Wednesday, May 29, 2013
The new brands of Christianity...
Lutherans have their Concordia. The Anglicans their Thirty Nine Articles. The Reformed their Westminster Confession. The Baptists their fundamentals. The points at which the clergy and congregations intersected were dogmatic and these formed the boundaries of both their association and their conviction. As these faded, the denominations also found themselves weaker and less relevant in the greater scope of things.
Many had hoped that as they faded a new association might emerge in which the boundaries of the old "brands" might be bridged so that a realignment could take place. In this hopeful scenario, those who held to a high view of Scripture, for example, would gravitate together. Those who held to a high view of the Sacraments would find common ground. The old barriers of denominational division would give way to a more honest definition of what was truly believed, confessed, and taught. It was a romantic idea. But I will admit to being caught up in this romance. Not so much anymore.
To my surprise, the old "brands" have been replaced by new associations that are less theological than methodological, less doctrinal than personal. Instead of bringing together people of like confessions, these new "brands" have brought together people who use the same models, paradigms, and methods to be church and grow church. We have the Saddleback association and the Rick Warren crowd. Strangely, even some Lutherans have exchanged the forty days of Lent for the Forty Days of Purpose. Confession has taken a definite back seat to methodology and personality. We have the Osteen spin offs in which a smidgeon of Christian theology is hidden in a positive, practical, and personal approach to life, seeking less the Kingdom of God and its righteousness and more personal achievement and happiness, less the eternal life prepared by Jesus so that we might be where He is and more the better life now.
The language and vocabulary of the new "brands" is less Biblical than it is descriptive of the values and processes of these larger than life personalities. These missional folks think strategies, visions, mission statements, program evaluation, and measurable barometers of success. The old language of cultus, catechesis, repentance and reformation is hardly mentioned among them. Instead, they share stories of what works in the ever present move to build and sustain congregations the size of small denominations, franchising their identities through satellites and financing the operation through successful books and workshops that feed back into their marketing side.
I have no doubt that these folks believe in what they are doing, that they sincerely believe that the church is broken and has to be fixed to survive, and that they see themselves as a new move of God and the Spirit, a version of the Reformation(s) of the sixteenth century. My problem is that denominations, even those with larger than life personalities, survived because of common confession. What will enable these new "brands" to survive past the lifespan of their founders?
I have seen it personally in churches built upon persons and personalities. They do not transition well past the one who gave them life and identity. Surely some will point to Lakewood Church and the Osteens as one example of smooth transition. The only problem here is that the church of the son is a different church than the one begun by the dad. The family name is the same but the preaching and shape of the church is very different. We watched as the Crystal Cathedral was sold off to the Roman Catholic Diocese to become a real cathedral. We watched as the Oral Roberts operation has faded into memory. Falwell's Liberty University has flourished but his Thomas Road Baptist Church no longer holds the sway it did when Jerry occupied the pulpit and seemingly single handedly organized the moral majority. The Stanleys are now talking to each other but it is pretty clear that Andy will not follow in his father Charles' footsteps. I could go on.
What will the future of Christianity be if the old "brands" forged by common confession truly give way to the new "brands" shaped by personality and methodology? It is anybody's guess. If I can hope, my hope is that these will fall as quickly as they have arisen and Christian people will return to unity shaped by common understanding of Scripture and common confession of what Scripture teaches (doctrine). That is my hope, anyway.