Calvinism and the Seeker-Insensitive Church

In the quirky British online journal spiked, Dolan Cummings—“co-founder of the radical humanist campaign group the Manifesto Club”—writes that we have forgotten that John Calvin is a key figure in the intellectual making of the modern world. He provides a fresh outsider’s perspective on the Reformer, but it’s this part about why Calvinism is seeing a resurgence among the young that I find most intriguing:

One of the most successful and dynamic emerging churches in the US today is Mars Hill in Seattle, founded by pastor Mark Driscoll, who stands firmly in the reformed tradition. As he explains in his book Confessions of a Reformission Rev, ‘If you don’t know what that means, the gist is that people suck and God saves us from ourselves’. Driscoll is a twenty-first century Calvinist. Seattle is far from being a traditional bastion of the Christian right, however, so the success of Mars Hill is significant. Driscoll started the church in his own home in 1996, but has since built it up into a multi-campus megachurch with a congregation of thousands, drawn in large part from Seattle’s grungy art and music scene, and now including many young and not-so-young families. Driscoll describes the church as culturally liberal and theologically conservative, and there seems to be an appetite for that.

Driscoll has written a series of books branded ‘A book you’ll actually read’, each designed to be read in an hour, but he could not be accused of dumbing down or softening the message. He begins his book on church leadership by warning the reader, ‘You will not read a bunch of cute stories about bunny rabbits giving their lives to Jesus and such, because I do not want to waste any of my words or any of your time’. That book is an attempt to explain the idea of religious authority to a generation more used to thinking of Jesus as a hippy than an authority figure, and likely to be uncomfortable with the idea. Meanwhile his book on ‘Who is God?’ explains, ‘Because there is both a Lawgiver and Law, we are able to rise above the incessant postmodern pluralism that says there is no Law but only cultural perspective on morality’.

Driscoll offers a sense of moral surety in a society more often characterised by prevarication and obfuscation. More than that, his church offers moral leadership to a generation used to being flattered by authority figures. While schools and even other churches seek to boost self-esteem by telling kids they can achieve whatever they want (or conversely that they should be happy not to achieve anything), Driscoll’s Calvinism tells them what they already know: deep down they’re not so great, and that’s not good enough. In fact it’s a message that appeals to all ages, because whatever you achieve, it never stops being true.

For the past twenty years the seeker-sensitive model—making church more appealing to the un-churched—has been the dominant approach to church growth in evangelicalism. But as Mars Hill and other Calvinistic churches are proving, the old “You’re a sinner and need Jesus” can be quite effective too.

I agree with Cummings that we’ve forgotten the intellectual debt we owe to Calvin. But there’s something else we’ve forgotten: These dusty old theologians often knew more about human nature and behavior than we moderns, with our surveys and focus groups, will ever know.

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  • rvs

    The Catholics provide the same important message of original sin, only without all of the double predestination nonsense, limited atonement gymnastics, puppeteering, etc., that annoys many of us who have lovely, delightful Calvinist friends. Of course, we must keep these friends away from liqueur and theological arguments, or all hell breaks loose.

  • Buzz


    Hmm, I find no gymnastics required to understand and believe in limited atonement, only the clear word of Scripture. Now, as for all those merits and demerits we earn to soften or harden time in Purgatory for ourselves (or a loved one!), there’s not a theological gymnast in all the world limber or strong enough to wiggle that one past the clear Word of God. And that’s before we get to Mary as co-redemptrix or the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven, a belief that in the 5th century was apostasy and is suddenly required of all Catholics since the 19th century on pain of damnation.

  • Lisa Brown

    I’m no theologian, just a sinner saved by grace. Yes, I was raised in a Sothern Baptist church, but I’ve always been taught that I am Christ’s child first, the title of my religious doctrine comes second. It disturbs me when I hear the titles given by man, like Calvinism, is being used in a way to explain scripture. God ‘foreknew’ that man would try to intellectualize His Word. As saved by grace Christians, who have believed in the saving knowledge of a Holy God, we will forever try to understand God’s Word in human terms, but God is God. His ways are higher than our ways. His thoughts are greater than our thoughts-we cannot conceptualize God’s intentions in every scripture unless by extraordinary, spiritual means given only by God. The Bible tells us that Christ ‘died for all’ (2Corinthians 5:14-15) and that ‘While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8) and that ‘God so loved the world that He gave His One and Only Son, that whosoever believes in Him, shall not perish, but have everlasting life’(John 3:16) and that ‘This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe’. (Romans 3:22) I am a Bible believing, sin-teaching, grace-receiving follower of Jesus Christ. My question is why does man feel the need to break apart the Word of God and try to attach supposedly new-found teaching and/or significance to the scripture and boldly tack a mere man’s name to the revelation? I pray that all Christ followers are diligently reading God’s Word daily and asking God for supernatural wisdom and understanding to live their lives for Christ and to help others do the same, but to give credit to a man’s name for God’s Word is blasphemy. The bottom line is that we do not know the answers to God’s thinking in many, many instances in the Bible. We must study God’s Word, honor it’s truths and not proport to ‘know more’ than any other mere man living in this broken world. I do not say these things to condemn a group or a believer, but to express my concern that when man begins to form groups to ‘explain God’s Word’ better, we are in danger of being pride-filled, losing sight of the innocence that it takes for a broken, sinful person to come to Christ with a childlike faith. In this sense, prideful man can lead others to confusion, doubt, and fear.