26 Jun Warnings from a Lutheran Convert
This is the second part of a four-question interview.
You’ve mentioned the a-theological essence of Evangelicalism and the tendency toward tribalism, what are some other areas of concern that you have from your Lutheran vantage point?
Another concern is the listless nature of Evangelical worship. It’s a symptom of the lack of connection to a historic church. Though it isn’t equally true of every Evangelical church, common characteristics of Evangelical services are very little Scripture reading, songs that speak more about how you feel about Jesus than the redemptive work of Jesus for sinners, and preaching that focuses more on our human stories and how God can help us in our modern lives than on the grander story of God’s action in the story of fallen Israel and the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the new Israel. How did Evangelicals end up here? It’s where you end up when you throw out what the church has done for hundreds and thousands of years because you think you know better than your forebearers.
The Western church has been building a culture for two-thousand years. Music, visual art, architecture, and literature are all a part of that. It has always been our way of speaking to the world. Carried within all of those cultural forms are what we think of our God, ourselves, and our place in the world. But when a church rejects that culture because it’s not modern enough, it’s too complicated, too high-brow, not entertaining enough — whatever reason people have for rejecting it — a church only has one other culture to choose from. It takes generations to build a culture. So because you can’t create your own out of thin air, all that’s left to choose from when you reject the church’s culture is a secular culture that is antithetical to it. So you end up with musical forms that were never designed to bear divine speech or thoughts about the divine being crudely fitted together with only some semblance of a biblical thought. You end up with utilitarian architecture, literature that won’t last even a decade, and visual arts that are predictable, trite, and emotionally manipulative. Evangelical films might be the most obvious examples.
The value of a historic liturgy is that it preserves the church’s message. It leaves the message intact for the next generation, and it expects them to hold on to it and deliver it to the generation that follows them. Now certainly, there have been and will continue to be some changes and modifications in liturgy, but they are like the changes in a language. The changes take place organically, naturally, and slowly so that you can still recognize it as the same language spoken by your grandparents and by their grandparents — even if you see some differences. The language change doesn’t happen because you want to wipe the slate clean and start a new language because you don’t like the way those who went before you were speaking.
In chapter four of his remarkable work, Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton says, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” Tradition lets the whole church have a say because it thinks that those who went before have something valuable to say. As harsh as it may sound, it’s “the small arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about” that are running the Evangelical church, and they’re running it with devastating results. They’ve traded all of that culture for some short-lived gains.
No, the historic liturgy won’t fill stadiums. You can’t build a 10,000 member megachurch in just a couple of years with it, but the liturgy was there before all of that and will continue to be there long after the stadiums are empty and megachurches have moved on to the next big thing. It survives in affluence and poverty, ancient and contemporary contexts, rural and urban environments. Evangelical worship by contrast is thoroughly middle-to-upper-middle class. To work, it requires us to live in a certain sweetspot in technological and economic history. I recognize that not every Evangelical subgroup can be painted with this anti-liturgy brush so neatly, but I think it’s mostly a matter of degree because it’s part of the Evangelical DNA. So it shows up at some point in every subgroup — even if not as full blown as it does in others.