Why do evangelicals ignore ancient church history? Why do nondenominational churches reject liturgy? Why is there such a gap between American evangelicalism and global Christianity? //
When I was rebranding this blog, I wanted to include the term “liturgy” in my tag line. But my multi-faith writers’ group quickly said no. Liturgy, they said, was synonymous with Catholicism. I countered liturgy simply meant “the work of the people”, as in
- our habits,
- the intentional environment we create,
- our patterns, and
- the way we worship through the consistent choices we make daily.
Everything we routinely do is our liturgy, I argued. Besides, even in the context of church, Catholics do not own the term. Many Protestant worship services contain liturgical elements. My colleagues dissuaded me. I compromised, concluded I’ve spent too much time reading the dictionary, and went with the word “rhythms” instead.
But the exchange stayed with me, and I haven’t been able to stop asking questions. (I still like the word “liturgy.”) Why do we tend to think liturgy is Catholic? Don’t even the most seeker-friendly emergent evangelical churches practice many repetitive liturgies of their own invention — for example, in the distinct and recognizable way a worship team continues to play chords and pluck guitar strings while the leader transitions from singing to prayer at the end of the first set of songs, every single week?
Why are so many Christians determined to reinvent and rename the entire church experience, swapping out every term for something more relevant and hip?
Why do evangelicals shun the concise ancient creeds and write forty-page Statements of Faith instead? (Seriously, why?)
Why do American evangelicals think there’s an inverse relationship between the quantity of art in a church in the the quantity of holiness? Why is “church art” dismissed as religious in non-denominational circles?
Has America’s history of intense individualism really had that much effect on the way we view worship? (In other words, can we blame our uniquely-American hangups on the Puritans?)
Evangelicals Can Learn Not to Fear the Past or the Unknown
My generation emerged from shallow WWJD youth group culture, ravaged. Conservative sheltering didn’t work. Many of my peers denounced God. Fundamental evangelicalism allowed no room for wonder or mystery or doubt, demanding instead that we accept human doctrinal interpretation (flawed but presented as absolute) rather than reverently marvel at the incomprehensible mysteries of the Triune God.
I’m not arguing against systematic theology or doctrine. I’m definitely not advocating deconstruction or moving down a path toward relativism. But I will never stop saying God is bigger than man, and certainly, there are theological intricacies we as humans will never be able to completely define. Isn’t that okay? Affirming mystery is not the same as denying absolute truth; it is merely affirming our finite humanity in light of God’s infinite divinity.
My generation, left flattened by interpretations simultaneously fundamentalist and modernist, longs for a more meaty discussion. We are seeking to connect the dots between the seemingly disconnected faith of the American Christian church and, as Paul says in Hebrews 12, “a great cloud of witnesses” and the global church.
We want more than worship choruses; we want to know our roots.
The angels heralded the birth of our Messiah two thousand years ago — the ten commandments handed down to Moses centuries earlier. The entire premise of Christianity’s origin rests on historical events; so why is the independent American church so desperate to modernize it all? God’s power has not waned over time, no; but certainly Christianity is not an invention of the new millennium. Must we fear the past? As Western evangelicals, when we seek out our Christian history, we hit a barrier point, permitted only to go as far as the Great Awakening and the Reformation.
This makes no sense to me.
“I do not meet God in a vacuum,” contemplated the late Rich Mullins (who, incidentally, used the word liturgy in the title of his 1993 album, A Liturgy, a Legacy, & a Ragamuffin Band.) “I meet Him in the world He has provided for me to meet Him in — in a world of events and of places, of history (time and space), in a world of lives of people and their records of their encounters. I meet God in this world — in the world of these things.”
If God is in charge of all of history, from the dawn of time to the jeweled foundations of eternity, doesn’t he have a purpose for all of history? As humans, we mark time into epochs and eras — the early Church, the Great Schism, the Reformation, the Evangelical Movement — but isn’t God bigger than all that? I answer a resounding yes. And if He is, then we can we trust His hand enough to stop being threatened by the history in the gap between the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther.
