Cosmetically, there was an intriguingly different feel to the Sunday meeting. It look place in an old church building, with pews at the back and the sides, and round tables towards the front, laid out in a cabaret style with three or four chairs around each. Almost everyone in the room was under forty, and around half were under thirty. The (excellent) band, instead of facing out towards the people, faced each other, side-on, presumably to avoid the impression that a gig was taking place. There were multiple large candles on the speakers, to either side of the stage. Good coffee was served in solid mugs before the meeting, and not after; people went for lunch together at the end. The first two songs were written by David Crowder, replete with poetic lines and syncopated rhythms, and of the six songs used in sung worship, none were by Tomlin, Townend, Redman, Hughes, Brown, Brading or Fellingham, and none have ever been used at my church. Three of the five men on the stage wore beards, and two of them wore flat caps. The word “connect” was used even more often than usual, and at one point I was invited to “connect with giving online”, rather than to put anything into a bucket or basket. And when I preached for ten minutes longer than I usually would, I was told that the church were thoroughly used to forty-five minutes, and that I could have had longer. There wasn’t even a song at the end, presumably because there was no cafe team who needed to go and get ready in that slot. It was most disorientating.
The theological and philosophical differences were, obviously, harder to see, but they were there all the same. The theology differed from the Newfrontiers mainstream in the places you’d expect, but what I found most interesting was a reference made over dinner to the “old school Newfrontiers way of doing things”, in which we talked about cities all the time and encouraged all our best leaders to go there and plant big churches. That’s an approach I’ve critiqued here before, of course, so I wasn’t surprised to hear it spoken of like that - but I was very surprised to learn that this was “old school.” I’m only thirty-four, but for me, “old school” implies tambourines, camping, rainbow guitar straps and gradually accelerating Jewish melodies, not talking about strategic, missional, city churches all the time. Most of us only started doing that five years ago, and quite a few of us still are. So it was fascinating to hear it talked about as passé. Clearly, I am not as contemporary and hip as I like to think, and there are a bunch of young leaders who are moving far quicker than I am. Which is encouraging.
The most significant difference I noticed, though - and I’m sure this reflects my particular interests - was the way in which they engaged with theology. Partly this was the level of interest their young leaders had in theology, which is always exciting to see; a quarter of their entire congregation had turned out the previous day to listen to me teach theology for seven hours, and the young couple I stayed with wanted to talk about hermeneutics and realised eschatology over breakfast. But partly it was the breadth of theological influences they had. For example, a few years ago, I wrote a favourable review of a book by a particular theologian for a Newfrontiers publication, and had it blackballed because the theologian was too controversial. A few weeks ago, on the other hand, leaders in this church told me that this same theologian was now proof that someone was theologically OK. In the leader’s study, the books on gender were by Keener, Fee and Witherington, not Carson, Piper and Köstenberger. Eckhard Schnabel’s book on mission was where you might have expected to find Let the Nations Be Glad; Kenneth Bailey was everywhere; Foucault and Barthes were lurking on one shelf; I could find no sign of any Lloyd-Jones, or of Grudem’s Systematic Theology; but then Greg Beale’s new biblical theology on new creation sat in the middle of the desk, already finished. The breadth of books, influences, blogs and conversation topics I encountered there, in two days, was greater (from what I can tell) than what I would encounter in many churches in two years.
This might be just that one church, obviously. One swallow doesn’t make a summer. But I would suggest that, from my observation, these two traits do often characterise the younger, bearded, flat-cap wearing, sacrament-embracing generation: diverse theological influences (lefties and righties, Patheos guys and Gospel Coalition guys, academic scholars and seasoned expositors, etc) and a preference for biblical theology over systematic theology (hence, I suspect, the huge new tomes of Beale and Schreiner will soon be far more widespread among under-40s than those of Horton, Grudem and Berkhof). And that, if nothing else, makes things interesting. It means we will probably need to raise our game in the way we train leaders, write books and articles, and discuss and debate theology.
But perhaps I would say that.