Luther Lite and Reformation Schmooze

Craig A. Parton
Wednesday, August 15th 2007
Jan/Feb 1995

C. S. Lewis, we all know, came "kicking and screaming" into the kingdom. My family has recently also come "kicking and screaming" into the Reformation. It has been a long and arduous journey which included an extended desert experience in evangelical pietism mixed with many years as missionaries with a high energy parachurch organization. These experiences left my wife and I in T.S. Eliot's "Wasteland"–a spiritual black hole which ultimately forced us to seek the fresh stream of the Reformation.

Now that I have come to the Reformation, questions abound. What is the commitment of the Reformation churches to their distinctives? Why are many Reformation churches looking to evangelical Bible churches for the critical "recipe" necessary to generate vibrancy and good attendance numbers? Evangelical churches apparently have the numbers, the exuberant youth groups with equally exuberant youth group leaders, high rates of conversion, and plenty of money for the new gymnasium. The question arises: Does a "successful" church really need to be presenting Law and Gospel every week? Is the Reformation emphasis on an informed confessionalism, as opposed to an emphasis on conversion, really necessary?

Reformation churches could easily conclude that God is doing his real work elsewhere. After all, Reformation churches are not growing at exponential rates, many contain largely senior congregants, and may be struggling to attract the young people who have likely gone off to the evangelical churches that highlight a more entertaining "Saturday Night Live" format. As one evangelical pastor of a mega-church recently told me: "Give me a large auditorium and let me do a 'David Letterman' format, and I'll pack the place out." No doubt he would. But is Hell yawning?

The careful preaching of the text of scripture, the presentation of the Cross as sufficient for the sins of Christians, the administration of the Lord's Supper, scriptural liturgy, theologically literate music–in short, a mature presentation of sin and grace apparently is no longer sufficient to light the fire of Mr. John Doe Christian.

Reformation churches are increasingly tempted to experiment with so-called evangelical "schmooze"–a frothy mug of "God Lite" incapable of being harmonized with a serious theology of the Cross as articulated by the Reformers. An emphasis on marketing the "Product" to outsiders, the use of weak musical media and equally vacuous "worship teams," the devaluing of a detailed knowledge of the confessional guides, all appear with increasing frequency in historic Reformation churches. Sunday school material is now reviewed for its "relevance" and ability to entertain the MTV generation. Some Reformation churches now debate whether confirmation classes are really "sellable" to junior high students anymore.

I wish to offer three warnings to Reformation pastors and their congregants who may be tempted to engage in the new art of "Reformation Schmooze":

Schmooze seeks to entertain. Do not mimic the "Saturday Night Live" Christianity of many of the leading Evangelical Temples. You will not do it as well and it is truly embarrassing hearing it in churches supposedly dedicated to the teachings of the Reformers.
During a discussion this past summer at the Institute for Jurisprudence and Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, one of the students in my class argued with great passion that the use of a guitar in a Reformation service is not, by definition, wrong. This is undoubtedly true. However, I'm still searching for guitar music with weight to support a worship service with a serious emphasis on the Law and the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.

As Jaroslav Pelikan points out in Bach Among the Theologians, the God of the Reformers motivated artistic works of enormous majesty, power and perfection. In the area of musical composition, this certainly culminated in the St. Matthew Passion of J. S. Bach with its clear reliance on a majesty of the theology of the Cross. The Christian who cannot discern the superiority of Bach's arrangement of "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" from "I've Got Peace Like a River" is not only impoverished but enslaved. Life is too short to have to suffer through innumerable variations of "You Ask Me How I Know He Lives? He Lives Within My Heart" as a regular diet on Sunday morning while the varsity worship team avoids "And Can It Be That I Should Gain?", "Holy, Holy, Holy" and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." Simply put, mantra music to us by the purveyors of schmooze fits with the worship style of another religion.

If you seek to schmooze, the preaching of the Law and the use of theologically literate music will be among the first things to go. You will end up with either a Christian VFW group or a youth rally, but not with a Christian church that has the Gospel.

