Will the “Neo-Liturgical Movement” Save Evangelicalism?

LiturgyThere 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.

5 thoughts on “Will the “Neo-Liturgical Movement” Save Evangelicalism?

  1. I’m interested how this all went/is going. I honestly hope well and fruitful and as a blessing to all participants.

    The short order answer to the question the article proposes (in my personal case, at any rate) is a resounding: No. I freely confess my heart is hardened against the whole idea and I don’t even go to a church.

    For starters, doesn’t the phrase “Dead Religion” used on the website highlight or underline a particular mode of understanding that is borderline heretical to the Gospel of Matthew 16:18? I mean either Jesus is a liar or it seems to me the Protestant “mode” of wiggling out of it is to say He was speaking of the Church in a “figurative” or “symoblic” sense. If it is something you view as “dead” why would the living God want one prodding around “dead things.”

    Another thing that gives me serious pause about the way this conference “sounds” is how eerily it parallels for me the “efforts” of Alain De Botton here: http://books.google.com/books/about/Religion_for_Atheists.html?id=snIVhLuotl0C (a book I’ve been meaning to read) where “dead religion” becomes this small “arts and crafts” hobby show to plunder the spoils, divorced of any real Divine significance. In that regard, what’s eye-popping to me is De Botton sounds already several steps/years ahead on the “reclamation!” Just downright eerie to me, but everybody’s mileage may vary.

    But I’m afraid the deeper problem for me, the reason I can’t “come and grow” in today’s “freeform” DIY Christian framework still lay enmeshed in the framework itself, rather than its lack of something liturgically exotic, if you’ll pardon the expression.

    For example, I was raised and educated in the Lutheran liturgy. Even then, my church was adopting, close to my graduation, a second “Contemporary service,” meaning there would be a dude with a guitar giving his best Jesus-Over-Bob-Dylan-Easy impersonation up front instead of the Psalm Canticles and Victorian/German hymns. “Hey, we got 2 different ways you can worship!” was the message they were trying to send, of course. I don’t mean to mock their efforts, of course; I just found them seriously begging the question: Why all this effort to MODERNIZE and set in CONTEMPORARY relief the Faith/Church for MY benefit? Was not it good enough in its own right? I have almost felt ashamed of myself many many times when people feel they need to “tailor” Christianity around me. In fact, one could argue that EXACT EFFORT is a doctrinal disaster for any and all Churches! Especially when its nothing more than the “pampering” of pre-teens and teens and their “taste” (though they really have NONE yet.) But it was not long from there until I would hit the “Billy Graham” style Evangelicals (even MORE modernized), packed into crowded local sports auditoriums with flashing lights, better sound systems and even MORE sermonizing. And not even for these type of (usually more “Southern”) folks was my Lutheran faith generally “good” enough for salvation. Hey, I freely admit it was mostly “by-rote” and not all that pious in terms of Sunday regularity, if you catch my drift. No, they had to make sure I was authentically “saved” and “born again.” That I should have eaten and drank the body and blood of Christ so many times while “inauthentically” saved (spiritually dead, deaf, dumb and blind) was nothing short of perplexing to me. I was just a kid, of course, and didn’t quite “get” it all yet. Had I learned my Eucharist catechism in vain? was I a hypocrite going through the motions? I guess so, not that I much care about the Lutheran church today anyway. I’m still tempted to ask today’s neo-Protestants: If the body and blood are mere “symbols” who the heck NEEDs to eat and drink a “symbol?” And what does that make us? Dolls play-acting tea party at God?

    Well, so much for the Lutherans! To be brutally honest, the laziness of being a teenager set in (100% my fault), rather than some deeply thought out spiritual conflict. At some point, later on, I did REALLY get down on my knees and pray to be “born again” of course. This was explained to me, nevertheless, in perplexing terms: “placing Christ on the throne of my heart and de-throning my sinful self” “giving up my selfish will totally for Christ’s will (this was the one I actually used) or “praying for the Holy Spirit to take over my life.” It has had 0 manifest effect that I can say with any certainty, but that I am trying to follow God’s purpose for me, which I still have 0 idea what it is. I don’t see how I am in any way “walking in the Spirit” as they say. I habitually lapse back into worldly sin and error. My life is generally a mess. And I still have 0 idea which Church to go to? It’s quite likely, given what I know, I’m simply one of Calvin’s “reprobate.” In which case, oh well. Hey, you never know. To be perfectly honest, I’m half afraid to sully the entrance of any Church with myself. It’s “Not About You” (meaning, me) as a popular Evangelical refrain goes and I wholeheartedly agree. And it is almost always 100% up to the wild feral interpretation of whoever’s got the mike. Luther’s “one man according to his Bible.”

