Faith and Fruit in a Post-Christian World: Reformations

A coworker approaches you with questions about Reformed theology. He’s a new believer, and he’s curious about your theological convictions. Of course, you’re eager to suggest resources that can introduce him to a Reformed articulation of the faith. So where do you begin?

First of all, your friend could join one of the scores of social media groups devoted to Reformed theology. Then he might set up a weekly listening regimen using five or six Reformed podcasts. There are Reformed news sites he can access, Reformed comic strips he can view, and Reformed worship songs he can pipe through his earphones. Your friend can begin to save up to visit a national conference featuring big-name seminary professors and presidents. Or, if he can’t afford to travel, you might at least buy him recordings from the White Horse Inn or Ligonier Ministries. You might even hand him this magazine.

The point is that today’s tech-savvy culture offers more channels for theological information than ever before. To our delight, a wider swath of Protestants in North America and beyond are becoming reacquainted with the Reformation roots we hold dear—to the point that even the New York Times ran a piece a few years ago about the current “Calvinist revival.”1 Digital communication technologies have catalyzed the Reformed faith in the twenty-first century like the printing press aided the original Reformation. Through the persuasive power of seasoned speakers and the inexhaustible information on websites and forums, more and more individuals and families now claim the Reformed faith as their own.

But notice what I haven’t mentioned so far: the local church. Amid our excitement at the laudable resurgence of interest in orthodox Protestant theology, one question looms large: What’s happening to our churches? How is the digital Reformation shaping the life of local Reformed congregations? And this is not meant to be a cynical question. I hold deep respect for ministries with the foresight and energy to proclaim Reformation truth in the global communication arena. Local congregations stand much to gain from digitally driven interest in Calvinist theology—but only if we are first honest about the severity of the challenges posed by the twenty-first century’s broader attitudes toward community and faith. From “Dutch Evangelism” to Digital Evangelism Consider how congregational growth patterns have shifted in the last half century or less. Many of our older brothers and sisters can trace their ancestry back to the founders of their local congregations, fresh off the boat from the Old World. The membership rolls grew in numbers and strength through large families and thickly connected marriages. In each succeeding generation, children generally settled down near their parents and, barring significant fallings-out, attended the same churches. For all the playful jabs that “Dutch evangelism” has received, this model generated strong and stable communities of faith.

Now our churches are meeting a new kind of immigrants: not international immigrants, but theological immigrants. Trickling or pouring into our pews are those who have stumbled upon the Reformed faith and who come seeking a congregation that matches their newfound convictions. And the vigor and vitality that these individuals and families contribute to our churches is deep and refreshing. Like Luther, their personal study of the Scriptures has confronted them with the clarity of the gospel, and they would sell everything, if necessary, to obtain this pearl of great price. In their pursuit of the doctrines of grace, these courageous souls are willing to endure the opposition of friends, coworkers, and family for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.

But that’s only one side of the story. Even as it fosters new sources of church members, the global communication revolution is simultaneously draining the old ones. Transportation and communication networks enable people to move far more frequently. Couples have fewer children, and the children they have are more likely to find a spouse at college or through online networks than across the church aisle. Moreover, the newfound mobility of young adults enables them to settle near their college friends or pursue jobs in other parts of the country. Many will never return to live in their hometown. Quite frankly, the familial wells that supplied the Reformed church’s growth for centuries are rapidly drying up. Delight and Disillusionment Rev. Paul Murphy recently posed this question to Outlook readers: Where are the youth going?2 Amid many possible answers to his query, sometimes these losses are the result of life in an ever-more-mobile twenty-first century. But financial or familial decisions are not the only factors drawing the next generation away, and, as Rev. Murphy points out, some young adults make a deliberate decision to abandon the Reformed faith. Moreover, this disillusionment is spreading at the moment in which unchurched young people are flocking to Calvinism for the first time. While covenant children jostle to get out of the Reformed church, a horde of first-generation believers are crowding around to get in. How did this happen? Not too long ago, I might have answered that our churches had failed to emphasize Reformed education strongly enough. Perhaps that’s still possible. But since then, I’ve watched numerous friends—friends who were once not only knowledgeable but even zealous and passionate about Reformed theology—abruptly plunge headlong into devout Anglicanism or Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. They hadn’t been on the fringes of the church; they had been dead-center Reformed. Then, as if a magnetic pole suddenly switched, they found themselves repelled by the very doctrines that had once attracted them. Or, in some cases, these individuals have maintained their theology but withdrawn from the community of faith to a state of isolation and resentment punctuated by online bursts of outrage. Even more alarming than this past spring’s Escondido synagogue shooting was the fact that the shooter, raised in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, connected his actions with his theology.3 What seems to fuel these polarized movements is not indifference toward Protestantism but misdirected enthusiasm for it. Secular academics are prone to criticize Luther, Calvin, and their followers as the first proponents of modern individualism.4 And, if considering only the examples above, such an accusation is not difficult to understand. When perverted from its original intent, our well-honed Reformation reflex can serve not to unite us with the family of God but to sever us. At the first whiff of trouble, or discipline, or sheer boredom, our instinct is to cut ourselves adrift in search of fairer harbors—and to justify ourselves theologically for doing so. Whereas some of Jesus’ would-be disciples were too reluctant to leave father and mother for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, we are sometimes too eager. The anonymous and instantaneous capacities of social media sites further encourage the deformation of Reformed doctrine into a vigilante sort of Christianity willing to trample anything in its path. It’s Calvinism baked into a sickening Disney storyline: the lone theological warrior who, at the expense of all else, has committed to following his heart. “But from the beginning it was not so.” Luther was no more of an individualist than Jesus. And what drove Luther to protest the Roman Catholic Church of his day, like what drove Jesus to purge the temple, was not zeal for personal vindication but zeal for his Father’s house. The Protestant Reformation arose not from hatred of the church but from love for it. If we conclude that the Reformation entailed an individualistic rejection of traditions and communities, it is merely because our cultural context has blinded us to the passionate commitment to the institutional church that drove the saints of previous ages. The Psalms are full of such passion: “O Lord, I love the habitation of your house, and the place where your glory dwells” (Ps. 26:8). But while the virtue of commitment to the house of God was once handed down generationally, we can no longer afford to take it for granted. Instead we must thoughtfully and deliberately cultivate it, for ourselves and for the generations to come.

