Reclaiming the Great Tradition

      In the past fifty years or so, American Evangelical/Charismatic churches have prided themselves in being ‘relevant’ to culture through trendy styles of worship and the popular ‘seeker-friendly’ therapeutic language incorporated into their worship space. The impulse behind the quest for relevancy within Evangelicalism is the Evangelical passion for converts, along with the belief that the Church must, in the Apostle Paul’s words, “become all things to all men so that by all possible means” Christ would be made known to them (1 Cor. 9:23, NIV).

The unforeseen result has been that Evangelicalism in the West has become increasingly relativized by the social context in which it finds itself. The question now facing Evangelical/Charismatic churches in America is: Have we gone too far in “becoming all things to all men” and thereby accommodating our faith to Western culture in order to speak to that culture? One of many indicators of this over-accommodation is that our churches have chosen to immortalize events from the secular calendar more than they celebrate events from the traditional Church calendar (e.g. Mother’s Day is celebrated while Trinity Sunday is ignored; Memorial Day pulls on our deep appreciation of sacrifice while Good Friday is one of the least attended services of the year). A strong case can be made that this “accommodation” to the culture in the US has made the our churches more “American” but has done little to make those who attend her more “Christian.”

According to a recent research article by Steve Bruce, entitled “Secularisation, Church and Popular Religion,” the brand of popular “Christianity” that free churches foster is doubly vulnerable to secularization because there is no institution standing between the secularizing forces and the people. Bruce concludes that without an institutional core, popular religious cultures cannot sustain beliefs and practices that remain uniquely Christian.[1]

Further adding to the problem, sociologists like Robert Bellah, et al., claim free churches in America have fallen prey to a radical privatization. This has given rise to less emphasis on the larger classical Christian narrative, focusing rather on the gathering of like-minded individuals who demonstrate a generalized benevolence, rooted more in emotion and sentiment than in doctrinal issues.[2] Consequently our church communities tend to avoid locating any sense of a “larger meaning” within the Christian story and we have identified faith primarily in what is happening on a local level within the local church community.[3] Robert Webber claims that when Evangelical/Charismatic church traditions place too little emphasis on traditional Christian memory it reduces them to little more than self-improvement centers, which lack any real eternal substance. Webber asserts that the Evangelical/Charismatic culture (which has traditionally followed the impulse of the Enlightenment hope for an improved human race) is now “exhausted and defeated.”[4]

Many Evangelicals are beginning to recognize the problem. Parishioners are leaving. Leaders aware of these issues are clamoring over what to do. Some have begun to suggest that the modern Church may benefit from retrieving some of the forces and strategies that helped the nascent Church to grow and stabilize. This has led to much discussion on the possible role of ancient Church tradition within the Evangelical/Charismatic church context (though the very mention of the existence of a Christian tradition is cause for suspicion in the minds of many of us).

D. H. Williams avers, “A nerve within contemporary Evangelicalism has been hit, and its effects are ushering in enormous potential change. Discussion of the place and value of the great tradition is taking place among pastors and laity in denominations that have normally regarded it as irrelevant or as a hindrance to authentic Christian belief and spirituality.”[5] A movement, known by some as “ressourcement,” is blooming among Evangelical/Charismatic leaders. Ressourcement—a term coined by French Roman Catholic scholars in the mid-twentieth century in order to return to the sources (ad fontes) of ancient Christian tradition—was an attempt to retrieve what was found there into the life and praxis of the modern Church.

What do you think of this idea?

When we see those who practice traditions rooted deeply in history, they often seem to have no life—they appear “dead.” The last thing any pietistic Evangelical/Charismatic wants to be is (in Jesus’ words), like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean” (Matt. 23:27), which is almost guaranteed by embracing “the traditions of men” (Mk. 7:8).

But what if “there’s gold in them hills”? The current metaphor is: Tradition is dead religion. But what if that isn’t always the case? What if we can utilize and resource tradition as a trellis for building spiritual piety—like one uses a trellis in a garden (which is dead wood) as a support for the life of vines, helping them flourish?

There are a bunch of thinkers gathering together in Tulsa, OK, June 6-7th of this year to move the conversation forward. We’d love for you to join us! There are only 300 tickets available for this event, so snag one soon @ See you in Tulsa.

[1] Steve Bruce, “Secularisation, Church and Popular Religion,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 62:3 (2011); 543-61.

[2] Robert N. Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkely: University of California Press, 2008), 223.

[3] Ibid., 226.

[4] Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 94.

[5] D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 15.