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Liturgy and Culture


In wrapping up this month’s series on the modern, American church, I want to come back around to the subject of the first installment by reframing the question:  What is the role and purpose of the church as an institution?  What is it set up to do?

I think that answering that question gets to the underlying point of departure between evangelical (contemporary) and sacramental (liturgical) churches.* 

The evangelical model, that which I’d venture is the most familiar to many of my generation, comes out of the revival/tent meeting tradition and is thus geared around preparing the people (through music and prayer) to hear the Gospel, preaching the Gospel to the people (through sermons and teaching), and an invitation for people to be saved in response to what they’ve heard.  As a consequence, most evangelical services start with music and end with a sermon, using emotional and intellectual tools to drive the hearers to the point of decision.  The purpose of the church, as understood by the evangelical model, is thus to reach the lost/seekers and bring them to Christ.

The sacramental model, on the other hand, has a different focus.  This model understands the concept of ‘worship’ as being more than the preparatory time of music and prayer but the entirety of the service.  Through core activities such as prayer and singing, yes, but also reading the scriptures and taking communion and giving the offering, the congregation receives the work of Christ and is immersed in the presence of God.  The purpose of the church, as understood by the sacramental model, is to build up the saints and deepen their relationship with God.

Why Does This Matter?

The sacramental critique† of the evangelical model is quite persuasive.  It suggests that the evangelical model panders to popular culture and results in homogenous congregations that resemble niche market demographics more than integrated, diverse bodies of people brought together by their love of Christ.  This is why the liturgical battles seem to take place along generational lines.  The Depression Generation, most Baby Boomers, and some Gen Xers seem to favor the sacramental model against Milennials, most Gen Xers and some Boomers.  This is not unity in the body.

Secondly, the sacramental advocates argue that liturgy shapes faith, that what we do in repetition ultimately forms and limits how we think about God and our relationship to Him.  By focusing on the experiential response, we reduce God to a sensation and build the house of faith on the shifting sand of human emotions rather than on the solid rock of God’s immutability.  Alternatively, by overemphasizing preaching, we reduce the Gospel to information that can be taught rather than the powerful act of God’s will in our lives. 

Lastly, sacramental liturgy invests ritual actions (eating, drinking, praying, singing kneeling, standing, giving) with meaning and power to be vehicles of transmission of the power and grace of Christ into the lives of the believers.  This is something that has gone missing in our modern Christian culture and, if reestablished, would result in a deeper, more robust, more visible faith.

What Now?

The evangelical critique of the sacramental model, however, packs a whallop of its own.  For starters, the sacramental model springs from a culture (as we discussed a couple weeks ago) where the vast majority of people were considered to be believers.  It is thus ill equipped to engage the secular culture that is so prevalent today.  Indeed, you can make a strong case that the sacramental model, by neglecting the intellectual and emotional needs of the post-Enlightenment, post-Romanticist West, contributed to the secularism dominant in the culture.  Viewed thusly, the evangelical model and the revivalist movement from which it sprang are responses to the liberalization of theology and the ecumenical movement that were so dominant in the West in the early 20th century. 

Most new believers in our culture enter the church through parachurch organizations like InterVarsity and Campus Crusade for Christ, which are missional in purpose and structure.  As these organizations have had success, they have been imitated by church planters and reformers who rightly point to the contrast between evangelical growth and mainline protestantism’s shrinking congregations.

So what to do?  I think it’s important to note that there isn’t a clear Biblical foundation for one model over the other.  There is nothing in Acts or the epistles that says, ‘Church shall be done thusly.’  However, both models are grounded in established and legitimate theological constructs about how we relate to God and what role we, as believers, have in the world. 

Unmooring this conversation from the limites of reality for the moment, I see an ideal situation where the evangelical and sacramental churches recognize and respect the roles played by each other and they agree to a division of labor, so to speak, to work in harmony to both reach out to the lost and build up the saints at the same time. 

I imagine a situation where the evangelical churches accept a parachurch role (calling themselves ‘community missions’ or some such), staffed and run by members of sacramental churches (perhaps led by the ‘Pastor of Mission’ at the affiliated church), holding praise events and sermon series meant to attract the lost, provide information to the seeker, and invigorate the new believers.  There would be explicit, if private, encouragement to those attendees who have come to believe to join the (sacramental) church that meets on Sunday mornings to get into the meat of faith and learn and grow and experience God’s presense and power and love. 

At these Sunday church services, then, believers would gather to pray, praise God, give alms, take the eucharist, read the Scriptures, and engage the community both through good works and through support of the affiliated evangelical community missions.  Attendance at neither body would be exclusive or restrictive, but there would be expectations that attendees would respect the complementary but differing functions of each of the bodies.  This approach turns the missional bodies into the evangelical arm of the church and restores the church proper to its traditional functions of equipping and building the saints.

Back here in the land of reality, however, that’s not going to happen.  Many sacramental advocates would not be comfortable supporting the evangelical model, and probably most adherents to the evangelical model would not agree to submit their institution to the direction and authority of the local sacramental church.  Even if all parties agreed to the idea, there would be doctrinal and logistical nightmares that would likely sink the enterprise before it hit open water. 

So, again, what’s to be done?  I think that the primary responsibility lies with evangelical believers‡  to 1) engage their own church in an attempt to establish ministries that can meet the ‘building the saints’ goal while still respecting the missional vision of the church, and/or 2) explore whether joining a sacramental church might not be the appropriate next step in the maturation process of their faith (without severing ties with the evangelical church, where they can still attend, build friendships, and bring interested non-believing friends).  There would still be overlap and confusion and even some mutual resentment between the two models, but I think a greater awareness of the complementary and mutually necessary functions each model serves would better equip the body of Christ both to engage with our culture and to grow in our relationships with the Lord.§


* Let me say right away that I know there’s all kinds of wrong going on with my employment of terms here, particularly ‘evangelical’ and ‘liturgical,’ both of which are loaded and versatile terms.  I assign them as I do for sake of consistency only.

† That of the sacramental model’s advocates; I don’t contend that the critique itself is a sacrament.

‡ Such as myself…

§ My thinking on this subject, while stretching back over the past couple years, has been expanded and invigorated by many of the writers in my blogroll.  However, these two pieces from Internet Monk, Liturgy is not a Style and Is it a Church?, have been incredibly useful in shaping my thoughts and providing historical and theological context.  I heartily recommend them for further reading.

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