Thinking Out Loud

April 20, 2020

Author’s ‘All Inclusive’ Church Actually Favors One Approach Above the Others

For the past twelve years, most of the books I’ve reviewed here have either been popular titles or books which went on to become bestsellers. I generally don’t consider anything that isn’t going to end up on my personal bookshelf, which is currently quite crowded.

About a year ago I realized that I needed to go a little deeper in my personal reading and kept eyeing titles which all had one thing in common: InterVarsity Press (IVP). Book reviewers get their copies for free and no amount of pestering people at IVP would produce results, so just before the lockdown, I decided to bite the bullet and for the first time pay for copies of books to read and review and chose four titles.

This in turn freed me up from the restriction of having to focus on recently-published titles, so I reached back to 2017 for Evangelical, Sacramental & Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three by Gordon T. Smith (IVP Academic). I tend to select books I know ahead of time I am going to review positively and this one had three things going for it:

  1. The writer is Canadian. Gotta support the home team, right?
  2. It was published by IVP, where I was once a warehouse manager for their Canadian operation.
  3. The writer is from my denomination: The Christian and Missionary Alliance.

In other words, this can’t miss. Or so I thought.

However, as I progressed through the book’s scant 133 pages of actual text (at a $18.00 US list, or a whopping $23.99 Canadian) I found the premise of the book wearing increasingly thin.

On a personal level I’ve admired churches which can not only blend worship with ancient and modern, but can blend the somewhat relaxed form of contemporary Evangelicalism with some more deliberate acknowledgements of liturgical forms such as more than one scripture reading, or call and response readings, etc. That my wife does this each week in an otherwise Evangelical church just confirms my bias.

Right there I had a problem. I was reading the title of the book as though it said, ‘Evangelical, Liturgical, Pentecostal…’ whereas the author is contending for a hardcore sacramental inclusion even though Evangelicals and Charismatics no more teach a sacramental approach than they confer sainthood on pillars of the church. (Tangentially: I think there’s a case to be made for Evangelicals having a sacrament of preaching, but that’s outside the scope of this article.) As I got deeper and deeper, it appeared that Gordon Smith not only sees a local church being influenced by all three ecclesiastic streams, but importing bulk-sized elements of each into their worship routine. (To fully do this justice, I believe you’re looking at a 2-hour worship service.)

I am confident there are churches out there who have successfully followed this model though the book offered absolutely nothing in the way of case studies or positive anecdotal accounts. However, the Apostle Paul’s words notwithstanding, I think that in trying to be “all things to all people” a church might miss out on their unique calling, especially in an urban situation which already offers a broad selection of churches.

The book is arranged in six, easy-to-follow chapters. In the first three shorter chapters, Smith looks at the themes of abiding in Christ, the grace of God, and the significance of the ascension; as they are found in John’s Gospel, the Luke-Acts narratives, and the writings of two key figures, Calvin and Wesley.

Chapters four through six are the meat of the book, looking at the principles of Evangelicalism, Sacramental liturgy, and Pentecostal/Charismatic movement.

In examining what it means to be Evangelical, there is already an emphasis on the importance of Baptism and the Eucharist (Communion). In the Sacramental section, I saw this bias more clearly and when he declared that The Lord’s Supper is something that can only be practiced under the “authority” and “administration” of the church — and remember I’m reading this during the Covid-19 lockdown where we’ve all had to exercise all manner of grace on this matter — I wrote in the margin, “He just lost me.” (p 80)

Not at all fearing that Communion could run the risk of being a postscript to a worship service, Smith insists that it must occur after the sermon and feeling he needs to state this despite widespread agreement, that the words of institution must be read each time. (Personal Rant: Pastors, please do the more seasoned believers in your church a favor and at least vary the Bible translations used in the I Cor. 11 reading.) He also appears somewhat opposed to including any type of teaching on the meaning of the sacrament with the terse dismissal, “We certainly do not need a second sermon and we do not need an extended explanation of the meaning of these symbols.” (p 91) As in, never? He also seems to confuse the liturgical approach of more liberal churches with those who are truly Christ-focused, suggesting, but not overtly stating, that the passages in the Lectionary are simply pretext for the pastor to express a personal opinion. It’s a rather sweeping generalization.

The final chapter on the Pentecostal principle is where Smith shows himself to be least comfortable. At least nine times he begins a paragraph or a sentence with “And yet…” his personal equivalent to ‘On the other hand…’ not unlike a politician writhing on the stage in an attempt to satisfy all his constituents.

He suggests there might be Pentecostal churches where no preaching or communion are present. (p 105) and while I concede such events occasionally occur, they are clearly the exception, not the rule. He believes in an experience of the Spirit that is felt and acknowledges the possibility of God’s Spirit moving in our services spontaneously, and in the prayer for healing of the sick — this is consistent with Christian and Missionary Alliance history and doctrine — but is clearly unwilling to give this section of the book the wholehearted endorsement he gives to Evangelical and Sacramental emphasis, even going so far as to state, “We are not truly pentecostal, in other words, unless we are sacramental.” (p 116)

In a short concluding chapter the book loses all academic pretense and moves to the ranting of a grumpy old uncle.

Even the lectern has been replaced by the bistro table and bar stool, while the equivalent of the sermon has become a more casual chat, downplaying the authority of the Scriptures in an attempt to make the Word more accessible. As often as not, the communion table which for my upbringing was always viewed an important item of furniture even when not being used, has been removed. And now what is front and center — with the pulpit and the communion table gone — is, I say this without any exaggeration, the drum set. (p 127-128)

In the margin of my copy, I have written, “Yikes!” …

…So perhaps I misspoke earlier. There is an example in the book of a church doing all three — being Evangelical, Liturgical and Charismatic — and it exists in the author’s mind. He pictures it vividly complete with a “baptismal pool” at the back of the church and not the front, and banners hanging from the walls. This is the author’s personal Walden and it might have been better served if the title reflected this — or more truthfully using must instead of should in the existing subtitle — instead of suggesting something being more widely and gently advocated.

