The Advent calendars are on fire!

adventcalendarFor Christians who observe the liturgical calendar, the pre-Easter, 40-day penitential season of Lent is upon us. In Western Christianity, Lent began on Ash Wednesday — February 6 this year. In the East, Lent began yesterday.

Washington Post reporter Jacqueline Salmon found an unlikely group of area Christians who are also celebrating Lent:

Fasting, and giving up chocolate and favorite pastimes like watching TV during the 40 days before Easter are practices many evangelical Protestants have long rejected as too Catholic and unbiblical.

But Lent — a time of inner cleansing and reflection upon Jesus Christ’s sufferings before his resurrection — is one of many ancient church practices being embraced by an increasing number of evangelicals, sometimes with a modern twist.

It’s a great idea for a story and one that has been cropping up in the past few months. We recently looked at a US News & World Report story on the so-called “return to traditionalism.” I like how Salmon characterized Lent for her readers. But check this out:

This increasing connection with Christianity’s classical traditions goes beyond Lent. Some evangelical churches offer confession and weekly communion. They distribute ashes on Ash Wednesday and light Advent calendars at Christmastime.

Unless things are even livelier in these evangelical churches than Salmon indicates, I think there is a problem with that last sentence. They’re called Advent calendars for a reason. The word Advent is used because they are used in Advent, not Christmas. The word calendars is used because, as with all calendars, they track time. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t actually “light” any of my calendars. Perhaps she meant “light Advent wreaths” or “use Advent calendars.” Or maybe these churches have big bonfires fueled by Advent calendars during the liturgical season of Christmas.

Anyway, Salmon does a nice job of giving multiple examples from area evangelicals, although much of what she describes sounds more emergent church than anything else:

This represents a “major sea change in evangelical life,” according to D.H. Williams, professor of patristics and historical theology at Baylor University. “Evangelicalism is coming to point where the early church has become the newest staple of its diet.”

Experts say most who have taken on such practices have grown disillusioned with the contemporary, shopping-center feel of the megachurches embraced by baby boomers, with their casually dressed ministers and rock-band praise music.

Instead, evangelicals — many of them young — are adopting a trend that has come to be known as “worship renewal” or “ancient-future worship.”

Salmon even quotes critics of this latest trend:

“It is the same style of meditation that is basically being performed by Eastern religion practitioners,” said Deborah Dumbowski, who with her husband, Dave, started an Oregon publishing house, Web site and 25,000-name e-newsletter to oppose the incorporation of such elements into evangelical worship. “It’s being presented as Christianity, and we’re saying this isn’t Christianity — not according to what the Bible says. . . . We believe it really does deny the gospel message.”

But, I found out, there are problems with that paragraph. The unnamed publishing house is Lighthouse Trails — I see no reason why that can’t be mentioned. The couple’s last name was misspelled — it’s Dombrowski. And worst of all, Deborah was quoted out of context:

[T]his particular statement was made regarding contemplative prayer practices (centering, breath prayers, lectio divina, etc) and not regarding communion, lent, and confession.

The article clearly didn’t make that distinction.

Another one of the things that bothers me about the recent spate of “new traditionalist” stories is that they don’t quite get how evangelical approaches to certain ancient church practices differ. For instance, Salmon mentions that some evangelicals are taking communion — which, she writes, they understand to be a memorial meal rather than a sacrament — more regularly than they used to. But is receiving communion as a memorial meal rather than as a sacrament — even if more regularly — really a return to an ancient Christian practice?

Here’s another example. Salmon writes:

For the most part, though, young evangelicals aren’t just reviving ancient traditions. They are stamping them with their own updated brand.

Confession — a staple of Catholicism — is appearing in different formats. Thousands of people, for example, have posted anonymous online confessions on church-run Web sites like, and Those posting have confided feelings of guilt over abortions or their homosexuality, while others have confessed to extramarital affairs, stealing, eating disorders, addictions — even murder.

“We do believe there is value in confessing our sins to each other,” said Bobby Gruenewald, pastor at, an Oklahoma-based megachurch that runs, which has received 7,500 confessions since it started in 2006. Ministers and volunteers pray over the confessions as they come in. “This process may be a more modern way of people discovering the value of that tradition.”

child advent calendar
But what is described here is not a staple of Catholicism — or Lutheranism or any other church body that practices the sacrament of reconciliation or private confession and absolution. The so-called “staple” of sacramental church bodies is at least as much in the “absolution” part as the “confession” part. What’s described here is much more similar to the approach to confession that evangelicals have always followed. Evangelicals have always been big on confessing sins. They have encouraged private “accountability partners” who you confess your sins to. But the ancient practice in Christianity is confession and absolution.