    The recurring question I always have: Who the heck am I to “pick” a doctrine? as though cereal brands lined up on some store shelf? MUST I exhaustively “test” them all for their fruits–not that Scripture is wrong where it tells us to “test” but…the sheer appalling fact of how much variety! And must I endure another full body inspection to see if I’m “authentically born again” upon EACH and EVERY entry? I certainly don’t WANT to be a church-hopper but it is too glaring to see exactly how such persons are made so! To be quite frank, it has made me downright resistant against Evangelical invitations.

    I submit, though, quite apart from any personal failing I have either as Christian or reprobate, the free-form neo-Protestant Christianity will have to do better than “archeological exacavations” of the Orthodox Church and Catholicism in order to convince me. Where to start? Well, for starters, how about a clear-headed non-biased evaluation of how catastrophically faulty this Five Solae nonsense is. Two key factors: 1. They are a walking contradiction in foundation and framework; that this absurd logical contradiction has the UNMITIGATED gall to associate itself in foundation with the person of Jesus Christ and the glory of His Father almost approaches evil, in my opinion. Best case scenario: The wisdom of MAN setting itself up as the wisdom of God. Anyone desiring “evidence” of its contradiction has only to ask himself: Wait, is it “solely” faith? Or “solely” scripture? “Solely” Christ? *scratches head* 2. The word “Sola” has been used in this foundation today, I feel, as a means to the end of destroying the Church by replacement. Exhibit: The number of Christians who say, as Eric has blogged elsewhere “I’m spiritual not religious.” Or “Jesus No Church.” No, worse than that: Now let’s start your own church! Why this emphasis on “alone alone alone alone alone?” anyway.

    The fact that different Protestants would quibble with me over which “Sola” has primacy or which ones “actually matter” does NOT undermine my point, but in fact, reinforces it! Because once you’ve invoked “primacy” you’ve defeated the entire garbage framework, something apparently it was destined to do anyway: Fail. To say nothing of the obvious: Neither Christ, nor the disciples, nor any Apostle EVER established something so ludicrous as the Five Solae. What, if anything, DID they establish? How about the Church?

    Furthermore, how many practicing neo-Protestants in America even remotely know what I’m talking about in terms of the Five Solae? What? The 13% in the congregation who have M.Divs? The rest would scoff and merely re-hash them: “Only Faith in Christ alone!” Or something along the lines of “only Bible-based belief should direct the Church.” Even though NONE of the very first apostles even HAD (because too busy WRITING) a complete “New Testament” at their disposal; to suggest otherwise is both logically and historically absurd. After all, it’s just common sense! Every Rick Warren clone knows so!

    I’m sorry but it won’t do for me. Not until neo-Protestants strip away some of the layers of doctrinal pretension, borne of little else but the deeply ancestral psychological paranoia of “Papal” corruption, are they in any respect to be taken seriously by anybody on “Church matters.” Spiritually, yeah, sure. Church matters? afraid not. Too much credibility has already been lost.

    I say this not to condemn Evangelicals, of course, but hopefully to help. I’m 100% sure the Holy Spirit has done so much good through them and continues to bless them and their work. It’s just I feel as though I don’t personally even know what they mean by the Holy Spirit because of the sheer quirkiness of their “apostolic delivery,” if you will, and they would strip me of every context except the Bible in English (an imperfect tongue, at best.) It’s just when they, like their fathers before them, tend to whine at me about “the deterioration of good solid Church tradition” and bemoan things like post-modernism as the culprit (i.e. scapegoat)…my brow tends to furrow in worried yet strictly unsympathetic bewilderment.

    To come to a point: One church is preferable to several thousand. I would like to dream of one thoroughly united Church, though many I’m sure would tell me what’s wrong with that, too. When I consider explaining these problems as I see them, I know all too well how I would elicit bored looks and “get-to-the-point” type gestures. I know around Evangelicals what they have to say to me is generally more important than what I have to say anyway.

    So it’s mostly “shut up and listen” Christianity, as far I’m concerned.

    • Wow, Paul. For someone who feels cut off from the Church you sure demonstrate a wisdom not found in many Christians I know. I was a charismatic evangelical for 19 years and was on the brink of giving up on the whole show (meaning the Church) before finally finding the Orthodox Church. I thank God that it came when it did. Anyway, thank you for the input here and elsewhere on my blog. Your writing style – mix with wit and wisdom – is fantastic. Do you have a blog, and if not why not?

    • Nah, no blog. I don’t have the “web chops” to be honest. I’ve been giving it some thought though. Personally, I tend to be tentative about it, being already so introverted, falling into the trap of substituting “on here” too much for the flesh and blood reality “out there.”

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