Will evangelicals rediscover crosses?

crossIn Wednesday’s Lenten post, I noted that Slate‘s Andrew Santella wrote an interesting article about the revival of Lenten practices among Protestants. I chided him for throwing all Protestants together, from those that have marked Lenten penitence since the beginning with those evangelicals that are rediscovering the practices of the church.

Well, the Baltimore Sun‘s Matthew Brown hit one out of the park with his story on the same topic. By narrowing his focus to one local evangelical congregation, he was able to tell a fascinating story:

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.

Brown describes the difference between most services at New Hope (very casual) and Ash Wednesday’s service (Poling wore a robe, draped the lectern in purple and put a cross on the platform). He quotes the pastor talking about the power of the liturgy and explaining the use of liturgical traditions to his congregation.

With the megachurch movement, too much baby was thrown out with the bath water, he says. (I’ve decided that would make a great title for a paper on how some Protestants came to reject infant baptism.) Anyway, Brown gets some outside analysis from Robert Webber, president of the Institute for Worship Studies and author of the eight-volume Complete Library of Christian Worship. In the late 1990s he surveyed evangelicals about their faith practices:

“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.”

The whole article is interesting. Brown ties in the anti-Vatican II sentiment among some modern Roman Catholics and writes as if he understands why some Christians use symbols, rites and rubrics and why others don’t. Knowledge of a given situation seems like a minimum requirement for reporters of religion, but sometimes it’s hard to come across. Brown interviews an evangelical congregant who used to be Roman Catholic — providing a great perspective for the piece.

Brown even includes innovative criticism of the evangelical return to ritual from an Anglican Dominican priest in Philadelphia who teaches evangelicals about rituals:

“I worry that they tend to take these practices completely out of their context and practice them in a way that I sometimes feel trivializes them to the point that, well, this is the latest spiritual fad,” [Rev. Kevin Goodrich] said.

Poling says he is sympathetic to the concern.

“Evangelicals are independent,” he said. “When we appropriate traditions, we do so on our own terms. We feel the freedom to modify them as appropriate to our beliefs and theology. But I think there is a genuine humility to us going to the well of the ancient faith.

All in all, a very nice piece by Brown — both from a local perspective and the larger religious trend angle.

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  • http://BUSY Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    In the Catholic Church today there are acceptable alternatives to the “Remember you are dust..” verse which a priest or deacon can use when distributing ashes.
    One is “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” Another is “Repent, and believe the Good News.”
    Ironically, these last two sound more like what might be said in an Evangelical Church but these are the ones most Catholic priests and deacons are using today.
    Meanwhile, all the stories I have read about Protestant churches using ashes have shown them to be using the traditional “Dust” verse.
    Hopefully this booming cross-fertilization will bring all us Christians closer together in one spirit, if not under the one roof.

  • J-Money

    I think it makes total sense that they’re doing this in evangelical churches. For more of evidence of this, just look at the amount of evangelicals converting to Rome, Lutheranism, and Orthodoxy.

  • http://www.culture-makers.com/ Andy Crouch

    J-Money – and that amount is, what, exactly? I have many friends who have done just that, well, except for “Lutheranism”–can’t say I’ve encountered that. But I have yet to see statistical evidence that this is a trend outside certain rarefied circles (which I happen to inhabit).

    One might posit, for example, that the readership of First Things includes a lot of folks who have followed Fr. Neuhaus on the road to Rome. Perhaps half the readership. Hmm. 30,000? 40,000? Out of 290M Americans? If anyone can point to some good sociological data I’d be very grateful. And it might make for some good news stories too.

  • tmatt

    The flood of converts into the CLERGY of the OCA and Antiochian churches is certainly proof of something.

    At AGAIN magazine, we simply call this the “convert era” of Orthodoxy in America, because that is the dominent trend, even as the aging ethnic generations that led these churches pass from the scene. Then again, I must admit that many ethnic Orthodox have turned into “reverts” and some of the most vital, alive leaders we have!

    But numbers? All you can count is the new clergy and the new MISSIONS that turn into parishes.

  • tmatt
  • http://www.culture-makers.com/ Andy Crouch

    Nice piece, Terry, thanks. I think I was in Africa when that moved last year ’cause I hadn’t read it.

    But the question about numbers still stands. . . it’s something I’ve been curious about for years . . .

  • Sean Gallagher


    Colleen Carroll’s book The New Faithful, which she wrote while a reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch (she’s now on staff at the Ethics and Public Policy Center), addresses in an important sense your question about numbers.

    Although she precisely wrote about people in their 20s and 30s who are embracing traditional Christian beliefs and not precisely converts (although I suspect there were a good number of converts among those she interviewed), I think that a key point of her book applies to both the “young faithful” and to those who have embraced Catholicism or Orthodoxy.

    Their numbers may not be large (although I am loathe to define it one way or another), but they are putting themselves in positions to have an influence upon society and the culture that far outstretches the size of their population.

  • http://www.culture-makers.com Andy Crouch

    Sean – Colleen gave me an embarassingly prominent and flattering role in her book, so I am quite familiar with it.

    However, The New Faithful, while a wonderful piece of anecdotal reporting, does not try to put those anecdotes in a rigorous sociological context. For example, while Colleen focused on people moving toward tradition, might another journalist with another set of interests find a group of young people moving away from tradition? You betcha. His name is George Barna, and his book is called Revolution. But there is barely any more analytical rigor in his work than in Colleen’s (and he, unlike her, purports to do quantitative analysis).

    We await someone of the stature of Christian Smith or Robert Wuthnow to help with this.

    Your point about outsized influence is well taken, though, and that’s one way in which Colleen’s book is very helpful.


  • Tom R

    As a non-cradle Lutheran, I’mm still trying to pin down exactly whether Lutherans like or dislike Lent. OT1H, it’s liturgical and traditional. OTOH, it involves fasting and other such relics (NPI) of works-based mediaeval monkery that Luths love to denounce in other denoms. So, Mollie, you’re a cradle member of the Covenant, aren’t you? What’s the party line here?