In 1985, I gave my life to Christ in a Canadian charismatic church. It was a modern-church setting with a giant, auditorium-like sanctuary that someone had decorated to look like a suburban living room, complete with sea foamgreen carpeting and rubber plants. On Sunday mornings, I would walk in and feel the palpable presence of the all-powerful and all-loving Lord. On Saturday nights, at cell-group prayer meetings, I was mentored by wise "fathers and mothers in the Lord." On Monday nights, I participated in the music ministry of a dynamic youth group.
Yet through the years, though this wonderful church formed me in the joy of the Lord that was my strength, I felt like we were missing something. As a stalwart outpost of the kingdom in a threatening world, our faith seemed somehow precarious. We stood, as we faced that world, on a foundation made of the words of our favorite Bible passages—our "canon within the Canon"—and the sermons of our pastors and a roster of approved visiting evangelists. There was utterly no sense of the mystical massiveness of a church that had stood firmly for 2,000 years. No sense that our foundation actually stretched down and back through time. I didn't have a clue who John Wesley, Martin Luther, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Ignatius of Antioch were. I just knew that I felt like I was part of a church that was in some ways powerful, but in other ways shallow and insecure in a threatening world that did not share our faith.
I now see that my early sense of the church's insecurity stemmed from what J. I. Packer has called evangelicalism's "stunted ecclesiology," rooted in our alienation from our past. Without a healthy engagement with our past, including historical definitions of "church," we are being true neither to Scripture nor to our theological identity as the church. Though Packer doesn't put it this way, it is easy to see ways in which their stunted ecclesiology has led evangelicals to allow the world to shape the church.
So true. Now, I knew who everyone except Bernard of Clairvaux was, but that feeling of floating around without an anchor (or at least one that wasn't big enough), that lack of understanding of the "mystical massiveness" of the historical church was there even before I knew how to put it into words.
And it's good to know that other people feel that aesthetics matter. Part of me feels guilty saying that. I was taught that it shouldn't matter whether you're in a beautiful cathedral, a modern state of the art worship center or an inexpensive rented storefront with folding metal chairs. You should be able to press through and block out the surroundings and focus only on God. And certainly there is some validity to that. If Paul and Silas can praise and worship God in a dank Roman jail cell, certainly I don't have to have the perfect little stained glass sanctuary with plush padded kneelers nor quibble that the worship space looks like a school auditorium or a massive living room. Yet it matters to me. It's not that I'm unable to worship God in those settings, I just find a traditional church setting with beautiful architecture, imagery, pews and so on more conducive to doing so.
I also related to the feeling Sharon Carlson describes. Though she speaks of the Plymouth Brethren, she may as well be talking about my Pentecostal days or many generic evangelical gatherings:
Carlson described the Communion experience as "tearing up bread and passing around cups of grape juice after men in the assembly spontaneously stood and repeated the words that they felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to say," and she felt that was no longer enough. As Campbell reports, " 'I want to be more connected to history, the history of the Christian church,' said Carlson, who relishes the knowledge that she is worshiping the way Christians have for centuries. 'There have been generations of people before me saying the same prayers.' "
Carlson found it difficult to attend emotional, upbeat, and impromptu services on those days when she did not feel the fervor to worship. When she encountered liturgical worship as a student at Gordon College in Wenham and during a year in Oxford, England, she noticed herself gravitating toward the Anglican churches, where she could reaffirm her beliefs with a creed, regardless of her feelings. She also liked following a church calendar that connected the seasons of the year with the seasons of Christ's life. Now Carlson uses the Book of Common Prayer regularly and worships at Christ Church, a theologically conservative and highly liturgical Episcopalian church.
Geez, I'm tracking with you sister. I can't tell you how many times I faked it through upbeat, happy-clappy services when all I really wanted to do was be left alone and cry because life was hard and my faith was weak or because I'd committed some sin that week and felt utterly unworthy to be in God's presence. At times like those, clapping and smiling is at best not the proper response and at worst dishonest and hypocritical. But that's sort of what was expected. There's comfort sometimes in being able to say the words of others when your heart is in tatters. The Creeds, the collects and other prayers say for you what you cannot.
But, I've struggled with trying to analyze my motives on all this. There's a certain streak in me that likes to be the one who likes what's different from everyone else. I'm a beer snob and admit I take more pride than I should in not drinking the regular stuff most folks grab at the grocery store. I have extremely varied tastes in music and love discovering little known bands and not just jumping on the hot and trendy. My political views don't jive with many of the conservative Christians I know (in other words, I tend to buck the Limbaugh/Coulter/Hannity party line a lot). So, is this just another instance of me just wanting to be different?
I live in an area of the country dominated by Southern Baptist and Charismatic worship settings. And if not those, it's just a contemporary, non-denominational evangelical gathering. There are three Catholic and three Anglican parishes in my city. And three of those six are rather small (one has around 20 people on a Sunday morning). Compare that to dozens of Baptist churches, a healthy dose of Pentecostal/Charistmatic ones and more Methodists and Presbyterians than you can shake a stick at. Some of these churches are huge and many others have several hundred in attendance. The subject of church comes up and what kind of place I'd like to find and you just get this look like they can't fathom why you'd want all that tradition. But the main thing is, it's completely against the current of what's going on these days. How much of this is me just wanting to feel cool and different?
I also wear myself out wondering if I'm not giving other churches a fair chance over matters of taste and personal preference. Why does this stuff matter to me? Am I doing this for sound biblical and theological reasons or just because I'm bored with the kinds of churches I've been attending (and enjoying I might add) for the last 20 years or so?
This article felt like a little validation today and had I not been at work when I read it, I might have teared up a little. I'm not going crazy. I'm not the only one. Other people are looking around the contemporary evangelical churches they've loved for so long and have been such a big part of their growth as a Christian and feeling like they want something else and it's just beginning to dawn on them that they probably won't find it there. And it's sad. And a little scary. They don't know how to explain it and they feel misunderstood when they try.
Just knowing they're out there makes me feel better.