We Don’t Need Another Hero

Friday, 01 Mar 2013

Yet when it comes to basic practical assumptions, the movement-consciousness takes precedence over the covenantal-consciousness that defines Reformation beliefs and practices.

September 2003 marked a turning point in the development of Western civilization. It was the month that Adbusters magazine started accepting orders for the Black Spot Sneaker, its own signature brand of ‘subversive’ running shoes. After that day, no rational person could possibly believe that there is a tension between ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ culture. After that day, it became obvious to everyone that cultural rebellion, of the type epitomized by Adbusters magazine, is not a threat to the system’it is the system.”

So Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter begin their intriguing study, A Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (Harper Business, 2004). The idea is that especially with the American versions of modernity, perpetual shock is the new normal; each generation, enamored of its own unique potential, razes the empire to its foundations and starts over until the next generation has its own go at it. This means, of course, that everyone born of a woman must feel in his or her innards the primal imperative to “shake things up.”

Every now and again, of course, things do need to be shaken up. But in our culture it’s hard to know when one earthquake ends and another begins’especially with all of the aftershocks in between. G. K. Chesterton said it best: “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” (1)

Because the Word of God is “living and active,” always breaking into this present age of sin and death with its penetrating energies of judgment and grace, the church is always open to correction. Yet this Word doesn’t just tear down; it builds up. And building up takes a long time, across many generations.

There is every reason to rejoice in the rediscovery of the doctrines of grace in “Young, Restless, and Reformed” circles. However, the “Young and Restless” part is precisely what calls into question the extent to which “Reformed” is an appropriate part of its identity. There’s no minimum age requirement for ministers. In fact, the apostle Paul encouraged Timothy:

Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given to you by prophecy, when the presbytery laid its hands on you. (1 Tim. 4:12-13)

It’s natural to associate youth with a propensity to certain weaknesses, like impetuous or impulsive decisions, impatience, and foolishness. The most exasperating aspect of taking my children fishing is that they won’t leave the line in the water long enough to attract a living thing. This is called childishness. Even in secular societies across time there has been a consensus that wisdom comes with age and experience. Well catechized, especially by his mother and grandmother, Timothy was wise beyond his years. Yet he is to strive for that wisdom and sobriety that comes with age, especially with growth in Christ. And, unlike Paul, he was not called immediately by Christ as an apostle, but has his gift and authority as an ordinary minister from Christ through the church’s approval and ordination. He is not told to affirm his person, promote his record, or to rely on his charming charisma, but to take confidence in the gift he was given for his office and to fulfill that office faithfully.

Movements are largely youth driven, whereas institutions are usually run by elders. The challenge, especially in the church, is to “make every effort to preserve the bond of unity” (Eph. 4:3). This is more difficult, particularly in the body of Christ where we are drawn together from different backgrounds’and generations. Our culture celebrates The Next Big Thing, but Scripture speaks of an intergenerational covenant of grace. You can’t keep taking your line out of the water or constantly take the temperature or redirect your entire focus and strategy every minute. You have to let the King run his kingdom, follow his instructions, and become a disciple as well as make disciples.

With good reason we talk about our favorite event in the sixteenth century as the Reformation, not the Revolution. Unlike the radical reformers (i.e., the Anabaptists), Luther, Calvin, and the other magisterial Reformers did not set out to “reboot” Christianity. In fact, they meditated deeply on the writings of the ancient church and even, as Calvin called them, “the better scholastics” of the medieval era. The wound was indeed deep, as they diagnosed the church of their day, but they had no delusions of grandeur. They did not believe they were reconstituting a church that had virtually disappeared since the death of the last apostle. Rather, they sought to reform the church that had strayed from its script.

The radicals were dubbed “enthusiasts” by the Reformers. From “God-within” (en-theos), the term faithfully captured what the radicals themselves taught: namely, that the Spirit speaking directly in their hearts was more authoritative than the external Word. Who needs a learned ministry, or even preaching and sacrament, when the Spirit works directly? Aren’t church offices, liturgies, and creeds simply ways of imprisoning the spirit in the carapace of earthly forms? The ordinary ministry of preaching, sacrament, and the spiritual and temporal care of the saints became subordinate to the extraordinary inspiration and leadership of supposedly new apostles called immediately and directly by Jesus without any earthly confirmation.

