I recently spoke at a conference on reformed theology in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My first talk was entitled “Grand Rapids, a Great Resurgence, and a Guy Named Guido: Why Theology is To Die For” (I don’t believe there is audio available for the session). In this address I explored (1) why theology matters, (2) why there has been a renewed interested, especially among the young, in theology in general and reformed theology in particular, and (3) why reformed theology faces unique challenges in a place like Grand Rapids. I thought my notes from this last point might be of interest to some, both for those in West Michigan and for those in places like it.
Anyone who knows Grand Rapids knows that it is known for being a conservative town with lots of Dutch people and lots of churches, reformed churches in particular. There are hundreds of RCA and CRC congregations, not to mention URC, PCA, OPC, PR and various and sundry other initials. The area is home to Hope College, Calvin College, Kuyper College, Western Seminary, Calvin Seminary, and Puritan Reformed Seminary, just to name a few institutions in the reformed tradition. And yet, the most famous church in the Grand Rapids area is Mars Hill (the Rob Bell Mars Hill). Why is it that with so many Calvinist schools and churches (and I haven’t even mentioned publishing houses like Zondervan, Baker, Eerdmans, Kregel) that the reformed resurgence is more well known in Minneapolis or Louisville than in Grand Rapids?
I grew up in Jenison (a suburb of Grand Rapids) and went to school at Hope College (a denominational school in Holland, Michigan). I haven’t lived here for a number of years, but my family still does and I make the trip 75 miles west for a variety of reasons quite frequently. I feel like I have a pretty good feel for West Michigan. Having said that, forgive me if I’m blunt or if I’m just plain wrong in my assessments. These are just some of my thoughts on the challenges to the gospel and to reformed theology in a place like Grand Rapids.
1. There is a sense of “been there, done that.” The only thing harder than finding the truth is not forgetting it. People in Grand Rapids are eager for something new. Jewish stuff is new. Social activism is new. Edgy worship is new (a pastor in jeans!). Creeds and confessions aren’t new, not for folks in Grand Rapids (though they are now new to many in younger generations).
2. Too many people have seen dead orthodoxy. Most Christians have to experience a few dates with dead orthodoxy before they start flirting with heterodoxy.
3. Others have seen too much obnoxious orthodoxy. Suspicious attitudes, graceless tones, hard lines on gray areas–these are the things that make people wary of more theology.
4. Even bigger than points 2 and 3 is the problem with assumed orthodoxy. There can be a feeling that theology is the one thing we have down already. So it is assumed more than it is taught, celebrated, or defended.
5. I love my hometown. I am not one of those who cries to everyone who will listen about growing up in a bubble or how bad it was to have churches on every corner. It wasn’t bad. It was mostly terrific. But in my experience, there is in Grand Rapids a strange combination of being tight on cultural categories while at the same time being loose on doctrinal categories. Whether its Christian schools, or things you don’t do on Sunday, or Republican politics, or being really nice, or being tall and Dutch, or being very put together there is a certain feel to Christianity in Grand Rapids. It’s hard to break out of these categories. And yet on the doctrinal side, there’s been an unwillingness to get worked up about theological issues. The yard should look a certain way, but the historicity of Adam is flexible.
6. Those who seriously hold to reformed theology can be suspicious of other reformed groups and overly protective of the label. As a consequence, some groups hold smallness (and irrelevance I would add) as a badge of honor. They don’t want a resurgence.
7. The RCA and CRC are, in my opinion, quite insular, often unaware of movements and leaders in the broad stream of conservative evangelicalism. This is changing, but slowly. There is a strong tie to denominations, which can be good but can also rob the church of fresh water from other streams.
8. I know you can’t prove these things, but again in my experience, I have seen a niceness and “inbredness” that leads Christians to avoid careful delineation and controversy. The unwritten rule is that he who mentions the problem is the problem. Getting along, maintaining the peace, not rocking the boat is the name of the game. And since there are so many overlapping family relationships (not really inbred of course), controversy is usually avoided at all costs. It’s too easy for family ties to be upset of for close friendship way back from Hope and Calvin days to be threatened. As a result, theological laxity is a huge problem.
9. Many of higher ups in both the RCA and CRC have aligned themselves with something other than the evangelical stream of Reformed thinking. They’ve leaned toward the PCUSA instead of the PCA. Many have been more interested in the Barth and Berkouwer side of things instead of, say, Hodge and Warfield (or even Berkhof). They read books from Westminster John Knox Press instead of from Banner of Truth or Crossway. And with almost all of the denominational leaders in the RCA (and CRC?) landing firmly (and often aggressively) in the egalitarian camp, it’s meant little interest in or respect for the New Calvinism.
10. Reformed churches have not always done well at connecting reformed theology with the real engines of Christianity: the gospel, the Scriptures, the cross, the glory of God. If you lead with the confessions, you will not get many converts. But if you lead with God’s glory, with Christ and his cross, with the power of the Word of God, then you’ll bring people into the church where they can eventually rest in our wonderful creeds and catechism.