How many Christians are Calvinists?

John Gerstner in his church history series on the Ligonier site guesstimates that only 2% are classically Calvinistical when it comes to predestination and election. I think that might be about right. A case could be made for even less.

How is this to be accounted for? Aside from the explanation that so few believe it because it is plainly untrue, there is a sociological explanation, an explanation offered by Stephen Prothero in his book Religious Literacy. He simply blames it on The Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s.

The Second Great Awakening began on the American frontier where Methodism of a less Calvinistic stripe had its way. Moreover, it was a more egalitarian phenomenon, taking place as it did in Jacksonian America, with a bent away from the more elitist, thoughtful and scholarly ways on New England, where the First Great Awakening occurred. Revivalism was born and was soon adopted as a way of reaching both nonChristians and the slothful in church.

This new revivalism led to phenomenal growth in church membership, but it was growth of another kind. The Second Great Awakening was nondenominational in its spirit. During this time we have the birth of nondenominational voluntary organizations, which emphasized cooperation across denominational divides and encouraged different church groups to see each other less as rivals and more as allies.  Examples are the American Anti-Slavery Society, the American Temperance Society, the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, the American Sunday School Union, the American Home Missionary Society, and so on. That which divided Christians was downplayed.

Prothero makes the point that this growth came at a cost, and the cost was religious literacy. The Puritanism of the First Great Awakening went to great lengths to spread religious literacy. And while the evangelicalism of the Second Great Awakening promulgated Bible knowledge, it discouraged theological accuracy as a divisive thing that would check the spread of experiential Christianity.  Of course, the rise of Protestant liberalism during this period could only help this slide away from theological precision.

This spirit of nonsectarianism became critical to the burgeoning public school movement. Whereas previously education was an instrument for theological learning, now it eschewed denominationalism and diminished as irrelevant those aspects of Christianity which gave rise to varying denominations.

By the time this process had had its way the Christianity of America is characterized by an emphasis on “core” beliefs, beliefs that could be listed on one side of an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper. And preaching followed the script. Gone were the sermons that instructed. Inspiration was in and precision was out.

Calvinism cannot prosper in such an atmosphere. The spirit of the age is against it. In spite of the amount of press Time magazine gives to the New Calvinism, it hardly shows up on the radar screen. To sustain consistent Calvinistical thought requires attention and instruction which must go far beyond the usual diet and appetite of American Christians. Indeed, in some circles we are taught that such a thing is bad and indicates a head religion rather than a true heart religion. The times have to really change for there to be any headway.

Conspicuous Authenticity

I listened to an interview with Andrew Potter, author of The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves. We are all familiar with the phenomenon. It’s about achieving a certain self-image, one in which the tawdry, consumerist aspects of modern life are thrown over for the sake of a simpler, truer, more “authentic” self.  

Mr. Potter notes that the search for authenticity often ends up as a status-seeking game. (Think Prius) Authenticity, Mr. Potter writes, is “a positional good, which is valuable precisely because not everyone can have it.” By competing against one another to see who is more authentic, he says, we just become bigger phonies than we were before.

Churches are in the “authenticity game.” Who isn’t for authenticity? But then there is that kind of authenticity that we can market. It’s the “we care more than your average church” angle. Churches find a new cause (environmentalism, saving Africa, Haiti, whatever) and then make that carry the weight of how authentic their religion is. You can’t prove that this is being done, but you can feel it. This isn’t the old “do your good works so that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.” It’s the new conspicuous authenticity. We market how much more superior we are than the average selfish slob who drives his big SUV, buys his huge plasma TV, couldn’t care less than he now does about recycling, etc.

Go to church websites and see the pictures of who goes to their church on the home page. They are, as Howie Carr says, the beautiful people. Of course, none of the people pictured on the home page go to that church. They might not go to any church. They might not even care about church. Their picture came along with the purchased website. It’s like buying a picture frame with a family photograph already there. That family looks so much better than yours you are tempted to keep it. In fact, I had a friend who did just that. He kept it on his desk and when people saw it and asked about his family, he told them this was the only way he could find to have that perfect family everyone wants.

The game today in church marketing is authenticity. But not just any kind of authenticity. It’s the kind that can be sold.

The Martini Mass? Make mine extra dry with two olives

From the First Things blog.

Every Sunday at 6 P.M., the Church of the Ascension, a Catholic parish on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, offers a Mass at which, according to the church website, “a jazz trio plays original compositions, arrangements of traditional hymns and music by composers such as Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington.”