Schmooze seeks to be trendy. Instead, present the liturgy, preach the text of Scripture, and administer the Sacraments with excellence every single Sunday.
Evangelicals coming to the Reformation are nauseated over moralistic sermons where Christ, portrayed as a second law-giver, is presented only in the evangelism of unbelievers. They are nauseated over Arminian Sunday school curricula that instruct their children (as, of course, does Zen Buddhism) to look within themselves for that divine glow that yearns to cooperate with God in doing good deeds. They are nauseated over the Lord's Supper being presented as "crackers and juice" time. They are nauseated over churches where a person's level of involvement in a particular social cause appears to be a confessional requirement akin to affirming the two natures of Christ. Seeking evangelicals are looking for serious, intelligent, thoughtful worship that seizes the high ground. Sermons and Sunday school classes devoted to trendy People magazine-type topics are not the strong point of the Reformation.

A Reformation church should be a place where you find Christ and the forgiveness of sins every Sunday. A Reformation church should be a place where you find doctrinal sermons. A Reformation church should be a place where the catechetical instruction of the young (leading to confirmation and an informed partaking in the Lord's Supper) is placarded as one of the great strengths of the church. A Reformation church should be a place where people are unashamedly taught the creeds and confessions of that denomination that were worked out with exacting care and clarity.

Reformation churches likely will grow as they emphasize their distinctives. But if they do not grow, that is the Lord's concern, not ours. Evangelicals coming to the Reformation seek the strong drink of the Gospel which the Reformation has as its great treasure. To relegate this God-given distinctive to the back of the church bus will ultimately confuse, discourage, and exasperate seeking evangelicals. Evangelicals will realize, with horror, that the worship team performing at the local evangelical temple is actually doing all the schmooze better than this Reformation church that is, apparently, embarrassed of its heritage.

Evangelicals going to the Reformation expect to drink the cup of theology and doctrine to the dregs. They will not be drawn to Reformation churches because you offer a "contemporary service." For heaven's sake, they will come to the Reformation to get away from that! If I had only wanted a "little dab of Luther," I would have stayed put. It certainly would not have been worth the discombobulation involved in moving my family to the Reformation if the only result was that we got Arminian theology supported by a nice pipe organ.

Leave head-counting to the domain of schmooze.
Reformation churches see the excitement, the numbers, the budget, the prestige that evangelical churches and pastors have in the community. Young people appear to be flocking into these "user friendly" environments. "God Lite" works, so it seems. Sermons emphasizing social involvement and Jesus As Therapist keep the attention of the Phil and Oprah generation that supposedly is disinterested in the mundane issues of sin and salvation.

Numbers deceive. In fact, a biblical church could actually be losing numbers. I am convinced that many churches would actually be displaying a renewed obedience to the inerrant Word of God by engaging in a vibrant ministry of subtraction.

In any event, a church with ten people that is preaching the text of Scripture, presenting Christ each week as if the Cross is the answer for Christian failure too, and is properly administering the Sacraments, is doing it right. Reformation churches must do what they have been blessed by God in doing for over 450 years. Rest assured, evangelicals that come in will be supremely enthused to proselytize those outside the camp. After all, that is what we evangelicals do best.

If Reformation churches fail to placard their distinctives but instead create Reformation Schmooze, they may well grow in numbers. However, they will no longer be Reformation churches. More likely than not, though, such churches will fail to grow in numbers since their clergy and their services are not adept at promoting entertainment without a fundamental change in theology. One thing is certain: such churches will repulse the legion of seriously seeking evangelicals who are turning to the Reformation at this historic moment.

Reformation churches have the great treasure of the Church–the Gospel in word, water, bread and wine. The haunting question facing serious evangelicals who have wallowed through the theological pig-pen to get back to their Father's house is now this: Will the light still be on? And if it is on, tell me it's not neon.

Wednesday, August 15th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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