This is a great column by Kate Shellnutt from the Houston Chronicle.
Next generation of theologians craves historical tradition
The newest thing in Protestantism is really the oldest thing in Protestantism: Reformed theology.
Young Christians are turning to the centuries-old teachings of church fathers such as John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards — reading their work, watching pastors talk about them on YouTube and sporting their faces on sweatshirts.
ReThe nationwide renewal of Reformed theology has been going on for about a decade, and it has finally made its way to Houston. Two Reformed seminaries opened local campuses this fall, Redeemer Seminary, which recently broke off from Westminster Theological Seminary, and Reformed Theological Seminary. They are holding classes for a couple of dozen young Christians from Presbyterian, Reformed, Evangelical and Baptist churches.
“We’re offering that historical, Calvinist tradition to a generation that’s interested in it,” said the Rev. John Crimmins, the interim director of RTS’ Houston campus and the senior pastor at Christ Evangelical Presbyterian Church, where they meet.
He describes their theological stance as “winsomely Reformed,” focusing on the sinfulness of man, the grace of God and his sovereignty over all things, including salvation.
This Sunday is Reformation Day, marking 493 years since Martin Luther nailed his disputes on the door of a Catholic Church. Since then, Protestants across denominations have relied on the early thinkers of their tradition.
But after many American baby boomers distanced themselves from the theology side of religion, their children have returned to it with particular interest and passion, said Collin Hansen, author of Young, Restless, Reformed. For this generation of Christians, deep, nuanced theological teachings are a turn-on.
“There’s a certain type of tradition that to a young person looks cheesy, looks hokey,” Hansen said. “There’s another that goes back further and connects them to an older, broader church.”
That’s what Calvinism does for its young followers, who say it offers more historical depth and groundedness than America’s contemporary Christian movements.
Its “less of me, more of God” mentality and the salvation of the elect through grace makes more sense logically, spiritually and biblically, said Kyle Worley, the youth minister at the First Baptist Church of Groves and a student at Redeemer Seminary, which meets at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Houston.
Worley, 22, grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition, the son of a Baptist minister and a graduate of Dallas Baptist University.
“It views the Bible as a complete narrative. The dispensational perspective is too much of a bits-and-pieces kind of worldview, and people couldn’t find their place in that,” he said.
Plus, there’s a whole cadre of popular pastors and authors who are making Reformed doctrine compelling to young churchgoers, seminarians and pastors-to-be. John Piper, Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll and others present a Reformed perspective in their popular books, sermon series and web postings.
Beyond Presbyterian and Reformed churches, the Calvinist resurgence has had an effect on Baptists that can’t be ignored. At least 10 percent of pastors belonging to the Southern Baptist Convention identify as Calvinist, according to Lifeway Research. Among recent graduates of Southern Baptists seminaries, that number is up to a third.
A number of Southern Baptist leaders – most prominently Al Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville – consider themselves Calvinists, evidence of the range of beliefs within the Baptist tradition, where some reject Calvinism, some accept certain teachings and some don’t follow the theological debate enough to care.
“Right now, there’s a movement to be more explicitly Reformed,” said Jim Denison, the theologian-in-residence for the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Denison is non-Calvinist.
He says it’s the most divisive theological topic today, but “it doesn’t really affect a lot of practice. Most folks in the pew don’t follow the issue.”
Across the country, the resurgence of Reformed theology in the 21st century initially took hold in places where being an evangelical Christian wasn’t exactly the norm, in urban hubs such as Chicago and in the Northeast, Hansen said.
In these places, Christians studied theology deeply as a way to secure and defend their faith in a “sink or swim” mentality, he said.
Driscoll started Mars Hill Church in Seattle, in the middle of the “secular Northwest.” His church-planting network, Acts 29, has fostered Reform churches across the country, and its small-but-growing presence in Houston, in part, brought Redeemer and RTS to the area.
“We have a particular interest in missions and church planting, so Acts 29 has been a strong source for students,” said Steven Vanderhill, president of Redeemer Seminary, which is headquartered in Dallas.
Redeemer was the Texas campus of the Presbyterian Westminster Theological Seminary until last year, when it split off to focus more on starting new campuses across the state. Its Houston and Austin campuses both launched this fall.
In Dallas, Matt Chandler’s Village Church, a member of the Acts 29 network and the Southern Baptist Convention, has grown to 8,000 attendants. The Austin Stone Community Church, an Acts 29 church founded by Matt Carter in 2002, has 5,900.
Houston hasn’t seen that scale of Reformed presence yet and the city’s largest Baptist churches aren’t Calvinist.
The dominance of megachurches in Houston, plus the city’s size and diversity, make it a little intimidating for new pastors and church-planters but an exciting mission field.
“Houston is different than Austin or Dallas,” said Paul Duffin, the campus director for Redeemer. “There’s a large crossroads of people of different backgrounds and faiths. It’s an excellent place for us to be.”
The Calvinist emphasis on man’s depravity and God’s grace can counter the lessons of morality and self-empowerment preached at existing congregations.
Reformed theology teaches that God secures salvation, rather than prompting Christians to do something to “get saved,” said Dru Bennett, a student at Redeemer. She grew up in the Methodist church but now attends Kaleo, a 4-year-old Reformed church plant.
Redeemer and Reformed Theological Seminary join Houston’s Baptist and evangelical schools, who view them as a necessary part of the religious landscape rather than competition. Houston may be the “city of churches,” but for its size, it’s not the city of seminaries.
Andrew Dearman, director and associate dean of Fuller Theological Seminary-Texas, called Houston “one of the most underserved theological communities in the country.”
Southwestern Baptist Seminary opened a campus in Houston in 1975, making it the city’s oldest. Denny Autrey, dean of the school, is pleased to see new seminaries open, even if they vary theologically.
“I think it shows that there is a healthy, spiritual thirst for truth in the city,” Autrey said.
The new seminaries, and their dozen students each, are eager to address those theological needs.
Crimmins, of Reformed Theological Seminary, describes their approach in Christlike terms: incarnational.
“You’re not going to class to be learning the data points, you’re going to be living them out authentically in day-to-day life,” he said, engaging the culture because “the Reformation emphasizes that God is present in the totality of life.”