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Archive for the ‘Tradition’ Category

I just finished the book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea by Alister McGrath.  First of all, I highly recommend the book.  It’s an excellent treatment of the issues surrounding the Reformation and all its major players from Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Bucer and others.

One of the things it talked about was how Protestantism, outside of the Lutheran and Calvinist camps especially, as been so remarkably adaptable to different times, different countries and different cultures.  For sure, there have been eras of missteps in missionary efforts where too much emphasis was placed on transplanting a Western European style of Christianity into countries where the cultural norms and such are vastly different.  But the overall history of Protestantism has been one of amazing malleability.  And to most Protestants, this is a sign of it’s vitality and a source of great strength.  Aside from being centered around a sermon, you can encounter scores of different styles from country to country or even within one city.  You might walk into a Baptist church that’s very “countrified” with Southern Gospel style hymns and right down the road walk into another with all the high church pomp and circumstance you’d see in a Catholic service.  And right down from that would be one with a kickin’ rock band leading worship, congregants in jeans and t-shirts and the pastor sporting a faux-hawk.  And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of all the predominantly African-American congregations.

On the other hand, worldwide, Catholic and Orthodox churches are largely the same.  This was especially the case prior to Vatican II and the Mass being in the vernacular.  You could go anywhere in the world and the Mass was spoken in Latin and was in the same form.  Even with the vernacular, because the form of the Mass is consistent, most experienced Catholics can follow the service fairly easily even with the language barrier.  And this consistency is viewed by Catholics as a sign of strength and vitality as well.  They feel they adapt in more subtle ways to each culture (such as Mass in the vernacular) but that the more consistent liturgy and emphasis promotes unity and cohesiveness in the Church.

And this adaptability vs consistency thing doesn’t just apply to different cultures and countries now.  Outside of high church Lutherans and Anglicans, Protestantism is nothing if not willing to change.  No matter what era Protestantism finds itself in, there seems to be a near constant desire to change and seek to be “relevant.”  This is especially true of the last 30-40 years or so, since those first hippies started coming to Christ during the Jesus Movement, but whether it was John and Charles Wesley, Charles Finney and Dwight Moody, the rise of Pentecostalism or the New Calvinists, this is has been a hallmark of Protestantism.

Catholicism (and to a similar degree Orthodoxism) on the other hand has been marked by its ties to history and (little “t”) tradition.  Some of the rites, creeds, prayers, music and other facets of Catholic worship have been around since the earliest days of the Church.  Many others have been in consistent use in Catholic services for centuries.  There’s a connectedness and a feeling of being anchored in something bigger than oneself but more importantly, bigger than “right now.”

To be honest, I’m torn over which is the best approach.  I’ve mentioned my feelings numerous times…how I lament the lack of historicity and the sense that we’ve lost something in all this manic striving to be culturally hip and relevant.  I find a depth and richness in traditional, liturgical worship that just seems lacking in much of contemporary styles.  But at the same time, I realize that everyone is not like me.  No matter how much you explain to some people the richness and deep meanings of the liturgy and its ancient roots, they don’t get it.  And it’s not that they don’t get it because they are non-Christians unattuned to the things of God.  These are wonderful, growing, sincere believers in Christ.  They might be able to appreciate elements of traditional worship from time to time, they prefer the more casual, modern style.  They feel like they connect with God on a more personal level in that kind of setting and that their relationship with God is much better partly because of the willingness of churches to loosen up and not be bogged down with attachments to songs and styles and cultural trappings that are no longer a part of modern life.  I even felt that way myself at one point, but as this blog attests, that’s changed with me.  It doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a well-done modern worship service, I just have different tastes and different things that matter more to me.

What do you think?  There are pros and cons to both approaches I believe.  What is more important…cultural relevance in worship style or a connection to the past and our Christian brethren from times gone by?  As long as the Gospel is being taught and people are being discipled and matured in the faith, should the form in which those things are conveyed matter?

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There’s an excellent discussion over at iMonk’s site about liturgy.  I wanted to highlight one response from a Baptist minister in particular because he comes from a decidedly “non-liturgical” background.  I’ve said similar things in describing why I like liturgy to my anti-liturgy friends but he does an even better job.  Go check the full post at iMonk’s blog though to see the responses from the Eastern Orthodox, Methodist, Lutheran and Catholic contributors as well.  Here’s the snippet I liked the best:

I think I’d want to start with the inevitability of liturgy. Here is something I’ve learned after a lifetime spent in churches that pride themselves in being free of liturgy and dead ceremony (terms used interchangeably in some places): the premise is absurd. There is no liturgy-free worship, and the monikor “non-liturgical” makes about as much sense as “government intelligence.”

The same churches that will ostensibly operate beneath the feigned guise of “free” worship or “Spirit-led” worship will inevitably, predictably, and without fail fall into a liturgy that is so set it makes the Greek Orthodox look like wild-eyed Pentecostals on speed. I’ve heard Baptist deacons anathematize written prayers only to turn around and say the same prayer over the offering plates that they were regurgitating back when Herbert Hoover was in office (i.e., “Father we just…”, “bring into the storehouse…”, “our tithes and your offerings…”, “bless the gift and the giver…”, with about 10 more “just’s” and “umm’s” thrown in). I’ve seen the same Baptist people who mock the formulaic worship of the liturgical churches respond to small changes in the customary bulletin layout with a venom that makes Genghis Khan seem like Stuart Smalley. I’ve known pastors in churches which chide the physicality and symbolism of liturgical churches almost get martyred in the center aisle for suggesting that the flag be moved from the sanctuary, or for putting their Bibles on the communion table, or for projecting a song instead of singing from the hymn book. The same Baptist who will condemn the Catholics for their relics will threaten to murder you in your sleep if you move the black-and-white picture of Miss Bussie from the display cabinet in the foyer. I’ve met more Tetzels in Baptist land than outside it.

The only difference between the “non-liturgical” churches and the “liturgical” churches is that the former’s liturgy is (1) present but denied, (2) inherited instead of intentional, (3) culturally defined instead of ecclesiologically mandated, and (4) largely pragmatic instead of theological.

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Ash Wednesday

May the Lord bless all of you as we move into this penitential season of Lent. I pray that He will grant you His grace as you enter this focused time of prayer and fasting, helping you grow in holiness and in the fruits of the Spirit.

I’ll leave you today with this collect from the Book of Common Prayer and hopefully have a new blog post up in the next couple of days.

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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From The Blogging Parson.

My favorites:
7. We haven’t had it for so long that now it is weird.

10. Having done away with the old formal ways of doing the Lord’s Supper, we can’t decide on a new, less formal way of doing it that isn’t awkward and weird.

Read the rest at his blog.

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I’m reading This Is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers The Real Presence by Mark Shea. It’s a short read, only about 50 pages long. But it’s really posing some interesting thoughts to me and one passage in particular stuck out. He’s speaking of the Protestant suspicion of anything that smacks of “works” religion or falling back into the same error the Galatians made over the issue of circumcision. This same sense of unease or outright suspicion is felt toward the Catholic doctrine surrounding the “Real Presence” in the Eucharist and seeing it as a “means of grace.” And Mr. Shea felt much the same way at one point. But he had some interesting thoughts as his evangelical pastor preached on the Bread of Life discourse in John 6:

Do not misunderstand. My pastor was certainly no exponent of Catholic theology. Rather, in classical evangelical fashion, this good man held that “the teaching of Christ is the true bread from heaven” and that the passage had no Eucharistic significance…he urged, we must become mature in Christ “by eating His word” and relying on the grace of God working in and through fellow Bible-believing Christians. Only thus, he said, could we hope to grow.

…It suddenly bore in on me that this grasp of biblical teaching as “food for maturity” was strikingly similar to the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. I saw at once that regular biblical fellowship and regular Holy Communion are both a form of ritual, both “means of grace.” The only difference is that in the former, God transubstantiates paper, ink, and the human voice into His Word; whereas in the latter, according to Catholics, He changes the bread and wine into something even more impressive. My difficulty, then, was not with the idea of ritual “means of grace” as such, but with a God Who might touch me in a non-verbal, non-cerebral, non-spiritual way.

This really is a crucial point. Protestants think in terms of receiving grace “by faith” and what we mean without explicitly saying so is that “by faith” means “intangible.” Grace in the biblical sense is only experienced by believing and trusting in Christ, not by any physical means. And this does explain much of our reaction against the Catholic view of the Eucharist as a “means of grace” (literally, a physical manner in which God’s grace is transmitted to us). Yet we also believe that we are spiritually fed and matured by tangible means such as reading our Bibles, sitting under solid Biblical teaching and fellowship and sharing life with other believers. What are these things if not tangible and physical? And in believing this, we certainly don’t mean to convey the idea that God does not transmit His grace to us in other ways such as prayer, the Holy Spirit quietly working on our hearts and so on. But we affirm the notion that God works through things in the physical world He created to nurture and mature us. These are “means of His grace” to us.

