Evangelical versus liturgical: defying a worship dichotomy

July 31st, 2014

From the Foreword by Mark A. Noll . . .

This book, though presenting its research calmly and moving carefully to thoughtful conclusions, has been written by an author with a mission. At first glance, Evangelical versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy would seem to be on a fool’s errand, for it reflects commitments to both the theoretical liturgical studies that have flourished in Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant circles as well as the worshipping lives of Protestant evangelicals for whom “liturgy” can sometimes sound like a dirty word. Yet by bringing together her mastery of standard authorities in the study of Christian liturgy and her own familiarity with evangelical traditions, Melanie Ross shows that, far from a fool’s errand, this task can lead to edifying illumination.

The result of her pioneering effort is a challenge to scholars of liturgy to recognize that “free churches,” which may be inert to traditional or formal liturgical studies, nonetheless can possess responsible (if unselfconscious) liturgical traditions. Along the way it shows that these churches have often developed insights about worship that formally trained liturgical scholars need to appreciate, and that these churches deserve a place at the table in liturgical study more generally.

But the book also aims a challenge at evangelicals by showing that formal liturgical studies pose no threat to the free churches, that the informal liturgies of evangelical churches may contain unrecognized problems, and that free churches would benefit from more liturgical self-consciousness. Professor Ross has explored aspects of these themes in technical articles written primarily for scholars. With this book she shows that ordinary Christians who are concerned about their own worship practices, along with scholars, can benefit by “defying a dichotomy.” . . .

As a whole, this book is enhanced by Professor Ross’s broad reading in contemporary theology, both evangelical and other; it is marked by a solid grasp of American religious history; it reflects thorough knowledge of evangelical, mainline Protestant, and Roman Catholic liturgies; and it is particularly alert to how those liturgical practices have changed over time. Most importantly, it is a strategically important attempt to bridge the gaps that continue to divide the American Christian landscape between self-conscious liturgical scholars and dedicated evangelicals. The payoff from Melanie Ross’s close attention to the day-to-day worshipping lives of ordinary American believers, her unusual measure of theological sophistication, and her deep liturgical learning is a feast for heart and mind in equal measure.

From the Introduction by Melanie C. Ross . . .

The notion of “middle” is important to me because I live with one foot in both evangelical and liturgical worlds. When I first entered the world of liturgical studies, I was confused by a lexicon of words I had never encountered in my nondenominational church: anamnesis, epiclesis, homily, lectionary, and antiphon, to cite but a few examples. Over a decade later, I continue to do a great deal of translation work when I talk to my family and church friends about my chosen academic discipline. I am sympathetic to honest critiques of my tradition: evangelicals should be engaged in deeper study of sacramental practices, ecumenical creeds, and the liturgical year. Resources abound for introducing these topics, and I use them regularly in my teaching.

At the same time, I keep in mind John Witvliet’s caution:

It is terribly tempting to teach worship with an undertone of guilt (“if you don’t do it this way, be shamed”), fear (“worship practices out there are pretty bad, and getting worse”), or pride (“how fine indeed it is that we don’t pray like those [fill in the blank] publicans”).

Witvliet stresses that “even in the bleakest days,” the most fitting “gospel undertone” for discussions of worship is gratitude. So, in addition to introducing my low-church evangelical students to the riches of Catholic, Orthodox, and mainline Protestant liturgical traditions, I want to help them see that they themselves have important gifts to bring to the ecumenical table.

However, this book was born out of the discovery that little translation work was being done in the opposite direction: it was — and continues to be — difficult to find academic literature that explains “low church” evangelical worship practices to those from more “high church” liturgical traditions. In 1989, liturgical historian James White noted that evangelicalism had been “almost totally ignored in liturgical scholarship, as if such an omnipresent American phenomenon did not deserve description, still less interpretation.” Fourteen years later, in 2003, liturgical theologian Graham Hughes reported little change in the scholarly landscape: “One faces an unmapped (possibly hazardous) territory in attempting to include evangelical Christianity in an account of liturgical theology. . . . This style of worship is simply bypassed in discussions of liturgical theology.”

White and Hughes sound similar notes of caution to their mainline and Catholic colleagues. “We face a basic problem in ignoring the worship of most North American Christians,” says White; and Hughes comments that “as a highly prominent way of making sense of ‘God’ in our times, [evangelicalism] belongs in an account of liturgical meaning production.” White, Hughes, and a handful of other liturgical scholars have taken steps to address the lacuna, and I am appreciative of their pioneering work. But as an individual with deep academic and experiential knowledge of evangelicalism, I find their scholarship problematic on a number of levels.

Too many historical accounts of evangelical worship fixate on the controversial innovations of Charles Finney and neglect the ecumenical vision of earlier evangelical leaders. Too many liturgical scholars use the words “fundamentalism” and “evangelicalism” interchangeably, despite the fact that historians like Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Joel Carpenter have spent thirty years nuancing the definitions of both terms. Too many descriptions of evangelical worship are written by mainline scholars on the basis of isolated visits or secondhand reports. Most of these accounts are now decades out of date and describe a “seeker-service” model whose influence has waned significantly among evangelicals. There is pressing need for work that brings together the best of liturgical scholarship with the best scholarship on American evangelicalism and puts both in conversation with worship practices of contemporary congregations. I hope this book is one small step in that direction.

excerpt from Evangelical versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy by Melanie C. Ross Copyright © 2014 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Used with permission.

comments powered by Disqus