Ever since, the wide river of Protestantism has been fed by the streams of radicalism, as well as the evangelical faith and practice of the magisterial Reformation. William McLoughlin reminds us that the effect of Pietism in American religious experience (especially culminating in the Second Great Awakening) was to shift the emphasis away from “collective belief, adherence to creedal standards and proper observance of traditional forms, to the emphasis on individual religious experience.” (2) If the Enlightenment shifted “the ultimate authority in religion” from the church to “the mind of the individual,” Pietism and Romanticism located ultimate authority in the experience of the individual. (3) All of this suggests that for some time now, evangelicalism has been as much the facilitator as the victim of modern secularism.

It was especially with the revivalist Charles Finney that emotional and spontaneous conversion experiences became the real test, over against the ordinary ministry. Rejecting classic doctrines of original sin, the substitutionary atonement, justification, and the supernatural character of the new birth, Finney placed salvation in the hands of the rugged individual. Going further than Rome ever has in terms of a theology of works-righteousness, Finney’s new gospel came with “new measures.” In fact, one chapter heading in his Systematic Theology reads, “God Has Established No Particular Measures,” leaving the field wide open to the entrepreneurial imagination.

These innovations transformed the church into a stage for the showman-revivalist and his props. While Christ instituted preaching and sacrament as means of delivering his saving grace, the only criterion for Finney’s methods was whether they were “fit to convert sinners with.” “Law, rewards, and punishments’these things and such as these are the very heart and soul of moral suasion.”

Conversionism and The Next Big Thing

There are surprising conversions, but if these are the rule, then of what use are the ordinary means of grace? Tragically, generations of evangelicals have been taught basically to treat their baptism and covenantal nurture as an impediment to genuine conversion rather than as means of grace. It may well be that the expectation of extraordinary episodes of personal experience in revivals helped to shape our American culture’s penchant for The Next Big Thing.

Conversion and covenantal nurture go hand in hand in Scripture. There is no opposition between personal faith in Christ and the ministry of the church, and “getting saved” and “joining a church.” Peter declared in his Pentecost sermon, “The promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39). Cut to the quick by Peter’s sermon, many believed and were baptized, bringing their whole household under the covenant promises through baptism (Acts 16:14’15, 31; 1 Cor. 1:16). The children of believers are holy, set apart by God’s promise (1 Cor. 7:14), although some will reject their birthright (Heb. 12:16; cf. 6:1’9). Responding to God’s promise, parents’and indeed the whole church’vow to raise these children in the covenant. There is the expectation that their children will come to profess their faith publicly before the elders and that this will be ratified by their being welcomed to the Lord’s Table.

While acknowledging surprising conversions (Luther’s, for example), the Reformers saw conversion as a lifelong process of growing and deepening repentance and faith in Christ. This, though, was not enough for the radicals. Conversion had to be a definable experience with evidence discerned by the standards of strict obedience. Especially with the rise of Pietism, the genuineness of this experience could be charted with pinpoint accuracy, through a series of steps. Eventually, the routinization of conversion-procedures’like those of the factories in the Industrial Revolution’could be calculated, measured, and reproduced. This is what happened with Anglo-American revivalists such as Finney, who promoted extraordinary evidence through extraordinary methods. If the churches will not follow, Finney insisted, they will simply have to be left behind. (4) In other words, they have to think more like a movement than a church.

