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Alt Churches – Style or Substance

Category Articles
Date August 18, 2004

Almost everywhere you look in contemporary culture you are likely to run into the prefix alt. “Alt” is short for “alternative.” For instance, there are “alt” music styles, such as “alt rock” and “alt country.” “Alt” serves to distinguish the group or the pursuit from the mainstream.

Well, to “alt” rock and country you can add one other: “alt evangelical.”

Those are the designations used in a recent New York Times profile of younger Evangelicals. Two decades ago, Baby Boomer Evangelicals “invented the suburban mega-church,” writes the Times. These churches replaced “intimidating crosses [and] stained-glass images of Jesus” with more “neutral environments.”

Now, younger Evangelicals are “creating alternative churches in coffee bars and warehouses . . . “ And, just as the alternative music scene is an implicit criticism of the musical mainstream, the “alternative church” sees itself as a corrective to the churches many of its members grew up in.

One participant told the Times that his “generation is discontent with dead religion . . . “ They “don’t want to show up on Sunday, sing two hymns, hear a sermon, and go home . . . “ He added that “the Bible says we’re supposed to die for this thing. If I’m going to do that, this has
to be worth something . . . “

That’s obviously true. What’s not as obvious is how playing basketball after church or worshiping in a coffee house brings us any closer to that kind of sacrificial faith and the hard demands of the Gospel.

There’s something else that both alt and seeker-driven churches often have in common: Their goals are to create a model church that conforms to the individual’s needs and expectations, rather than the other way around. In other words, people demand a church that will tell them what’s in it for them.

But this isn’t what the magisterial reformers had in mind when they spoke of the “marks of the church”: preaching the Gospel, rightly administering the sacraments, and exercising church discipline. It was John Calvin, not a renaissance pope, who wrote that God desires His children to grow into maturity “solely under the education of the [visible] church.”

This education requires what Calvin called a “gentle and teachable spirit,” that is, a willingness to submit to authority. Such submission is difficult to imagine in an age when we insist on reinventing the church to better meet, not only our demands, but also the demands and tastes of the age.

What’s more, as theologian Michael Novak warns, in our desire to meet these demands, to make Christianity seem more “relevant,” we run a risk: We end up omitting exactly those points that are most likely to cause offence. Thus, we “make the faith less than it is.” We water it down.

Before you write to tell me how old or “out of it” I am, let me be clear: I’m not concerned about “style,” musical or otherwise. What I am concerned about is, in our search for something worthwhile, we lose sight of a simple truth: that, when it comes to spiritual maturity, God has provided no alternative to the loving discipline of the visible church – and no alternative to the cross, which convicts, as well as redeems.

Cultural commentary with Prison Fellowship’s

CHUCK COLSON (by permission).

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