The Way Forward

Eric Landry
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Jan/Feb 2007

As Modern Reformation celebrates its fifteenth anniversary, the editors have been considering what lies ahead for this publication. How should we purposefully plan for anniversaries yet to come? To do that, we're looking both to real history and to the real challenges that lie ahead to fix a bearing for the publication. Doing so ensures that we are not just setting in motion a plan whose only purpose is to exist. Nor do we want to constantly redefine a plan for the future based on our own organizational needs. Instead, we're connecting the pressing issues of today and tomorrow (some of which are outlined below) with the strength of our history: pressing the case that doctrine matters and theology is practical.

Modern Reformation at fifteen years of publication is very similar in some ways to its first year as a glossy magazine and even its previous incarnation as a four-page newsletter-hot off the copy machine in a certain editor-in-chief's back room: Words still dominate the space; not pictures, not ads, but words that are carefully considered, weighed, and applied to issues facing the church. Ideas lay behind those words-lasting ideas, ideas of consequence, ideas sometimes out of sync with the contemporary church scene. These words and their ideas are meant to be savored slowly, to be digested, and to be used for the maturing and health of the church. The design that frames those words has changed over time. The number of words has generally increased, but this magazine continues to be published to further a conversation about God, this world, and our lives in it.

In MR's January/February 2000 issue, then executive editor Benjamin Sasse charted a course for the magazine that depended upon the participation and support of thoughtful laypeople who wanted to engage in theological conversation. In spite of that vision, Modern Reformation has not always been a considerate conversation partner. Some might suppose that our mea culpa is related to the sometimes polemical nature of our articles. We have never apologized for being polemical. Hard things need to be said in the interest of preserving and advancing truth. But we have sought to say those things with respect. In our dialogue with those within and without our circles, we always want to make sure that we're dealing with real issues, not caricatures, and that the conversation leads to change, not hostility. Polemics is not the problem. Instead, the editors have been overly concerned sometimes to teach certain concepts without engaging more pressing concerns that are affecting the churches in which we all worship and serve. At other times, the magazine has erred in another direction by fixating on important theological concerns, yet forgetting that our intended audience was laypeople-not academics.

Dr. Sasse's vision and statement of editorial intent was not novel. He had merely picked up the vision cast in the very first issue of Modern Reformation (pre-glossy edition!), when Michael Horton pitched this new venture to the average Christian and worked hard to convince them that their thoughtful engagement and challenge to the "spirit of the age" was vital if the church was to enjoy another reformation of doctrine and practice. Modern Reformation has achieved more or less numerical and critical success as it has faithfully adhered to or deviated from that vision, first laid out in the inaugural issue of its pre-magazine existence and then later expanded in Dr. Sasse's 2000 article ("We Wish for…Laypeople Willing to Engage in an Ongoing Conversation on Confessional Christianity"). It should come as no surprise then to read that a renewed commitment to our unique identity as a theological magazine for thoughtful laypeople will mark the next phase of our life in print.

Modern Reformation has achieved a certain niche over the past fifteen years. Even though the proliferation of new technology has provided numerous opportunities for various groups and individuals to stake out a "place" and a "voice" on the issues of the day, MR continues to be a magazine of record in the marketplace of ideas. When the church at large wants to know what confessional Protestants think on any issue, thought-leaders often turn to the pages of Modern Reformation for the answer. Our strength-now fifteen years in the making-of uniting the voices of Anglicans, Congregationalists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and the Reformed on issues of common concern has ensured that this magazine is considered, cited, defended, and disparaged by friend and foe.

This unique identity will help focus our efforts in the coming years. As we survey the landscape of American Christianity, certain issues that should concern us all are already flowering. Some of the stakes in play are explained below, but the general nature of the problem is that truth is being left behind in a mad dash for power and relevance. Over the next ten years, Modern Reformation will take up these issues and others like them as we provide a forum for the ongoing conversation that has marked our existence so far.

The Collapse of the Mainline Denominations

Since Modern Reformation is a magazine that crosses confessional and denominational boundaries, we have been privileged to feature the work of mainline and so-called "sideline" authors-often side by side-in our pages. We delight in drawing attention to the renewal efforts within the mainline Protestant churches and we hope that our own work has been of some encouragement to those faithful who continue the struggle. But since the evangelical resurgence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the final future of the mainline denominations has been nearly settled. The most recent acts of apostasy in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), for instance, have shaken even the firmest convictions of those who feel compelled to stay and fight. Is there anything left to fight for when both the content (Trinitarian Christianity) and the Constitution (the fifth recommendation of the Peace, Unity, and Purity report) have been eviscerated? The death and interment of the mainline, however, will take some time and may radically alter the face of contemporary American Christianity as denominations formed by various reuniting efforts in the middle of the last century are blown apart and scattered.

