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God and Man at Cambridge

Back to the scene of the crime: In Cambridge, where early American Puritanism once reigned, relativism now holds sway.

They are financially potent but sparsely populated. Whitewashed sepulchers have replaced Christian congregations in this historic Massachusetts city where once true worship swelled.

A simple stroll through Cambridge reveals a scene more European than American-one Swiss study said as much-its Gothic arches and colonial steeples pointing toward heaven while its jumbled ideas and broken lives point toward hell. Local architects recently gutted one church in old Boston, but saved its stone Gothic facade. A Congregational church on Massachusetts Ave. adds new meaning to "having a form of godliness" without real content or power.

The Cambridge church buildings "are monuments to times when Christianity was really flourishing," laments Terry Gyger, who moved to the Boston area two years ago to lead the planting of a new congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America. Mr. Gyger's energetic 150-member congregation meets in a 150-year-old church building just halfway between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The shell they bought was just one of dozens of church buildings that Mr. Gyger says have become "empty monuments now."

Worries that much of American evangelicalism may be headed the same direction as old Cambridge have led in recent months to the formation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE), a new organization with a distinctly Reformational if not explicitly Reformed theological flavor.

ACE leaders are frank to express their fear that American evangelicalism, like American liberalism before it, is headed toward a fate like that of the congregationalist church in Cambridge: a mere facade with no real guts.

Such concerns led 110 top Reformation-inclined leaders to gather a stone's throw from Harvard Square three weeks ago to see whether they themselves could agree on a diagnosis of the problems. The result-from a diverse group of Presbyterians, Christian Reformed, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Southern Baptists, independents, and others-was a three-page "Cambridge Declaration" that warns, in part: "Therapeutic technique, marketing strategies, and the beat of the entertainment world often have far more to say about what the church wants, how it functions, and what it offers, than does the Word of God."

Evangelicalism today focuses more on self than on God, the declaration says, and it urges a return to "the historic Christian faith" expressed in the historic principles spelled out by Martin Luther and John Calvin: Scripture Alone, Christ Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone, and God's Glory Alone.

"Today the light of the Reformation has been significantly dimmed," the declaration states, adding: "The word evangelical has become so inclusive as to have lost its meaning. We face the peril of losing the unity it has taken centuries to achieve."

So far, only 75 of the 110 ACE participants have signed the declaration. A few who didn't simply disagreed-some because of tone, others because of content. Of the rest, observers said, at least a dozen had left to catch planes home by the time of the closing signing ceremony. Some non-signers (and some signers) criticized a clumsy style of structuring the three-day event. Although nearly a dozen major addresses dominated the agenda, little time was allotted for group discussion and debate. Drafts of the final statement were distributed to participants just two hours before adjournment, hammered out for content and edited for style through the previous night by conference leaders on the basis of suggestions contributed in note form by any and all who attended.

If the process was something short of a resounding display of unity for less confessionally rooted evangelicals to follow, the final product was a plainly worded challenge.

The statement never goes as far as ACE's most youthful speaker, Michael Horton, would. Mr. Horton heads CURE (Christians United for Reformation) and his books (published by Moody Press) draw circles for the "true church" so small that even many ACE leaders would feel uncomfortable endorsing them. In his address, Mr. Horton said: "If we are really convinced of the justice in the Reformation's critique of medieval Rome, we can no longer fail to regard Arminianism within Protestant circles as any more acceptable. It is not only Rome, but the Wesleyan system, especially as it is mediated through Charles Finney, Pentecostalism, and the revivalist tradition, that must be rejected to the extent that each fails to sufficiently honor God's grace."

Mr. Horton was explaining that the battle against Arminianism, a system of doctrine that places human decision on a par with God's sovereignty, "may deprive us of peace and honor in our current positions."

He went on to say, "In our cafeteria approach to truth, Americans will happily embrace everything we say and then place a saucer of Toronto Blessing and a plate of political ideology on the tray as well, chased perhaps by a glass of self-esteem therapy. We must engage in antithesis. We must declare, with the Reformers and with the Athanasian Creed, not only, 'We believe ...,' but, 'Therefore, we condemn....' "

The outspoken Horton challenge went farther than most ACErs would go-especially since many of them have fellowshiped for a generation and more with precisely such Arminians, Wesleyans, and Pentecostals within the National Association of Evangelicals. Indeed, the NAE's current president, Don Argue, was an observer at the Cambridge meeting.

