Post-Evangelical Buzzkill: What’s Wrong with ‘Rite and Sacrament?’

In “Young Evangelicals are Getting High” Rebecca VanDoodewaard observes the trend among children of evangelicals to gravitate, if they remain Christians at all, to “high church” forms of worship: in other words, to Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, or even Eastern Orthodox congregations.

The town I live in has several “evangelical” Protestant colleges: on Ash Wednesday you can tell who studies at them by the ash crosses on their foreheads.

Mrs. VanDoodewaard suggests that this tendency could have been prevented if the evangelical churches where these students grew up were better at teaching the faith. She unfortunately even puts scare quotes around “Christian” when describing evangelical writers sympathetic to “high church” modes of worship. To me this looks like prejudice.

It may be true to an extent that young folks are leaving evangelicalism because of churches’ failure to model mature faith for children and youth: “They are looking for true, deep, intellectually robust spirituality in their parents’  churches and not finding it.” Mrs. VanDoodewaard is certainly on the mark here, if my friends’ experience counts for anything. What they want, and are not getting in so many “evangelical” churches is, as she puts it:

[T]heology; membership in a group that transcends time, place and race; a historic rootedness; something greater than themselves; ordained men who will be spiritual leaders and not merely listeners and buddies and story-tellers. . . . a holy Father who demands reverence, a Saviour who requires careful worship, and a Spirit who must be obeyed.

Based on my own observation I would also agree with her that churches (such as conservative reformed Presbyterian denominations) that teach the intellectual and historic distinctives of the faith lose fewer, and produce more spiritually mature young adults:

Protestant churches that recognize their own ecclesiastical and theological heritage, training their children to value and continue it in a 21st century setting, usually retain their youth. These kids have the tools they need to think biblically through the deep and difficult issues of the day and articulate their position without having a crisis of faith. They know the headlines, church history, theology and their Bibles, and so are equipped to engage culture in a winsome, accessible way.

Now I know how fun it is to harsh the post-evangelical mellow, and I may have been too free in the past with my scorn for the turtleneck-wearing self-appointed representatives of the younger generation. However, the writer’s dismissive attitude toward liturgical worship tells one more about her than about her subject:

That’s not to say that the Book of Common Prayer is unbiblical in its entirety–far from it! It is to say that children raised in spiritually substantive and faithful homes usually find things like holy water, pilgrimages, popes and ash on their faces an affront to the means for spiritual growth that God has appointed in His Word.

As a young Anglican I also know the headlines, church history, theology, and my Bible, and care little for popes and pilgrimages, although certain Roman Catholic writers such as the former Pope Benedict have helped me learn and grow. I also appreciate the ways in which my denomination is rooted in the history and tradition of the ancient Church. But what Mrs. VanDoodewaard shows here is her characteristically Presbyterian prejudice against physical means to the contemplation of truth. These things are not bad, or a sign of spiritual decay. Ashes, for instance, remind one of death and the need for repentance, and their annual imposition marks the beginning of a season of self-examination and repentance during the liturgical year. We should always be examining ourselves and repenting from sin, but church tradition is a “dutiful mother” who knows that her errant children sometimes need to be reminded of this in a tangible way. “Holy water,” similarly, reminds one of the sacrament of baptism and the cleansing power of being buried and raised with Jesus. These incidentals are not the primary content of the faith, but neither should they be scorned when seen in the right light.

Some people who observe Christian tradition from the outside see ashes and holy water and think “Superstition!” That is because they are not in on the secret. It is not actually a secret, but it keeps itself remarkably well from those who do not wish to learn it.

As for “the means for spiritual growth that God has appointed in his Word,” these would seem to be the means that have been practiced by the church since Acts chapter 1, when “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” which is a pretty neat outline of what Mrs. VanDoodewaard dismisses as “high church rite and sacrament.” Add the private disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and meditating on the Scriptures for a whole picture of mature life in Christian community.

“Rite and Sacrament” Christianity has a whole lot to offer to everyone, including evangelicals. I contend that one of the biggest problems with evangelicalism is how much it has strayed from the eternal relevance of ancient Christian tradition to become the always-irrelevant Church of What’s Happening Now.


A word to evangelicals seeking “relevance:” Blue jeans, Getty songs, and Fair Trade Coffee have little to contribute to the work of the church, although those things are nice if you can get them without giving up more important things. Half the folks in my Anglican congregation wear jeans to church and probably listen to Getty songs in the car, but they’re content with Folgers during coffee hour, and we sure don’t have the money, ability, or desire to put a praise band up front with the organ.

And to the “Emergents:” Put on your irony-tinted hipster glasses, but I doubt you can appropriate the spiritual capital of traditional Christianity without being transformed by it.

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THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

2 thoughts on “Post-Evangelical Buzzkill: What’s Wrong with ‘Rite and Sacrament?’”

  1. In addition to Mrs. VanDoodewaard’s “characteristically Presbyterian prejudice against physical means to the contemplation of truth” she also demonstrates the characteristically Presbyterian (and sadly Protestant) inability to see the physical means of grace and the necessity of the Church to understanding Scripture.
    There’s also the characteristically Presbyterian self-defensiveness I’ve observed anytime I’ve talked to one about liturgy or church history.

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