By Chaplain Mike
Bob Webber grew up a staunch fundamentalist. His parents were missionaries in Africa who later returned to Pennsylvania to take up ministry in a Baptist church. He attended Bob Jones University. As an adult he became a professor at the more mainstream evangelical Wheaton College. Webber was immersed from birth in the world of free church evangelicalism and fundamentalism in one form or another.
So how did a man with this background end up…
- worshiping regularly in an Episcopal church,
- becoming one of Christianity’s foremost advocates for liturgical worship and renewed respect for early church traditions,
- and being revered as a guide to multitudes who have joined him on what has become known as the “Ancient-Future” path of following Jesus in our day?
He tells the story in his 1985 book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church. In college and seminary, Bob Webber began to question the inflexible spirit pervasive in his tradition that limited genuine Christianity to those in the fundamentalist mold. He also found the rationalistic, “defending the faith” approach that they took toward the Bible and great truths of the faith unsatisfactory for his own spiritual life.
In 1969, young professor Webber was asked to speak in chapel at Wheaton College. The topic was “Where is evangelicalism going in the 1970’s?”. As he prepared his sermon, he decided to present it in two parts: part oneâ€”an evaluation of contemporary culture and the questions Christianity must answer, and part twoâ€”the answers. The longer he prayed over the message, the more troubled he became. The “answers” just weren’t satisfactory!
Then, in a moment of conviction, I stood to my feet, grabbed the answer part of my sermon in both hands, and vigorously crumpled the papers. Raising my right hand and arm high above my head, I tossed those answers with all my power into the wastebasket. I dropped back into my chair and sobbed for several hours. I had thrown away my answers. I had rid myself of a system in which God was comfortably contained. I had lost my security and turned my back on years of defending God’s existence, his incarnation, his resurrection, and his coming again. (p. 29)
The next day, Bob Webber spoke to the student body. After delivering the first part of his sermon, he stopped.
Then I closed my notebook, looked at them directly, and told them what had happened to me. I told them that the answers don’t work, that what we need is not answers about God but God himself. And I told them how God was more real to me in his silence than he had been in my textbook answers. My God was no longer the God you could put on the blackboard or the God that was contained in a textbook, but a maverick who breaks the boxes we build for him. (p. 30)
These were his first steps on the Ancient-Future path. This experience and others that awakened his attention began to push Webber in the direction of wanting to learn more about what worshiping God really means. Since this was not a huge emphasis in his fundamentalist or evangelical experience, he was forced to look elsewhere.
First, he attended a Roman Catholic Easter Vigil service and discovered through the liturgy that the truth of Christ’s resurrection became alive to him in a whole new way. This led him to do deeper study in the writings of the early church fathers, and he became impressed by their descriptions of the Agape Feast. “I was greatly attracted to the simplicity, the power, and the warmth of this approach to worship,” he wrote. Webber was discovering practices of worship that were new to him and unavailable in the churches he had attended.
An “Emerging” Phase
Interestingly, Webber did not know where to start with regard to incorporating his new insights into participation in corporate worship.
Since I longed to experience this reality, my family and I left the established church and began a house church modeled after the early Christian community. About forty other people, mostly married couples from the college, joined us. (p. 39)
Sound familiar? I smiled when I first read that and thought back upon last week’s discussion of the “Emerging Movement.” Many of you opined that “Emerging” is primarily a transitional movement. As people react against perceived shortcomings in the churches where they belong, they leave and experiment with new forms and practices. In many cases, worship is a primary issue for these folks. Recent emerging believers have been known for experimenting with various forms of creative and multi-sensory worship, often reaching back into the past to sample practices from earlier Christian traditions.
Webber discovered, as have others in “emerging” transitional settings, that their experimental approaches were first exhilarating but ultimately unsatisfactory. In particular, Bob Webber found that the house church approach isolated its participants from the larger church and had problems and weaknesses inherent to the form. Nevertheless, he learned to appreciate their experiment as an important phase that ultimately led him to the Anglican tradition.
Webber’s Six Themes
In the end, as Bob Webber tells his story, he found six areas of faith that were only satisfied by getting on the Ancient-Future path into a Christ-centered communion that was organically integrated with the ancient Great Tradition of evangelical Christianity.
- Bowing before divine mystery
- Participating in genuine worship
- Experiencing sacramental reality
- Embracing a fuller spiritual identity in the historic church
- Accepting the unity of the catholic church
- Finding a purposeful path for spiritual formation
Assuming that these six areas of faith represent vitally important aspects of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christâ€”
Is is not obvious why traditional evangelicalismâ€”rooted in the revivalism of the 1800’sâ€”and why emerging movementsâ€”largely reactions to that evangelicalismâ€”cannot provide a comprehensive answer to these six longings?
And this is the appeal of the Ancient-Future path. It asserts that the best way into the future for Christ’s church is one that is organically integrated with her past. As Michael Spencer wrote, the best hope for evangelical vitality in days to come lies in:
…the post-evangelical appropriation of the great tradition; the wisdom of the broader, deeper more ancient church, in meeting the evangelical challenge today. A chastened, invigorated traditionalism, re-rooted in deeper, better soil and paying attention to the younger voices and cultural changes, is the better evangelical future.
Just the Beginning
I have barely introduced you to Robert Webber. In the second half of his life, Bob became one of the most prolific thinkers, authors, and speakers on the subject of worship and how early church teachings and practices can inform our way forward into the future. He wrote more than forty books on worship, and edited perhaps the greatest resource on the subject available: The Complete Library of Christian Worship (1995), an eight-volume series created to serve as a comprehensive reference for professors, students, pastors, and worship leaders. He also founded The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, which offers training in the disciplines of worship at Master’s and Doctoral levels. You can find a good overview of Bob’s work at Ancient Future Worship. Below, you will find links to some of Webber’s most important books.
A Debt of Gratitude
Bob Webber died and entered the worship of Christ around the throne in 2007. The evangelical church, indeed the entire one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, owes him a great debt of gratitude for turning our attention backward to the common ancient roots of our faith, forward to a bright future of renewed worship and church unity if we will integrate the lessons of our spiritual heritage into today’s practices of following Christ today, and upward to the One who alone is worthy and who meets us savingly as we worship and receive his ancient, present, and future gifts in Christ.
Some important books by Robert Webber: