Some evangelical churches are exploring high liturgy

Returning to the rituals


With the brief sermon concluded, the worshipers filed into the aisle of the old stone chapel. The morning sun cast a stained-glass glow over the 19th-century sanctuary.

People approached the dais one by one. Standing before them, the Rev. Jason Poling pressed his thumb into a small bowl of palm ashes and traced a cross on the forehead of each.

"Remember that you are dust," he said. "And to dust you shall return."

Christians throughout the world marked the start of Lent yesterday by receiving the mark that is meant to remind them of their mortality - a tradition that dates to the first millennium. But for New Hope Community Church, an evangelical congregation in Pikesville, the early-morning service was a first.

Evangelical Christians, who center their worship services on praise and preaching, have long considered rituals such as the Imposition of the Ashes to be nonbiblical, man-made, "too Catholic." Historically, the evangelical movement has defined itself, at least in part, by opposing such practices.

But that might be changing. New Hope, a nondenominational church of about 60 members, is one of a small but growing number of evangelical congregations that are beginning to experiment with worship elements more commonly associated with such highly liturgical traditions as Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity and Anglicanism.

"This is evangelicalism finding its way toward classic Christian spirituality," said Bill J. Leonard, dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University. "Religious faith is not simply the verbal and the rational. There really is a mystical tradition that can be conveyed in these nonverbal ways."

Not every evangelical Christian or church is interested in the phenomenon. Many continue to eschew the ritual practices of the Catholic, Orthodox and mainline Protestant churches.

But observers inside and outside the movement have noted a growing evangelical interest in the Eucharist, the liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent, and monastic life. Many of the practices can be traced to the early church.

Some say the phenomenon reflects a human yearning for ritual, a desire for closer communication with other Christians and a growing self-confidence.

"Evangelicals are growing up," said Poling, 33. "Evangelicals are no longer petulant teenagers that will rebel against everything their parents stood for. The contemporary evangelical movement is coming into adulthood."

Ordinarily, Sunday services at New Hope center on a half-hour of worship in song followed by a 35-minute lesson delivered by the pastor. He dresses business casual - collared shirt, no tie - as he preaches from a bare dais. Once a month or so, the congregation will receive communion.

Yesterday's service, in contrast, came largely out of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Wearing a long black robe, Poling read from behind a lectern draped with a purple parament - purple being the color of Lent - on a platform adorned with a small cross.

"The language of the liturgical tradition is elegant, it is powerful, and much like the words of Scripture, it tends to sing deep into your soul," Poling said. "It's like you're touching the rail. There's a power to this tradition."

A congregation of 14, if you count the baby, gathered for the 7 a.m. service.

"We recognize the great value that there is in the traditions of our forefathers," Poling told them. "With the Reformation, the evangelical movement, even the megachurch movement of the '70s and '80s, too much baby was thrown out with the bath water.

"As 21st-century Christians, it is incumbent upon us to recognize what is good in the traditions of the church. If we are worth our salt as believers, we will always be ruthless scavengers through the halls of our cherished faith. We will grab what is good and useful from those that have gone before."

Robert E. Webber saw this coming. He is president of the Institute for Worship Studies and author of the eight-volume Complete Library of Christian Worship, and he surveyed evangelicals about their faith practices in the late 1990s.

"They didn't like contemporary worship anymore," said Webber, a professor of ministry at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Ill. "They were looking for an encounter with God, they were looking for mystery, they were looking for more Eucharist."

Webber has written several books promoting what he calls "ancient-future worship," which draws on early church practices for contemporary Christians.

Leonard, of Wake Forest, links the growing evangelical interest in ritual to a search for identity.

"In many of the megachurches, in the first-generation megachurches from the '70s on, they often took out the crosses and the stained glass, and wanted to attract people who were sometimes turned off by those things," he said. "And now they're growing up in a way in terms of the fullness of Christian symbols, and they're going back to it."

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