Wednesday with Michael Spencer: On Resacramentalizing Evangelicalism

Trees of Mystery. Photo by Kyle Greenberg at Flickr. Creative Commons License

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.”

28 thoughts on “Wednesday with Michael Spencer: On Resacramentalizing Evangelicalism

  1. Orthodoxy’s rejection of the teaching that human beings inherit guilt for the sin of our primordial ancestors (“Adam and Eve”) seems far more in line with Judaism’s view of the matter, and there’s no doubt this is connected with a positive appraisal of both human nature’s and nature’s current condition that is closer to Judaism’s than the understanding handed down by the Church in the West.


  2. I am not aware of specific writings, although I’m sure they exist…. I haven’t yet read the entire range of Orthodox writings 🙂

    The general tenor of Orthodox teaching, which is heard in the texts of the liturgies and as the Patristic consensus is that existence is good, it is a gift from God, and he doesn’t take back that gift. We may try to spurn it, but if we do, we don’t really understand God’s love, or are incapable of coming face to face with it (because of the limitations of our less-than-pure hearts, sometimes fed by our own un-love/sin). We hear Jesus’ darker sayings as warnings not to go that route, but to turn toward God in trust, in and through Jesus.



  3. This is exactly the same iconoclasm as that practiced by the Muslims as they conquered the Christian East.

    And as practiced by the Wahabi as they take over mosque after mosque in the Islamic East.

    No decoration whatsoever, only plain flat whitewashed walls with verses from the Holy Book written over them. Just as Calvin did with the churches of Geneva.


  4. Without this point of contact, Dana, I suppose we could not even exist, or continue to exist. And since existence is the good gift that God gives us in the act of creation, which includes sustaining our existence, the point of contact must always continue to be his good gift to us, never corrupted by sin. To exist is good; it is God who chooses that we and the world exist, at every moment in time, not just the beginning.

    But some dark sayings of Jesus immediately jump to my mind. In one or two passages of the New Testament, Jesus says that it would have been better for those who commit certain sins to never have existed. How could that be? Doesn’t the gift of existence then become a curse for those people? Particularly since in connection with one of these passages Jesus says that it had to happen, but woe to the one guilty of it? Do any Eastern Orthodox writers address these dark sayings, Dana?


  5. We do need room of our own. Healthy families and relationships of all kinds observe and respect that need, and make accommodations for it; I’m sure God does too. I don’t think a sacramental view of creation implies that God has given us no room of our own; it does mean that God has never left us alone, never abandoned us, that humanity and the world have never lost their essential connection with him, not even as a result of sin. There is a point of contact with God in each of us, and all around us in the created world and our relationships. Thomas Merton called it the point vierge.


  6. That’s fair comment – this whole way of thinking is new to me, & I’m not surprised I show myself ignorant! I think I’m just very aware that as I’m not drawn naturally, as some seem to be, to things said to be sacramental (cough, icons, cough).

    I also get overwhelmed pretty easily at the sense that God is present in everything in a ‘God-soaked’ way when I feel it, I feel a bit suffocated & trapped so I may just not be very good at this stuff.


  7. My fiancé Jerry always tells me he was taught if you accept Jesus as your savior you are saved. Are the churches that do sacraments or do not do sacraments hurting anyone as long as the people who go to these churches believe that Jesus is their savior, Jerry was brought up in a very conservative home as far as religion.


  8. The actual theology behind the sacramental view derives from understanding the physical world created by God as good, and physical things as appropriate for mediating and communicating God to us. Otherwise, our experience of God is truly “all in our head”, whether intellectualized or emotive. This is quite connected to the ideas in the book Mike the Geologist is currently reviewing on Thursdays. Somewhere along the way (probably beginning with the Radical Reformers), what came to the fore in Protestantism was a theology that presupposed the gutting of the goodness of creation that happened with man’s turn from God. I really believe this cripples Christians’ understanding and experience of Beauty (whether in nature or in human-created media), which is crucial to being able to experience God – another name for whom is Beauty. See especially the quote from (Pseudo) Dionysius the Aeropagite (5th century AD) in this:

    I’m slowly making my way through one of Fr Stephen’s recommended books, “The Stripping of the Altars”, a sociologic history of the changes in England that came with the Reformation, also involving the ways people actually worshiped, drawing from the – by then many – writings of the day. What has struck me so far is how so much of the prayer literature and the two-dimensional art (iconography) of 14th century England is similar to that of Orthodoxy. Also sadly striking are the photographs of not only decapitated statutes, but defaced wall art – literally, the faces or eyes of all the saints are scratched out. Much was painted or plastered over. This is exactly the same iconoclasm as that practiced by the Muslims as they conquered the Christian East.



