Contemporary Worship Threw the Baby Out when it Critiqued Traditionalism but Abandoned Tradition

Zac HicksUncategorizedLeave a Comment

 The latest edition of Neue Magazine contains a great little article* by Chuck DeGroat, pastor at City Church San Francisco.  I’d like to quote extensively from it:

Several decades ago, the Western church integrated new experiments in musical expression, aesthetics, communication and more. Responding to the stagnancy of churches caught in endless intellectual debates between fundamentalism and liberalism, some chose to put the past behind them, creating the contemporary American church. The Church needed renewal, and it needed to engage the demands of modern life.

But the response was extreme. It critiqued traditionalism but threw out tradition in the process. The historian Jaroslav Pelikan has said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” The longing for a rooted faith re-emerged in young men and women who, in the 1990s, left contemporary churches in significant numbers for Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches.  Some in the U.K., New Zealand and the U.S. began experimenting with classic liturgical expressions re-presented in new forms and music. It was the resurrection of the living faith of the dead.

Several thoughts.  First, I’ve never thought of the connection between the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 20th century and the rise of the “contemporary church” and “contemporary worship.”  That’s a fascinating observation that I haven’t heard anyone else make to date.  It makes sense, then, that some of the anti-intellectualism, emotionalism, and experientialism that has shaped and characterized modern worship may be a reaction to the high emphasis on truth and tradition, which evangelicalism held high during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy.   It is interesting that those years have perhaps planted a subconscious anti-intellectual bias deep in evangelicalism’s institutional memory.  If this is the case, what DeGroat says makes sense.  For, with a broad brush, it was the boomer generation that shirked the tradition and traditionalism of its fathers and mothers, and it is the children of that generation which are re-discovering this lost tradition.

Second, the Pelikan quote is potent.  As far as I can track it, the reference is to an article found in the June 26, 1989 edition of U.S. News & World Report.  The distinction between tradition and traditionalism is one many have made, and it’s a very important clarification to make.  DeGroat goes on:

Though I’m glad liturgy is “cool again,” renewed interest in traditional liturgical expressions seems to be accompanied by the notion that classic practices like the Eucharist or the Call to Worship are choices in a grand liturgical buffet.  In other words, renewed liturgical expression can come with a lack of good thinking around liturgical integrity—the purpose of the liturgy as a whole.

The elements of liturgical worship are not choices in an ecclesial buffet line. Rather, as a whole, they tell a Story.  And that Story counters the stories we are told in the many liturgies we practice every day.  The elements of the liturgy are not merely cool sacred opportunities. Together, they form (and re-form) us, telling a different Story than we typically encounter.

This is a valuable reminder to evangelicals drawn to liturgy and tradition.  Evangelicals, especially from low church traditions (like me), won’t have the foundation to understand elements of liturgy like those from high church traditions.  They did not grow up with it.  They did not experience its cohesion, its Story.  So, it can be tempting for worship planners and leaders who want to “use more liturgy” to take this a la carte approach, procuring a Book of Common Prayer and pulling prayers, statements, and elements out for more randomized usage.

I’m one that does this, so I’m not totally against using aspects of tradition where appropriate.  But, we need to understand that liturgical traditions have been fashioned over decades and centuries, and many pastor-theologians have been a part of the crafting of these Gospel Stories. 

Here’s one example to put feet on these admonitions.  It’s how I process my own denominational tradition (presbyterianism) in light of what has been called the “Great Tradition.”  For Presbyterians, we have a way of telling the liturgical Story that has been handed down from our predecessors.  The modern American Presbyterian Story-shape has a path that looks something like this:

New Testament / Apostolic Church
Early Church & Fathers
Medieval Catholicism
Reformers (esp. Bucer, Calvin)
Knox / Anglicanism / English Puritanism
American Revivalism
20th & 21st Century American Church

All these factors have shaped the liturgy of my evangelical denomination, and similar factors have shaped others.  The point is that as we “experiment” with liturgy, we must be aware of these greater shaping forces and the Story they’ve been trying to tell over the history of our worship.  If this topic is of interest to you, Robert Webber’s Worship Old and New is a great place to start.  Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Worship is a way to go even deeper than that, because it analyzes the common liturgical themes that spread across almost all major Christian traditions (see my review of that book).


*DeGroat, Chuck. “Life as Liturgy: Seeing What Shapes Us.” Neue. February/March, 2011: 22.

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