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“We are changing. We are not changing.” Northland’s Quagmire.

“Men love plain speech.”

Fundamentalists have so long confused intransigence for steadfastness that they have to resort to announcing change by saying there is no change. This is the quagmire in which my alma mater is currently wallowing.

I must preface the following comments by declaring myself as a happy, supportive and encouraged alumnus of the non-changes in my former institution that are so remarkably different from my days as a student that I’d be very tempted to call them “changes” if I were anyone else but a loyal occasional dues-paying alumnus. Long afflicted with a quirkiness to see something as it really is, to call a spade a spade, I find it very difficult to suppress the urge to call the non-changes at my alma mater changes. On the one hand, we are told that “things are changing” and alumni chatter about “the changes,” but on the other hand we are told that there are no changes.

And I’m charitably enthused!

Imagine, however, how another variety of the human species may interpret the data coming out of the North Woods like, say, normal people. Normal people would be a tad mystified that there is such a big announcement about no change. A mass mailing. An open letter on a widely-read blog.  And though we are told, for example, that the music philosophy of the institution is the same as it always has been, it is simultaneously announced that the Director of Fine Arts cannot take them forward in this way. He brought them hither; but he cannot take them yon. It would appear that the Director is uncomfortable with the non-change.

This is explained by saying that while there is no “philosophical” change, there is now “missional” change. Normal people scratch their heads.

Please, my friends, stop the silliness.

Let’s just be plain in our language. To even use the word “missional” is a philosophical change, not to mention the “missional” emphasis in music training that is now the new focus. There has been a philosophical shift. Call it what it is. Though in my vainer moments I like to fancy myself as a notch above average in understanding nuances between abstract terms thus enabling me to put a more charitable interpretation on almost anything that would appear like obfuscation to mere mortals of lesser intellectual sophistication, I am nonetheless repressing my average-joe instinct to say, “What that there politician is tryin’ to say is that they’re making changes  by sayin’ ‘xactly the opposite.”

So enters self-defined curmudgeonly one from the right armed with common sense. Never give your opponents the common sense edge. Never. Of course, he is immediately pounced upon as being ornery, cantankerous, and basically typical of his normal self by defenders of the institution, but no one (so far as I can see) has actually dealt with the uncomfortable reality that common sense is his ally. In normal experience and in normal language all these non-changes are, in fact, changes.

If they are not changes at all one who was an alumnus in the early 90s must conclude:

1. That the current attitudes toward, say, non-fundamentalists like Rick Holland and Bruce Ware and Warren Simien were so masterfully disguised that one thought that he was in a typical fundamentalist school. Alas! I was duped. I would have been so much happier had I known that was the official stance!

2. That the current missional approach to music was a well-kept secret perk consistent with the what-seemed-to-be-excessively-legalistic limitations of music checks (non-existent now) and stylistic restraints. I was not sophisticated enough to know that the lectures on guilt-by-association masked a then-held philosophy that could so easily discard music checks and ultimately embrace “missional” (?) training. Alas! Had I known that the philosophy was that elastic I would have spared myself the effort of disengaging myself from it. Years of wasted time. Sigh.

The bottom line is this. There has been change. There is change. There will be change. Change is happening. And the letter basically says, “Deal with it.” That’s my interpretation in plain speech.

I’m frustrated though.

I think the changes are overdue. And, yes, I do think there is a sense in which some of this is not new. Certainly, the disposition of Northland toward many of these issues has been favorable toward its now-public stance. I offer myself as Exhibit A of alumnus influenced by latent reasonable disposition under shell of fundamentalist hard nose. Therefore, I think the changes are, in the main, good changes.

But there is something that Northland and other fundamentalists leaders and institutions really need to change and that is the latent pride that cannot come to grips with the fact that they have been, in some instances, wrong. In five years we have seen a flood of changes with many of these places and people but concurrent with the changes comes a torrent of explanations that all boil down to “we are who we have always been.”


The problem is because the culture of fundamentalism twenty years ago (and in most parts of it today) was stagnate and could not tolerate dynamics of growth, development, maturation, and change. Change of any kind was tantamount to compromise. Compromise of any kind was always akin to apostasy. Consequently intransigence replaced steadfastness as a virtue and no one realized it. It was never in fundamentalist vocabulary to say, “You know, we held this position for so long but we’ve come to realize that we were wrong on that position. We are now changing.” The practical result is a culture that fears to admit change more than it fears being dishonest about changes. “Sticking by the stuff” is the cardinal fundamental fundamentalists are so proud of that when they quit sticking they passionately redefine the new stuff they are by and say that they have always been sticking by it.

It’s unfortunate that the letter that dismisses playing politics came across as politics. I think that the substantive change that fundamentalism needs is to move from intransigence to steadfastness. And that comes by shoot-from-the-hip transparency in the growing process. Steadfastness allows for all the wonderful changes that many are trying to make and has the added benefit of giving people the assurance that you are indeed who you say you are. Presently, the changing institutions that are insisting that that they are not changing have added a new problem to their complex public relations challenges: the lack of credibility.

We would all do well to learn from Spurgeon:

“In minor matters as well as more important concerns I have spoken my mind fearlessly, and brought down objurgations and anathemas innumerable, but I in nowise regret it, and shall not swerve from the use of outspoken speech in the future any more than in the past. I would scorn to retain a single adherent by such silence as would leave him under misapprehension. After all, men love plain speech. ~ Charles Haddon Spurgeon

The real change fundamentalism needs is not in the cultural matters of music and fellowship, but in the culture of intransigence and pride that precludes the possibility of growth and adjustments without the acrimonious condemnation of other intransigents. Where there is humility, there will always be growth. Where there is growth, there will be change. Changes are good. Just say it.