The spirit of radical Protestantism spawned successive waves of The Next Big Thing throughout the twentieth century. Many announced a new Pentecost that will shake the old churches to their foundations, while liberal Protestants appealed to “what the Spirit is saying to us today” over against Scripture and the creeds. The Jesus Movement of the ’70s played the counterculture card during the era in which car companies advertised, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Ironically, the counterculture became mainstream as the “church growth movement” embraced consumer culture. In one of its latest incarnations, the Emergent Movement, we hear once again the usual “get-with-it-or-get-left-behind” messages. There are calls to “reboot ‘church,'” with ordinary-ministry churches compared to payphones: they still exist but nobody uses them. Everything Must Change! is the title of a best-selling book. Away with pastors, preaching sermons; let’s make it more of a “conversation” with the Bible as one of the conversation partners. We share our journeys. Let’s make Communion into something more informal, along with labyrinths and a more aesthetic “Starbucks” feel. In any case, it’s not about going to church but about being the church, not about hearing the gospel but being the gospel.

Admirably, the “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement is genuinely “countercultural”‘at least going against the tide of the usual human-centered orientation in many churches’when it comes to certain doctrines. Yet when it comes to basic practical assumptions, the movement-consciousness takes precedence over the covenantal-consciousness that defines Reformation beliefs and practices. We may think like Jonathan Edwards, but we often act like Charles Finney.

In Head and Heart, Catholic historian Garry Wills observes,

The camp meeting set the pattern for credentialing Evangelical ministers. They were validated by the crowd’s response. Organizational credentialing, doctrinal purity, personal education were useless here—in fact, some educated ministers had to make a pretense of ignorance. The minister was ordained from below, by the converts he made. This was an even more democratic procedure than electoral politics, where a candidate stood for office and spent some time campaigning. This was a spontaneous and instant proclamation that the Spirit accomplished. The do-it-yourself religion called for a make-it-yourself ministry. (5)

In fact, Wills repeats an older conclusion about celebrity culture’namely, that “the star system was not born in Hollywood but on the sawdust trail of the revivalists.” (6)

Today, even in a movement admirably committed to rediscovering the glory and grace of God, we hear a lot about celebrity pastors. Not the saving service of Christ through ordinary ministers who come and go, but the extraordinary ministry of So-and-So seems to grab our attention. The New Testament prescribes an order in which pastors and elders are equal and accountable to each other in local and broader assemblies. As we saw in Paul’s encouragement to Timothy, ordinary pastors are called and replaced through a process of discernment in the church. The minister comes and goes, but the ministry endures’determined by the authority of Scripture rather than by the effectiveness or ingenuity of those who bear the office. But today we devise “succession plans” with solemn announcements, build satellite campuses where the Great Teacher can shepherd sheep he has never met, and contemplate our personal “legacy.”

However, it’s time to grow up. It’s time for movements to give way to churches. As many people are learning in emerging nations (especially in the wake of the Arab Spring), the energy of the masses gathered in the square can be exhilarating; the hard part is forming a working, living, growing polity that can sustain a state over the long haul. Movements typically don’t like institutions. They live off the memory of the extraordinary Moment and find it difficult to move in a united way toward a sustainable environment for generations.

Ordinary vs. Extraordinary

In what he calls “a short but self-important history of the Baby Boomer Generation,” Joe Queenan, writer for The New York Times and GQ, makes sport of (among other things) his generation’s “absolute inability to accept the ordinary.” (7) A baseball game used to be a baseball game, but now it replaces Bar Mitzvahs and First Holy Communions, weddings and funerals, as a moment of eschatological significance. He adds,

Because Baby Boomers are obsessed with living in the moment, they insist that every experience be a watershed, every meal extraordinary, every friendship epochal, every concert superb, every sunset meta-celestial. Life isn’t like that. Most meals are okay. Most friendships work until they don’t work. Most concerts are decent. Sunsets are sunsets. By turning spectacularly humdrum occurrences into formal rites, Baby Boomers have transmuted even the most banal activities into ‘events’ requiring reflection, planning, research, underwriting and staggering masses of data. This has essentially ruined everything for everybody else because nothing can ever again be exactly what it was in the first place: something whose very charm is a direct result of its being accessible, near at hand, ordinary. (8)

To be sure, there are extraordinary’even earthshaking’moments in our lives. However, for the most part, it’s the ordinary interactions, gifts, relationships, and chores that make life rich and meaningful. We don’t need another hero. We need ordinary shepherds who know who the Real Hero is and lead us back to him each week.

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