Monday, November 1, 2010

Shape and Substance in New England Churches

I was privileged to attend a couple of sessions of a Reformation Conference held last weekend at a church just down the road from me, at which Phil Johnson presented a biographical sketch and theological reflections with lots of modern applications from the life of Charles Spurgeon. (Phil, as some of you likely know, is a long-time student of Spurgeon's life and work, so his presentations were detailed and masterful.)

In one of his talks I heard for the first time of an old hymn book called The Rivulet, which was written by a contemporary of Spurgeon's, Thomas Toke Lynch. The Rivulet received scathing reviews from nearly all quarters. Its lyricism was sentimental pap, and its foundation appeared to be more deist than Christian. Here's a sample ditty:
“Our heart is like a little pool,
Left by the ebbing sea;
Of crystal waters still and cool,
When we rest musingly.
“And see what verdure exquisite,
Within it hidden grows;
We never should have had the sight,
But for this brief repose.”

Here is a hymn from a book full of emptiness. The Rivulet had a lot of heart in it, but ultimately was the hymnal equivalent of a chocolate bunny -- candy exterior, hollow inside. And this is a great metaphor for the religious aesthetic in New England. Little churches dot the landscape, hearkening back to simpler times but most holding today a few people still clinging to sentimental ideas about God and the dignity of man. This is why many of the old church buildings now house unitarian congregations or other quasi-Christian groups who have not a wit's idea of the gospel.

The old churches in New England are wallpaper. But Christ in the Spiritual power of the gospel can make them 18-dimensional. How will we see this happen?

Here is how Charles Spurgeon ended his review of Lynch's wallpaper hymnal:
We shall soon have to handle truth, not with kid gloves, but with gauntlets, – the gauntlets of holy courage and integrity. Go on, ye warriors of the cross, for the King is at the head of you.

Who will take up the gauntlet? Who will take up gospel militancy in gospel mission for gospel revival in New England churches? The Church must follow her namesake into the mission of the cross -- proclaiming the authority and infallibility of the Scriptures, the truth of the gospel in those Scriptures, and the nearness of the kingdom in word and deed -- so that the body of Christ may look less like decoration and more like the body of Christ.