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Following the culture? (1)

August 2015 | by Terry Johnson

‘Yo, God is so ill!’, shouted Adam Durso, youth pastor at Christ Tabernacle Church in Glendale, Queens, New York, using a hip-hop term of praise.

Hip-hop worship for the hip-hop generation? ‘The only way to make the gospel relevant to them is through hip-hop,’ reports a Chicago youth pastor to the New York Times (13 September 2004).

‘Cowboy churches’ for cowboys? Indeed. Participants come to church dressed in cowboy gear. New converts are baptised in an 8-foot, circular, blue, plastic horse trough. The floor of the church is dirt-brown sand, ‘so you can come to church straight from riding or feeding your stock’, says Pastor Gary Morgan of the Cowboy Church of Ellis County, south of Dallas (USA Today, 11 March 2003).

The Ten Commandments are reinterpreted in cowboy twang: ‘Honor yer ma and pa; No telling tales or gossipin’; Git yourself to Sunday meeting; No foolin’ around with another fellow’s gal’, etc. The benedictory song is often Roy Roger’s ‘Happy trails to you’.

How many cultures?

Six months after this development was reported in USA Today, a similar article in Christianity Today described the same phenomenon with a straight face, seemingly oblivious to the silliness of some of these innovations, and especially to the unfeasibility and divisiveness of this philosophy if universally accepted (‘Worship at the OK Corral’, September 2003).

When the advocates of ‘contemporary worship’ promote its implementation, they cannot be urging for a single thing, because there is no one contemporary culture. Instead, they argue for a thousand times a thousand different approaches to worship and ministry, each catering to individual cultural preferences based on age, affinity, or ethnicity and, at the same time, excluding all the rest.

Sally Morgenthaler finds it necessary to devote nearly 40 pages to distinguishing the worship that appeals to ‘boomers’ to that which appeals to ‘busters’ (Worship evangelism, pp. 172-210).
Being ‘contemporary’ isn’t enough. One must determine which contemporary constituency one wishes to reach and tailor one’s services to its tastes. Saddleback now conducts four services simultaneously on Sunday mornings: ‘traditional’(!) Saddleback, rock, gospel, and classic hymns and choruses.

Cowboy churches now are not enough. There are urban cowboy churches and rural cowboy churches. We are experiencing, in the words of one commentary, a ‘hall of mirrors’, an ‘endless proliferation of new groups … based on nothing more substantial than catering to new styles’ (‘The evolution of Gen X-ministry’, Regeneration Quarterly, 5.3, 1999,17).

‘How will we respond to the new tribalism of worship and music?’ asks Michael S. Hamilton, in an article otherwise favourable to the new diversity in worship. ‘How can we keep our sectarian worship from becoming a sectarianism of the soul?’ (‘Triumph of praise songs’, Christianity Today, 72).

‘In today’s climate’, argues Gene E. Veith, ‘if a church seizes upon one particular style of popular music, then that will privilege those whose music is chosen and alienate everyone else’ (Modern Reformation, November/December 2002, 43).

Call this trend the ‘iPodisation’ of public worship. The theory seems to be that the ideal public worship service is one that conforms completely to the participants’ cultural preferences.

The perfect tool for fulfilling this ideal is the iPod. This technology makes it possible for each individual participant to dial-up exactly the songs and sermons and prayers that meet exactly his or her needs, at exactly that particular moment — alone, self-absorbed and isolated.

The church’s universality

What is the answer to this fragmenting of the church? A fresh appreciation of its catholicity.

Reformed Protestants have typically resisted surrendering the word ‘catholic’ to the Roman Catholics. They have affirmed the importance of the church’s catholicity (meaning its universality) and apostolicity, though they have tended to define these doctrinally and spiritually rather than institutionally (Calvin, Institutes, IV.i.2, 1013-14; IV.i.9, 1023ff.).

Anabaptists were criticised by the Reformed as schismatics who ignored or even disdained catholicity of doctrine and practice. The Reformers showed little patience for the individualistic and idiosyncratic. They affirmed the priesthood of all believers (collectively). They did not believe in the priesthood (or preacher-hood) of every believer. Catholicity and its regular companion, unity, were esteemed.

Reformed Protestants typically have seen themselves as practising a Reformed version of catholicism, which, though reformed, is nonetheless catholic. Luther argued in Babylonian captivity that the mediaeval church had departed from the catholic faith and that reforms were necessary to restore the church to its original integrity.

Calvin rarely used the word ‘Protestant’, and, when he did, applied it to certain protesting German Lutherans. Similarly, he never referred to Romanists as ‘catholic’, preferring to call them ‘papists’.

