“In general, throughout the work, what is new is not good; and what is good is not new.” – Rev. Martin Sherlock, comments on reviewing a collection of letters (1781)
There is this constant obsession within certain clusters of the Evangelical tradition to re-invent the wheel when it comes to the style and format of church. Perhaps this perpetual motion stems from the Protestant mantra “reformed and always reforming,” though the historical context for that phrase has more to do with the integrity of Christian doctrine and theology. As both a church attendee and a leader in various ministry roles throughout my teen and adult life, the idea that the Church should constantly be reinventing herself is one I heard expressed frequently, though in sometimes subtle ways.
Every Sunday or Wednesday night “production” had to be better than the week before. Every semon had to leave an impression of the speaker, and every worship segment had to dazzle and move the audience to new emotional highs. This was my experience of Church – little aesthetic or ritual permanance, a lack of “sacred” spaces or activities, and almost nothing that couldn’t be overhauled and done differently the next week. Quite frankly, by my mid to late 20s I was exhausted by the never-ending expedition for a fresh expression of church.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the American Evangelical church planting movement of recent decades. Every protestant church planter that I have encountered has one thing in common with the others: they are sincerely seeking the best expression of “church” that could exist. They may start at different vantage points or by asking different questions. Some might be seeking the thing that they believe their current expression of church is missing; others may be trying to bring in seekers, attempting to identify the fundamental quality that will make the non-churched want to belong to a church community. I remember being part of those conversations, earnestly asking questions about how to repair broken church models. However, some solutions (good ones) that various leaders came up with were often accompanied by a statement or implication that caused me pause: “This is the way the Church was really meant to be.”
During my time questioning many of the practices and beliefs within the Evangelical tradition, it seemed to me that the current church-planting movement in America was opperating on one or both of the following assumptions: (1) that orthodox Christianity has essentially gotten it wrong for 2000 years; and (2) that what may have worked during certain periods of history is now in need of an overhaul or an “update.” Honestly, neither of these assumptions ever really sat well with me, but I had no logical basis for them not sitting well.
After all, I grew up within the Evangelical tradition generally, and no one denomination in particular. Every church that I had ever attended represented a split-off of a split-off of a split-off. The very nature of the Evangelical movement involved a diversity of expressions of church and denominations of Christianity, within the parameters of a Fundamentalist or Evangelical confession of faith. So the idea of continually trying “new” things was not foreign to the overall tradition in which I was raised. That tradition lacked a significant amount of history, and as a result, I grew to realize that I completely lacked a historical understanding of orthodoxy. I was largely ignorant of the centuries of church history that built the tenets of Christian faith that I (and other Evangelicals) took for granted in present day American Christian cultures.
As I became more aware of my lack of historically comprehending my faith, I was forced to identify a troubling aspect of the books that I was reading on Christianity – the books that most young evangelicals and post-evangelicals were reading; they lacked a historical comprehension of the faith as well. These books were mostly really new and theologically and intellectually “light.” Rob Bell, Erwin McMannis, Don Miller, and Brian McLaren were having an impact on my generation. They were saying things that resonnated with young adults – making them think about their faith in ways that they never had before. However, (like Sherlock’s quote above) the problem I came to identify was that some of the good things that they were saying were in no way new (they were centuries old), and some of the new things that they were proposing were not really all that good.
For example, Rob Bell scandalized many theologically conservative Protestants with his 2011 publication of Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. In that book he posed many questions about how we know who will be in heaven or hell, who gets “saved” or not, whether or not everyone makes it to heaven, etc. Essentially, anyone who tracks with John Piper or holds to the doctrine of Predestination (and certainly the idea that some are Predestined for hell) would write-off Bell just a few pages into the book.
However, for many young evangelicals (and not so young ones), these were questions they had themselves wrestled with privately, having been given only simplistic pastoral explanations of how salvation functioned in Christianity. Many people had asked similar questions: Will my relatives who never set foot in church but were the kindest people I had ever met not be in heaven with me? What about those people in the world who have never heard of Jesus? Does the murdering rapist who on his deathbed makes a confession of faith in Jesus end up in heaven too?
These are good questions! They are natural questions, and many Evangelicals I knew were so intrigued to hear a Christian pastor/author bluntly asking them. However, they are not in anyway new questions, and Rob Bell’s ideas on the subject are by no means original and not terribly developed. Theological discussions about heaven, hell, the existance of both, and how people end up in either place date back centuries. There is a rich body of theological discussion and doctrine on these topics, thanks to centuries of Catholic and Orthodox thought and Church councils. However, somehow Bell managed to write a whole book about these issues without referencing much of the vast theological dicussions or many of the significant theologians that contributed to them.
There seemed to be two different, yet common, responses to Bell’s book. There were those who called him a heretic and lamented his decent from orthodoxy, and then there were those who thought Bell had unearthed new theological ground. Both responses from various Protestant and Evangelical groups shared one thing in common – a Christian paradigm that lacked a solid historical framework for the development of orthodox thought.
I also operated according to such a paradigm most of my Christian life, and since my realization of this deficit in my faith perspective I have come a long way. But I often think that I’m making up for lost time as a new Catholic. There is so much richness to be discovered – so much beautiful history of the development and preservation of Church doctrine that I often find myself regretting the years I spent ignorant of it. Yet, at the same time, the more I uncover at this point in my life the more precious it is to me. It’s a grace.
While my experience in the various Evangelical circles in which I was raised revealled a startling lack of historical perspective, that certainly does not mean that I think all Protestant groups or individuals lack a historical knowledge of the development and preservation of Christian doctrine, as I did. Moreover, those Protestant groups and individuals that have a richer historical framwork seem much less prone to constantly overhaulling the style and format of “church.”
My personal inquiry into Church history led me to become Catholic; but there are many Protestant friends I have with a strong understanding of Church history who have not come to the same theological conclusions. I am, and always will be, an ecumenical Christian who embraces and strives for Protestant-Catholic dialogue. My hope is that, through continued dialogue, others—Protestants and Catholics alike—will seek to deepen the historical framework for their Christian faith. In doing so, they may discover—as I did—some very good aspects of the Christian tradition that are not new at all; and in turn, they may abandon novel pursuits that are revealled to lack sufficient good.
Bell, Rob. Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.
Sherlock, Rev. Martin. Letters on Several Subjects. Vol. 2, Letter XIV, pp. 128 -129. London: J. Nichols, T. Cadell, P. Elmsly, H. Payne and N. Conant, 1781.