The pulpit of Saint Andrew's Chapel isn't off to one side in deference to the altar, as it is in a Catholic church. It isn't a lectern wheeled onto the stage after the Christian rock band sits down, as it is in many nondenominational megachurches.
The pulpit that conservative evangelist R.C. Sproul ascends every Sunday is a large, imposing wooden centerpiece in a church designed to embody his throwback theology. Opened a year ago, Saint Andrew's Chapel is modeled after the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, just as Sproul's preaching is a return to the days of John Calvin and Martin Luther.
At 71, Sproul is one of the old guard in what's known as the "New Calvinism" movement, which Time magazine identified in 2009 as one of the "10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now." Sproul has influenced a generation of younger conservative evangelists and this month announced the creation of a Bible college on his Sanford compound that could extend his influence for generations.
Sproul's Reformed theology is a return to Scripture-based worship. It is the opposite of church made to feel more like a music concert than a religious service.
"Church is not supposed to be a pep rally. It's meant to be a worship service," said Chris Larson, vice president of Sproul's Ligonier Ministries. "What you are seeing in the American church today is an entertainment mind-set driven by the cultural revolutions of the past 40 years that take church practice more from popular culture than from Scripture."
Sproul has no tolerance for the liberal tilt of a secular society, religion influenced by culture or a government that tries to take religion out of the schools. He is equally dismissive of ministers who preach the "prosperity gospel" and churches that have "traditional" services for older members and "contemporary" services for younger people.
The launching of the college, which will offer bachelor's and associate degrees in biblical and theological studies, comes as Sproul's old-school brand of religion is catching on with young people. A generation raised in the come-as-you-are philosophy of religion is returning to the Sunday-best religion of its grandparents.
Mike Milton, president of the Reformed Theology Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., said Sproul was a leader in the Reformed movement when it began in the 1970s and has been rediscovered by young people as it has picked up steam and converts in recent years.
"He was a best-selling author in the '70s and '80s, and he's back in vogue," Milton said. "R.C. Sproul is cool again."
Thomas Holcombe, 35, said he and his wife joined Saint Andrew's two years ago because the traditional hymns, the emphasis on Scripture and the formality of the service seemed more spiritually fulfilling than the more contemporary churches they attended before.
"A lot of churches try to cater to everyone. Here, it's because we worship God," Holcombe said.
Because of his emphasis on old-style worship, R.C. Sproul has never been as high-profile as Billy Graham, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren or Joel Hunter. But his serious study of theology has made him, in many ways, just as influential.
Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said among his students, R.C. Sproul is regarded as a rock star. Sproul's appeal, Mohler said, is his ability to think deeply about complex theological issues, providing young evangelicals with an alternative to the "theology lite" of many popular preachers.
"His books have become some of the most influential among evangelicals precisely because they represent serious theological engagement," said Mohler, another leader in the New Calvinism movement.
Sproul, who would not be interviewed for this story, is well-known for his daily radio program, "Renewing Your Mind," and his books on theology such as "The Holiness of God" and "Chosen by God." His decision to move his Ligonier Ministries from his native Pennsylvania to Central Florida in 1984 led the way for a dozen other international ministries, evangelical organizations and seminaries that have turned Orlando into a religious center for conservative Christians, said Steve Strang, publisher of Charisma magazine in Lake Mary.
Sproul's sermons take the congregation through the Scripture, line by line, providing insight, context and understanding to what the Bible says. His growing popularity is based in part on his ability to translate his scholarly theology into terms the common man can comprehend, said Robert C. Cannada Jr., chancellor of the Reformed Theological Seminary.
Some of that ability to speak the same language from his elevated pulpit as the folks sitting in the pews comes from Sproul's own background. The son of an accountant, he grew up in Ligonier Valley in the western Pennsylvania of coal mines and steel mills. He is a longtime, die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Until slowed by a stroke in 2003, he was an ardent golfer. He plays jazz piano, enjoys oil painting and has been taking violin lessons for 10 years.
His son, R.C. Sproul Jr., said his father was always encouraging his two children. The father showed the same full-bore enthusiasm for whatever interest the son expressed as he did for his own pursuits.
"Whatever cockamamie idea I came up with — 'I want to be a rodeo clown' — he'd say, 'Oh, great; let's get you all the books about rodeo clowns,' " said Sproul Jr., 45, who eventually followed his father into the ministry.
The creation of the Bible college is a sign to his supporters that R.C. Sproul remains energetic, enthusiastic and relevant.
"At this season of his life, he established a church and started the Bible college," Mohler said. "I think it represents a maturation of his ministry and signifies that it is making a very clear commitment to the future."
Jeff Kunerth can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5392.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun