Wednesday with Michael Spencer
On Resacramentalizing Evangelicalism
Evangelicals have an issue with sacraments. Mention the word to them and they start fidgeting in their seats and thumbing their Bibles.
It’s an interesting historical story. A sacrament is something in the physical world that mediates or communicates the presence, power, promises and/or grace of God. Various Christian theologies approach the exact language and reality differently, but the essence of sacramentalism is that if X is present or Y is done, then God is somehow present and at work, no matter what else may be happening.
When Luther called for reformation in Rome (and when Rome later excommunicated him for his criticisms), Luther deserted almost none of his core Catholic sacramentalism, even though he rejected strongly the abuses associated with many of the church’s seven sacraments. His views on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were quite similar (not identical) to what Catholics believed. Luther reduced the sacraments to three. Anglicans and Presbyterians to two. All these reformation churches kept some version of pre-reformation sacramental thinking because it was Biblical.
For example, the reading/preaching of the Word is described in clearly sacramental ways in reformation theology. The announcement of forgiveness (absolution) is a sacrament for Lutherans. The arrangement of the church facility itself reflected sacramental thinking and an order connected to the presence of God.
Because of this kind of sacramentalism, reformation churches tended to want to simplify worship and to hold on to the prominence of the sacraments in worship without the distractions they believed had accumulated in Roman Catholicism. Sacramentally related aspects of worship itself were also prominent. This led to a distinctive way of thinking about who was the church, what was happening in gathered worship, when and how was God at work in the world and so forth. The font, the table/altar, the scriptures and the pulpit were the anchors of worship in reformation Christianity.
The evangelical movement (yes Lutherans, I know, but it’s too late) had a different view of sacraments. One can see it in movements as disparate as the radical reformers, the Puritans and the Methodists. By the time the evangelical movement is fully birthed in the Wesleyan revival and eventually in the frontier and Pentecostal awakenings in America, the new focus has become the present action of the Holy Spirit, but not tied to the sacraments. It is the emphasis on the present work of the Holy Spirit in ways that are powerful and effective, but much less predictable and consistent. The Spirit now was coming in relation to other factors: what was preached, how men prayed, the genuineness of desire for revival, the seriousness of repentance, etc.
Evangelicals now tend to view the reformation churches as “assuming” all kinds of things that may not be true. Listen to a modern evangelical describe what’s wrong with mainline churches: they are “dead.” The people are unconverted. God isn’t present. It’s all empty ritual. They need revival and a true visitation of the Spirit. This is evangelicalism evaluating its parent and finding her seriously wanting. Like all adolescents, we can hope for improvement with maturity.
Now I am an evangelical, and I believe that the present power of the Spirit is crucial. I believe religion can be dead, and it concerns me whenever there is not evidence of Jesus shaped fruit coming from people who claim to belong to Christ by baptism, etc. I believe much of the glory of the new covenant is exactly at the point of the Spirit doing, through the Gospel of Jesus, a transformative work so that Gospel-love for God and mercy for people is evident in lively ways. It concerns me deeply that the reformation churches often seem conflicted over what it means to be a “Great Commission” people beyond baptizing their own children. These are genuine evangelical concerns that I affirm.
But evangelicals are in sacramental chaos, and the results are quite obvious. Evangelicals are “re-sacramentalizing” in an uncritical and unbiblical way. The Planetshakers article was good evidence, but you can see and hear it everywhere.
What are our evangelical sacraments? Where will evangelicals defend the idea that “God is dependably at work?”
- We have sacramentalized technology.
- We have sacramentalized the pastor and other leaders.
- We have sacramentalized music. (i.e. the songs themselves and the experience of singing.)
- We have sacramentalized leaders of musical worship.
- We have sacramentalized events. (God is here!)
- We have sacramentalized the various forms of the altar call.
- We have sacramentalized the creation of an emotional reaction.
We’ve done all of this, amazingly, while de-emphasizing and theologically gutting baptism. (I’m not buying everyone’s baptismal theology here. I’m simply saying the standard approach now is nothing more than could be accomplished by having someone jump through a hoop.)
We’ve done this while reducing the Lord’s Supper to a relatively meaningless, optional recollection. (And being deeply suspicious of anyone making it more than a glorified sermon illustration.)
We’ve done this while removing any aspects of sacramentalism from our worship and even our architecture. (Public reading of scripture, hymns, tables/altars, baptisteries, pulpits.)
And we’ve given over to whomever wants to speak up the power to say what God is saying, what God is doing, what God is using, what God thinks of whatever we’re doing, what the Spirit is up to and so on.
For example, in the next three months, you can bet your remaining life savings that someone will tell us that God is NOW using church X or method Y or person Z because the official discernment squad said so. (And ditto for saying what God is not doing, who God is not using, etc. from the discernment squad on the other side of the street.)
What’s the answer?
We need to re-sacramentalize our worldview in its entirety. Go read some Anglicans or Catholics about that. We’re ridiculously secularist and modernist in so much of our thinking, and so selective and inconsistent in our idea of how God relates to physical things.
We need to reclaim sacramental thinking in the church and not be such knee jerk opponents of the idea that God dependably uses the physical, sensual rituals Jesus endorsed. We can still argue about the exact way these sacraments operate, but we need to approach preaching, the scriptures, baptism and the Lord’s Supper with a sense that God has committed himself to these things. Yes, faith is the response and No, I am not arguing in favor of everyone’s idea of efficacious sacraments. But many of us have evangelical roots that were far more friendly to the sacraments than we are. We should reclaim those roots and study them closely.
We should adopt a post-evangelical approach to seeing the resources of the broader, deeper, more ancient faith as connected to our own traditions. Again, read some Lutherans, Anglicans and Catholics. Understand that the history of Christianity didn’t start in 1969. See what’s been stored away in our past that we’ve overlooked. Especially read the older evangelical writings on the LS, Baptism and the actual theology and practice of gathered worship.
Find some way to slow down our commitment to pragmatism. Every discussion like this features several people who are leading worship in churches they believe have gone off the rails, and they don’t know how to stop the insane, rampant, “Big Picture/Big Noise” mentality. You just have to say, “we’re going to slow down and think. We’re going to have some theology of worship that evaluates rather than justifies what we’re doing.”
Go visit some reformation churches. Consider how the sacramentalism they’ve held on to could influence your own understanding of worship and the church and enhance your mission of creating/teaching disciples.
Don’t just imitate the latest thing, the latest technology or the latest worship guru. Boldly be a Biblically committed servant and leader. Simplify. Be God centered and God aware. Resacramentalize your own thinking and leadership.
Your mission, IM readers, is to “resacramentalize evangelicalism.”