It was 1985 when Robert Webber first told us that evangelicals were joining the liturgical traditions because GenXers were attracted to the old, the traditional, the sacred. Enough with the bix box seeker sensitive church, he told us. He wrote, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church, and we believed him.
Anyone who hung around the emergent church movement back in the day heard a lot about this. We had Webber speak at many of our conferences. I and others were teaching about lectio divina, and just about every church plant started with weekly communion, virtually unheard of in evangelicalism before the mid-1990s.
Rachel Held Evans is the latest evangelical to hop on the Canterbury Trail. Unlike Webber, Galli, and McKnight, she didn’t bring a suitcase of evangelical theology along with her and join a more conservative Anglican denomination. Instead, she has come to affirm the full inclusion of GLBTQ persons, argues for women in ministry, and believes in evolution. Anyone following her blog over the years will not be surprised by her embrace of a more liberal, liturgical church.
In a recent Washington Post essay, she plays the scold, telling mainliners to stop trying to co-opt evangelicalism’s marketing and outreach. Millennials don’t want electric guitars and smoke machines, she says. They want liturgy:
What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.
I don’t disagree. In fact, I said something similar to Clark Morphew of the St. Paul Pioneer Press in about 1998. I compared the liturgical traditions to a resurgence in interest in the Rat Pack and Frank Sinatra — that pre-dated the Mad Men phenomenon by a few years.
BUT… (you knew there was going to be a but) this argument in the wrong hands could be deadly.
Here’s what I mean: for years, the theology of Stanley Hauerwas has been a powerful critique of mainline Protestantism in America. “Stop being chaplains to the imperial/militaristic/consumeristic culture!” Hauerwas has shouted. “The church’s job is to be a city on a hill, a community separate from culture, a prophetic witness over against imperialism, militarism, and consumerism!”
But it’s like the plot of many-a-movie: in the wrong hands, that theology is dangerous. Evangelicals have crafted a self-narrative that one sociologist dubbed a “sub-cultural identity theory.” That means that evangelicals consider themselves an embattled minority, their values under assault from the coastal, liberal elites. Think Mike Huckabee and Michele Bachmann. Evangelicals are in fact a very powerful voting bloc in American democracy, but they function under the illusion that they have no power, no voice. And I’m afraid that Hauerwas’s theology — which grew out of the post-liberal “Yale School” and was not really meant for evangelicals — is exactly the opposite of what evangelicals need.
(If you want to know what I think evangelicals need, it’s probably the work of Abraham Kuyper, Richard Mouw, and others who argue for responsible civic engagement.)
The converse is true here. Rachel’s is a powerful critique of evangelicalism’s obsession with trying to be hip, trying to lure in the next generation with high def big screens and ripped jeans. But, as Keith Anderson warns, it may be just the wrong message for mainliners:
Deepening and enriching sacramental liturgies is surely a good thing. But even if it were possible for every congregation to achieve that goal, liturgies alone won’t save the church. If we view worship merely as an “if we build it, they will come” strategy for church revitalization, we are bound for disappointment, because most of the time, “they” won’t come. They’ve made that pretty clear.
The true challenge for us to figure out is not how to spruce up the altar dressings, but how to walk with grace out the church door, into the world where Nones of every generation—Millennials and their Boomer parents; GenXers and their Gen Z kids—are often pursuing spiritual lives of great depth and complexity. Lives of sacramental richness that are not often understood in Mainline congregations.
I’d even go one level deeper than Anderson’s challenge. Before mainliners head out the door, they’d better figure out what the gospel is. Survey after study after poll has shown that American mainliners struggle to articulate what it is that they believe. The content of the faith has been lost among all this civil religion .
Most mainliners I know are well aware of this fact. For the Progressive Youth Ministry conference this year, the most popular topic was how to revitalize confirmation — how to make it both meaningful and catechetically potent.What is the gospel for mainline Protestants? That’s the question that needs to be answered. If that can be answered, and answered forcefully, then I think a lot of millennials will follow Rachel into liturgical churches.
But here’s the thing: Rachel knew the gospel when she left evangelicalism and started worshipping in an Episcopal church. Or at least she had been given an authoritative version of the gospel to which she can now object. There’s something there she can argue with, push back against.
And that’s the fact with many of the people who’ve crossed from evangelicalism to mainline Protestantism. I remember a phrase I heard in college from Campus Crusade staffers: “Catholics make great Christians.” They always said that with a knowing laugh, and it motivated their evangelism to Catholics on campus.
Well, I think we can now say, “Evangelicals make great mainliners .”
So we in the progressive traditions of Protestantism can hope that more evangelicals join us on the Canterbury Trail, but we’d better figure out an apologia for why we’re on it ourselves, because our children would like an answer.