So why do evangelicals pull the curtain on everything between Christ’s ascension to Martin Luther’s Theses? When we do this, haven’t we created a modern religion of fear, rather than trusting God’s hand in all of history?’
Evangelicals Can Learn to See the Value in Pre-Reformation Church History
In a recent Instagram poll,
- 66% of respondents said they were raised in non-denominational settings,
- 68% replied church history was not an important part of their faith tradition, and
- 71% said most of what they know about church history comes after 1517.
(34% were raised liturgically, 32% with church history being important, and 29% with more pre-1517 church history knowledge than post-1517.)
This wasn’t a scientific study by any means — I conducted the poll on my Instagram account — but in the twenty-four hours the poll was live, messages kept pouring in. And there was a definite common theme: evangelicals of my generation admitted they knew very little about the time between the apostles and Luther, yet they nearly all longed to know more.
You see, church history was distinctly absent from most youth ministries throughout the 80s, 90s, and 00s. For many who grew up inside the recent non-denominational Christian experience in America — or really, anywhere within the current evangelical experience — church history was barely acknowledged until Martin Luther and 1517. The omission wasn’t openly discussed; the gap of time before the 95 Theses or the 5 Points of Calvinism simply didn’t exist. For a brief interlude in the late 1990s after D.C. Talk pushed a remake of Foxes Book of Martyrs into the limelight, kids at Reformation Parties dressed as early martyrs rather than Halloween ghouls. But for the most part, nondenominational churches ignored ancient history.
This history-averse trend continues today. Augustine gets an honorable mention, and there’s a growing trend in Protestant circles to discover the real Santa Claus. But aside from that, there’s little encouragement towards further digging, largely due to an unspoken consensus that theologians of old are potentially suspect and / or “probably Roman Catholic.” (This alone reveals endemic ignorance of Orthodox Christianity.)
Evangelical don’t give much thought to pre-Luther Christianity, just as Americans in general don’t give much thought to non-American history.
I don’t understand this.
It doesn’t seem logical to me.
There’s no way Christians were wholly apostate and heretical for a full 1,500 years before Luther. Looking at only post-1517 theology discounts the early, post-ascension Church. Certainly heresies have popped up throughout history and will continue to do so, but how can we embrace Moses and Abraham and David and Paul, then skip fifteen centuries before opening our arms again to Luther?
I’m no fan of indulgences and purgatory, but taking a Sharpie across a thousand and a half years of history might not be the best approach.
If this sounds radical, it shouldn’t.
Evangelicals Can Learn to Balance New Ideas with Old Ideas
“This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology,” warns C.S. Lewis. “…If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. …The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity…which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books.”
I’ve never been afflicted by the nostalgic line of thought which associates the good old days with more wholesome values. But perhaps an context adjustment is needed here in regards to time. From an evangelical perspective, an old book is perhaps a work which emerged in the 1700s from the Great Awakening. Yet from another perspective, an old book might be something written in the first few hundred years after Christ.
“Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past,” C.S. Lewis continues in his introduction to Athanasius’ “On The Incarnation”, circa-300 AD. “People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”
God exists outside of time. We know this. His saving grace has not changed. Although humans falter, His power has not dwindled down over the last two thousand years. Most would agree it would be arrogant to presume our interpretation of theology is irrevocably more nuanced and sound than that of a first century believer, yet the idea that theological enlightenment skipped fifteen centuries and passed from the time of Christ to the time of the Reformers still persists.
For me, that simply doesn’t add up.
Evangelicals Can Learn to Realize the Influence American History Has Had on Theology, Worship, and the Church
I often laugh and say we can blame a lot of things on the Pilgrims, but there’s an element of truth in some jokes, isn’t there? Perhaps the disconnect between American evangelism and global Christianity did indeed start at the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Americans in particular, I’ve found, struggle with connecting to not just ancient Christians, but global Christians, too.