The website also notes that “shortly after the . . . Jazz Mass started at Ascension” (about a decade ago) “a bewildered parishioner” approached the pastor “to express disapproval. . . . She didn’t think jazz was appropriate for church and . . . she felt like she ‘should have a martini in her hand.’”

And so was born the tradition of Martini Night. It is described on the Ascension website (click on the tab for “Ministries”) as “the . . . Jazz Mass’ interpretation of the traditional church coffee hour or potluck. On the first Sunday of the month, we gather after Mass for fellowship, food and all kinds of drinks and, yes, martinis.”

There’s a dedicated email address for anyone “with questions, to volunteer, or if you would like to be added to our email reminder list.” The address is (what else?)

I have been to more than one church service where a few martinis would be more of a help than a hindrance.

It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic.

It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom–that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.  GK Chesterton

“Could I have had the whole world for stooping down for it, I believe I should not have thought of doing it.”

These were the words of William Tennent Jr, the son of the great William Tennent who did so much to support the Great Awakening of the 1700s. William Jr had had a near death experience on the other side of which his view of this world and its riches changed forever.  Archibald Alexander, the great Princeton theologian of the 1800s, reported the story of this change of life. Click here. It’s worth the reading.

Another vote for “simple church”

Every age has its own characteristics. Right now we are in an age of religious complexity. The simplicity which is in Christ is rarely found among us. In its stead are programs, methods, organizations and a world of nervous activities which occupy time and attention but can never satisfy the longing of the heart. The shallowness of our inner experience, the hollowness of our worship, and that servile imitation of the world which marks our promotional methods all testify that we in this day, know God only imperfectly, and the peace of God scarcely at all.
If we would find God amid all the religious externals, we must first determine to find Him, and then proceed in the way of simplicity.

–A.W. Tozer (The Pursuit of God, p. 17-18)

Thanks to Our of Ur for the quote

My Sabbatical – Week 5

Into my fifth week already? Yup.  Hard to believe. Time is rolling on.

My fifth week into sabbatical began with an appreciation dinner on Sunday night (April 25). What a blast!!! We were ready to laugh, joke and check in. The final weeks of Coastal were very busy ones and there wasn’t much time then to just enjoy being together. On Sunday we cut loose. Coasters gifted me with a wonderful clock, which I have in my office overlooking my desk. They also gave a very generous financial gift which stunned me. Of course, while I was at the dinner I lost the check, couldn’t find it. Sharon had already tucked it away because she knew that my hands become a tunnel through which anything can enter into the black hole of lostness.

Aside from the possible future ministries, my immediate goal has been to refresh myself in God’s Word, early church history and readings in various volumes. So far, so good. I finished reading again Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church and completed Olson’s The Story of Christian Theology for a second time. I have begun a third reading this time organizing some notes on it. I have also listened to Dr. Gerstner’s Handout Church History, 39 lectures. I have the tapes but it also available to listen to (or watch) online here. Each lecture is about 30 minutes, and I got through them all. I feel as if I am in the place of Peter when the sheet was let down from heaven. But this time the sheet is filled with books and God says “Take and eat.”  Soon I will add to my list the works of Eugene Peterson. Read most of his stuff, but I want to review. He gives me support in resisting the pull of pragmatism in ministry and helps me to elevate the call which we have received in Christ. He sure has succeeded in making an impact on evangelicalism but yet not getting pulled into the “success syndrome” of the church marketplace.

I joined the North American Patristics Society and will be attending their Chicago conference May 27-29. I will go out a day early and stay two days after to spend time with son, Jon, who is working away at UChicago. On that Sunday we will drive over to Rob Bell’s church in Michigan. These, as God provides, will be days of delight for me.

In addition to teaching at Eastern Nazarene College I am beginning to put out feelers for interim ministry. There are two or three churches I am in contact with. But in the meantime Sharon and I are participating in the life and fellowship of Victory Baptist Church. Started participating in their midweek Bible study and Sunday School.

When the weather has allowed, I have taken rides on the Honda and enjoyed the sun and scenery. It has not really been warm so I am bundled up. It works.  On these rides I will generally put about a hundred miles on the bike, an hour out and an hour back.

I have been thinking about Isaiah 49:2, ” He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away.” God can choose to bring us into the hidden years, like He did with Elijah, Moses, John the Baptist (he must increase and I must decrease) and our Lord Himself. It only matters that we are in His quiver, available when He decides to reach for the arrow and mount it on the bow. I wait for the Lord’s hand and the time of His appointing. May He find me ready and walking in the Spirit.