September 12, 2006 / David Fitch

On Church Shopping, Staying Put, Musical Chairs and Ecumenism

I’d like to say some things about the evangelicals going high church and even the emerging churches rejecting their denominations of birth.

I have been tempted many times to leave evangelicalism for a lot of reasons. At times, I have been tempted to leave for more substantive worship or to avoid the narrow minded cheesy ways of selling Jesus. But I think to just leave one’s inherited church, without being asked to leave, is a strike against the cause of ecumenism. What? Yeah ecumenism, the unity of the church. So I stay put. I hope to explain why at the end of this post.

What I am about to say does not apply to a lot of people. There are good reasons for leaving churches, and also for having no denominational affiliation. Yet the trend seems to be catching steam and maybe we should think about what we’re doing. Especially trendy are evangelicals leaving their church of birth for high-church traditions. Colleen Carroll, in certain parts of her book The New Faithful, records that this is happening. It seems that in my alma mater, Wheaton College, many are “converting,” to either Anglo Catholicism or even Roman Catholicism. A faculty member was asked to leave for converting to RC. I wonder if the Catholics count the converts like we do when it happens in reverse. Generous Orthodoxy blog has some great discussion on the topic. Evangelicals leaving for high church seem to be a phenomenon of our times.

To me this is one more extension of the historical game of musical chairs. At first it was the Roman Catholics leaving for Reformed churches. Those Reformed churches came to the New World and weren’t individualistic enough, so we had Great Awakenings and a whole bunch of folk left to join the revivalist churches. There were also the people that were always leaving for some fresh Anabaptist primitivist vision of the church. These too were ancestors of evangelicals. Now we have people doing the reverse, i.e. leaving evangelicalism back to the high church traditions. They are sick of the thin insubstantial theologies and narcissistic forms of Christianity that have evolved out of evangelicalism’s individualism. Ironically, theologians, many whom critique the consumerist habits of evangelicals and mega churches are folk who move to the high church traditions, “church shopping” for a more substantial vision instead of trying to help us evangelicals out of our quandary. One can only wonder how long the ancestors of these folk will go before they complain about rote liturgy and leave for a primitivist more authentic version of Christianity again and start the whole cycle again.

Over against all this, I propose we give up the musical chairs and stay put. Let us all seek faithfulness and trust the work of the Spirit to take us somewhere out of where God has put us. It is slow but I believe it could be taking us towards a renewed unity of the church.

Alasdair Macintyre said in After Virtue, “the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I was born with a past, and to try to cut myself off from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships.” Later on, on that same page, McIntyre continues “ … I find myself part of a history and that is generally to say, whether I like it or not, whether I recognize it or not, one of the bearers of tradition.” (p. 221). What I believe this means for all of us is that God’s calling starts with us where we are born. And we are to work within that tradition, or the tradition by which we first were brought into the gospel until informed otherwise (i.e. kicked out). We are to work for its reform from within. And just perhaps, if we stay put and keep working long enough, a true ecumenism can happen that brings all traditions together in a grand convergence of the Spirit. Evangelicals, who see the value of the high church liturgical traditions, don’t leave but bring that understanding to bear on their evangelical practices. Catholics, who see the problems of inaccessible and/or dead liturgy in their church, don’t leave, but bring these insights to bear on their church. Same way with other doctrinal issues and other traditions. If we all stayed put and worked for reform on the issues from within instead of leaving, all of the traditions might converge by the Holy Spirit. We’re already seeing it between Catholics and evangelicals as Scot McKnight has blogged about. We’re already seeing it at Wheaton College despite their administration’s work against it. We’re already seeing it as more evangelicals and emerging churches see the value of historical forms of worship. We’re already seeing it as more evangelical traditions working together.

This is where I might really have smoke blowing out my ears, but I think the emerging folks, as diverse, cross denominational as they are, might have an opportunity of a life time, to be a force for a convergence of Christian traditions towards a new kind of unity. In other words, liturgy, mission, justice and community are messages that some traditions need more than others. By staying within our respective traditions we can cross the bridges necessary to bring liturgy to evangelicals, community to Catholics and white evangelicals, justice to the evangelicals, mission to the Catholics and Anglo Catholics. In this way, emerging folk, if we stay in our traditions and denominations, might become a force for ecumenism among the Christian traditions.