A great deal of this is due to the newness of this country, and the profound — although sometimes overlooked — influence the Dutch and English settlers had on our religious sensibilities. The settlers had a drastic influence on the way we view corporate worship today, as did the American emphasis on individualism and self-reliance.
In an entire connected swath of the map, Europe, Middle East, North Africa, India, Asia — all these places where civilizations began — corporate worship and churches looked (and looks) nothing like the Quakers later said should. (Don’t get me started on how most church history books exclusively focus on Western Europe, omitting the Balkans, Russia, and the Middle East entirely.)
The Puritans in the New World eschewed art, architecture, and adornment, and preferred “compact squarish buildings” for worship. David Hackett Fischer, author of Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, adds that in these buildings there were “no ornaments…no curtains, no plaster, no pictures, no lights –nothing to distract the congregation from the spoken word.” And the Puritans didn’t celebrate feast days; in fact, they referred to Christmas as “Foolstide”.
“Everything was stripped bare,” wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe, “all poetic forms, all the draperies and accessories of religious ritual, have been rigidly and unsparingly retrenched.” David Hackett Fischer continues, “[Puritanism] claimed to be a religion without ritual, but in fact it replaced one set of rituals with another.”
This plain pine pew and art-free church doctrine ran rampant in the New World, unchecked, probably because the New World was disconnected geographically from the rest of civilization. And as the years went on, Americans unquestioningly accepted this plain approach to worship.
An important distinction must be made here; this is about the heart, not physical buildings. There’s a foundational difference between an underground church meeting in an industrial building, or a group praying together in a warehouse because the Spirit of God is moving — and meeting in a multipurpose building on Sunday morning because you believe too much decorative beauty is a secular and corrupt concept, and believe a plain non-denominational church building more accurately reflects the heart of God. The former is grassroots Christianity; the latter is self-righteous.
Evangelicals Can Learn Not to Fear Beauty in the Church
When God instructed Solomon to build the temple, there were dolphin-covered tapestries, unnaturally-blue pomegranates, tinkling bells, and precious stones not for any functional purpose, but simply “for beauty”. (Lest we dismiss the jeweled walls as Old Covenant extravagance, Revelation also describes heaven’s jeweled foundations.) And art reminds us the incarnation invaded the material world, and all of creation — heaven and earth — is in the grip of redemption.
The colonists of course, the buckle-clad figures we tack up as decor each Thanksgiving — would have sternly disapproved. And so would the zealots who took Luther’s Theses too far, vandalizing churches and tearing out the art with a vengeance.
But who do we follow? The God who, after each day of creation paused and said טוֹב, which means not simply good, but also delightful and beautiful?
The same God who gave Naphtali the gift of words (Genesis 49:21), Bezalel the gift of “inventive work” and “designs for working in gold and in silver and in bronze, and in the cutting stones for settings, and in the carving of wood”? (Exodus 35:32)
The same God who filled Oholiab with “skill to perform every work of an engraver and of a designer and of an embroiderer…as performers…and makers of designs”? (Exodus 35:35)
Or do we think Zwingli and Calvin and the Puritans had a monopoly on the truth about art?
I would argue that Puritanical theology has done more to harm American evangelicalism than the Post-Ascension to Pre-Reformation swath of time evangelicals fear most.
Rediscovering the principal necessity of beauty and it’s integral place in Christian worship, of course, can not be achieved simply be redecorating the church’s interior. But perhaps it’s worth considering that when we blindly followed the Pilgrims in their religious mandate for plain pews, we turned plainness into a doctrine. What a shock awaits us, then, in the thrones, crowns, gems and fire of the New Jerusalem!
(And here’s a historical fact that’s conveniently overlooked: the Reformation did not seek to remove the congregational response portions of worship. In fact, the Book of Common Prayer is a product of the Reformation!)
Evangelicals Can Learn To See Communion as Jesus-Centered Grace, not as Man-Centered Introspection
It’s possible we also have the original settlers to thank for what I irreverently call the Sacrament of Introspection.