Yet if the Horton bark was worse than the bite most conferees wanted to see in the final declaration, such bite was by no means lacking. Those who might be seen as watering down any of the great "solas" of the Reformation, whether out of theological conviction or pragmatic expediency, are sure to feel the sting of some charges.

Even so, not even the Cambridge gathering dared address some of the issues lurking just beneath the surface they walked on so boldly. For example:

It was not hard for everyone to affirm that God alone should receive glory-Soli Deo Gloria. The need for exercising that principle in corporate worship was heard repeatedly. But coffeebreak conversations noted that claiming the principle still doesn't resolve disagreement over whether drums and electric guitars have as much a place in such worship as do the classical sounds of the Westminster Brass, a smooth Philadelphia group who provided music for the entire gathering.

All affirmed faith alone-Sola Fide-as the basis for salvation. Glib marketing techniques that tend to water down the gospel were regularly critiqued. "If we evaluate the pragmatism of the pragmatists on a pragmatic basis," noted Robert Godfrey, president of Westminster Seminary in Escondido, Calif., "we have to say that by their own standards they have failed. Why don't American medical statistics reflect the healings of the charismatics? Why don't our crime statistics reflect the holy living of evangelicals? Why, after a generation of church growth methodology and user-friendly worship, is church attendance down significantly?"

But Southern Baptist ACE participant Mark Coppenger, new president of Kansas City's Midwestern Baptist Seminary, urged the group not to get overly uppity-and not to forget its own sometimes "patrician" marketing styles. Pointing out that ACE's summit deliberately was staged in prestigious Cambridge, he suggested coyly that "We could have met, at less cost, in Kokomo, Ind. But we all know that somehow a 'Kokomo Declaration' doesn't have quite the same ring to it."

All affirmed Scripture alone-Sola Scriptura. But some participants expressed frank distress that the preaching at the ACE gathering itself was largely not exegetical. High-profile speakers like Ravi Zacharias, R.C. Sproul, and Wallace Schulz all have well-earned reputations as colorful-and even entertaining-orators. How could this Cambridge gathering critique mega-churches and televangelists for using some of the same gifts so skillfully exercised right here?

Indeed, each of the main points seemed to produce hearty agreement-but also a string of qualifiers. The question again and again was: Is an outright condemnation called for, or are we just trying to put things in their right context?

Even from the platform, ACE's leaders spoke repeatedly of the need for humility and repentance-not by others, but by members of the group that had gathered. If nothing else produced such humility, the simple process of producing a three-page statement of doctrinal unity might have, especially in a culture more diverse than Luther or Calvin perhaps ever dreamed of.

And if the culture is diverse, so is the evangelical community. Be it the fairly homogeneous ACE camp or the notably heterogeneous camps of Promise Keepers and Evangelicals and Catholics Together, three bottom-line questions always seem eventually to emerge: Where do you draw the bottom line? Who will sign on? And at what cost to self and Christ's kingdom?

Terry Gyger daily confronts such bottom-line questions. Dressed in a perfect, Presbyterian-gray suit, he stands before a mixed Cambridge congregation of 150 whites, orientals, and Brazilians at Christ the King Presbyterian Church. Here, blue-collar tradesmen rub elbows with the world's finest intellects, while Gordon Conwell theology students mingle with MIT rocket scientists. One perky middle-aged woman holds her Scofield Bible in one hand; in the other, she grasps a church bulletin quoting J.I. Packer's Knowing God. Christ the King Church is all amalgamated contrasts.

"We have chosen to be a church in the city, and for the city," Mr. Gyger tells the congregation as it meets in the dining hall of a 150-year-old church building the members are rehabbing. Florescent lights hanging from water-marked high ceilings reflect off time-worn stained-glass windows; a baby-grand piano shares space with a full set of drums; the red bumper sticker on a church musician's trumpet case reads "Berkeley College of Music."

"The city is a great gathering place for people from all over the world," continues Mr. Gyger. "We are a Presbyterian church and we believe in the historic liturgies, as you will see in the bulletin. But we also believe in worship before the Lord."

