In his commentary on the Psalms, John Calvin referred to the Church as the orchestra of the theater of God. But what happens when our song sounds no different than those of the world around us? What happens when, even unknowingly, we capitulate to the culture, and become nothing more than a husk of the robust, distinctive, salty people of God--witnesses to the Kingdom--that we are called to be?
Though there are many tunes the world plays, there are some that tend to dominate the airwaves: Experience, Individualism, and Relevantism. These tunes exalt feelings over truth, the individual over the community, and the new and innovative over the traditional and the historic. And sadly, these songs can be heard in the Church as well. People are encouraged to seek out certain "experiences" rather than that which is good, true, and beautiful. The individual, with his or her needs and desires, comes first, and the church exists as a good, though optional, supplement for satisfying these needs and desires. Furthermore, we associate vibrant faith with the newest music, technology, and emotionally-charged preaching, while at the same time, viewing creeds, confessions, and rituals as vestiges of a dead religion.
Much of this, though not all of it, can be traced back to the revivalism of the 19th Century and an abandonment of reformed theology. Revivalism saw conversion as a mere decision of the will as opposed to the historically held belief that conversion was a result of the regenerative work of God in an individual. Thus, revivalism introduced a number of pragmatic "new measures" intended to compel people to make such decisions for Christ, such as the alter call, entertainments, and emotionally heightened experiences. Rather than trusting in the sovereign Lord, and His appointed means of grace--the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments--to bring people to faith, revivalism laid the burden upon the church and its efforts. As D.L. Moody once said, "It doesn't matter how you get a man to God as long as you get him there."
Similarly, the loss of a robustly reformed theology has also played a role. Historically, reformed theology places an emphasis upon the sovereignty of God in salvation, the covenantal community of God's people, and cultural engagement. Yet, American church history shows an abandonment of these things as they became less palatable by wider society, and (perceived to be) less viable by the church itself. As a result, Arminianism, Liberalism, and Fundamentalism grew in prominence.
Campus ministry, too, has been shaped by these same things: Experience, Individualism, and Relevantism. And the consequences: indifference by many towards the church, great pressure to "save" fellow students, great doubt over one's faith for a lack of "experiences", the elevation of vocational ministry over against all other vocations, and a general perception by the wider university that Christians are anti-intellectual, emotionally driven, and (ironically) irrelevant.
So what do we do? How do change the tune of our songs on the campus and in the church? Though many things could be said, below are three that I believe to be crucial:
1. A renewed emphasis upon reformed theology
We must recover the riches of our reformed heritage. The sovereignty of God in salvation. The covenant community. Cultural engagement. A reformed world and life view provides a empowering view of vocation and allows us to uniquely engage in science, politics, justice, and the arts. We must be brave enough to proclaim the truths contained in our historic creeds and confessions, even if they do not seem palatable to the world around us.
2. Covenant Renewal Worship
We should apply our theology to the way we worship corporately on Sundays, causing our services of worship to take the shape of a covenant renewal ceremony. The practices of worship (liturgies)--calling, confession, assurance, and commissioning--are significant for shaping our lives. They remind us of the redemptive drama and call to mind the glorious gospel of God's grace. Similarly, our musical worship should retain the hymns handed down to us by the saints who have gone before us, while also embracing contemporary songs that reflect the truth, goodness, and beauty of God and his work in the world. Finally, we should rest in the means of grace given us by God--preaching and the sacraments--to apply the redemption accomplished by Christ to people and leave the gimmicks to salespeople. In these ways, we can find rest when we gather, be convicted, encouraged, and renewed for another week of faithful service to God.
3. Emphasize the Covenant Community
It must be reiterated again and again that we are not our own, but belong in body and soul, in life and death, to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. Not only this, but, God, by his gracious choosing in Christ, has (and is) gathering a new community. With these in mind, we should make it a priority to live into these truths. Rather than pandering to preferences so as to make everyone comfortable (traditional/contemporary services, age-segregated or special interest small groups, etc.) we should cause everyone to be made uncomfortable that we may together be conformed to the image of Christ. We should worship intergenerationally; we should engage cross-culturally; we should desire to have our elders and deacons involved in our lives; we should hold one another accountable; we should reach out in word and deed to the wider community.
These are just three ways. Perhaps you can think of others. Perhaps this becomes a starting point for further conversation in your church or campus ministry, dormroom or house. Ultimately, my prayer is that we may move from being a people shaped by the culture, thereby diminishing our witness, to a people who shape culture and continually expand our witness to the lordship of Christ until that day when he returns and consummates the Kingdom. May we be that orchestra in the theater of God, and may our song stand out, ringing gloriously out over all the earth.