Douglas Kelly, while denying that Calvin’s theology has a controlling theme, in the sense that the nineteenth century historians tried to prove, argues that Calvin’s central theological aim was merely to be catholic.

William Perkins (1558–1602), a father of English Puritanism, wrote in 1597 a work entitled Reformed catholic, claiming for the Reformed church a true catholicity over against Rome’s false claims. John Owen, Richard Baxter and mainstream Puritans embraced the titles of ‘reformed catholic’ or ‘mere catholic’.

Continuity of doctrine and practice

Their argument was that the novelties of doctrine and practice that developed in the Middle Ages were discontinuous with the apostolic and patristic doctrine and practice that had preceded it.

The Reformers attempted to establish unity in ministry and doctrine with the apostolic and patristic church, as well as all that was sound from the Middle Ages. Rome, with its normalising of mediaeval innovations, had broken ranks with the catholic church, the church of the apostles and Fathers, with whom the Reformers were joining hands in fellowship.

The Reformation, in this sense, may be regarded as an argument over which church would be regarded as normative, the mediaeval church as it had evolved or the patristic original. The Protestant Reformers ‘anchored their case’ for reform ‘in the patristic period’, says David Wells, arguing ‘that the Reformation was really a contest between patristic and mediaeval Christianity’ (No place for truth: or, whatever happened to evangelical theology?; Eerdmans, 1993, p.105).

‘I beg you,’ Calvin wrote to Cardinal Sadoleto in their Reformation ‘debate’ of 1541, ‘to answer and place before your eyes the ancient state of the church as it was among the Greeks at the time of Chrysostom and Basil, and among the Latins at the time of Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine… Then contemplate the ruins that remain about you’. The aim of the Reformers was to repair those ruins.

Nevertheless, the Reformers respected and borrowed generously even from the mediaeval church. ‘The Reformed churches … intentionally harvested the best theology, piety and practice of the Eastern and Western church’, as Scott Clark points out, ‘from the Fathers through the Middle Ages’ (Recovering the Reformed confession, p.207).

Continuity with the past in doctrine, worship and ministry has always been a serious concern of Reformed Protestantism. ‘I’m first a Christian, next a catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a paedobaptist and finally a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse the order’, said Church of Scotland and Free Church missionary and theologian John (‘Rabbi’) Duncan (1796–1870).

Many Reformed churches make liturgical use of the Apostles’ Creed, at least occasionally, expressing as they do their belief in the ‘holy, catholic church’. Yet it is surprising how little attention is given today to the church’s catholicity, to the historic beliefs and practices of the ‘universal’ church. Anecdotal evidence would indicate that catholic concerns have little influence on how Reformed churches today shape their beliefs and practices.

Yet the apostles themselves made frequent appeal to universal Christian beliefs and practices. ‘Catholicity’ typically has been summarised as meaning ‘that which the church has believed in all places and at all times’.

Catholicity of doctrine is clear enough in Scripture: our faith was ‘once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3). Christian doctrine is a treasure or deposit, with which the church has been entrusted and to which alterations are not made. It is ‘the [i.e. one and only] faith’ (1 Timothy 6:20-21; 2 Timothy 1:13-14; etc.).

Apostolic example

Perhaps less frequently recognised is catholicity of practice. Repeatedly, the apostle Paul appeals to the practice of the whole church when requiring a given reform. He strengthens his moral, theological, and biblical arguments with appeals to catholicity or universal practice.

When he greets the church at Corinth, he does so with ‘all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Corinthians 1:2). The weight of the whole church universal stands with the apostle Paul in this epistle. This is catholicity.

What he writes, he writes on behalf of ‘all [people], who in every place…’ What he teaches them is taught ‘everywhere in every church’ (1 Corinthians 4:17). Universality was regarded by the apostles as a principle worth highlighting. Dealing directly with the theme of worship (e.g. prayer, the role of women in the Christian assembly, and the Lord’s Supper), he says, ‘We have no other practice, nor have the churches of God’ (1 Corinthians 11:16).

The practice of the early church is singular enough that the apostle Paul can appeal to it. The ‘churches of God’ were unified in their use of important forms of ministry. Respecting a whole range of issues touching the church’s practice of prayer, singing, prophesying (preaching), decency (decorum), orderliness, and the role of women, he underscores his writings with a catholic appeal: ‘For God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints’ (1 Corinthians 14:33).

The apostles established a ministry common to the churches, a common worship, in which all the churches were expected to participate.

Continued in Following the culture? (2)

The author is senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia, USA. This article is edited, with permission, from his recent book, Worshipping with Calvin (EP Books; 433 pages, £14.99; ISBN: 9780852349366).