So why do we have such a problem with the Catholic notion of Holy Communion being a tangible way in which God actually gives us a measure of His grace? Why are we so suspicious of means that are “non-verbal, non-cerebral and non-spiritual” yet have this glaring blind spot when it comes to other such “Protestant” means like the written Scriptures, the teaching of the Word by our pastors or fellowship with other believers?

What say you?

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I’ve been thinking about this recently. Right now, the groups or denominations of Christians that practice confession to a pastor or priest are Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, some Anglicans/Episcopals, some Lutherans and possibly one or two others. The vast majority of Protestants don’t do this for reasons we’re probably all familiar with: arguments about no mediator needed between us and God and so on.

My question is different though. I wonder if, as long as it could be understood rightly and that people didn’t take it being offered to mean they weren’t able to go directly to God on their own (a common misunderstanding), would this be a valuable thing for Protestants to start doing again?

I can think of some good things that might come from it:

1. It’s a good way to practice what Scripture teaches when it says “confess your sins one to another and pray for one another that you may be healed.” It provides some accountability and helps us open up and be real about who we are on the inside rather than acting like everything is ok all the time.

2. It requires (if we do it correctly) us to be specific. Instead of glossing over our sins by being overly vague, we have someone there who expects to hear us be honest and can even ask follow up questions to make sure that we don’t minimize our sins when confessing them. Instead of “I’ve been struggling with my thought life” one would just admit, “I looked at pornography.” Instead of vague references to wanting to be “more Christlike in my attitude,” I admit that “I tend to be jealous of my friends who are doing well financially to the point that part of me is disappointed when I hear about the nice new things they are able to have that I’m not” or “I regularly curse at people while driving.”

3. We have an opportunity to receive wise counsel and be reminded of God’s Word regarding our struggles and sins. Sometimes in the fog of our guilt and doubt we’re not able to step outside that box and see things for how they are.

4. We get to audibly hear the words, “Your sins are forgiven.” The Anglican Book of Common Prayer has various ways the minister can say this but among them are some beautiful words to hear for someone that’s truly repentant and sorry:

“Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in Him, of His great mercy forgive you of all your offenses; and by His authority committed to me, I absolve you of from all your sins in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”The Lord has put away all your sins.”

The exact wording isn’t quite as important as the message conveyed: God has forgiven you of your sins.

That can be a powerful thing. Of course I can read it in Scripture or think it in my mind, but hearing those words audibly can really drive the point home.

What do you think? Is this something that could work for us Protestants, framed and understood properly of course?

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As I’ve been exploring more traditional worship approaches in recent months, I’ve noticed something going on and I’m still trying to work out in my head what it means. When I first began to ponder what I was looking for, I thought what I wanted were a few simple traditional elements: more hymns and less “Jesus is my boyfriend” music, more times of silent prayer during the service, reciting of the creeds and the Lord’s Prayer and finally, more frequent partaking of Holy Communion and more reverence when we do so. Fairly simple, huh?

Then of all the churches in town that I could have chosen to visit to possibly find those things, I chose a traditional Anglican parish and now I’m ruined. Not only have I developed a real love for the liturgy: spoken prayers, responsive readings, sung litanies and the Sanctus, but there was something else: weekly Communion. In fact, the entire structure and orientation of the Sunday worship service is centered about it. Yes, there are announcements, scripture readings, the offering is taken up during which the choir or a soloist offers a song and there’s a sermon. But all of that is done as a lead up to the real reason we’re there: receiving the Eucharist. And that’s quite an adjustment for the average evangelical Protestant.

But why should it be such a shock to the system? Of the roughly 2000 years of Christian history over 1500 of them were like this. Christians everywhere for 1500 years went to church on Sunday and celebrated just as the earliest Christians did…by coming together and receiving the body and blood of Christ. And even after the Reformation, things pretty much continued on this way even amongst the Protestants. Luther affirmed and practiced it as part of the weekly worship service. But somewhere along the way, the orientation changed for some. The focus of the worship service for some Protestants was shifted away from the Eucharist and toward the preaching of the Word. And this has become the dominant expression in Protestant churches across America to the point where people born and raised in evangelical Protestant churches can’t even fathom it any other way.

