In Defense of Our Traditions
Mark Tooley on Denominationalism
Recently, a friend who belongs to the conservative Presbyterian Church in America accompanied me to a service at my United Methodist local church. The hierarchy of my denomination is famously liberal, of course. But my suburban congregation in northern Virginia is conservative and evangelical. After the usual service of praise songs, traditional hymns, children’s sermon, prayer, Scripture reading, and sermon, my friend commented that my supposedly Wesleyan church was indistinguishable from his supposedly Calvinist church.
He was not so much being critical as observant. There was nothing to offend, and much to inspire, an orthodox Christian at my local church.
But most persons who “church shop” and who are concerned about theological orthodoxy can attest that denominational distinctions among the conservative churches in the denominations have faded. (It is the liberal churches in those denominations that, while sitting very lightly to their church’s doctrinal heritage, hold very tightly to the distinctives of their denominational identity.)
Some external differences persist, of course. Some clergy wear robes; others do not. Some are more structured in their liturgy while others are more “open to the Spirit.” Some say the ancient Creeds; others do not. But my impression is that a lot of congregations, like my own, strike compromises, including praise songs and ancient hymns, organ music and guitars, recitation of church creeds with personal testimonies, traditional sermons with occasional “skits.” The trend, surely, at least among Evangelicals in the denominations, is for an increasingly generic form of worship, preaching, and ministry.
As a liturgical traditionalist, I confess that I cringe when costumed performers strut into the sanctuary to illustrate the gospel through drama. I prefer a sermon to a choreographed dialogue, just as I favor Charles Wesley’s hymns, with their theological complexity and depth, over repetitive ditties with simple messages whose lyrics do not exceed fifty words.
A recent poll of my church’s membership showed, to my disappointment, that 70 percent enjoyed the skits. I’m sure the praise songs are equally popular. Oh, well. Stylistically, they do not appeal to me, but their messages are scriptural. Besides, the skit-and-praise-song people have to join me in singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and reciting creeds and prayers that remain in seventeenth-century English. This sort of Christian compromise is sometimes trying but is still mostly unobjectionable.
But these compromises have helped create a generic evangelical style of worship that is nationally recognizable and not necessarily unpleasant, even to the traditionalist, and this has aroused some concern among those of us who value our denominational distinctions. And it has helped persuade many that America’s old denominational structures are destined to fade, and that their distinctive identities and contributions cannot, and probably should not, be saved.
I recently attended an Assemblies of God church near my parents’ weekend home in West Virginia. Although tucked away in Appalachia, the congregation neither rolled on a sawdust floor nor summoned the serpents. Aside from the multiple raised hands, the service was little different from that of my church or a hundred others in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C.
Competition & Mainline Failures
This evangelical homogenization can be credited to the success of independent churches, whose ability to get new members in the last thirty years has persuaded denominational churches—those that are serious about growth—to adopt their more free-flowing and generic style. Shorn of traditions that supposedly will bore or frighten the “unchurched,” these Bible churches stress exuberant worship, easy to sing modern hymns, musical instruments other than just an organ or piano, and informal preaching that focuses on a “personal relationship” with God.
It can also be credited to the implosion of liberal Protestantism. Local churches serious about vibrant worship or evangelism cannot rely upon liberal denominational agencies for help. Official teaching and worship materials are deemed dry, uninspirational, political, and only loosely based upon the Bible. Many local churches have turned to more evangelistic para-church organizations for alternatives. The popularity of Promise Keepers, Focus on the Family, Christian radio, and Christian book stores have all nudged denominational churches to adopt styles and rely upon resources that are decidedly nondenominational.
Competition has been a third factor (and probably a bigger factor than most would admit) in the growth of generic evangelical worship. Smart suburban congregations in mainline denominations realize their competition is, for the most part, not other mainline congregations that struggle just to retain their numbers. The independent churches have the evangelistic fervor, multiplicity of programs, and savvy marketing that gives them the edge in attracting young families.
When my United Methodist congregation loses a family to another church, it is not typically to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation next door. It usually loses them to a nondenominational mega-church meeting in a high-school auditorium while awaiting the completion of their new mega-structure.
The failure of liberal Protestantism to develop successful campus ministries has also contributed to the trend. College students of the last 25 years looking for serious Christian camaraderie are far more likely to have found it with Campus Crusade for Christ, InterVarsity, or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes than with denominational chaplaincies. These students carry back to their local church this evangelical ecumenism, or they seek out new churches in this style.
We who are catholic without being Roman Catholic can in many ways embrace this trend. The new generic evangelical style has bred cooperation and some uniformity of purpose among Evangelicals and other theologically serious Protestants. It has underscored the failure of theological liberalism to attain any sustained relevance, or any real audience outside of seminary lecture halls, and it has shown how evangelical churches can adopt a style that effectively conveys the gospel to the culture of the late twentieth century. It has silenced the denominational pride in which each church’s distinctives—baptizing infants, not baptizing infants—become reasons for separation.
Recovering Our Losses
And yet there is something lost in this rising tide of evangelical conformity. Wesleyans, Lutherans, Anglicans, Calvinists, and Baptists have rich histories and distinctions that should not be consigned to dustbins or museums. Differences and even disagreements need not impair Christian cooperation, and may, when conducted in the right spirit, foster greater appreciation for the shared and essential doctrines that transcend these differences.
Nondenominational churches typically and rightly view the New Testament Church as their model. But the centuries between the apostles and the 1960s or 1970s need to be more fully accounted for in the evangelical consciousness. Many bookish Evangelicals delve into reading the church fathers to fill this void. They should be encouraged, but realistically, the average suburban churchgoing family is not going to read the original works of Athanasius or Augustine. And it is safe to assume that the typical Presbyterian has never read Calvin, just as the typical Methodist has never read Wesley.
Local denominational churches that are faithful to orthodoxy and faithful to their traditions have a responsibility to interpret Christian history and denominational development to their congregations. Worship and Sunday schools need to go beyond evangelistic appeals and admonitions for virtuous living. Christian faithfulness demands serious instruction about the nature of salvation, the Christian doctrine and worldview, the sacraments, liturgy, and the church’s interaction with society.
In nearly thirty years of Methodist churchgoing I have not heard a bold defense of Wesleyan beliefs about the availability of salvific grace for all persons as opposed to the Reformed understanding of predestination. Nor have I ever heard an explanation of why child baptism is correct, Baptist claims notwithstanding.
There is a belief, common to nearly all American churches of every theological bent, that pointing to such contrasts is ungracious. Among modern Evangelicals, this trend can be traced not only to Billy Graham but also as far back as Billy Sunday and Dwight Moody, who conducted ecumenical crusades that emphasized transdenominational cooperation. Of course, tremendous good came of their efforts.
But of all America’s great revivals, the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century had the most profound impact upon Christianity. Its primary evangelists were unapologetically denominational. In their mass camp meetings they cooperated across church boundaries. But they also engaged in creative polemics regarding denominational differences. These debates fueled rather than hampered evangelism and church growth. The memoirs of nineteenth-century Methodist circuit rider Peter Cartwright, which recall his struggles not only against the devil but also with rival Baptist and Presbyterian evangelists, make for fascinating and often hilarious reading.
I suspect that the revivalists of the last century understood better than 1990s Evangelicals that denominational distinctives require important discussions about imperative spiritual truths rather than just prideful fussing among fellow Christians. Some denominational differences are differences only of style and taste, but many touch on the very essentials of the gospel.
The growing cooperation between orthodox Protestants and orthodox Roman Catholics is perhaps a model for evangelical Protestants reluctant to acknowledge their disagreements with each other. Both realize that spiritual unity among Christ’s followers, even when institutional unity is (for now) impossible, remains a divine commandment and a practical imperative in our secular age.
In a way that would have seemed impossible even twenty years ago, Evangelicals and Catholics have learned to work, think, and even to worship together without abandoning their theological distinctions. They recognize, for example, that brethren faithful to their own traditions are more likely to be reliable allies in the culture wars, and not only in the culture wars but even in evangelism. Although they probably do not realize it, most people in my evangelical United Methodist congregation are closer philosophically to most Catholic bishops than to most Methodist bishops.
Ancestral Wesleyan Heritage
My own loyalty to United Methodism is based in part on Methodism’s rich evangelistic and social legacy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some of the most noble aspects of Anglo-American democracy were generated, or at least reinforced, by Wesleyan revivalism and social action—and could, and should, be reinvigorated by them today. Methodism has founded more hospitals and schools in the world than any other church but the Roman Catholic Church. Its emphasis upon catholicity, scriptural holiness, and divine grace has profoundly shaped the face of the global Body of Christ.
I was reminded of Methodism’s dramatic social impact several years ago when I attended a maternal family reunion in southwest Virginia. All my cousins were descendants of a Scots-Irish forebear who settled in the rolling blue grass about the time of the American Revolution. His wife and the wives of other local settlers were once kidnapped during an Indian raid. Faithful to their Presbyterian heritage, these women sang Psalms sung by the Hebrews when captive in Babylon.
A party of armed settlers eventually compelled their release. My ancestors later conceived a son who strayed from the family’s Calvinism. Both morals and church affiliation were notoriously loose on the frontier, where established congregations were often rare. The son eventually succumbed to the evangelistic appeal of a Methodist circuit rider, probably Francis Asbury himself, who frequented the region. Asbury was the greatest of the preachers on horseback, became Methodism’s second bishop, and helped make Methodism America’s largest church body during the nineteenth century.
That son, after hearkening to the Methodist circuit rider, freed all of his slaves, outfitted them with provisions for their new lives, and escorted them to the free territory of Ohio. He later entered the Methodist ministry himself, as did several of his sons. About 200 of his descendants, who gathered for a family reunion nearly 200 years later, were nearly all still Methodist, thanks to his legacy.
In touring the small town that later enveloped that ancestor’s home site, I saw where his son built his house and, not professing Christ and accepting baptism until on his deathbed, lived, raised his children and died. His wife was the granddaughter of a local Revolutionary War veteran, who was himself won to Methodism by Asbury, a houseguest on several occasions.
Their son, the great-grandson of the Revolutionary War soldier, turned to faith as a boy during the Civil War, when he prayed for divine healing from a handicapping ailment. That man, my great-great-grandfather, became a Methodist stalwart, marrying the daughter of a local Methodist circuit court judge, founding a bank, supporting prohibition and faithfully voting for William Jennings Bryan three times.
When in her nineties, his widow was raising money in the 1940s to rebuild the local Methodist church after a ravaging fire. She and her husband transmitted their Methodist faith to their son and grandson, who both attended a Methodist college. The grandson, who was my grandfather, transmitted the faith to me through his wife, who took me to Methodist Sunday school from nearly my infancy, and whom I now have the privilege of escorting to my suburban Methodist church.
A Spark Still Alive
Despite the apostasies and political posturings of our modern United Methodist hierarchy, I find the evangelical spark that converted my ancestor 200 years ago still alive today in my local church. But a specifically Wesleyan flavor is often hard to discern. I wonder if the children of my church’s current members have any particular loyalty to their Methodist heritage, or will scatter to a myriad of nondenominational outposts.
And I wonder where these now thriving independent mega-churches will be twenty years from now. Will they continue to thrive, or implode and scatter, or evolve into new denominations with their own distinctive traditions? I do not criticize them. God’s Spirit is plainly at work in them. And I do not criticize people for choosing them over the denominations. Church shopping, or evolving, is part of my own family legacy. My original Methodist ancestor, who converted from Presbyterianism, was probably the descendant of Anglicans, who were themselves the descendants of Catholics. God’s hand, I believe, worked, and works, through all those churches.
But modern, generic evangelicalism too often lacks theological specificity, and most of the time lacks a firm heritage that reaches back more than a single generation. Historic denominational ties give Evangelicals a balance—theological, cultural, even missiological—sometimes otherwise lacking, and often lacking in the generic style. Denominations provide an authoritative tradition and help to root congregations in a broader and deeper identity. They hinder insularity and remove blind spots. They can encourage individual believers and congregations to apply their Christian faith beyond obvious personal and local needs. And the doctrinal differences themselves can force their members into serious theological reflection.
I plan to remain Methodist. (Whether orthodox Methodists should abandon the United Methodist Church and create a new and more steadfastly Wesleyan denomination is a separate question, to which my own answer is an emphatic no.)
I hope others will remain loyal to their traditions and do so seriously. This mosaic of distinctive churches, with its resulting tensions and debates, helped create the moral frame of our nation, nurtured countless souls, brought the gospel to millions, cared for countless people in need, and indeed undergirded much of Christendom for half a millennium. It can and should survive the current penchant for skits and praise songs.
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“In Defense of Our Traditions” first appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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