My “tent” was too restricted, and I wanted to look at other tents
In my pre-rebellion years, when I was living at home, a pastor’s home, I had some out-bursts of “pre-rebellion” where I explored some things that perplexed some of my Pentecostal friends. When I was in high school I began to engage with other Christians, from a variety of Christian churches and traditions. This is where I befriended my first Greek Orthodox friend. I also made my first Anglican and Roman Catholic friends at this time, as well as a liturgical Lutheran friend. I made friends with Presbyterians, United Church of Canada adherents, and a variety of Evangelicals, from Baptists, Pentecostals, Brethren, Wesleyan, Anabaptists, and a whole bunch who were “non-denominational.” It was at this time that I began to explore the history of how the “Church did church” and the important aspects of what church worship entailed. I was fascinated by all the differences I saw and experienced as I explored “how people did church” in their respective traditions. I had lived in my “Pentecostal tent” my entire life, and I found it too restrictive, too narrow a lens for understanding the uniqueness of the “Christian Church.”
Church history did not begin in 1906 at Asuza Street
My parents were Pentecostal missionaries to France for twelve years, and then came to Canada as missionaries, and eventually settled down to live as permanent residents in Canada, and became Canadian citizens. My parents were not raised Pentecostal. My father was raised Presbyterian, and my mother was raised Church of Ireland (High Anglican). My mother knew more about the use of classical Christian liturgy, the use of candles, incense, high church music, choristers, liturgical processionals and recessionals, and the actual practice of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and its use of the Lectionary, Bible readings and prayers. By contrast my father did not know any of that “stuff of religion” as he like to call it. Where my mother understood the view of the centrality of the “table” for the Divine Service of the Eucharist, my father knew the centrality of preaching, and the raised pulpit in the church, with an elevated pulpit to represent the elevated status of the centrality of preaching the Scriptures. My parents knew none of the history of Pentecostalism or its practices. They entered Pentecostalism through the outreach ministry of an Elim Church in Belfast, that went out to Port Rush to proclaim Jesus Christ to all the people enjoying a spring day on the beach! For my parents, and for myself, church history did not begin with Pentecostalism in 1906.
For my parents, their church traditions celebrated its histories as branches that came from the apostolic root of the tree, and grew throughout the centuries to arrive to our own, through Apostolic Fathers, the Anti-Nicene Fathers, the Post-Nicene Fathers, the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, Monasticism, the Dark Ages, the Celtic missionary expansion in Europe, the Crusades, all the way to the Reformation, Radical Reformation, the Counter Reformation, the missionary expansion of the Church, right up to the Wesleyan holiness movement and various pietist movements, right up to the rise of Pentecostalism, Fundamentalism, and Evangelicalism. My parents knew next to nothing about the “tongue talkers” other than about their zeal in preaching the Gospel, of which they benefited personally themselves.
From Pentecostal to Evangelical
My own journey was birthed as I said out of that pre-rebellion stage where I was exploring my Christian faith for myself. I explored everything from the study of the Bible, biblical theology, church history, key historical figures that helped shape the church, as well as the actual practices of the church, and why we do them, or don’t do them a certain way. I was fixated on much of this, and it is still a fixation in one way or another and it informs my spiritual walk and my Christian disciplines and practices that have meaning and purpose in my own life journey even now. You see, there wasn’t much history to the Pentecostal movement, no matter how many Pentecostal teachers and historians would say and teach on the “continuance” of the “link of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit throughout the Christian centuries.” I had to move beyond the limited lens and scope of Pentecostalism. To my own understanding back then, and even more so now, is that “Pentecostalism is just one flavor, one stream in a huge river, an overflowing flow of one stream among thousands of streams that come into one large tributary that is the “River of God” that flows right from His thrones into all the nations of the earth! So rather than limit myself to 1906, I wanted to go to the root, to the beginnings of the Early Church.
In my teen years, when I discovered I wasn’t “French,” but actually “Scots-Irish” and a born Brit from Northern Ireland (I did not know because my parents withheld this information from me, in the name of protecting me, and making it easier for me to live as a Frenchman in France. It only created problems later when my parents moved from France back to the UK, and then to Canada. But, as they say, “this is another story for another day”). During this “awakening” to my “Irish” roots and my being born in Belfast, stirred what has become a lifelong passion for Celtic spirituality, especially the age of Patrick, Brendan, Aidan, Bridget, and Kevin, and all the missionaries that went out from Ireland and Iona during the Dark Ages to the continent of Europe. Even the last French city in which I lived, was named after an Irish saint, St. Deo, who set up a small Christian community, with a school and church and hospital. It became the foundational unit of the city of St-Die, in the Vosges mountains in eastern France.
