In the 500th year of The Reformation it’s worth exploring a much younger iteration of that movement, an iteration that flew high for a time, but that has, in recent years quietly folded its wings; namely the Young, Restless and Reformed movement.
In the year I turn fifty, a mere ten per cent of the time allocated to The Reformation, it’s worth reflecting on that very modern movement, a movement that at first glance appeared motivated by the Reformation, but at a second look was more likely fed by a desire to get back to something that had more meaning than the ecclesiastical fairy floss being offered by “church-as-mall” that had infested evangelicalism.
For twenty years or so, the older X-Generation (do we still say that?) crowd through to the Millennials took solace not so much in theological links as with historical links. And that makes sense in a culture which is rootless, truthless and increasingly fruitless.
Let’s face it, the rise and rise in the popularity of vinyl records, and the return by every budding Hemingway to the manual typewriter speaks of a desire for something beyond the ephemeral. Somewhere along the line the lure of the new has burnt itself out, or requires even more smoke and mirrors (Yes iPhone X I am talking about you) to entice. And somewhere along the line there’s a yearning for a past that probably wasn’t even there in the first place, at least not in the sepia tones we imagine it.
Hence it wasn’t so much the Reformed bit that was so important, as the Young and Restless bit. After all the emerging church movement was Young, Restless and Mystical, with a deep interest in candles, Early Church Fathers, and liturgy. On the surface at least.
And perhaps that’s why both movements are on the wane, or are fairly moribund. The strength of their imagined theological forebears was lacking in them. Raised in a world addicted to image and icons, they attempted to traverse deep theological channels that flow in strong currents, in flimsy, but oh so hipster dinghies; all polished wood and stripy pillows, but without the power to navigate modernity’s riptides.
I observed this close up in the Young, Restless, Reformed crew who, when I first met them in the USA had the swagger of a movement that could grow a church quickly through marketing techniques which they had been marinated in from their youth but who were all giggly over Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel trilogy books as if they’d just been written. Much like a ten year old over a new Harry Potter instalment.
It’s as if Biblical Theology was something they had invented, or at least if not invented, had taken from an obscure backwater and popularised. It hadn’t occurred to them that there were plenty of Old, Rested and Reformed scholars, theologians and pastors who had drunk deep at The Reformation well.
It’s as if they thought that slapping The Reformation onto a modern day marketing approach to church would solve the entrenched cultural malaise felt by their generation that had been let down by seeker sensitive churches. And that goes for the Mystical crowd too. The sense with the Young, Restless, Reformed was that they were going to do church like it would have been done by Kurt Cobain if he’d been a pastor.
Its very thinness has been exposed of course, and laid bare – painfully so – before a watching and almost gleeful world, as the flagship Mars Hill took a dive. Or more to the point as the captain took the ship down with him.
When the aforementioned captain claimed to both be Reformed, and “charismatic with a seatbelt”, we thought he meant that Mars Hill operated in the gifts of the Spirit in a sensible manner. What he meant, as we all soon discovered, was that the Reformed way of doing church polity wasn’t going to restrain the classic Pentecostal leadership style he was committed to; namely an anointed king who decides everything.
The flow on from that has been instructive. There’s a pool of Ageing, Restless and Post-Reformed Christians looking around for what the next thing might be that can anchor them in something historical.
The great irony, of course, is that there is something to be anchored in that is historical; the faith once and for all delivered to the saints that is to be passed on from generation to generation that the Bible lays down. But somehow that never seems quite sexy enough to keep people interested, not in this sexy age at least.
Which means we should not get too excited by the current push for a return to thick, rich Christian liturgy among the younger generation. Not in and of itself at least.
Not unless it’s intention is to be more than the latest self-aware, ironic and tragically hip homage to a past that everyone under the age of forty seemingly yearns for. If all a return to liturgy is becomes the equivalent of the rebirth of vinyl, typewriters and austere looking barbershops with strop razors and a stripy pole, then we’re just making the same mistake all over again. And we’ll feel the same pain all over again at some stage.
Me? I’m fairly content to be Aging, Rested and Reformed. Indeed, the older I get the more I realise that the restlessness that accompanied so many of my peers (and me too if I am honest), was due to the fact we did not understand Reformed theology at all. They grasped the “forms” of Reformed, without grasping what grasping the theological truths that made The Reformation spark. Of course there was more to The Reformation than theology, but that’s the spark that lit the fire.
Our cohort simply didn’t grasp the deep freedom afforded by the doctrines of grace that liberate us from the churn of performance and meeting the spoken expectations of others, and the unspoken expectations of ourselves that lurk deep beneath our ability to articulate. When it came to it, so much of that movement ended up being about a new set of expectations, and it was all the more pernicious because it had “the right doctrine” splashed over the top.
Ageing, Rested and Reformed means we don’t have to fight all of the time, either for a hearing, for a platform, or for airspace or Twitter accounts that trend. Not to say those lures don’t continue to lure me. But when we think how Driscoll went from a house in his lounge room to organising the purchase of thousands of his own books to ensure a New York Times bestseller, then at the very least the doctrine of total depravity disappeared from his rear view mirror on the road to success.