Christ the King wants to bring a little of Calvin's Geneva to a much-more-mongrelized arena. "Come ... Explore the life-changing teachings of Jesus Christ!" a blue, one-page circular proclaims.

Ironically, as former head of the PCA's Mission to North America, Mr. Gyger employed more church growth principles than some in his own denomination were comfortable with. Without trading away an ounce of his confessional commitments, he kept some of the same concepts in mind when he came here in 1994 to start the church in Cambridge. The original group merged with a robust congregation of Brazilian Presbyterians, many of whom now sit in metal folding chairs listening to Portuguese translation through black earplugs.

"You have every kind of language you can imagine," says Robert Hupka, Mr. Gyger's minister of music. Recently Mr. Hupka, a pianist equally adept at Frederick Handel or Jack Hayford compositions, heard five languages during a trip on the subway.

A fire alarm sounds in the old building as Mr. Gyger leads his congregation in silent meditation; but in good Reformational fashion he keeps his head bowed. The worship service is not governed by spontaneity, but thoughtful consideration. "Planning does not mean we take the Spirit out of worship," Mr. Gyger counsels his congregation, "but planning means we can worship in spirit and truth and holiness."

The worship at Christ the King Church is orderly; it also has distinctly contemporary elements. Refrains of "Our God Reigns" yield to a soft chorus of "Hallelujah" and then into "May Jesus Christ Be Praised." Evening services are accented by Brazilian sounds.

"We need to be liturgical in some respects to ground ourselves in history, but we need to have the flexibility of different music styles to accommodate the eclectic music styles of the young people and international students," says Mr. Gyger, who seeks biblically to access church-growth ideas. The Cambridge Declaration condemned "the church growth movement" for allegedly stressing "that a sociological understanding of those in the pew is as important to the success of the gospel as is the biblical truth which is proclaimed."

Mr. Gyger admits walking a tight-wire between assimilation and accommodation. To most evangelical observers, his liturgy, responsive reading, and expository sermons suggest that God-directed orthodoxy is prized here, not trivialized. Indeed-even with its drums and contemporary music-it's probably not churches like Christ the King here in Cambridge that prompted the ACE gathering.

The Charles Hotel, which hosted the ACE gathering, sits just three blocks from the Harvard stop on the T-line subway. The buildings, the winding brick streets, and the very atmosphere are colonial, still redolent of the faith of old Boston.

Like those inhabiting Christ the King Church, however, the people on these streets stand in mish-mashed contrast to the area's architectural uniformity. There are self-absorbed intellectuals, flagrantly out-of-the-closet homosexuals, grunge rockers, and elegantly dressed patricians of America's power elite. It is, in ACE's words, "the spirit of the age" set against "the Spirit of Christ."

Only two blocks away stands a huge old church, whose tiny 15-20 member congregation is led now by an openly lesbian woman. "It brings some of our own differences into a little different perspective," several ACE participants agreed.

So did the closing address at ACE, from Cleveland, Ohio, Baptist preacher Alistair Begg. He told of wandering near Harvard earlier that same morning. Downcast at the indifference toward God that he perceived all around him-the formidable intellectual institution arrayed against Christian truth, the social breakdown evident in the panhandlers on the street, the New Age bookstores-he stopped for a cup of coffee in one of the Square's numerous espresso shops.

Just then, a sparrow somehow entered the cafe and landed on his table, prompting Mr. Begg to remember God's promise to care for falling sparrows and people; God controls even this much-maligned world, he concluded.

Then a young Korean woman, a Harvard student, sat down across the table in the crowded room, pulled a Bible from her backpack, and started reading intently, taking notes and sipping coffee all the while.

Mr. Begg approached her and asked if she was a Christian.

"Yes," she replied.

Did you grow up in the church?

No, she said. Her parents were Buddhists, but a friend told her about Jesus. "I entered in at a very narrow gate. I had very much sin in my heart," she said, "but Jesus gave me great forgiveness."

To his ACE colleagues, Mr. Begg suggested his simple encounter was a great illustration: To be sure, the doctrine had to be right if conversion was to occur. But neither did it need to be terribly complex.

Two signers of the declaration-WORLD publisher Joel Belz and culture editor Ed Veith-contributed information for this report.

Joe Maxwell

Joe Maxwell