“Preaching about Bart Simpson fills pews of Calgary church” – so ran the red hot headline in the Vancouver Sun.[1] “What is this?” I wondered as I read the newspaper over breakfast at a restaurant.  I first thought to myself that this must be another stunt from the United Church or maybe some Anglicans.  They quite often catch the religious media spotlight with these sorts of things.  So I was rather surprised to read the opening sentences of the article, “Is Bart Simpson the key to salvation for a new generation of unchurched ‘seekers?’  John Van Sloten of Calgary’s New Hope Christian Reformed Church thinks so…”  That’s considerably closer to home than the United Church!

For those who don’t know, Bart Simpson is a character on the popular television show The Simpsons, a show which has been running for several years.  It is renowned for its wit, but also for its relentless attacks on Christianity.  However, Pastor Van Sloten seems to think that the show makes good preaching material – he even shows extensive clips of it during New Hope worship services.  As it appears in the newspaper article, The Simpsons is not simply supplementing Scripture (which would be bad enough), but it is actually replacing Scripture.

Van Sloten gives the example of a recent episode on the show.  Poor Bart Simpson is in danger of failing Grade 4 unless he passes a critical exam.  He prays for a blizzard on the day of the exam and behold, it happens.  Bart passes the exam and gives thanks to “God.”  So how does Van Sloten preach on this passage of pop culture?  “There are at least two interesting lessons about prayer in this episode…The first is, we’re all scoundrels.  And just like Bart Simpson, we always try to resolve things ourselves before we’ll turn to God.  And second, we’re praying to a God who cares and who has a lot more compassion than any teacher.”

What is being said here about prayer in relation to Bart Simpson can certainly be criticized, but it is not my intention to do so here.  Rather I want to ask the question of how it came to this.  How did it come about that a church which calls itself Reformed ended up with ministers preaching with television shows as their “text”?

The first thing we can note is that this did not start happening yesterday.  Already in the years 1968 and 1969 the traditional sermon (based on the Word of God) was coming under attack in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC).  This happened specifically in the University Hills CRC in Michigan.  The pastor, J. Harold Ellens, was quoted as saying, “University Hills Church recognizes that the sermonic form for proclamation is not the best necessarily and certainly not the only mode for the church’s proclamation.”[2] Pastor Ellens went on to state in a letter, “Whatever medium succeeds is God’s medium of announcing His grace.  That is proclamation.”[3] In a similar way, Donald H. Postema, a chaplain at the University of Michigan asked, “Is the monological sermon the only way for powerful proclamation?  Could not choral reading, poetry, dance, film, dialogue, whatever form of communication that is available, be used to proclaim the message of God?”  Remember:  this is over 30 years ago.

These developments in the late 1960s also have a background.  Perhaps this background can best be illustrated by taking a brief look at a lengthy report that was adopted by CRC Synod 1968.  This report, from the Liturgical Committee appointed by Synod 1964, set the tone for worship in much of the CRC for the next three decades.  There is an extensive survey in this report of worship in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Following this survey we find the guiding principle which appears to determine much of CRC worship from this moment onward:  “Worship for the people of God has always been a dialogue.”[4] Dialogue is further said to be “the inherent structure of worship.  The question of liturgy is the question of how the dialogue is appropriately and effectively articulated.”[5] This covenantal or dialogical guiding principle overshadows everything to the extent that the principle of worship found in the Three Forms of Unity is not given any consideration whatsoever.

At later CRC synods we see attempts to take things further, especially in respect to preaching.  In 1973 for instance, the Liturgical Committee proposed that there could be services in which “an occasional CRWRC [Christian Reformed World Relief Committee] film could be shown.”[6] To their credit, Synod 1973 rejected such proposals and reminded the churches of Article 54a of the CRC Church Order:  “In the worship services the minister of the Word shall officially explain and apply Holy Scripture.”[7] After this one does not read much of note in the Acts of CRC Synods about the Liturgical Committee, that is, until 1985.

CRC Synod 1982 gave the Liturgical Committee the mandate of how to implement liturgical dance into the worship service.  The report submitted to Synod 1985 comes back to the matter of dialogue and an appeal to 1968:  “liturgy and worship shape the meeting between God and the congregation as a dialogue.  The various elements in the worship service constitute this dialogue between God and his people.”[8] With a cursory and rather facile treatment of Scripture, this conclusion is reached:  “…in the worship service, dance may function in two ways.  It may stress the Word of God to man, or it may stress man’s response to God.”[9] As a result of significant controversy surrounding this report, CRC Synod 1985 decided to leave the issue to local consistories.  The end result was that room was left for further changes.

The changes in CRC worship over the last three decades were truly astounding.  What opened the door for many of these changes was a one-sided emphasis on dialogue or covenant as the guiding liturgical principle.  There was absolutely no consideration for the teaching of the Reformed confessions about worship, such as we find in Belgic Confession article 32 and Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 35.  This goes hand in hand with the weakening of the authority of the confessions in the CRC in general.

So where do Pastor John Van Sloten and the Hope Christian Reformed Church fit into the picture?  He could very well justify his using The Simpsons as the text for his sermons by appealing to the dialogical principle established in 1968.  God speaks to the congregation through The Simpsons – why limit God to the written Word?  Cannot God also speak through a television show?  Does not all truth belong to God?  I am not saying that Van Sloten would actually argue in this way, but using CRC Synodical decisions he certainly could and likely would. At any rate, there will certainly be no church discipline for John Van Sloten.

There is also the added element of using whatever works to get people into the church.  This corresponds to the trend in North American evangelicalism to make everything in worship “user-friendly,” whether it be the sermon or the songs that are sung (or listened to in many cases).  The reporter says about Van Sloten’s approach, “It’s a formula that – non-traditional as it is – is working for some people at least.”

That is what it comes down to:  whatever works for people.  A man-centered approach to worship that could be justified by appealing to a dialogue principle.  God speaks in whatever way we determine He will speak and we will respond in whatever way we please.  This is the ultimate result when what the Confessions teach about worship is ignored.  There is truth in the notion that worship should be covenantally structured, but that must always be tempered by the Reformed principle of worship:  we are not “to worship Him in any other manner than He has commanded in His Word.” (HC QA 96).  For one thing, that means that preaching is always proclamation based on the Scriptures. Once the confessions are undermined or ignored in this area, the door is open to further aberrations.  The worship principle found in our confessions safeguards the purity of worship.  This is something that an emphasis on the covenantal structure of worship cannot accomplish on its own.  When we add or take away as we please, even in the name of dialogue or covenant, we are on the road to Rome.

[1] “Preaching about Bart Simpson fills pews of Calgary church,” Joe Woodard, Vancouver Sun (January 24, 2001), A8.

[2] A Handbook of CRC Issues: 1968-1978, the Association of Christian Reformed Laymen, 468.  This volume presents various old newsletters and press clippings from over this decade.  Since it is not possible to trace the origin and publication information of every source, only the page numbers of the volume will be cited.

[3] Ibid., 470.

[4] Acts 1968, Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 137.

[5] Ibid., 141.

[6] Acts 1973, Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 511.

[7] Ibid., 55.

[8] Agenda for Synod 1985, Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 247.

[9] Ibid.