There is a conference happening in Tulsa, Oklahoma this June featuring a group called Praxis, a collection of evangelical theologians, pastors, authors, and artists whose focus is to “reclaim the historical church’s priority on liturgy, art and sacred space into the modern day evangelical context” (website).
For those who are unaware, there is a strong push in some evangelical circles today to lay claim to the liturgical life and infuse many of its elements into evangelical practice, which is often wholly bereft of such influences; influences regularly shunned as the folly of ‘dead religion,’ or worse, viewed as the devilish corruption of the ancient faith.
This group has come to the conclusion that the Evangelical movement is in serious trouble. Ed Gungor (Pastor and author) has this to say in a recent Praxis blog article:
“Many Evangelicals are beginning to recognize the problem. Parishioners are leaving. Leaders aware of these issues are clamoring over what to do. Some have begun to suggest that the modern Church may benefit from retrieving some of the forces and strategies that helped the nascent Church to grow and stabilize.”
This view is echoed by another Praxis cohort, Glenn Packiam (Pastor, author, song writer), who wrote on his blog:
“We have been too easily swayed by the cult of personality, too quickly enticed by trends and innovations. We need an anchor amidst the waves, a rope that guides us home in a blizzard, roots strong enough to hold up in a storm.”
For Glenn, personally, that “anchor” and “rope” is Anglicanism, the tradition he is currently in the process of becoming an ordained priest.
In a fairly gripping article on the Praxis blog, entitled “End of the Line,” author Brian Zahnd laments that, “There is a sense in which we have come to the end of the line—not the end of the line for Christianity, but the end of the line for the track we have been on.” He insists that evangelicalism has arrived at something like a train terminus, faced with a choice: “We can sit on a train that is going nowhere, or we can disembark and find our way through the confusing labyrinth of the terminus and locate the proper platform to catch the train which will take us farther down the line.”
The solution? Mine the liturgical tradition found in the various ‘high-church’ faiths (Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism) and adapted them to the Evangelical church.
Ed Gungor reasons: “What if we can utilize and resource tradition as a trellis for building spiritual piety—like one uses a trellis in a garden (which is dead wood) as a support for the life of vines, helping them flourish?”
Gungor has been on the forefront (at least in the Tulsa area) of infusing his evangelical church with a stronger focus on liturgical prayers, the Eucharist, the Creed, and encouraged the celebration of many events on the Church calendar including Lent.
I brought up Ed Gungor a few times now because he is one of the leaders whom I am most familiar with. Having attended his church for many years prior to converting to the Orthodox Church, I was able to experience first-hand what this neo-liturgical way of doing church looks and feels like. And this brings me to my series of observations, which I will attempt to list briefly, followed by a quick summary.
(1) My overall impression with this liturgical movement is positive. I think whatever steps evangelicals can take to get closer to the historic Church the better. I agree with Brian Zahnd, if something like this does not happen throughout evangelicalism its lights out. Without a solid foundation the movement cannot resist conforming to the ebb and flow of our changing society and blur the lines between running an entertainment business and running the house of God.
(2) For me, after I learned about the Orthodox Church I could not remain in the evangelical world. I like what Glenn Packiam said in the noted article above, where he reflected on his journey into the Anglican tradition: “What this ordination gives me is perhaps a bit of credibility and legitimacy in borrowing from the rich treasury. Maybe now I’ll be less like a liturgical thief and more like that wise steward Jesus spoke of who brings out treasures both old and new.”
“Liturgical thief” is an interesting way of putting it. I guess my experience was more like an engagement. Once I became engaged to the Orthodox Church, partaking of the sacraments at another church was nothing short of spiritual cheating. This is my quasi-warning to pastors who venture down this neo-liturgical path: once you introduce people to what they’ve been missing from the historical Church many of them will want to experience the historical Church for themselves, rather than an adaptation. Long-term, this movement may end up adding to evangelicalism’s diminishing numbers.
(3) From reading many of the articles on the blog I get the overall impression that (a) because the evangelical movement has run out of experiments it is now time to turn to the historic Church to (b) find “resources” and “strategies” that seem to have worked for the Church these last 20 centuries. The first part of the above is great, but the second part is where my cheering takes a sudden turn. Holy Tradition is not a set of “resources” and “strategies.”
What I fear is that many in the movement will find something similar to what American car manufactures found years ago after touring Japanese car manufacturing plants. With the expectation of improving their own abilities from studying the Japanese system, they have been largely unable to replicate its success. Some experts believe this is due to the apparent paradox of the Japanese system, “namely, that activities, connections, and production flows in a Toyota factory are rigidly scripted, yet at the same time Toyota’s operations are enormously flexible and adaptable” (Harvard Business Review).
In a like manner, for the Orthodox Tradition at least, it is not enough to study its outward modalities and script. One must be initiated into its life to really understand how and why it works. But, this “initiation” requires one to become Orthodox, not to merely adapt some of its practices to an existing system. If the Holy Spirit really does constitute the Church, which the Orthodox Church has believed about itself since the day of Pentecost, and has not abandoned the Church (which Christ promised would never happen) then it makes little sense to try and recreate His work. In short, one does not create the Church; he joins it.
With all due respect (and I respect nearly all of those involved in the upcoming conference and consider many of them brothers in the faith), Holy Tradition is not a “trellis” of “dead wood” fit for containing a flourishing garden. It is the access to the trellis, the vines, and the Gardener. It’s not a playbook, but the actual game.