The particular challenge of the mainline's collapse will not be found in the individual stories of denominational labels and property disputes. Instead, it will be found in the leavening effect of the scattered mainline churches which find new homes as independent congregations, join existing denominations, or form new alliances. For at least the last three decades, Evangelicalism has been able to feel some measure of safety in its distance from the problems of the mainline denominations. But with the collapse of those same denominations, those problems will no longer be localized in some distant religious ghetto, they will find their way into the denominations who have long thought that part of their distinguishing characteristics was the settled nature of these issues. Having failed to stop the erosion of orthodoxy from within their own ranks, evangelicals within the mainline denominations will be unwitting carriers of the disease into the congregations and denominations that welcome them with open arms.


Evangelicalism's future isn't so bright, either. The old, post-World War II evangelicals found unity in their rejection both of Fundamentalism's withdrawal from the world and modernism's denial of Scripture and the supernatural character of the Bible. Their powerful unity required the evangelicals to hide the confessional and denominational distinctions that used to separate them from each other. After several years of sitting in their ecclesiastical attics, no one could remember why those distinctions were important anymore and they were lost to newer pressing concerns of relevance and pragmatism. With the convenient marriage between evangelicals and conservative politics, the ecclesial nature of Evangelicalism deteriorated even further. Moral values (a.k.a. "traditional American culture") were substituted for creedal and confessional faithfulness.

As the standard bearers of the old Evangelicalism die, a new generation is emerging that rejects many of their forebear's distinguishing traits but continues to follow in their footsteps. The Emergent Church Movement-which we understand is so diverse that it begs the "one size fits all" moniker-stands ready to fill the gap. The movement has been the subject of intense scrutiny for several years now. As the leaders of the movement begin to articulate competing visions for the future of their individual congregations as well as the movement at large, we might see a resurgence of denominational-like loyalty that looks very different from what we currently conceive of as denominationalism.

Emergent's laudable concern to recover historic forms of individual and corporate worship may also be a harbinger of a recovery of other denominational distinctions. Consider just the pragmatic reasons: a town of 100,000 people will have an average 120 Protestant churches. If the majority of those churches sing the same songs, structure their worship services in the same way, have generally the same kind of preaching (if not in form, then certainly in content), and utilize the same programmatic structure what will distinguish one from the other? What will be their "selling point"? A recovery of particular ways of doing and being the church, especially as they are considered historically, will be one answer to this problem. As evangelicals rediscover their history and their distinctive voice, Modern Reformation stands in a very unique position to help by providing historical, ecclesiastical, theological, and exegetical resources to support them in their search.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, other evangelicals will rush to fill the gap left by the decline of the mainline. They will do so by embracing old-style Liberalism (of the theological nature) and christening it as the "next big thing." Popular forms of this ecclesiastical amnesia are already making headway in widely diverse environments.

Third World Syncretism in First World Drag

Numerous scholars have demonstrated that the fastest and future growth of Christianity is found in the two-thirds and third-world countries of Africa, Asia, and South America. Although some stories of the success of Reformation churches can be found, the predominant character of this religious revival is of a radically charismatic and outlandishly Pentecostal origin. While the charismatic and Pentecostal missionaries of North America might be seeing the fruit of their labors over the last one hundred years, they cannot be pleased with the way their doctrinal particulars are being co-opted to make room for traditional religious practices (mostly pagan, but also with Roman Catholic influences).

With the American church softened up by a new onslaught of "soft" prosperity teachers like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer, the syncretism that defines the fastest growing strains of world Christianity will soon make its mark in our local churches as well. With "Truth" being defined according to need and preference (for more on this, see Brenda Jung's article in this issue), American Christians have no real way of understanding or stopping this influx because they have lost sight of the creedal character of their enterprise. Add this new missionary movement to a culture already saturated with and addicted to superstition and the resulting pagan revival will present a significant challenge to every thinking Christian.

We are already seeing the advance guard of this new paganism in the pluralism that seems to threaten our national unity on matters of morality in the public square. The church will increasingly find itself marginalized in a society that values ill-defined tolerance over matters of faith, conviction, and fact. Waiting in the wings to take advantage of this cultural idolatry will be other world religions: the Eastern moral and religious philosophies to embrace the new status quo and Islam to challenge it with its stark dogmas. In the future, a full-orbed and vibrant expression of biblical Christianity may be disregarded (at best) or oppressed (at worst), but it is the only viable answer to the many challenges that we face.

