personality oriented it is.  It is identified with certain big names, rather than creeds, confessions, denominations, or even local congregations.    Such has always been the way with Christianity to some extent.  Luther was a hero, both in his own time and for subsequent generations, and he is hardly alone.  The names of Owen, Edwards, and Spurgeon, to list but three, also have great cachet; and, if we are honest, there are things which we all find in their writing which are scarcely unique to them but which we are inclined to take more seriously because it is these men who wrote the words on the page.

Yet the hype surrounding today's leaders of the YRR movement far outstrips anything these earlier heroes enjoyed in their lifetime; indeed, Luther never became rich, despite his great stature, and never headed up a ministry named after himself, or posted a fee-schedule for speaking engagements on his website. Far from it.  He even had to take employment as a gardener and a carpenter to make ends meet during the Reformation; and neither Owen, Edwards nor Spurgeon ever enjoyed the good life to any great extent, with the latter even having his life arguably shortened by the battle for truth in which he engaged first hand, not via the comfort of a conference stage or a podcast.   The significance of the leaders of the YRR movement, however, seems less like that of ages past and at times more akin to the broader cultural phenomenon of the modern cult of celebrity, a kind of sanctified Christian equivalent of the secular values that surround us.  The world has Brad, Anjelina, Tom, Barack, and so on; the Christian world has - well, I am sure the reader is quite capable of filling in the blanks.  All too often we're a bit too much like the church in Corinth, with its Christian competitive equivalents to pagan Sophists.

Idolatry à la 1 Corinthians 1 is not the only danger, of course.   Often cults of personality can degenerate in short order into cults, pure and simple, especially when every word of the guru figure becomes virtual Holy Writ amongst the Gnostic initiates.  At a relatively harmless level, we can see the fruit of this cultic leader-follower dynamic  in the predictably irrational and excessive language used by the disciples of men like N T Wright concerning those who criticize the Great Leader; but pseudonymous whacko bloggers are one thing, actual church community structures are quite another; and history is littered with the serious human wreckage caused when good Christian people start worshipping the messenger rather than the one to whom the message refers.   A cultic devotion to a leader, combined with the kind of authority structures which churches necessarily have in order to function as churches, can prove a sometimes deadly, and always a painful, mix.

The supply side economics of the YRR movement  is also worrying here, as it can easily foster such idolatry by building up a leader's importance out of all proportion to his talent.  Let's face it: no preacher is so good that his every sermon deserves to be printed or his every thought published; but some contemporary leaders are heading fast in that direction, and this can only fuel their cultic significance for those needing someone to follow.   Come on, chaps, everyone preaches a disastrous clunker once in a while; and many actually preach them with remarkable and impressive regularity.   The world therefore does not need to read every word you ever utter from a pulpit; and not every electrical impulse which sparks between the synapses in your grey matter needs to be written down, turned into yet another expository commentary, and sold for 15% net royalties at the local Christian bookshop.  

If leader-as-celebrity-and-oracular-source-of-all-knowledge is one potential problem in the YRR culture, then another concern is the apparent non-exportability of the models of church on offer.  Everyone knows the amazing works that have been done through the ministries of men like Tim Keller in Manhattan and Mark Driscoll in Seattle; but the track record of exporting the Redeemer or Mars Hill models elsewhere is patchy at best, raising the obvious question of whether these phenomena are the result less of their general validity and more of the singular talents of the remarkable individuals.  To be clear, this is in no way to suggest that these churches are not faithful; but it is to ask whether they are not more unique and unrepeatable than is often acknowledged.  If the secret lies in the gifts of the individual leader, then time spent trying to replicate the models elsewhere with less talented or differently gifted leaders is doomed to failure and a waste of time.  

We have been here before.   I spent my early Christian years amongst people always looking for the `new Lloyd-Jones' or preaching for an hour when they only had thirty minutes of material to present.  So guess what?  The reincarnate Lloyd Jones never came and too many English evangelical congregations resigned themselves to thirty minutes of quality negated by thirty minutes of agony every Sunday.  We wasted time and valuable talent in trying to impersonate him or to identify the next one of his ilk to come along.

