The Return to Ritual: Many Evangelical Churches Are Adopting Ancient Catholic Church Practices1
By Philippe Sterling
Vista Ridge Bible Fellowship Church
What is Happening Today?
U.S. News and World Report and Christianity Today (CT) in December of 2007 ran cover stories about Evangelicals adopting historic church rituals.2 Christianity Today introduced its feature article with the cover-page declaration: "Lost Secrets of the Ancient Church: How evangelicals started looking back to move forward." CT senior managing editor Mark Galli wrote, "You might say a number of CT editors have a vested interest in this issue’s cover story. David Neff, Ted Olsen, Tim Morgan, and I have been doing the ancient-future thing for many years, at Episcopal and/or Anglican parishes." The U.S. News article title was "A Return to Tradition: A new interest in old ways takes root in Catholicism and many other faiths."
The U.S. News story featured the congregation of Trinity Fellowship Church in Richardson, Texas:
An independent, nondenominational church of some 600 members, Trinity Fellowship is not the only evangelical congregation that is offering a weekly Eucharist, saying the Nicene or Apostles’ creeds, reading the early Church Fathers, or doing other things that seem downright Roman Catholic or at least high Episcopalian. Daniel Wallace, a professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, which trains pastors for interdenominational or nondenominational churches, says there is a growing appetite for something more than "worship that is a glorified Bible class in some ways."
"Seven or eight years ago, there was a sense of disconnectedness and loneliness in our church life," he says. The entrepreneurial model adopted by so many evangelical churches, with its emphasis on seeker-friendly nontraditional services and programs, had been successful in helping Trinity build its congregation, Anderson explains. But it was less successful in holding on to church members and deepening their faith or their ties with fellow congregants. Searching for more rootedness, Anderson sought to reconnect with the historical church…Not surprisingly, that move was threatening to church members who strongly identify with the Reformation and the Protestant rejection of Catholic practices, including most liturgy. But Anderson and others tried to emphasize the power of liturgy to direct worship toward God and "not be all about me," he says. Anderson also stressed how liturgy "is about us—and not just this church but the connection with other Christians." Adopting the weekly Eucharist, saying the Nicene Creed every two or three weeks, following the church calendar, Trinity reshaped its worship practices in ways that drove some congregants away. But Anderson remains committed, arguing that traditional practices will help evangelical churches grow beyond the dependence on "celebrity-status pastors."
The Washington Post picked up on the return to ritual among evangelicals in a March 8, 2008 story:5
Evangelicals observing Lent? Fasting and giving up chocolate and favorite pastimes like watching TV during the 40 days before Easter are practices many evangelical Protestants have long rejected as too Catholic and unbiblical. But Lent – a time of inner cleansing and reflection upon Jesus Christ’s sufferings before his resurrection – is one of many ancient church practices being embraced by an increasing number of evangelicals…This increasing connection with Christianity’s classical traditions goes beyond Lent. Some evangelical churches offer confession and weekly communion. They distribute ashes on Ash Wednesday and light Advent calendars at Christmastime.…First Baptist Church of the City of Washington D.C. follows the liturgical calendar observed by Catholic churches. It lights candles at Advent, and observes Epiphany Sunday and the remainder of the traditional cycle of liturgical celebrations. "We find that following the seasons of the Christian year adds a lot of richness to our experience of worship," said the Rev. James Somerville, the church’s pastor, adding: "We wouldn’t want the Catholics to get all the good stuff."
Irving Bible Church, an independent Bible church in the Dallas area, now observes the liturgical calendar, follows the lectionary, encourages congregants during the worship service to light candles to represent prayers or answers to prayers.6 I found posted at visualworshiper.com pictures of one of their Ash Wednesday services.7
1 This is the initial portion of a message given at the 2009 GES Annual Conference in Fort Worth, TX. The entire message will be published in the Fall 2009 issue of the Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society.
2 U.S. News & World Report (December 24, 2007); Christianity Today (February 2008).
3 Editor’s note: Carl and I were contemporaries at Dallas Theological Seminary both in our Th.M. (1982) and Ph.D. programs (1985 for me; 1987 for him). The first I had an idea that he was moving toward a more liturgical ministry was a few years ago when I saw and heard him preach a funeral. He was wearing clerical robes quite similar to those I grew up seeing in the liberal high church my Dad attended. His message that day struck me as rather ecumenical. I remember being surprised since in seminary I remembered Carl as very conservative (albeit 5-point Calvinist).
4 Editor’s note: I remember this church as Trinity Fellowship, started by one of my seminary professors, Dr. Ed Blum, a four or five-point Calvinist. Looking on their website today, I note that Dr. Darrell Bock, noted distinguished professor at Dallas Seminary, was once the co-pastor of the church and today is an elder emeritus. I was also interested to note that they had a colorful symbol that looked familiar. Looking it up online, I found it is primarily made up of a symbol called the triquetra, which was originally a Druid symbol which was adopted by the Catholic Church to teach pagans about the Trinity. (Actually the picture on their website consists of three triquetras joined together, each with a different symbol inside.)
5 Jacqueline L. Salmon, "Feeling Renewed By Ancient Traditions," Washington Post, Saturday, March 8, 2008, B09.
6 Several of the 2008 issues of Chatter, IBC’s monthly publication for its congregants, contain articles explaining its adoption of these practices and rituals.
7 This is the website of Camron Ware, The Lighting and Projection Designer at IBC.