The Gender Game

The gender and sexuality wars that provided the burning match to the mainline's flammable edifice will not retire quietly from the scene with the mainline's collapse. Finding strength of purpose with the new spirit of the age, proponents of unbiblical ways of understanding male/female relationships both within and outside of the church will find new battle grounds in unwitting evangelical and conservative congregations. Some of those denominations that are yet to be rocked by these debates were formed in reaction to women's ordination, particularly. My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (which was formed in 1973 as a rejection of an anticipated North-South Presbyterian reunion that would have introduced women pastors to the Southern church), has lost several prominent congregations in the last five years over this issue.

In a recent interview with Christianity Today, Mark Driscoll, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, called men "the lost gender." The recovery of biblical manhood has been underway for a number of years now, but the problem of men disappearing from the church has seen more recent attention. With all of the challenges already facing a weakened American church, the absence of their men could be a fatal blow. But, the manner in which they seek to win those men back to the church could do more damage to their biblical fidelity and future viability than their absence alone would have created. Evangelical attempts to sell the Faith as "muscular religion" are as wrong-headed as attempts to feminize men out of the church.

Public Theology and the Public Square

Many of the issues we have examined so far, albeit briefly, have concerned the identity and mission of the church in light of challenges from within its own ranks and from pressures applied to it from the outside. This final category is no different, but the results will not be felt in individual congregations. How the church engages these issues will help define the church's role in society at large.

One movement, known as Radical Orthodoxy, has captured headlines in contemporary theology. Advocating a recovery of Christian neoplatonism, John Milbank and other writers in this circle are sharply critical of Reformation theology, particularly its emphasis on the substitutionary atonement and extrinsic justification. Although Radical Orthodoxy is primarily Roman Catholic in its orientation, it has attracted a wide following in evangelical circles as well. By recovering a neoplatonic vision of all of reality participating in God, Radical Orthodoxy thinks that the nihilism of modern and postmodern culture can be overcome.

Over the last two election cycles, a number of books have been written, which alternatively defend or decry Christianity's (un)holy marriage to Republican politics. A Secular Faith, written by Modern Reformation contributor and former executive editor Darryl Hart, advocates a renewed emphasis on the proper bounds of a faith that is concerned primarily with the world to come-especially in light of the kinds of compromises that characterize government in this present age. As American evangelicals begin to shift their focus away from "culture of life" issues to broader social concerns (the environment, global human rights, AIDS research), the well-trenched culture warriors may wake up to ever newer and stranger bed-fellows. Can evangelical theology keep up with the shifting landscape? What part could a renewed emphasis on the doctrine of the two kingdoms play in the conversations that must be had among Washington power-brokers and local church leaders?

These are not the only issues on the horizon; they may not even turn out to be the most important issues to work through. But they do provide a glimpse of the challenges and opportunities ahead of us. There is no shortage of work to be done, but the work that will be done through the efforts of this magazine will make a difference by challenging the errors that are sometimes passed over in ignorance or false piety; convincing our readers of the Reformation perspective on doctrine and practice; and, finally, by communicating that message to the broader audience that looks to MR for answers.

With a name like Modern Reformation, our goal in taking up each of these issues cannot be missed. But we are not advocating some return to a "golden age" of church history. Instead, we firmly believe that the resources provided to the church through the Protestant Reformation (particularly through its exegetical insights and resulting ecclesiastical applications), can be faithfully applied to our contemporary situation. If the church recovers this lost treasure trove and uses it wisely, it may be blessed to see as remarkable a transformation of its faith and practices as was seen in the Reformation.

Is that, then, how we will measure our future success? Must we see a cross-denominational reformation in order to achieve our purpose? The short answer is, no. The last time this magazine celebrated an anniversary was with our tenth anniversary issue-January/February 2002. In the introductory article, then executive editor Darryl Hart asked a few hard questions. He wondered whether or not MR had lived up to its self-proclaimed mission to help carry out another Reformation into the new millennium. He wondered whether the issues that first informed the original mission of Modern Reformation had been replaced by more pressing problems in American Christianity. He wondered, frankly, whether ten years of Modern Reformation had made a difference. With Dr. Hart, we freely admit that the ambitious aim of this publication must be tempered with a realistic assessment of the process of sociological and ecclesiastical change. But if we can continue to be that mouthpiece of confessing Protestants-evangelicals who are eager to reclaim their heritage and their unity on the core concerns of the Reformation-then we can be assured that the work which lies ahead of us is significant enough to demand that we still take up the issues of the day and work toward promoting the truths and practices of the Reformation to the contemporary church.

Photo of Eric Landry
Eric Landry
Eric Landry is the chief content officer of Sola Media and former executive editor of Modern Reformation. He also serves as the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas.
Thursday, May 3rd 2007

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

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