Fads and Fashions
I have been reading a fascinating article on the rise of a new Calvinism in the USA – a phenomenon I have also observed in Europe. On both sides of the Atlantic this movement attracts a high percentage of younger and educated participants. At the conclusion of the article, there came a comment around the longevity of this trend along these lines – ten years ago we had the emerging church, five years ago the missional church, will this present trend just be replaced by something else in another five years?
That comment, though understandable in terms of the impact of trends and movements, somewhat misses the point about what is happening in the life of the church at this time. At a simplistic level the reality is that all new movements only ever attract a proportion of Christians, never the whole church, and although movements peak at times, significant numbers of people stay with some of the insights that these movements bring to the attention of the church. Its not that movements arrive every five years or so and then disappear, its more that their insights either become part of the broader life of the church or live on the margins of church experience.
That raises a number of questions about how the church is being renewed. To take the trends mentioned above, the emerging church as a movement is not so noticeable now. But the encouragement to innovate, to imagine new ways of being the church, to take account of the culture of those we are seeking to reach, these have become well established insights well beyond the boundaries of those who ever identified with “emerging”.
The notion of “missional”, sometimes misunderstood as a model of church, which it never was intended to be, is well established as an orientation towards neighbourhood. Missional is a way of encouraging a conversation about church and its mission to its own context as compared with seeing mission as solely an activity taking place on other continents.
So what then might we make of the New Calvinism? Its probably worth noting that, as with most new movements, there is both a reasonable or irenic version and a hard edged aggressive version of the movement. That aside, from my perspective, the New Calvinism is part of a deeper desire for a more creedal and serious framework of belief. Following a time when Christian teaching has seemed to dance to the tune of the secular world, many new believers have yearned for clear and intellectually sound explanations of Christian teaching. Some have found that teaching in the Calvinistic frameworks variously expressed by authors such as Tim Keller, John Piper and Mark Driscoll. Others listen carefully to the teaching of those from completely different traditions, for example, Richard Rohr or Henri Nouwen or Tom Wright – the list could be extended. Clarity and substance are in demand.
Over the last 50 years there have been two other movements that have also helped to reshape the church so comprehensively that we sometimes forget that a change took place. First, the Pentecostal/charismatic movement has caused many to experience personal faith and a corporate encounter with God that has enabled the church to be renewed and empowered for mission. It’s fascinating to see how the New Calvinists are often (though not always) indebted to the charismatic movement for a good deal of their own energy and life.
Second, the ecumenical movement has dramatically changed the landscape so that most Christians now see their identity in Christ as primary and their denominational affiliation as almost incidental. It was not always that way round. We are now in a significantly post denominational situation and able to work easily across boundaries that were previously impermeable.
So, unity in Christ, empowered by the Spirit, concerned for good teaching, oriented towards mission and relevant expressions of the church, all encouraging developments.
However there is one last development that has yet to take place. To echo the thoughts of Lesslie Newbigin, we may have learnt how to survive and even to grow in a mission context that is challenging to say the least, but we have not yet learnt how to inhabit the Christian narrative in a way that commands attention in the public square. That is yet to come. Some are feeling their way towards such an agenda, it is not yet fully expressed.