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November 5, 2009

Andy Rowell: What Liturgical and Free Church leaders can learn from each other.

According to data from the National Congregations Study, 38% of people in the United States associate themselves with “liturgical” churches (Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal); while 46% associate themselves with “free” churches (Baptist, Pentecostal, non-denominational). The 14% of people associated with Methodist and Reformed/Presbyterian churches could break either way.

Liturgical churches emphasize historical and global continuity in their worship services. The term “Free Church” is related to the relative autonomy of individual congregations.

Liturgical clergy see their role as being a faithful steward of historic Christianity. This consists especially of serving the Lord’s Supper and preaching. Free church pastors tend to see their role as equipping their congregations for evangelism and social justice. Because of their different understandings of their roles, it is not surprising that free church pastors are open to insights gleaned from megachurches, church planters, and business leaders; while liturgical church clergy see these sources as consumeristic, arrogant, and misguided.

Nowhere is free church innovation more plainly seen than at The Catalyst Conference, attended by 13,000 people October 8-9 outside Atlanta, Georgia. Catalyst is “specifically focused on leaders under the age of 40.” Its podcast tagline is “what’s next in the church.”

The strength of Catalyst is also the strength of the Free Church traditions. Their willingness to experiment with ways of reaching the unchurched and the poor with the goodness of the gospel shapes their communities. Paul writes, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:23). Scratch the surface of a Christian who is an “innovator” or “leader” and you have underneath a person with a passion to reach people with the good news.

Liturgical church clergy can learn from Catalyst to impress on their people that they are missionaries for Christ. The biblical word is “witnesses.” Of course, they need not learn it from Catalyst. The Roman Catholic Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium (1964) says, “Since, like Paul the Apostle, the bishop is debtor to all men, let him be ready to preach the Gospel to all, and to urge his faithful to apostolic and missionary activity.”

The weakness of Catalyst is also the weakness of the Free Church traditions. Authenticity, vulnerability, spontaneity, and extemporaneous communication characterized the Catalyst speakers. Almost all of the speakers walked around and used few if any notes when they spoke. Some were able to pull this off with obvious preparation and memorization. Others resorted to off-the-cuff stream-of-consciousness rambling. The former was powerful. The latter produced cringes.

This is symptomatic of the Free Church traditions. Some contemporary worship songs, church plants, and megachurches are spectacularly effective. Others spectacularly self-destruct. Untethered to a hierarchy or narrow role of guarding the tradition, there is extreme pressure on the leader. At Catalyst, speaker after speaker with massive churches and best-selling books talked about the toll their “success” had taken on their family and themselves. They emphasized the need for systems of support and accountability. A frequent comment from the stage was “Remember that it is all about Jesus.”

These admonitions are all central for liturgical church clergy. Because it is good to lean on colleagues, and not to have the responsibility to make it all up as one goes along, liturgical clergy participate in a larger denominational structure. Because there is peace and health that comes from rooting the pastoral task in the finished work of Christ, they celebrate the Lord’s Supper weekly.

Catalyst leaders need not be “free” (that is, “lost”) from the insights of the rich liturgical church tradition on pastoral spiritual, physical and social health. Catalyst can catalyze liturgical church clergy and free church leaders to learn from each other rather than dismiss each other.

Andy Rowell is a doctoral student in theology at Duke Divinity School. He blogs at www.andyrowell.net and tweets at http://twitter.com/AndyRowell. This post originally appeared at Out of Ur.



You may be interested in the book which Wipf and Stock published last winter that provides a two millennium historical background to the current division which this excellent essay describes. The book is entitled "Follow Me: A History of Christian Intentionality." Since I wrote it I can't give an unbiased review, but I can say that it documents that the split between liturgical and evangelical Christians has been around for a very long time. The book grew out of the International Mennonite Catholic Ecumenical Dialogue.


Ivan, thanks for the reference to your book.

It strikes me

Andy that evangelicals have understood that the line is blurry between mainline and evangelical more than mainliners have. CT has always known a huge part of its readership is in mainline churches; whereas the mainline has often had no way to identify itself other than 'we're not evangelical.' Do you read that similarly?

Evangelicals and the Mainline


The 2003 Pulpit and Pew survey of what pastors read does reveal a difference between what mainline Protestant and conservative Protestant pastors read. http://www.pulpitandpew.duke.edu/pastorspicks.html

But I think evangelicals do not see "the mainline" as an entity with which to contrast themselves. C.S. Lewis, John Stott, and J.I. Packer were well known Anglicans revered in evangelical circles. Eugene Peterson (PCUSA), Earl Palmer (PCUSA), Henri Nouwen (RC), and Will Willimon (UM) were influential figures for me reading about pastoral ministry in Christianity Today's Leadership Journal in the 1990's.

But I am also not sure how antagonistic mainline clergy are toward evangelicals. There are organized groups within all of the mainline denominations who are lobbying for evangelical-like "renewal." Still, there is no doubt that many mainliners when they hear "evangelicals," think of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

It seems to me at Duke Divinity School there is a disconnect between what the faculty are generally trying to do--connect to the Great Tradition of Christianity--Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley with what evangelicals tend to like to do--skip straight back to the Bible.

But it is easy to see that these resourcement projects are complementary. Church history professors at evangelical seminaries and Duke Divinity biblical studies professors both try to argue that both the Great Tradition and the Bible are important. But sometimes these voices get drowned out by the "all we need is the Bible!" and "we need to learn from the tradition!" shouting.

societal ramifications of extemporaneous thought

We all have a God we can query whether or not the deity in question has a response. Eventually, we will have an answer to every question we pose. When the questions stop, does the answer still look for us?

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