I grew up in a Methodist church that celebrated Communion once a month and at special services like Good Friday. The Assemblies of God church I came to Christ in did so probably every 6 weeks. I know it wasn’t a rigorous monthly schedule but it was more than quarterly. Other churches I’ve attended since celebrated maybe once a quarter.

Meanwhile, the supreme emphasis was on preaching and teaching. In conversations with many Protestant friends over the years, the issue of the pastor’s preaching abilities came up frequently and certainly whenever there was a change in pastor. It was debated and discussed when evaluating candidates for the role, cited as the reason certain churches were experiencing a downturn in attendance and so on. In some Pentecostal settings, the sermon may go on for 45 minutes or more depending on the subject (anything revolving around spiritual gifts such as tongues inevitably go longer). But never did the question ever arise as to whether we might be emphasizing the wrong thing. So I’m asking it now.

First of all, anyone who can answer please help me out: when did this emphasis change? Is there a particular strain or denomination that we can point to? Can it be traced back to the writings or teachings of an individual?

Second of all, is this change a good one? From my perspective, on the one hand, I’ve learned quite a bit over the years from the excellent preachers/teachers I’ve sat under. I have notes from some sermons all the way back to my high school days. I can remember eagerly anticipating getting to church on Sunday to hear my pastor expound on a passage of Scripture and help me gain new insights into what God’s Word is saying to us. But on the other, this orientation tends to create a “cult of personality” situation where people gravitate to a charismatic, gifted speaker. As a result, the church experiences growth and expansion. But if a pastor leaves for another church, or if he falls into serious sin and has to step down or retires, often times the church can experience a significant drop in attendance. And then the importance of finding a replacement with a similarly winsome personality and inspiring speaking ability is of utmost importance. Pick the wrong guy, even if his heart is in the right place, and you might send the church into stagnation or a downward spiral. And that’s just the fairly normal ones that are doing a lot of other things right. I’m not even getting into the churches that experience explosive growth due to the forceful persuasion of a slick-tongued charlatan or the seductive lies of the “health and wealth/name it and claim it” gospel.

Conversely, churches that are focused on the Eucharist and the accompanying liturgy seem less prone to this problem. The first reason is,the liturgy doesn’t change much except for a few minor changes during the bigger events like the Easter or Advent seasons. Therefore it isn’t dependent upon the pastor to come up with eloquent or novel things to pray or say. It certainly doesn’t hurt and you certainly wouldn’t want someone who was utterly incapable of preaching. But it’s not what people are there for. The main thing that matters is that he does the liturgy in a reverent and heartfelt manner. The liturgy seems to actually enable him to get out of the way and not have the focus fall on him, but on what we’re there to receive from God. This mitigates the problems described above when a pastor for whatever reason, has to leave. I realize it doesn’t completely eliminate such concerns, especially if the pastor has been there a long time and was a truly good shepherd to the people God entrusted to his care, but it does mitigate the performance aspect of that problem.

Secondly, the “build up” of the entire service is not toward what amazing new insight the pastor will give us today, but on the receiving of the body and blood of Christ. Our focus isn’t on a sermon that will hold our attention, but on the sacrifice Christ made for us so that we can have a relationship with Him. Instead of looking for easy to follow life application principles in outline form, we’re examining our conscience and confessing our sins, first corporately, then personally. We’re clearing our consciences and receiving forgiveness. We’re taking time to examine ourselves. And as we are called to remember Christ’s death for our sins, we are reminded that grace is not cheap. It cost a man his life and the gravity of offending a holy God and what it took to redeem us is put back into the forefront of our minds. In so many evangelical Protestant churches, having a specific and intentional time of confession is rare. I can recall several weeks going by without such an instruction from the pulpit unless they were talking to the unsaved during an altar call. How often does your church have a time set aside to do this?

I’ve mentioned over the last few months that my appreciation for this approach has grown, but I don’t think it was until a recent conversation with someone about the matter that I was able to really express for sure that it’s not a phase. It’s not just a matter of personal taste for me. The feelings aren’t going away. I’m slowly becoming convinced that the wisdom of our centuries of forefathers in the faith still holds true today. We need to keep the Cross at the forefront of our worship. And not just an abstract, intellectual assent or understanding, but in our actions and in the receiving of His body, broken for us and His blood, poured out for our redemption. So my verdict is, we’ve reordered the worship service to our own hurt and we’re missing out big time.

But let me put the question to you. First, does anyone know where the practice of orienting the Sunday worship service around the sermon started? And second, do you think it was a wise thing for us to do?

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