When I attended a Calvary Chapel I was always sort of perplexed by the tacit approval John MacArthur enjoyed in Calvary circles. His Reformed positions and his affirmation of some kind of Lordship Salvation put him at odds with a couple of Calvary distinctives. He was also one of the voices on KNKT who couldn’t seem to get through a broadcast without raising his voice. In retrospect I’m inclined to believe that for whatever reason there’s a designated slot or two for angry Calvinists on KNKT, and at the time MacArthur filled that position.
That people who listened to Calvary radio heard MacArthur had a couple of results. One was that people who left Calvary looking for something more left-brain tended to move in a Reformed direction. Another was that MacArthur Study Bibles proliferated with predictable results. I once attended a Bible study where the speaker read a passage of Scripture and asked what was intended to be a thought-provoking question (I think it was one of those “why did Jesus do X?” questions) and someone helpfully piped up with “Well John MacArthur says…”
This is of course one of the difficulties of study Bibles in conservative theological circles generally. They tend to foster the attitude that because we believe the Bible we believe that everything on the pages of the one we hold in our hands is equally trustworthy. The whole experience led me to be suspicious of anyone who wrote (or edited) their own study Bible. And of course to make distinctions between men who suggest that what they personally believe and teach is the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints while at the same time writing new books that explain that faith rather than recommending books someone else wrote that may well do the same thing better. But I digress.
Listening to Calvary radio again (this time on KLHT) I was surprised to hear Alistair Begg partly filling the John MacArthur slot. His Calvinist leanings aren’t as prominent, but he’s still inexplicably angry about something. Or maybe he just sounds that way every time I listen to him. I don’t know.
What struck me while listening to Begg over the course of several days was that his treatment of a text tends to follow a fairly predictable pattern: he reads the text, he explains a couple of key words in the original languages, and he offers up a bland cliche. There may be some additional material on the way to the third step: when I was listening to him he spent a fair amount of time on a story about attempting to ride an old horse named George. But without fail his treatment of the text ended in a cliche as surely and as finally as the Jordan River ends in the Dead Sea.
There are several possible reasons why he would proceed this way, and not all of them reflect badly on him. It could be that he’s struggling to be faithful to the text and at the same time attempting to say something accessible to his audience. He may or may not have been instructed in seminary to preach at a seventh-grade level. It could be that he’s very much in touch with what Paul meant in the original Greek, but entirely out of touch with his congregation, and preaching to an imaginary audience. Preaching is hard work; the bubble around the pulpit is a scary place; etc. But it may also be that he’s speaking out of his depth and is dealing entirely with theoretical knowledge. And having seen this sort of thing before, even or especially from powerful speakers who are careful students of Scripture, I’m inclined to wonder if that isn’t the case.
I don’t necessarily have a recommendation here. We apparently need professional pastors; the Bible is a difficult book; there is more in it than a person can experience and understand. And the underlying problem, that we want a relationship with God but instead settle for a relationship with a Book, is a bigger problem than having to sit through the occasional cliche.
Before I delve into what follows let me say up front I have a lot of sympathy for the Calvary Chapel movement, and I’m grateful for the time I had in my local Calvary, etc. It was a great place to hear Bible teaching and a pretty good place to serve. Part of the Calvary experience included listening to KNKT-FM in Albuquerque, and even ten years ago I found the selection of teachers on KNKT peculiar. Most of it made sense: it mostly reinforced the Chuck Smith-Skip Heitzig-California-Sixties lineage of Calvary Albuquerque, there was a little bit from the other Calvaries in New Mexico, and a little bit that might appeal to Hispanics. There were also some odd choices: a man who never stopped talking about money (Hank Hanegraaff), an angry shouting Calvinist (John MacArthur), a Calvary guy who didn’t fit the lineage (Bil Gallatin) and a clinical psychologist who occasionally answered questions that in person Calvary pastors tend to reserve for themselves (James Dobson).
When I traveled to places where Calvary was relatively new I tended to find an unhosted Calvary Satellite Network feed [link], which featured no local voices and was then more of a pure Calvary platform: Chuck Smith, Greg Laurie, and a host of Calvary stars. My analysis then was that the network was a low-budget affair, and Calvary was doing what was necessary to keep the money in-house.
So last week when I was in Maui I was surprised to find in the middle of the AM dial a Calvary station of sorts, KLHT 1040AM [link]. It turns out to be owned by Calvary Chapel of Honolulu, and like KNKT it is a non-profit radio station that plays commercials. I’m not sure how all this works from a tax accounting perspective, but that’s another question for another day.
