More Douthat: Confessionalism and the Preservation of the Church

Last week in this post I raved about Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion. After I wrote that, I listened to this interview of Douthat on Al Mohler’s podcast Thinking in Public. He said something striking that reminded me of a quote-worthy passage from his book. Here is what Douthat wrote as he reflected on the rise of para-church groups in Evagelicalism:

This turn boded ill for Evangelicalism’s long-term future, because although the “para” groups were immensely successful at religious mobilization, they weren’t as effective at sustaining commitment across a life span or across generations. They were institutions for an anti-institutional faith, you might say, which meant that they were organized around personalities and causes and rarely created the sense of comprehensive, intergenerational community that both the Mainline churches and Catholicism had traditionally offered. You couldn’t spend your whole life in Campus Crusade for Christ, or raise your daughter as a Promise Keeper, or count on groups like the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition to sustain your belief system beyond the next election cycle. For that kind of staying power you needed a confessional tradition, a church, an institution capable of outlasting its charismatic founders. Instead, Evangelicalism became dominated by empire-building megachurch pastors whose ministries often burned brightly and then just as quickly burned out. (pg. 140)

Exactly. And it seems to me that this sort of anti-institutional evangelical culture pervades not just para-church organizations and mega-churches, but countless, smaller non-denominational churches as well. For churches with no distinct heritage, no confession, no membership, no discipline, and little formal structure – the line between “church” and “para-church” ends up getting fairly blurred.

Can this amorphous evangelical faith survive in the long-term? Or is something more needed?

Near the end of Mohler’s interview, when asked about the future prospect of orthodox Christianity in the face of external pressures that threaten to diminish its strength, Douthat said this:

..what I think is the challenge for both Protestants and Catholics is that in the end a thriving, robust orthodoxy, I think, really depends on confessionalism. And it depends on institutions – and this is of course my Catholic bias coming into play but I think it’s true – on institutions that are capable of… transmitting the faith across multiple generations, that don’t just depend on… personalities as,… individual leaders and pastors and so on.

Of course Douthat is speaking as a Catholic but if he is right, and I believe he is, this has huge implications for us who belong to Protestant confessional churches (such as my own). For one, it means we must be ever so faithful and diligent to teach and transmit to our children the doctrine contained in our confessions and catechisms.

(I wonder, when our young people grow up and leave our Reformed churches, is it because they learned the confession and found it wanting, or is it more often the case they never learned the confession in the first place?)

Needless to say, the only true guarantee for the preservation of the church is Christ’s promise to build and protect her in the face of hell’s opposition, and the Spirit’s work in carrying out that promise (John 14:17). But if Douthat is correct and recent church history has taught us anything, it is this: if we want to secure the long-term survival of a church that is truly evangelical (in the proper, biblical sense of that word), we need to ground the next generation in the theology of our confession.

Pastor Scott