12 Responses

  1. “The real change fundamentalism needs is not in the cultural matters of music and fellowship, but in the culture of intransigence and pride that precludes the possibility of growth and adjustments without the acrimonious condemnation of other intransigents.”

    Seriously. We all underestimate the value of repentance when we sin and correction when we make a mistake. The same humble admission of wrongdoing that is so powerful in our marriages, with our children, and in our workplaces also works in large fundamentalist institutions. In fact, very little else works like it.

  2. Now if someone would just say, “I was wrong to bring up a sexual abuse victim for church discipline …”

  3. Well said Bob.

    Do you think there is any chance that the guys like Olson and Horn spent so much time playing according to the rules in the BJU/Northland universe — and in some meaure got their positions by so doing — even while not totally sharing the convictions of some of those rules, that they, to some extent, actually believe that they aren’t changing?

    Regardless of the details, though, I agree that the changes are good

  4. Bob, my favorite “bull in a china shop preacher” (please count that as a term of endearment),
    love this post. There is a much broader issue with the whole, “we’re changing but not changing issue” which in my mind is as simple as an issue of fear.
    “Let’s follow what the Holy Spirit is telling us to do here but here’s what were gonna say to our fundy friends further to the right that may find this an issue to separate over.”

  5. Maybe someone can channel R.V. Clearwaters, Bob Jones Jr., and Frank Bumpus to let us know if this is change.

  6. This may be a bit off topic, but is it perhaps time to consider the viability of organizations such as NIU, BJU, etc.? It seems like we are continuing to perpetuate a subculture that ultimately doesn’t serve the local church well. For example, we train and disciple our young people all the way through high school only to send them miles away to a handful of Bible colleges never to return home again (in many cases). I’m not saying kids should never go away to college (or missions, or military, etc., etc.), but I think the prevailing culture discourages kids from remaining in their local church and at the same time pursuing a multitude of other higher education options that would provide for continuing discipleship and evangelism within their sphere of influence.

  7. It seems to me that there is one way in which NIU and the broader fundamentalist movement is not changing. It has always been populist at heart, exhibiting all the lovable strengths and frustrating enigmas of populism. It is deeply sincere, activist, doctrinally unstable, and philosophically modernist. It has never been driven by a thorough-going acquaintance with first principles. It appears that the latest changes still fit with this trajectory.

    I wish they would speak more plainly, too. However, they may not even understand themselves enough to make sense of their changes.

  8. Bob,
    Since I have had absolutely no affiliation with Northland, I have no horse in this race. My roots go back to before Northland existed. I just want to say I agree with your take completely. I applaud the “non-changes” and am dismayed at the Dr. Olson’s semantics. Additionally I am always perturbed when someone plays the “fasting and prayer” trump card. It seems to be a “get out of jail free” for whenever a decision is questioned.

  9. Bob, it’s the effect that I have for decades lovingly called “the new way we’ve always done it.”

    It will be interesting to see where these non-change changes take Northland and whether other schools in their orbit follow their lead in making similar sweeping non-changes.

  10. Bob,

    I certainly agree with many of your sentiments regarding Fundamentalism’s difficulty to admit that a traditionally-held belief could actually be wrong. You are right to bring this out so we may see how pride can so quickly creep into the best of motives. I also appreciate your encouragement to be up front and honest in all things. I concur, if change is change, it should be called “change.”

    However, do you not think that change can occur at different levels? It seems that when Matt Olson says that the music at Northland is philosophically unchanged, he has in mind the Biblical moorings that undergird Christian music, not every jot and tittle of application that has every been taught in Northland’s history. In the letter, he clearly states the burden to train young men and women for music ministry effective anywhere in the world. This is the change, namely a better-suited program to meet the needs of global ministry. Some nomenclature and applicational aspects will likely change, but the biblical groundwork is unchanged. I see Olson’s words as consistent here.

    Furthermore, without being dogmatic, do you think your concern could be rooted in a somewhat reductionistic view of “change?” The Open-Letter was written to quell gossip and to bring clarity to the fearful speculation of some regarding Northland’s “direction.” In my multiple read-throughs of the letter, it seems transparency and upfront honestly was of paramount importance. For Northland to say, “We are changing!” would seem to demonstrate their mis-prioritized emphasis on the applicational aspects of change. I am grateful they highlighted their unwavering commitment to Scripture. This is most important. Their position is historically accurate and commendable.

    If I understand your reasoning, it sounds like you are saying the following:

    • Northland claims they are not changing.
    • Northland is changing.
    • Therefore, Northland is acting deceitfully and is consequently lacking in credibility.

    To surmise prideful motives for announcing applicational changes seems to be quite a jump. Perhaps more ink, albeit digital ink ☺, should have been spilt on Northland’s end over defining the meaning of “change,” but I cannot see the content of the Open-Letter as warranting a status of deceit and pride.

    May charity and grace pervade all subsequent dialogue.

    • Rich,

      I think that my thoughts were pretty clear. You charge me with accusing NIU of pride, deceit, and arrogance and I was doing none of that. I was, indeed, criticizing Matt’s letter and saying that it opened them up to the charge. Also, although I doubt that my post was even considered, somebody got through to NIU with the same kind of thinking I tried to convey because Ollila’s letter was exactly the kind of thing that I think needed to be said. He essentially came out and spoke plainly about it in a way that was more clear than the first letter.

      One does not help the institution if one interprets every criticism as an uncharitable attack.

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