Their programming is similar to what you’ll hear on KNKT [link], but different: instead of regional New Mexico voices, there are voices local to Hawaii, including someone named Waxer Tipton [link], who is local but not so far as I can tell affiliated with Calvary at all. There are also more Californians, including Bill Stonebraker and Steve Mays, neither of whom I’d ever heard before.
It was a little jarring to hear Calvary pastors over the Independence Day weekend in a place that’s not so Anglo and where only three precincts (out of 538) voted Republican in the 2008 Presidential election [link]. Note to Steve Mays: yes, America needs to repent; no, it was never righteous.
It’s also kind of sad to hear how prevalent the guys we used to call the “Chuck-alikes” have become. We all love Chuck Smith and are grateful for him and for the Calvary movement, but we understand that while teaching through every verse in the Bible is something of a Calvary goal if not a distinctive, Chuck’s teaching on some verses is shallow to nonexistent. And there are guys in the Calvary Chapel movement who, if you’ve heard Chuck’s take on a passage in e.g. the C-3000 series [link] you know what they’re going to say about the passage. You’re just left to wonder what filler story they’re going to use as an illustration. And sadly it seems like the bulk of the newer California/Hawaii guys are more or less in this mold. These twin trends (a tendency to skirt difficult passages; a tendency to serve up warmed over Chuck Smith material) don’t bode well for the Calvary movement long term.
All that being said, it was great to hear Calvary voices generally, and I was glad to be within range of KLHT on the south side of Maui. It was like seeing an old girlfriend in passing, and being glad she’s aging well, or something like that.
In a later post I’d like to take up the general question of Calvinism on Calvary stations, and the unpleasant topic of Alistair Begg in particular. Stay tuned.
I’ve been running short on blogging material recently, not because there’s nothing to blog about, but because so little of it has really crystallized for me. We’ve had a houseguest lately who has been talking about art in the Church; I’ve been reading Rob Bell and revisiting a lot of Emerging Church themes; some local churches are going through contortions; and I’ve been struggling with today’s topic.
If I had to make a list of interesting (not to say troubling, necessarily) trends in the American church today, I’d probably have to list the following, in pretty much this order:
- The decline of foreign missions
- Prosperity theology
- The perils of political engagement
- The megachurch phenomenon
- The decline of the Baby Boom generation and the rise of second-generation big-ministry leadership
- The Reformed resurgence
- The Emerging Church
So I guess I’d argue that what I have to talk about today isn’t the most interesting thing going on right now, but it is sometimes one of the easiest to see.
When I attended a Calvary Chapel I saw people come and go, but there were identifiable trends in the ways people entered the church and the ways people left. There were some new converts coming in; some of them had a by-the-numbers saved-from-sin born again experience; some of them left the Roman Catholic Church. There were also people who had stopped off somewhere else that offered simpler teaching and/or a more structured environment; we had a lot of people who had attended Potter’s House or had been through the mill at various local 12-step programs.
But people tended to leave Calvary because they were looking for one of two things: either they were looking for a more experiential Christianity, and they left for some sort of Third Wave Pentecostal or TBN-like church, or they moved in a more Reformed direction. At the time I credited the former to Calvary’s mild Charismatic leanings and familial relationship with Vineyard Christian Fellowships; the latter to the otherwise inexplicable presence of John MacArthur on the Calvary radio station in Albuquerque (KNKT). The truth is probably more complicated.
But the pattern then, and the pattern I see now as the Reformed resurgence progresses, was pretty predictable: people became Christians in an evangelical church, then eventually migrated to a more Calvinist church. Or as is the case here locally, people became Christians in evangelical churches, and then the churches themselves gradually moved in a more Reformed direction.
The thing that strikes me odd nowadays, though, is that when I meet someone nowadays, online or in person, who self-identifies as Reformed, they invariably have an “I used to be evangelical too” story. I have yet to meet anyone who became a Christian in a Reformed church unless they were raised there.
This question surfaced in a recent episode of The Dividing Line [link], where the ongoing feud between James White and George Bryson of Calvary Chapel Church Planting Mission (CCCPM) finally reached this question. Of course Bryson frames it his way and White frames it his way, and I’m not sure either of them offer more light than heat. Bryson incorrectly equivocates between all of Reformed theology and the Five Points of Calvinism; White objects but doesn’t clarify how exactly conversion (not to say salvation) happens in Calvinism.
I don’t have a soundbite here; it’s entirely possible that the world is fairly awash in Calvinists who are newly-converted Christians and I’ve just never met any of them, I suppose.