  9. it is told that in the Russian gulag, a prisoner named Father Arseny used breadcrumbs and water given to him by other prisoners in order to celebrate the Eucharist . . . it was what they had to offer


  10. the tradition that has always kept celebrating the ‘mysteries’ spoken of in sacred Scripture . . . not all of the ‘old ways’ were without meaning, no


  11. “Any grove or any wood is a fine thing to see. But the magic here, strangely, is not apparent from the road. It is necessary to leave the impersonal highway, to step inside the rusty gate and close it behind. By this, an act of faith is committed, through which one accepts blindly the communion cup of beauty. One is now inside the grove, out of one world and in the mysterious heart of another.

    Enchantment lies in different things for each of us. For me, it is in this: to step out of the bright sunlight into the shade of orange trees; to walk under the arched canopy of their jadelike leaves; to see the long aisles of lichened trunks stretch ahead in a geometric rhythm; to feel the mystery of a seclusion that yet has shafts of light striking through it.

    is the essence of an ancient and secret magic. It goes back, perhaps, to the fairy tales of childhood, to Hansel and Gretel, to Babes in the Wood, to Alice in Wonderland, to all half-luminous places that pleased the imagination as a child. It may go back still farther, to racial Druid memories, to an atavistic sense of safety and delight in an open forest.

    And after long years of spiritual homelessness, of nostalgia, here is that mystic loveliness of childhood again. Here is home. An old thread, long tangled, comes straight again.”

    (Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Cross Creek)


  12. I think what we are looking for has been all around us but we ‘could not’ or ‘would not’ see it in the simple, in the quiet, in the silence, in what we took ‘for granted’;

    is a line in the old Quaker song . . . Simple Gifts . . . . this:
    ‘it’s a gift to come down where we ought to be’

    we’ve been looking for entertainment and excitement and ‘the extra-ordinary’ for so long, we have forgotten to realize that we ourselves are made of the elements of the Earth and have a primal connection to it


  13. Nature, yes

    we humans have been trying to ‘find our way back to the Garden’ for a very, very long time, haven’t we


  14. “Without the authority of tradition…”

    Which immediately begs the question, “*Which* tradition?”


  15. This argument is going nowhere without taking seriously the authority of the Christian tradition. A sacramental worldview is arguably implicit in various stories in scripture, but not exactly explicit. Without the authority of tradition, it’s just one more topic for Christians to argue over.


  16. Many of the points Michael made about the sacraments (what has been done to them and why they might be important to “resacramentalize evangelicalism”) resonate with me from where I sit in my evangelical pew. And because I think liturgy has gone the same route as sacraments in evangelical circles, many of his points also easily be applied to the lack of liturgy, too. I think my Nazarene church (and other evangelical churches, for that matter) would benefit greatly from “reliturgizing” their services. I’m not even talking “we need to become Lutheran;” just add something every service that is truly sacramental and liturgical.


  17. We understand the specific sacraments as intensifications of the sacramental reality of all of life. God in Christ is active in all of life, but in the specific sacraments he meets his people in a very intense and personal way. And as in the sacramental nature of all of life it is God’s actions that make them sacramental and not mere human actions.


  18. Growing up in the SBC, there were two “ordinances”: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Both were viewed as actions that that the Christian does to show God and other that they are obedient. God is passive during both. If you look at the “alter” in many traditional Baptist churches, it would read “Do this in remembrance of me”. They did not see God acting through these “ordinances” The focus is on the individual.

    Now that I am. Lutheran, I have a different view of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as God being active and I am receiving the benefits of these. I like the fact that I walk past the baptismal font when going into the sanctuary. I appreciate that my church has communion twice a month (I have been part of Lutheran churches with weekly communion) so that I can fear the words that bread and wine was given to me for the forgiveness of my sins.


  19. I’m not sure I would state any of this as “feeling sacramental.”

    “Sacramentalism” is a a point of view that must be cultivated. It encourages us to know that we live in what I call a “God-soaked” world. In God we live and move and have our being. As Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poem says, “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” Because this is true, sacramentalism is an invitation to exploration and discovery. A sacramental perspective invites us to look for God and to see the divine life and hand in all aspects of life.

    Sacramental traditions and practices are designed to nourish this perspective and to stimulate our curiosity to discover God’s presence and activity in our daily lives and in the world.


  20. Just fyi fwiw, Anglicans recognize 2 “greater” sacraments and 5 “lesser” sacraments.


  21. I don’t think I feel sacramental about anything, except for nature & some people. Probably plus some art, but not much of it Christian. I look at many church buildings & then look at nature, & only find nature life giving.


  22. I get the arguments for sacramentalized church architecture, I really do. And frankly, megachurch buildings are awful. But I don’t want to end up making buildings a sacrament either. The wonderful thing about water, bread, and wine – ANYBODY has access to them. You don’t need a sound system, a cathedral, a CCLI agreement, or any outside approval. Just a quiet space, God’s people gathered, and the presentation of the elements. “Wherever two or three are gathered in My name…”


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