I became a listener and reader of sermons galore. I read sermons from the great preachers of the past, from Origen, John Chrysotom, Ireneus, Augustine, Jerome, to the Dominicans, Anthony the Great, Pachomius, the Desert Fathers, Benedict of Nursia. I fell in love reading the Patristics, the writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, all the way through Bernard of Clairveaux, Peter Abelard. I studied the age of scholasticism with a keen interest, as I loved both theology and philosophy. So, I really immersed myself in the works of Francis of Assisi, John Duns Scotus, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham and Peter Auriol. I had a real fascination with Franciscan scholars.
I read all these sermons that were over 1000 years old, and some as old as 1700 years. I read them again and again. These were all Christo-centric and had many applications to living a holy life and spoke of personal devotion to God and calls to faithful living and helping the poor and sharing the Gospel. St. Francis of Assisi became a favorite of mine. By the time I was 15 years old, I had a pretty thorough saturation in the preaching of the Early Church, and the main theological developments of the Western Church.
I was a Pentecostal by experience, but I was an Evangelical in my understanding of the centrality of the death of Christ on a cross and the importance of the resurrection of Christ to the meaning of the Gospel.
By the time I was in high school, I was getting immersed in the main themes of the Reformation and Counter Reformation. I still read more and more books and sermons, and I was immersed in my favorite of the Reformers, Martin Luther. I read and studied Calvin, Menno Simons, and the writings of Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, George Whitfield, and so many other Evangelical writers.
By the time I got to Bible College, I had begun a good collection of writings on theology, philosophy, and tons of sermons. I then began to collect sermons on audio, and belonged to several preaching ministries, that featured sermons of the month, especially through Leadership Magazine and Christianity Today. For the better part of 14 years, I was a regular subscriber to tapes of the month, and then it was CD of the Month. Then something happened.
Moving from the centrality of the sermon, to embracing the mystery of Christ
My exposure to non- Pentecostals in high school saved me from the pitfall of a limited lens and tunnel vision that many other Evangelicals of various stripes and kinds fall into. I still bump into these kinds of people, people who only think of “Christians” as falling into their own comfortable categories. When I was younger, there were Evangelicals distinct from Fundamentalists, although the Fundamentalists were the spiritual parents that birthed the Evangelical movement, they still did not quite get along, much like adult kids who do not quite adjust to being an adult and still a child of a parent. Spiritually some Evangelicals have had this same relational problem in relating with relative, the Fundamentalists. Then you had the Non-Charismatic Evangelicals, as opposed to the Evangelical-Charismatics. It seemed then, and just as much today, that people search for categories, and definitions, so they know the boundaries that help define how to communicate and relate with people who are different than ourselves. But, all of these people, from the Reformation until now, had one central identifier.
Whether you were a member at the Wittenburg church where Luther was the pastor, or at Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle, or Asuza Street in 1906, or Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship (TACF, now CTF), the centrality of the pulpit and preaching and teaching dominated the platform and the intended audience and congregation.
Go to any church today, and you will find what dominates is the worship style, and music, and its programs, and the thing that ties it all up as neatly as possible is the “sermon.” Quite frankly, I have grown really tired with the sermon. I don’t listen to or read many sermons any more. In fact, truth be told, I really do not like sermons very much. I was reading Brian McLaren again, in his book, A New Kind of Christianity, McLaren remarks how his toleration for sermons is around 20 minutes now. He has preached thousands of sermons and listened to as many thousands as he has preached. His saturation point is 20 minutes. McLaren highlights for me the reality that I face. Having heard so many and read so many sermons, I have grown weary of sermons, and for a variety of reasons, and the two main reasons are that, one, they are little more than “opinion” pieces, spoken as if inspired by God, and two, they are extremely subjective.
I think preaching is changing in our multi-media savvy society. Longer is not better, longer is deadlier.
I don’t think my issue is ADHD. Sermons were never intended to be the “centre” of the church experience. Sure you can find a couple of great examples of sermons that were used in the New Testament and two of them in particular stand out in the Book of Acts. There is Paul’s sermon in Acts 17 where you have the best example of an apologetical evangelical sermon. Paul uses this stage, this place in Athens, to speak about the “unknown god” and proclaims the coming of Christ as the unknown god now revealed to man. This sermon as well as the sermon in Acts 2, by Peter on the Day of Pentecost, is also an evangelical sermon, calling people to repentance and to faith in Christ. Peter in Acts 10, proclaims Christ to the household of Cornelius and it too is a message, a sermon, calling people to repentance, faith, and conversion and baptism in Jesus Christ. You can conclude from ALL the sermons we read about in the New Testament, these are sermons that call people to repentance and faith, in both a small gathering and a larger context. In short, the sermons you read in the Book of Acts are “evangelistic” sermons. They are not “teaching sermons” per se. I don’t think the sermons that we have grown accustomed to hearing have much to do with the finished work of the cross, and the power of the Gospel. Much of the sermons we hear today are more messages on how to “have a better life with Jesus” rather than the life transforming power of the Gospel.
In our day there is no shortage of preaching to be found, especially if you have access to the Internet. You can find all kinds of audio and video recordings of sermons on Youtube and other social media sites. However, even here, these sites even have sermons broken down into 10 to 15 minute soundbites, simply because of two things. One, is the account the person may have has a 15 minute limit for uploading, or the attention span of people can’t take more than 15 minutes at a time. Even the website analytics point out that people will leave after so many minutes. So for whatever reason, a lot of people are used to a short attention span. We can blame it on radio, TV, and the Internet, and the use of social media on cell phones and tablets, but in the end, preachers no longer have the undivided attention of their targeted audience, and they aren’t the only game in town. Two, take a survey of church services, and the messages, and how long they are and you will see that most of them fall around the 25 minute mark. Even conferences with high quality sought after speakers, have messages that are between 30 to 45 minutes, where before they were twice that long a decade ago. Times are changing and so is the messaging of the Gospel.
My own “take” on this is quite simply this, contemporary Evangelical church services are boring, and are not participant friendly and do not embrace the mystery of Christ
I think my perspective is that “church” as an experience is too long and tedious and has less interaction than it should have. When Paul taught Christians in the Early Church, their meetings were from “house to house” as spoke of in Acts 20:20. The ‘larger” meetings were not all that large, and they met outdoors, courtyards, on the homes of the more wealthier Christians, and as in the case of the Day of Pentecost, they gathered at the horse stables at Solomon’s Portico in Jerusalem. Meetings with “thousands” or even “hundreds” of people just did not happen. The church gathering was more intimate, and what transpired revolved around the “Lord’s table”, the retelling of the stories of Jesus, and the retelling of the stories of the Old Testament that were fulfilled in Jesus and through Jesus. It involved sharing those testimonies and stories, praying for people, the exercise of hospitality and sharing wealth, sharing your home, and your possessions.
When people spoke, there was room for engagement and the full participation of the others gathered in the room. To make matters clear, there was no classic “3 point sermon” as we now understand it. There was no centralized figure, man or woman, who stood and pontificated a message to a rapt audience, after which people put their offerings in a plate and went home. No, it was a shared experience. People brought food together, shared what they had with all who came, even if the others did not have anything to share. They shared in the scriptures, as they were either read or retold as a narrative of the mighty works of God. They celebrated Christ as the fulfillment of the Passover, and also the fulfillment of all the Old Testament feasts, and the Early Church celebrated all the Old Covenant feasts as fulfilled realities in Christ. It was the establishment of the Roman Church primacy that eliminated the celebrations of the Old Covenant and replaced them with their own lectionary and liturgical observances. This happened much to our own loss and demise.
Can we re-embrace mystery and change our “church experience” to better reflect a sense of awe and mystery?
