The goings-on among American mega-churches continues to interest me, though reading about them leaves me feeling the same way I do after wasting 30 minutes in front of the televisional box. I suppose they are as good a barometer as any of our chronic cultural ill-health. In a surprisingly-balanced article for the New York Times, Molly Worthen examines a new wrinkle in the emergent church world--a return to roots--not of the Apostolic Faith, mind you--but a return to the Calvinism of old. For the Reformation is ever in need of...well, reform.
Her subject is Mark Driscoll and his Mars Hill Church in Seattle. I was vaguely familiar with Mars Hill, but totally uninformed about Driscoll, or other emergent-type church leaders. Worthen entitles the article "Who Would Jesus Smack Down." Driscoll and Mars Hill are angling for a particular market segment--think skateboarder attire, tattoes and YouTube sermons. Indeed, Worthen observes: Next Pastor Mark is warning them about lust and exalting the confines of marriage, one hand jammed in his jeans pocket while the other waves his Bible. Even the skeptical viewer must admit that whatever Driscoll’s opinion of certain recreational activities, he has the coolest style and foulest mouth of any preacher you’ve ever seen. Detractors have dubbed him the "cussing preacher." There is nothing particularly new in any of this--even modest-size cities boast any number of preachers attempting the same thing. What is interesting here is that his message is not new at all, but a return to old-time Calvinism. And it seems to be working--at least for now, and in this place. "In little more than a decade, his ministry has grown from a living-room Bible study to a mega church that draws about 7,600 visitors to seven campuses around Seattle each Sunday, and his books, blogs and pod casts have made him one of the most admired — and reviled — figures among evangelicals nationwide."
A few excerpts from Worthen's article, below:
Driscoll represents a movement to revamp the style and substance of evangelicalism. With his taste for vintage baseball caps and omnipresence on Facebook and iTunes, Driscoll, who is 38, is on the cutting edge of American pop culture.
[Well, no wonder I didn't know who he was.]
Yet his message seems radically unfashionable, even un-American: you are not captain of your soul or master of your fate but a depraved worm whose hard work and good deeds will get you nowhere, because God marked you for heaven or condemned you to hell before the beginning of time. Yet a significant number of young people in Seattle — and nationwide — say this is exactly what they want to hear. Calvinism has somehow become cool, and just as startling, this generally bookish creed has fused with a macho ethos. At Mars Hill, members say their favorite movie isn’t “Amazing Grace” or “The Chronicles of Narnia” — it’s “Fight Club.”
Driscoll is adamantly not the “weepy worship dude” he associates with liberal and mainstream evangelical churches, “singing prom songs to a Jesus who is presented as a wuss who took a beating and spent a lot of time putting product in his long hair.”
He read voraciously and was born again at 19. “God talked to me,” Driscoll says. “He told me to marry Grace, preach the Bible, to plant churches and train men.” ....God called Driscoll to preach to men — particularly young men — to save them from an American Protestantism that has emasculated Christ and driven men from church pews with praise music that sounds more like boy-band ballads crooned to Jesus than “Onward Christian Soldiers.”....What bothers Driscoll...is the portrayal of Jesus as a wimp, or worse. Paintings depict a gentle man embracing children and cuddling lambs. Hymns celebrate his patience and tenderness. The mainstream church, Driscoll has written, has transformed Jesus into “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” a “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that . . . would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.”
In recent years, mainstream mega churches — the mammoth pacesetters of American evangelicalism that package Christianity for mass consumption — have been criticized for replacing hard-edged Gospel with feminized pablum. According to Ed Stetzer, the director of LifeWay Research, a Southern Baptist religious polling organization, Mars Hill is “a reaction to the atheological, consumer-driven nature of the modern evangelical machine.”
The “modern evangelical machine” is a product of the 1970s and ’80s, when a new generation of business-savvy pastors developed strategies to reach unbelievers turned off by traditional worship and evangelization. Their approach was “seeker sensitive”: upon learning that many people didn’t go in for stained glass and steeples, these pastors made their churches look like shopping malls. Complex theology intimidated the curious, and talk of damnation alienated potential converts — so they played down doctrine in favor of upbeat, practical teachings on the Christian life....Stetzer says. “The center is not holding.”
New Calvinists are still relatively few in number, but that doesn’t bother them: being a persecuted minority proves you are among the elect. They are not “the next big thing” but a protest movement, defying an evangelical mainstream that, they believe, has gone soft on sin and has watered down the Gospel into a glorified self-help program. In part, Calvinism appeals because — like Mars Hill’s music and Driscoll’s frank sermons — the message is raw and disconcerting: seeker insensitive.
Driscoll disdains the prohibitions of traditional evangelical Christianity. Taboos on alcohol, smoking, swearing and violent movies have done much to shape American Protestant culture — a culture that he has called the domain of “chicks and some chickified dudes with limp wrists.”
Well, okay. I will give Driscoll his due. He has spotlighted an obvious failing in mainstream liberal Protestantism, as well as evangelical mega churches--the wussification (to put it in Kinky Friedman parlance) of the faith. I am not a church-hopper, but did park myself in a large happy-clappy Church of Christ for a short while before following through to Orthodoxy. The church is chock-full of the most wonderfully nice people one would ever want to meet. But a diabetic could not attend there without endangering their health. Thankfully, the hymnody is fading from my memory, though it will be a few years yet before I can fully erase "The Days of Elijah."
So, Driscoll has identified the symptoms of an illness. Yet he has misdiagnosed the true malady, for the remedy is not Calvinism--not even "cool Calvinism." He has added another entre to the buffet-line of our religious pluralism, but there is little of lasting value here, and the novelty will fade. Again.
But it is a good story, which can be read in full here.