by Lendol Calder
Everywhere I go these days people are talking about the migration of evangelicals to older church traditions. A question that sometimes comes up is why do evangelicals leap before they look? What does it say about evangelicalism that so many are leaving it without close inspection of the doctrinal structures of their new church homes?
What I notice about conversations on this subject is that often they lean heavily on an ideational analysis of the question. People talk about the merits of Reformation versus Catholic doctrines, or Baptist versus Orthodox beliefs, as if the migrants’ decision to leave one church for another were primarily a matter of weighing different theologies. The image suggested by this type of analysis is that of a theological wrestling match—“In the blue corner, weighing 200 pounds and representing the Thirty-Nine Articles, the archbishop of Canterbury! In the red corner, weighing 150 pounds and representing the Twelve Fundamentals, Rev. Jerry Falwell!”—in which migrants have decided to root for the “heavier” theology.
Perhaps this weighing of different theologies happens to a certain extent, but it seems that more of a cultural analysis is called for. On this question I suggest that what is needed is less attention to theology and more attention to such things as Christian Karaoke.
I know a dozen or so people who have made the pilgrimage from evangelicalism to Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, or Anglicanism. All are thoughtful people, and theology is important to them. But in each case their initial decision to migrate had little to do with a rejection of evangelical theology. Rather, they left evangelical churches out of despair over evangelical culture. By “culture” I mean a normative way of life, particularly as expressed in material culture, worship, and spirituality.
Material culture: How many times have I heard someone say, “I came to the point where I wanted to worship God in a sanctuary instead of an auditorium.” The preference here is for a church architecture that edifies the eye, mind, and soul (in the way that the inverted boat hull design of many types of sanctuaries is meant to remind us that the Church is like an ark), as opposed to drywall boxes that are devoid of symbolic meaning. There is an emerging desire for stained glass windows over overhead projectors, for a focus on the altar instead of the preacher, for smells, bells, vestments, and banners that direct the whole of one’s senses to the holiness of God instead of the smells (Obsession), bells (beeping wristwatches), vestments (business suits and power suits), and banners (Just Do It!/Obey Your Thirst!) directing attention to the vanity of the shopping mall.Worship: All churches have an order of service. Some are more rigid, dry, and man-centered than others. That is why some are leaving evangelicalism. They find the ancient liturgies of the older church traditions to be more flexible, expressive, scriptural, and focused on the adoration of God than the stripped-down liturgies they encountered in evangelical churches, or the standardized pep rallies of charistmatics. “I love the liturgy,” a friend says. “It bathes every activity of my day in prayer, and gives me a language for expressing my thoughts to God that I never could have come up with on my own.”
Spirituality: One has only to compare the prayer language of the typical evangelical prayer meeting with those of the most vibrant liturgical churches to understand why some leave the former. (And this is the comparison that needs to be made: no one leaves robust Evangelical churches for listless Catholic churches). The evangelical preference for extemporaneous prayer all too often results in a litany of form prayers, such as the familiar “Prayer of the Just”: “Father, we just want to thank you, Father, we just want to praise you, Father. Just help us Lord, just help us to enjoy this time of sharing now, Father, just bless us, Lord, etc., etc.” Against this background, I know one person who became interested in Anglicanism after one recital of the “Phos Hilaron” (“O Gladsome Light”). And when for the first time he heard and prayed St. Patrick’s Breastplate (“I arise today/ Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity/Through belief in the Threeness/Through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of Creation. I arise today/Through strength of heaven/Light of sun/radiance of moon/splendor of fire/speed of lightning/swiftness of wind/depth of sea/stability of earth/firmness of rock/etc., etc.”) well! There was no going back to the “Prayer of the Just” after that.
It seems that what all this says about evangelicalism is that it pays a high price for its Reformation iconoclasm. Contemptuous of “tradition,” it has refused to nurture a robust culture of its own, a culture rooted in the Scriptures. An unintended result has been, and continues to be, the uncritical adoption of the dominant cultural traditions of its host society, which in the case of Americans would be the culture of consumption. It doesn’t matter that evangelical preachers rail against “materialism” from time to time; the culture of consumption is not at all weakened by such attacks. Little in the culture of the evangelical church—its material culture, its worship, its spirituality—shakes the assumptions American consumers are brought up to believe: that being happy is the goal of life; that happiness is best defined by the individual acting alone; above all else, that the best way to express the ideals one holds dear is to express them through the purchase of commodity goods and services. For a demonstration of this last point, walk into any Christian bookstore and take a look around.
It seems to me, then, that a positive interpretation of the migration to liturgical churches would be that the emigrants are consciously or unconsciously fleeing the cultural captivity of the evangelical church. They do not perceive themselves as giving up their evangelical theology, at least not in the beginning; on the contrary, they view their decision to leave evangelical churches as entirely consistent with the evangelical discipleship that began their Christian pilgrimage, which told them again and again not to be “conformed to this world.” A more negative interpretation would picture them as the greatest consumers of all, merely tired of the old, and shopping for something new.
Which interpretation is correct will be proven in time, when the migrants either settle down in a new tradition and make it their own, or become restless shoppers searching endlessly for bargains on the Holy Grail.
I visited a Lutheran church once that was trying to attract members with evangelical style services. The pastor made us stand up and do “The Wave” in church. I didn’t go back. I suspect the reason people are leaving evangelical churches for liturgical traditions has little to do with doctrinal dissatisfaction and everything to do with not wanting to do the Wave in church, or listen to any more Christian Karaoke. Is this just class snobbery? Does it mean they value intellectual over emotional engagement with God? Do they care more about aesthetics than they do about doctrine? In my experience the answer is no to all three questions. What they do find is that cultural practices have something to do with doctrinal beliefs, but that is another subject.
Lendol Calder, an Episcopalian, holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and teaches history at Augustana College in Davenport, Iowa. He is married and has two children. His book, Financing the American Dream: Debt, Credit, and the Making of American Consumer Culture, is scheduled for publication in 1998 by Princeton University Press.
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“Christian Karaoke” first appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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