I am of the opinion that while I do not like “religion” and I really do not like “organized Christian religion,” there are elements of worship and celebration that have within them certain rites and practices that have meaning, and express our life and faith journeys as we go through these “meaningful rituals.” I distinguish “meaningful rituals” apart from “organized religion” in that those who wield power and control within “organized religion” want their power and influence to include how they “practice” their faith, and how their “followers” “submit” and “follow their instructions,” and thus you have the classic reinforcement of “patriarchy” and the institutions the church established as it became more and more institutional and mechanical and filled with ritual that you cannot find in the New Testament, but the pageantry is all there, much as an imitation of the pageantry people read about when they read about the Tabernacle of Moses and the Temple of Solomon. It is an imagined pageantry that has over the centuries been projected onto the church institution and how it does church. Just look at the influence of the fine arts, sculpture, painting, frescoes, icons, the vaulted ceilings in cathedrals, the stained glass windows, and on and on, you see all these things have little to nothing in common with gathering with fellow believers, centered on Christ, and the Lord’s Table, meeting in your home and celebrating the Eucharist together. It bears no likeness at all.
There is a place for “mystery” and “essence” and “mystical experience” that can be experienced in our church gatherings, no matter how big or how small that gathering may be. I propose that:
- We choose to embrace full encounter with all of our senses. It is not enough to just hear with our ears, and see with our eyes. We need a “full sensory experience” when it comes to our church experience as believers. We need to smell, smell incense, smell candles, see light and experience darkness, and we need to hear the Scriptures read as narrative, and not so many opinionated sermons that really do not engage with the audience. We need more readings of Scripture from such things as the Lectionary. It helps us and guides us through the important spiritual seasons and pivotal events recorded in the Scriptures.
- We ought to re-examine our understanding of the Old Covenant feast days as well the Christian feast days, and form a new compilation of those that are the most scriptural to follow and practice, so that we can “retell the stories of the God of Redemption”, and use multiple formats and tools to do so, from children, to adults to seniors, performing the readings to music through dance and drama, or orally proclaiming the words of life to the congregation.
- Embrace more participatory ways of full participation by all who attend. I know I am one of those people who does NOT like to be told what to do. When I go to a church gathering, I don’t want to be “cued” to “stand”, “sit”, “sing”, or “pray.” I am not a robot to be toyed with or played with. In fact I recoil and I resist participating in this kind of coercion and manipulation. I think part of this process of getting more people involved and engaging in “meaningful rites” is to formulate your own “rites and practices” for church services. This would create a new living ritual where people meaningfully engage with God and His word, in the various aspects of a church gathering. This would mean an “Evangelical Re-Invention” of Bible readings and honoring the Scriptures, re-inventing how we celebrate the Eucharist, how we even do the announcements, and how we proclaim the Gospel, perhaps even reinventing a form of dialectical participation and engagement with the message.
- Moving beyond the “same old, same old.” There are thousands of people each year leaving their respective forms of church life. Many are bored out of their skulls. Many want a deeper connection the history of the living Church, a connection to the Ancient Church, which is why so many are returning to Anglican and Roman and Orthodox churches. They want to go as far back as possible to the Early Church and recover a sense of historical connection and belonging, as well as a sense of vitality and meaning. The church rites of these churches reinforce the ancient truths through liturgy and ritual. There is something to be said for this. For some it would be a return to the old time religion, for others it would bring meaning and fresh air into what has become tiresome and boring, empty of meaning, and lacking in meaningful expression of a vibrant and living faith.
- I desire what has become known as an “Ancient Future Church”. I want to see the Church embrace its past, its beautiful past, and its beautiful expressions of faith and liturgy, use the fine arts, usage of all kinds of music from a variety of styles and cultures. I want to see the maximum participation and engagement of all people, from every gender and age group. This will mean a new emphasis on creating new rituals and new practices, that bring life and meaning to what it is to be a follower of Jesus in our day.
We can learn from the past and we can reinvent ourselves as a church body. It is up to us, for we are the living church, we the people of God, are the church, and should the church not reflect its people, and how they understand a redemptive God at work in the world? Should it not involve a diversity of language, culture and peoples, from every “tribe and tongue”? Should we not consider “reinventing Church”?
~ Samuel Buick
Ancient Future: https://www.ancientfuturefaithnetwork.org/the-call/
Ancient Future: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/february/24.7.html
Orthodox Liturgy: http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/liturgy/liturgy.html
Orthodox Liturgy: http://www.goarch.org/chapel/liturgical_texts
Celtic Spirituality: http://celtic-spirituality.net/what-is-christian-celtic-spirituality/
Celtic Spirituality: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/april24/2.78.html
Celtic Spirituality: http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20080314_1.htm
Celtic Spirituality: http://www.faithandworship.com/Celtic_Christianity.htm