Cosmic Acts of Reform

The classic work Orthodoxy, by British author and apologist G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936), provides helpful categories here. Writing in an age when the deterioration of traditional institutions was just beginning to emerge, Chesterton sought to clarify the attitude required of believers: “Before any cosmic act of reform we must have a cosmic oath of allegiance.”5 Speaking of all institutions of society, but particularly communities of faith, Chesterton called for “a first loyalty to things, and then for a ruinous reform of things.”6 The order of operations is essential. The “ruinous reform” wrought by Luther and his fellow churchmen occurred only after, and because of, their first loyalty to the bride of Christ. Loyalty without reform is sheer folly, but reform without loyalty is sheer wickedness. Any would be reformer of the church of Jesus Christ must be able to answer, gravely and carefully, the following question: “Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing?”7 Until we have vowed, with the psalmist, to love the church and seek its good solely because it is our Lord’s holy dwelling place (Ps. 122), theologizing is in vain.

Chesterton’s passion for tradition eventually led him to join the Roman Catholic Church. In his love of loyalty, he lost sight of the need for ruinous reform. But a Protestant congregation is no more immune to the effects of human sin and a broken world than is a Roman Catholic parish, and the institutional commitment that motivates Catholics to press on despite such brokenness offers a provocative challenge for the Protestant church. “He cannot have God as a Father who does not have the Church as a mother,” said Cyprian, and the Reformed tradition would heartily agree.8 In fact, it is precisely this filial love toward the church that readies us to question and examine our traditions in the light of the Word of God. Hence the phrase attributed to Dutch minister Jodicus van Lodenstein, Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda: “The Reformed church ought continually to be reformed.”9 The very identity of Reformed believers is tied up with the obligation of institutional faithfulness: to love the church as the bride of Christ, and never to cease their diligent labor toward her reform and renewal until she appears in full beauty at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Think again of the young believers coming to grips with Reformed theology for the first time. Amid a culture that privileges change over consistency, how can they learn to put down roots in a congregation? What can prevent the media that first led them to a Reformed church from drawing them away again? With instant access to online sermons from hundreds of top-notch scholars, what can inspire their weekly commitment to hear less-than-stellar preaching to a humdrum crowd of sinners in a shabby building? What can sustain their commitment to center their spiritual life in the local church, even when that church manifests “spiritual declension, lack of love for the lost, orthodusty, problems in the eldership, prosperity, and fear of change”?10 Only the development of sacrificial and selfless love for the body of Christ—a love which those already in the church must learn to model and to share.

What does this look like in practical terms? It looks quite ordinary: like a group of fallen brothers and sisters gathering together each week to hear the Word and participate in the sacraments—those signs and seals given for the purpose of re-membering, not just reminding but reawakening us to our membership in the body of Christ. It looks like a thousand small but consistent choices to place our treasure—money, but also physical labor and spiritual investment—in the kingdom of God. For, as Jesus told us, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). Notice he does not say, “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be.” He doesn’t tell us to follow our hearts; he tells us to follow our treasure. Laying up treasure in a particular place, Christ declares, will turn our hearts in that direction. So we invest sacrificially in the local church. We set up recurring payments into the treasury of heaven. And we wait for the marriage supper of the Lamb.

1. Mark Oppenheimer, “Evangelicals Find Themselves in the Midst of a Calvinist Revival,” New York Times, January 3, 2014.

2. Paul T. Murphy, “A Spiritual Checkup for the URCNA: Why Are Our Children Leaving?,” Outlook 69, no. 3 (May/June 2019): 8–9.

3. Julie Zauzmer, “The Alleged Synagogue Shooter Was a Churchgoer Who Talked Christian Theology, Raising Tough Questions for Evangelical Pastors,” Washington Post, May 1, 2019.

4. For examples of this charge, see John Herman Randall Jr., The Making of the Modern Mind, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1954), 165–67; Ian Watt, Myths of Modern Individualism: Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 18; Edwin D. Mead, Martin Luther: A Study of Reformation (Boston, 1884), 94–102; Rob Sorensen, Martin Luther and the German Reformation (London: Anthem Press, 2016), 93–94.

5. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908; reprint ed. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004), 63.

6. Chesterton, 66.

7. Chesterton, 64.

8. Cyprian, The Unity of the Church, trans. Roy J. Deferrari, 100,

9. W. Robert Godfrey, “What Does Semper Reformanda Mean?,” Ligonier Ministries, March 24, 2017,

10. Murphy, “Why Are Our Children Leaving?,” 8.

Mr. Michael R. Kearney is a graduate student and research assistant in the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He is a member of Covenant Fellowship Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA) in Wilkinsburg, PA.