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.