Carrying on from this danger of personality cults, part of me also wonders if the excitement surrounding the movement is generated because people see that Reformed theology has intrinsic truth or because they see that it works, at least along the typical American lines of numbers of bodies on seats (in Britain, we'd say `bums on seats' but that phrase rather gains in translation).  Now, I am no member of that theological party which sees the Lord's blessing in the fact that every year its churches are smaller, its sermons more arcane self-important and tedious, and its people less friendly and more sour.  Look, if I wanted a pretentious and incomprehensibly abstract theology with an impeccable record of emptying churches, I'd convert to Barthianism, wouldn't I?   Yet not reveling in smallness and irrelevance does not require that I necessarily regard increasing numerical and financial size as accurate gauges of fidelity and truth.  

Much has rightly been made by Reformed people of the problem of an understanding of Christianity that is driven by pragmatism as exemplified by the Joel Osteen `be a Christian and be a better you' mentality; much criticism has also been lodged against the church growth movement because of its tendency (in the words of an old song) to find out what they like, and how they like it, and let them have it just that way.  But the dangerous thing about pragmatism is that it does not necessarily reject the truth; it merely renders it subordinate to the desired end.   To be precise, pragmatism evaluates means in terms of impact and results; and the implication of this is that even means that are intrinsically true can still be co-opted by pragmatism simply because they seem to be achieving the desired results at some particular point in time.   Now the gospel has always been true, in the good years and the lean; and we need to be certain that the current enthusiasm for Reformed theology is rooted in an acknowledgement of its intrinsic truth, and not simply in the fact that, at this point in time, Calvinism is cool enough to pull in the punters.

Finally, I worry that a movement built on megachurches, megaconferences, and megaleaders, does the church a disservice in one very important way that is often missed amid all the pizzazz and excitement: it creates the idea that church life is always going to be big, loud, and exhilarating and thus gives church members and ministerial candidates unrealistic expectations of the normal Christian life.  In the real world, many, perhaps most,  of us worship and work in churches of 100 people or less; life is not loud and exciting; big things do not happen every Sunday;  budgets are incredibly tight and barely provide enough for a pastor's modest salary; each Lord's Day we go through the same routines of worship services, of hearing the gospel proclaimed, of taking the Lord's Supper, of teaching Sunday School; perhaps several times a year we do leaflet drops in the neighbourhood with very few results; at Christmas time we carol sing in the high street and hand out invitations to church and maybe two or three people actually come along as a result; but no matter -- we keep going, giving, and praying as we can; we try to be faithful in the little entrusted to us.  It's boring, it's routine, and it's the same, year in, year out.   Therefore, in a world where excitement, celebrity, and cultural power are the ideal, it is tempting amidst the circumstances of ordinary church life to forget that this, the routine of the ordinary, the boring, the plodding, is actually the norm for church life and has been so throughout most places for most of the history of the church; that mega-whatevers are the exception, not the rule; and that the church has survived throughout the ages not just - or even primarily - because of the high profile firework displays of the great and the good, but because of the day to day faithfulness of the mundane, anonymous, non-descript  people who constitute most of the church, and who do the grunt work and the tedious jobs that need to be done.   History does not generally record their names; but the likelihood is that you worship in a church which owes everything, humanly speaking, to such people.

Ultimately, only the long term will show if the YRR movement has genuinely orthodox backbone and stamina, whether it is inextricably and inseparably linked to uniquely talented leaders, and whether `Calvinism is cool' is just one more sales pitch in the religious section of the cultural department store.  If the movement is more marketing than reality, then ten to fifteen years should allow us to tell.  If it is still orthodox by that point, we can be reasonably sure it is genuine.    Indeed, when torn jeans, or nose rings, or ministers talking about their sex lives from the pulpit become passé or so commonplace that they cease to be distinctive, we will see if it is timeless truth or marketable trendiness which has really driven the movement; and, even it proves to have been the latter, we should not panic.  We will still be left with the boring, mundane and nameless people and culturally irrelevant and marginal churches - the nameless ones -- upon whose anonymous contributions, past and present, most of us actually depend.


Carl Trueman is a Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.

Carl Trueman, "The Nameless One", Reformation 21 (September 2009)

This article was published in Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation by broadcasting, events, and publishing.  This article and additional biblical resources can be found at AllianceNet.org

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