 

 

 

 

January 8, 2019

Melding the Church Categories

Last year the academic books division of InterVarsity Press (IVP) released a title which intrigued me.  Gordon T. Smith is the President of Ambrose University in Calgary. Evangelical, Sacramental, Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three struck me as an ecclesiastic and doctrinal equivalent to what the late Robert Webber was trying to move us toward; the idea of blended worship. The idea is to move from a polarized, either/or approach to incorporating the best from different traditions.

At least I think that’s what it’s about. I don’t, after many attempts, get review books from IVP, be they academic or otherwise. (I’ll admit a lack of full qualification to review scholarly titles, but at 160 pages, I’d be willing to look up the big words!) For that reason, I’ll default to the publisher’s summary:

Evangelical. Sacramental. Pentecostal. Christian communities tend to identify with one of these labels over the other two. Evangelical churches emphasize the importance of Scripture and preaching. Sacramental churches emphasize the importance of the eucharistic table. And pentecostal churches emphasize the immediate presence and power of the Holy Spirit. But must we choose between them? Could the church be all three?

Drawing on his reading of the New Testament, the witness of Christian history, and years of experience in Christian ministry and leadership, Gordon T. Smith argues that the church not only can be all three, but in fact must be all three in order to truly be the church. As the church navigates the unique global challenges of pluralism, secularism, and fundamentalism, the need for an integrated vision of the community as evangelical, sacramental, and pentecostal becomes ever more pressing. If Jesus and the apostles saw no tension between these characteristics, why should we?

I mention the book now only because today is the release day for another book that I think offers a similar challenge and has a similar title.

Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor of King’s Church in London, part of the Newfrontiers network of churches. His book is titled: Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship (Zondervan). Full marks for the adjective — eucharismatic — which I’d never heard before. (Google produced 5,700 results, but the first page results were all for this book.)

Even though it’s only 140 pages, because the book just arrived late yesterday afternoon, I’ll again refer to the publisher summary:

Spirit and Sacrament by pastor and author Andrew Wilson is an impassioned call to join together two traditions that are frequently and unnecessarily kept separate. It is an invitation to pursue the best of both worlds in worship, the Eucharistic and the charismatic, with the grace of God at the center.

Wilson envisions church services in which healing testimonies and prayers of confession coexist, the congregation sings When I Survey the Wondrous Cross followed by Happy Day, and creeds move the soul while singing moves the body. He imagines a worship service that could come out of the book of Acts: Young men see visions, old men dream dreams, sons and daughters prophesy, and they all come together to the same Table and go on their way rejoicing.

Two sentences from the précis of both books:

  • “..the church not only can be all three, but in fact must be all three in order to truly be the church.” 
  • “…an impassioned call to join together two traditions that are frequently and unnecessarily kept separate. It is an invitation to pursue the best of both worlds in worship.”

Hopefully people are listening.


Read an excerpt from Andrew Wilson’s book at this link.

 

 

May 25, 2017

The Quest for the Holy Grail of Worship Community

Filed under: Christianity, Church, reviews — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:21 am

Book Review: Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans

Searching for Sunday is the story of Rachel Held Evans and her husband Dan and their meanderings in being sometimes drawn towards and sometimes repelled from a place of weekend worship. Far from the usual oft-seen rant on this subjective, the book is very redemptive in tone and is in part a cautionary tale and in part of celebration of the great things the capital-C Church can do through the ministry of the small-c local church.

This book was actually published in 2015. A copy landed accidentally from the publisher; in other words I was under no requirement to read the book at all, much less write about it. My intention was to read a few chapters and then possibly give the copy away. Instead, I worked my way through eventually missing nothing from the copyright page to footnote #93. And also, it appears, wrote a review.

Rachel Held Evans is often seen as a poster girl for the progressive Evangelical movement. Her name is — and this is to be taken quite literally — used as a swear word on a popular Reformed podcast. Her roots are conservative and she describes her relationship to those days as analogous to someone who has broken up with their boyfriend, but continues to check their Facebook page every few days. She walks a tension between  traditional Evangelicalism and its more modern expressions.

My first exposure to her was on her blog, RachelHeldEvans.com, where she no longer posts as frequently, but back in the day, it was the springboard to my second exposure to her, the book Evolving in Monkey Town, the story of growing up in Dayton, the epicenter of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Searching for Sunday is relatively similar in the weight of its autobiographical content, but is also as informative as Evolving, if not more so. There is a commonality to the personal sections however. The book contains an ever-present tension between her story and my story; or yours.

The book is organized in seven groups of chapters (3-6 per group) each of which could be viable as a stand-alone essay. The groups themselves represent seven sacraments: Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Communion, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage. The perspective of the author varies. Sometimes she is a congregant; a parishioner just like many of us. At other times, she finds herself on the platform; the result of speaking engagements brought about through the popularity of her blog, and later her books. So there is another tension here, between disciple, earnestly seeking after God, and church leader, the one at the front of the room holding the microphone.

Finally, her journey represents a constant vacillation — in a good way, mind you — between historical, liturgical denominations and upstart, informal church communities. Personal familiarity with both is helpful here, but not required. Let me rephrase that: Personal familiarity with both is probably recommended here; the book exposes the value of both types of Christian community. 

One last thing: Rachel is an awesome writer, no surprise given she was a literature major. Even if you don’t agree with her take on everything, I think you can still enjoy the reading of it, and come away informed and enriched.


Learn more at ThomasNelson.com

Follow her @rachelheldevans

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