Sacraments and liturgy are not just a temporary high for former evangelicals.
It seems that, if young Millennials stay in church, they are often attracted to a liturgical-sacramental context. Although several studies suggest that most young Christians (regardless of denominational heritage) abandon Christian practice in favor of private beliefs, other youth are entering Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox, and Catholic parishes to find a home. It seems that megachurch consumer-commuter Krustianity has little to keep twenty-something evangelicals in the stadium seats. While several prominent cultural leaders observed this phenomenon a decade ago, figures in the evangelical Reformed world are starting to take notice.
Rebecca VanDoodewaard suggests, “Protestant churches that recognize their own ecclesiastical and theological heritage, training their children to value and continue it in a 21st century setting, usually retain their youth.” Steven Wedgeworth reports that these high-church seekers are still individualists and consumers of a sort: those who really believe the tenets of orthodoxy do not begrudge the spiritual tourist who shops for some liturgical window-dressing. He concludes, “[T]he searching Protestants are still very much Protestant, and their destination-communions, whatever the tradition, are themselves content to have it so.” Both analyses share the same assumption: there is nothing wrong with Protestantism itself. Those who turn Roman, Eastern, or High Anglican were just not provided the true marrow of Christian doctrine—they lacked effectual teaching, healthy formation, or the self-control to avoid overweening curiosity.
I think the prognosis remains incorrect—this is more than a catechetical crisis for Protestants. The aforementioned young traditionalists—who I predict will be the core and leadership of this high church movement—turn their backs on evangelicaldom because they reject American dissenter Protestantism. American Protestantism was very rationalist from the start–we have the Puritans and later revivalists fleeing the “superstitions” of sacrament (where something my human mind cannot make sense of happens on an altar or a font) and spiritual formation qualities of ceremony.
When we removed such liturgical orthopraxis in our purge of mysticism, what did we have left? Reason and emotion–the sermon and the testimony. We see an exacting rationality in a Reformed mindset, but we see a hyper-emotive spirituality nearly everywhere else. Both are individualistic in their own way. Both depend on me finding something to generate meaning, whether that be a particular Bible verse for the day or one’s bearing during a song. As long as something is not rote or brought down by some external order, it is authentic. An exercise of volition—whether God’s or mine—marks entrance into church membership, not some kind of sacramental act in which the supernatural invades the natural.
Where evangelicals find their meaning will function like the new sacrament of their service. Common options include the sermon, the altar call, and the praise ‘n worship session—different congregations have a “high point” to the service. This is often what happens when Real Presence and baptismal regeneration get thrown out as erroneous teaching.
One of my friends once argued that Christianity is “ultimately, a religion of ideas” and “demands faith as the highest virtue.” While sacramental Christianity proves no foe of intellectual inquiry, I have to disagree with this popular assessment. Of course orthodox Christianity is creedal, much to the frustration of emergents.
But let us be clear: Christianity is not a religion of ideas, nor is faith technically its highest virtue if St. Paul is to be believed. We are all about a Person, and the greatest virtue is Love. Our knowledge of theology does not save us; Christ does. If we are to be rescued from the flames of Hell by intellectual exactness, we are damned. This does not mean we settle for falsehood–our seeking of truth causes us to find Him, for He is Truth; and, as Augustine rightly noticed, He had been seeking us all along. By the same token, lies are obstacles to getting to know this Person and love Him: relational knowledge will suffer if content knowledge is erroneous. Thus, it is the incarnate God-Man, not ideas, that occupy our devotion. Now, if this same Christ promised that we feed on His very Person in the sacrament of the Eucharist–if we eat His Body and drink His blood–then there will be a focus in worship, as well as an openness to external influence on the soul. The imposition of ashes, holy water, icons, and crossing oneself won’t be seen as obstacles to godly worship, but rather as aids from, signs to, and gateways into the divine. And the grace and participation of it all is available to everyone: the child, the fool, the wise, the mentally ill, the elderly, the unsettlingly plain.
In short, why have people entered liturgical traditions? Many seek beauty, which was shriven from truth and goodness for most of their lives. Others don’t want to carry the weight of their own spiritual formation any more. Humans need to be taught how to worship—reverence doesn’t come naturally to us. In this democratic society, we don’t know how to treat monarchs, including our own King Jesus. Bowing to Christ’s throne (altar), stewards (bishops), and standard (processional crucifix) join a host of other practices to remind us that we are in the court of our Lord. Finally, a group sets themselves at war with the modern world. They accept all of church history as their own (not just “the early church” and the Reformation), reject Enlightenment ideals of individualism and license, dare confess the ancient doctrine of ex opere operato, avoid systemization, eschew stripping the altar, and embrace the bold paradoxes of the Church’s deposit of faith, which has been passed on with care. Kneeling in prayer, they defy the March of Progress prophesied by Whigs and Jacobins.
Dissenter Protestantism offers none of this nowadays; it never has and probably never will. It has more often been a collaborator in the individualistic disorders of the past three hundred years than we may care to admit. Evangelicals have more than a church perception problem on their hands.
Barton Gingerich is a Master of Divinity student at Reformed Episcopal Seminary and a fellow at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He holds a B. A. in History from Patrick Henry College.