Evangelical Protestants Moving to Liturgical and Sacramental Traditions

My past few weeks have been enriching in a way I never could have anticipated. I mentioned at the end of my last post that I would be sharing my thoughts on the ecclesiological and theological investigation I have felt the Holy Spirit calling me to undertake. This will be the first post in a series of reflections upon what I’m learning and the books I would (and would not) recommend.

church and candlesFirst, I need to backtrack nearly two years to an article published by The American Conservative in January of 2014. It is entitled, “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy: Is the High Church the Christianity of the Future?” When I read the piece, my heart resonated with the sentiments about the yearning for liturgical, holistic, mysterious, beautiful, and <gasp!> sacramental worship. I was struck by the descriptions of Protestant Evangelical Christians making a gradual, thoughtful, and dramatic move to traditions that were very different (understatement) from what they were familiar with. Another interesting thing to note is that, when it comes to the many atheist-to-Christianity stories that I encounter, nearly all the converts choose liturgical, sacramental traditions. I wanted to better understand why this is. 

I began asking some very specific questions about church traditions other than my own and my long-held assumptions about their practices and theology. Does it matter to God how we worship Him in the corporate and private setting? Should worship practice be fully incarnational by engaging all of the human senses–sight, smell, touch, sound, taste? Does tangible symbolism have an important place in worship? What was worship like in the early church, and what was the theology behind their ritual? To the extent that we can know how early Christians worshiped, should we emulate them? Is there a biblical basis for preserving early tradition? Is there such thing as a “worshiping community” that goes far beyond what I’ve always thought that meant?

The more I research and study, the more I’m beginning to suspect that the answer to many (all?) of these questions may very well be “yes.” 

I’ve returned to the American Conservative article a few times over the past months, and I’m doing some in-depth theological and historical research, but I’ve also recently begun reading book-length accounts written by Evangelical Protestants who have made the move to liturgical, sacramental traditions (such as Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism). I’d like to offer a mini-reflection on the books I’m reading, each in a separate post. Please note that I will not be commenting very much on theological differences between church traditions at this point. I wish to be as responsible and thoughtful as possible by examining such issues from different perspectives prior to sharing my conclusions. 

Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals are Attracted to the Liturgical Church by Robert Webber 

When I first began reading Webber’s book, which was written several decades ago, I was worried that it would be a bit dated, only in terms of its evaluation of the current attitudes and dynamics in Evangelical Protestantism. Turns out, most of his insights about church culture and worship practice are still very relevant. A convert to the Anglican church, Webber recalls his longing for a spiritual identity with deep historical roots and the desire to become acquainted with the teachings of the early Church Fathers. He talks at length about “Christ-centered worship” as opposed to “me-centered worship,” which I really appreciated.

In terms of liturgy, this quote beautifully sums up Webber’s view: “Weekly worship and the calendar of the sacred year gives direction and definition to my spiritual life. I no longer walk alone as in a lone-ranger Christianity, but I join with millions of Christians around the world in a weekly and yearly devotion that defines our existence in the world” (Kindle loc. 605). He describes sacrament as “a way of encountering the mystery” of the Almighty. “On occasion,” he says, “a red flag goes up in response to such words as liturgical or Eucharist. But these words go back to early Christian vocabulary, and they carry many connotations…signs like water, bread, wine, oil, and the laying on of hands are visible and tangible meeting points between God and people. They are the points of intersection between God’s action and human faith.” In my 30-some years in the Evangelical Protestant church, I’ve witnessed the laying on of hands and oil anointings only a handful of times; Webber’s words made me ask myself why such practices seem (in my church experience) to be limited to special occasions (new ministry commissions, for example) or extreme situations (grave or chronic illness). Moreover, why is Communion not a weekly expression of worship in many Evangelical Protestant churches? There is such richness in these things. 

I learned quite a lot from Webber about the Anglican view of worship practices and had some misconceptions corrected. My one criticism of the book would be that I think he is a little too hard on the intellectual element of spiritual formation; but I think he does this as an over-correction of his former attitude of extreme rationalism. I came away inspired to further investigate Anglicanism (which, by the way, was the church tradition of C.S Lewis, and many other luminaries of the faith). 

Bottom line: This is a quick read with many good insights, and the author has a charitable attitude (that’s important!!!). 

In my next post, I will offer some thoughts on  Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith by Peter Gilquist. 


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