Conform, Reform or Leave? Part Three

Part One • Part Two

Modern Reformation "Exit Interviews"

March/April 2012 Issue

In my previous post, I briefly traced the history of two denominations that formed after churches left the Presbyterian Church (USA) because of liberalism. I also gave as an example a denomination in the Philippines that started as a merger of evangelical, Presbyterian and Methodist churches, plus one Reformed church. Today, this denomination has wandered way off their original path into the world of Pentecostalism, prosperity gospel, and many other errors in doctrine, worship and practice.

The current issue of Modern Reformation magazine has a timely theme: “Exit Interviews” March/April 2012 Vol. 21 No. 2. Right now, I can only read the introductory article and one main article, “Abandoning Evangelicalism” by Shane Rosenthal. In this short essay, Rosenthal traces his pilgrimage from Methodism, to Judaism, to Calvary Chapel evangelicalism, and finally to Reformed Presbyterianism. He tells about his experience at the Calvary Chapel megachurch:

In particular, we were attracted by the frequent Christian rock concerts and laid-back attitude. Some years earlier, a high school friend had taken me to one of these concerts… Though I was a non-Christian at the time, I thought the [punk rock] music was pretty cool, so much so that I joined in with various individuals who started slam dancing… [but was told] that our dancing was inappropriate. Oops, my bad. I was also told that it would be “uncool” to leave when the music was over and they began preaching (an approach not entirely unfamiliar to those who’ve endured a timeshare seminar in order to receive a free three-day vacation).

After he was baptized, there was absolutely no discipleship, nor Scriptural preaching and teaching, just the outward trappings of evangelicalism. So he later found a Reformed Episcopal church, where Kim Riddlebarger and Michael Horton were preaching and teaching. It was a precious find:

I was introduced to the enchanting beauty of the Book of Common Prayer, the mystery of Word and Sacrament, and the assurance of regular confession and absolution. I became a part of a community of like-minded believers who really wanted to learn more about God and his grace in Jesus Christ. I was finally being discipled. Now, with new Reformation categories, I was able to see some of the problems inherent in American evangelicalism as I had experienced it over the past few years. I no longer considered myself an evangelical. It was like a second conversion.

No longer an evangelical. A sad exit from evangelicalism, with its moralistic, therapeutic deism and Christless Christianity. His family visits different churches once a year to educate his children about current evangelical fads, so after visiting another megachurch, he observed:

a church that had three huge mega-screens featuring music videos and advertisements for various things before the service began. Along the right side and back of this expansive worship center people were selling CDs, books, T-shirts, and cappuccino, all in the same room. The pastor was absent and did all of his announcements via video screen. The visiting preacher he introduced told numerous jokes and actually preached a sermon, not on a particular text of the Bible but on the subject of his latest book. And at the end of his message, he actually pleaded with us to “go to the back and take a look at the book!” Yep, it was a book tour.

When the message was over, we were forced to watch a fifteen-minute professionally produced infomercial about the virtues of tithing… This video was followed up by, you guessed it, the offering basket.

We did recognize the concluding hymn. Though it was set to a contemporary beat that caused many to stand up and sway (in fact, the same rhythmic motion that’s the origin of the phrase “rock ‘n roll”), we soon realized they were singing “Amazing Grace.” Unfortunately, after the first verse, the congregation began repeating the words “Praise God” over and over in a kind of mantra, yet still to the tune of Newton’s famous hymn. I guess the original hymn was simply too wordy.

After sharing his experiences in a megachurch, one commenter responded:

I’ve seen things similar to this in the evangelical world for years. That’s why I started attending Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican services. I’m still trying to decide which denomination I will join. In these churches, I feel more of a reverence toward God. Although my theology is still closest to Billy Graham, I’m sick and tired of the evangelical world treating Jesus like a high school buddy that one would goof off and watch football with… with a few Bud Lights handy.

no_to_megachurchesRosenthal believes that “many Catholic churches are closer to the kingdom than the type of megachurch I described.” And even though “there is a great deal that divides Protestants from Roman Catholics… official Roman Catholicism and confessional Protestantism are closer to each other than they are to the theology and practice of moralistic therapeutic deism that so pervades contemporary American evangelicalism.” And he adds, “This is to say nothing of the loss of the sacred in contemporary church music and worship, or of an overall aesthetic sensibility close to that of Wal-Mart.”

Why do evangelicals abandon evangelicalism? Rosenthal lists some very important and obvious reasons:

Sometimes it has to do with lack of transcendence, mystery, or beauty. Others find a lack of seriousness and depth. Failing to receive any shepherding or discipleship with individual attention and care, they realize their experience at church is sort of like watching TV… And, unfortunately, many who give up on their church eventually end up abandoning Christianity altogether…

What to do then, and where to go, after exiting evangelicalism? What are the most important things to look for in a church? If you are in a church, especially a megachurch that fits Rosenthal’s previous experience of shallowness, faddishness, and nothingness, then it’s time to leave. The qualities of a church to look for? Rosenthal concludes:

But I remain convinced that the most important thing to keep in mind is the truth. If the New Testament claim about Jesus is true, then this man, this God-man, deserves my worship, my allegiance, my faith, and my lifelong service to the church he purchased with his blood. And since I remain convinced of this truth, my frustration with the tacky architecture of my church building is just one of the things I have to deal with “east of Eden.” …

In my own thinking, some put too much weight on the way they feel in worship. As for me and my family, we look for Christ and his story of redemption. We look for this story in both Word and Sacrament. We arrive each Sunday not to immerse ourselves in a transcendent experience here and now, but we long to be transported to an amazing event that happened then. There, at the cross, we’re confronted with our own sin and God’s astonishing rescue. Here we worship our Savior in a community of saints with mutual accountability, shepherded by a pastor who knows our names, prays for us, and delivers Christ to us week after week, month after month, year after year (emphasis added).

Part One • Part Two

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