Afraid of creating a religious environment where communion would be viewed as “vain repetition” — something done mindlessly, or as a part of justification by works — most non-denominational churches have intentionally reduced the number of times communion is served. And in many of these churches, a long period of contemplation precedes communion, placing greater emphasis on Paul’s I Corinthians 11:27-30 warning to examine oneself than on Jesus’ invitation to eat and drink.
As a child and even as a teenager, I took the call to introspection very seriously, and usually felt great fear prior to communion. I perpetually wondered if I was worthy enough to partake, terrified I’d be condemned if I partook in an unworthy manner. Maybe I’d missed an unconfessed sin, or perhaps I hadn’t tried quite hard enough to be good.
Robert E. Webber, author of Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, echoes my fear:
“When I used to think of [communion] as my personal sign of faith, I always wondered,
‘Did I take it in the right way?
Did I properly prepare myself enough through the confession of my sins to make myself worth of the bread and the wine?
Was my faith strong enough to be pleasing to God?
Will his wrath come against me because I wasn’t serious enough?’”
Camille Paglia, in Religion and the Arts in America, describes “the Puritan practice of introspection [in which] a Puritan had to constantly scrutinize his or her conscience and look for God’s hand.”
Is it possible that in reaching to our Puritanical roots and searching endlessly for God’s hand, we miss Jesus’ hands? They are stretched out to us, even now, offering the bread and wine. His instruction to us at the Last Supper — the First Communion — was incredibly simple: remember me. Yet we’ve somehow made this simple invitation to partake more complicated, and turned remember Jesus into remember yourself.
The over-spiritualization of communion harms the gospel, because it makes grace more complicated.
Paul’s admonition in I Corinthians was a warning, not a prerequisite. (Jesus even handed bread to Judas.) What if we stopped focusing so long on ourselves, and focused more on Jesus? Jesus is not saying in rebuke, “Think long about your worm theology before you partake of what I have freely given.” Instead, he reaches his hands out to us all and says,
I’m the healer.
Take my cup.
Webber continues, “All these worries rolled away when I was set free by understanding that the bread and wine are God’s symbols of his love toward me. They now speak to me of the mystery of my salvation. Rather than sending me into myself in search of this or that sin to confess, it now makes me aware that I have never been and never will be worthy. But more than that, it tells me that I am acceptable to God because of Jesus Christ. He has done all that needs to be done to make me acceptable to God because of Father. This is his sign to me.”
How ironic it is that the goal of many nondenominational churches is to focus on grace, not ritual; but then in practices like modified communion services, end up focusing more on human effort and worthiness instead!
Evangelicals Can Learn to Accept the Invitation to Feast
Dead religion is not caused by observing cyclical traditions. Dead religion is caused by placing our efforts to keep the law on a higher pedestal than the grace offered by Christ, and Him crucified.
When I read the Bible, I see warnings against Pharisaical repetition and stale religiosity. I do. I see the temple veil torn, and I see the fulfillment of the law. But I also see freedom in worship. I see glorious invitations to worship in a way which encompasses all the senses (not just the spoken word, as the Puritans believed.) The entire Bible is punctuated with beauty and incense and music and gold and myrrh and invitations to tradition, bridging from the Old Testament’s Remember Your Deliverer (Passover) to the New Testament’s Remember Me (Communion).
We are commanded to taste and see that the Lord is Good. (What was Jesus criticized for, so often? Eating and drinking with the people!) He hasn’t changed. He’s preparing a feast even now.
Friends, the theology of feasting wasn’t abolished with the New Covenant, but extends to heaven. And it’s not stuffy or religious! It’s incredibly rich, freeing, and life-giving. (Read Sarah Hauser’s Why Do We Feast?)
“The voice spoke to him a second time,
‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’” (Acts 11:9)
Friends, can we be freed?
Freed from our self-righteous haughtiness, freed from the bondage of pride?
Freed to enjoy art and beauty and all the God-given facets of worship?
Freed to embrace the great mystery of God in all its earth-shattering incarnate wonder?
Freed to receive the grace He is offering?
Freed to feast, to make merry, to live in the boundless joy he has for us?