This is a response to the article, “The coming evangelical collapse” (capitalization as in the published work) written by Michael Spencer and published in the Christian Science Monitor on March 10, 2009.
First, a small disclaimer… If you are Evangelical, Episcopal, Anglican, or other Protestant; please do not be offended by my thoughts. I am making a statement about why I made certain decisions and I in no way believe these are the only acceptable decisions that could be made. I believe I am still in full communion with you and I hope you believe the same about me.
In order to understand my comments in context it is important to understand a little bit about my personal religious history. I have a personal spiritual history too. Although no less important, my spiritual history is not the subject of this writing.
I was raised an evangelical. We were Free Methodists and I regularly attended services and was very active in youth programs. During the most formative years of my youth I literally grew up in the shadow of the Billy Sunday Tabernacle in Winona Lake, IN. For those that don’t know, Billy Sunday was a major league baseball player who became an evangelical christian minister. During the 20th century he “became the nation’s most famous evangelist with his colloquial sermons and frenetic delivery.” (Wikipedia)
As a teenager I was involved in competitive Bible quizzing. We would travel all over the conference each month competing in quiz meets which were competitions between rival churches. During the summer we would travel to the national meet and compete against all the conferences in our denomination, the Free Methodist Church. Each year we would be assigned part of the Bible to learn and by learn I mean memorize inside and out so that you could literally quote every verse of the whole book or books for that year. Not everyone learned it this well but if you wanted to be a national champion (which my team was in 1984) you did it.
Studying for Bible quizzing really taught me how to study. I learned to sit down with a chapter of a book of the Bible and memorize it word for word within 30-45 minutes. It would take me about 3-4 times doing this over the next few weeks to master the text to the point of not forgetting it. This type of skill certainly helped my school work which eventually led to me being offered a scholarship to attend a Free Methodist college, Greenville College in Greenville, IL. At Greenville I went to chapel twice a week and church (almost) every Sunday. I took a minor in Philosophy & Religion and I majored in Physics and Mathematics. At Greenville, I married my wife who I had met a few years earlier in Bible quizzing. She was a Free Methodist evangelical too. Her father and grandfather both attended Greenville College and were Free Methodist. Her sister and aunt are ordained ministers in the Free Methodist church.
I give this history because it shows the amount of inertia that my wife and I had to be anything but Free Methodist, or at least evangelical, or at the very least protestant. However as I sit here writing this I am a converted Roman Catholic and I am going to Sunday evening mass in about one hour. We didn’t jump straight from being Free Methodist to being Roman Catholic. We took the usual route: evangelical to some form of protestant church with a liturgical focus and then on to being Catholic. In our case we became Episcopal and then moved to a small Anglican communion when we felt the Episcopal church had become far to liberal on social issues. After a work relocation, we found ourselves without a local conservative Anglican church so we did an inventory of what was important to us: liturgical focus, steeped in history and tradition, conservative on social issues. We came to the conclusion that we were most similar to Catholics.
So what is my beef with evangelical churches? First, they have become much different then when I was growing up. The worship service has become much more focused on entertaining and creating an emotional experience. Not that it was all good prior to this as the evangelical churches I have attend were all very focused on the minister and in worship services on the sermon. In a typical evangelical service the climax of the service is the sermon as opposed to the eucharist. It became common for communion to only be held a couple of times a year. What could be espoused from the pulpit and the quality of the content was highly variable. The content of the worship was highly affected by the individual minister as opposed to a long-standing liturgy. It becomes easy when an individual plays such a critical role for a type of “cult of the individual” to develop. The liturgy, on the other hand, is designed to focus on what is sacramental and to ensure a consistency through the ages.
John Wesley was an Anglican cleric and a Christian theologian who founded the Methodist movement. The roots of many evangelical churches can be traced back to John Wesley. However, John Wesley never left the Anglican church. He always insisted that his movement was within the bounds of the Anglican Church. One area of thought that Wesley developed is now called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It is called a quadrilateral because it is based on four equally important pillars.
* Scripture – the Holy Bible (Old and New Testaments)
* Tradition – the two millennia history of the Christian Church
* Reason – rational thinking and sensible interpretation
* Experience – a Christian’s personal and communal journey in Christ (Wikipedia)
These four pillars, or legs of the quadrilateral, describe the lens through which theological truth can best be discerned.
When I think about the important reasons why we moved away from evangelicalism it is because of the disproportionate focus on “experience” at the expense of “tradition” and “reason. We found a much more meaningful balance in the liturgical churches. If it were not for social liberalism in the Episcopal church that is likely where we would be today. I have found no true teachings (as opposed to misconceptions) in Catholicism that I can not accept in the context of it being in conflict with the essential teachings of Christianity. In other words, if the Roman Catholic Church was teaching something that prevented me from being a Christian, I would leave. Enough of that. This is not a writing on why I am now Catholic but rather why I am no longer an evangelical.
I may add to this later. However, I am out of time as I am about to go celebrate mass. Although I don’t know what the homily will be and what songs we will sing, I can quote the liturgy we will use and I will take great delight in the celebration of the eucharist.