My final nit to pick with the article was this paragraph:

Those familiar with ["ancient-future worship"] say it is practiced mostly by small, avant-garde evangelical churches, though not always. Last summer, the national convention of the 2.5 million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, an evangelical wing of the Lutheran denomination, voted to revive private confession.

If I had a dollar for every LCMS congregant who sent me just that paragraph from the story, well, I wouldn’t be rich but I could have a few more lattes this week. An “evangelical wing” of Lutheranism? Oh dear. I’ve long known that reporters have trouble characterizing Lutherans but the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is a confessional, sacramental, liturgical church body. While Lutherans are the “original” evangelicals — that’s what we are called in Germany, for instance — evangelical in the Lutheran sense has a very different meaning than evangelical in the American Protestant sense. As far as the liturgical calendar, holy communion, and confession are concerned, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is much more similar to the Catholic Church than to the non-denominational evangelical church down the road. Placing the LCMS in this story doesn’t really indicate an understanding of the American Protestant landscape — which isn’t good when you are a religion reporter for a major newspaper.

Private confession and absolution have always been an official part of our confessions. While it is true that in some places (not any of the LCMS congregations I have belonged to, certainly) private confession fell into disuse, it has also, unfortunately, fallen into disuse in the Catholic Church. That’s why so many dioceses are launching ad campaigns and speaking out about it in recent years. An LCMS resolution to encourage the regular use of private confession and absolution is different than an evangelical discovery of half of something that was once rejected as “too Catholic” or unbiblical.

I want to encourage stories about the liturgical calendar — even if they’re just about the latest trend passing through evangelical churches. But hopefully we can iron out some of these problems for future stories.

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  • Undergroundpewster

    Wow, Mollie, you covered it all!

  • Chris Bolinger

    From its opening paragraph, this is an extremely sloppy article, not just in terms of poor word usage and outright wording mistakes (“calendars” instead of “candles”) but also in terms of broad generalizations and deliberate attempts to create controversy where none exists. It’s a shame that this article doesn’t live up to the Post‘s high standards. LOL

  • Paul T. McCain

    And, if I may just say….for those interested in the best book on “The Original Evangelicalism” I recommend your readers take a look at:

    We are also considering selling bumper stickers that say:

    Ask Me About Being Evangelical Before Evangelicalism Messed it Up

    Might be too many words to fit on a bumper sticker.

  • Mark Byron

    On the Advent-”Christmastime” issue, to the outsider, Advent is in that time of the year that’s the “Christmas Season” from a secular standpoint, which is Black Friday to Dec 25.

    The writer may not have been theologically correct, but explained what time of year Advent is rather well to the outsider. However, lighting those calanders is a bit of a trip.

  • Martha

    Great, now I have an image of these “evangelical churches” using for Ash Wednesday the ashes from the Advent calendars that they burned at Chrismastime for the lighting of the Pascal Fire… or else big, flashing neon signs counting down the days of Advent.

    It probably was just a confusion between the candles on the Advent Wreath and the Advent Calendar.

    Unless, as you say, they really are doing auto-da-fés with the vain, idolatrous, Papistical practice of Advent Calendars at the Pagan Feast of Christmas :-)

  • Irenaeus

    I was hoping you’d notice that bit about the LCMS being ‘evangelical.’

  • The young fogey

    They … light Advent calendars at Christmastime.


    Things like this keep me working.

  • Will

    Er, the last time I read Luther’s Catechisms, they were all for confession… just against all the pettifoggery he thought had gottten attached to it.

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  • williex2

    when i was in catechism class in the lcms parish of my youth, the pastor taught us that blessed dr. martin luther believed in 3 sacraments: baptism, communion, and confession/absolution.

  • Theresa K

    How do journalists and/or newspapers go about making corrections to articles? Just curious if anyone knows if this writer has made any statement about the errors in her article, particularly about the points mentioned by Mollie: lighting calendars, LCMS being an evangelical wing of Lutheranism, confession being a Catholic thing and advent being the same as Christmas. To many Christians, these are not small errors. I trust the Washington Post to get things right and I hope they have made a point to talk to this particular journalist.

  • Julia

    “It is the same style of meditation that is basically being performed by Eastern religion practitioners

    followed by the Lighthouse folks observing that

    T]his particular statement was made regarding contemplative prayer practices (centering, breath prayers, lectio divina, etc)

    Why did Mollie let this pass?

    Is Mollie accepting the false idea that the Western church does not practice contemplative prayer. I’m 63 and I grew up learning to meditate in Catholic grade school; lectio divina was and is a major part of Benedictine practice.

    Maybe Mollie’s contact with Catholicism has only included loud music by Marty Haugen et al that doesn’t allow for any quiet time during Mass. It was not always so – and in some parishes never went that far in wiping out traditional ways. Unfortunately, little visits to church outside of Mass time are no longer possible because the churches have to be locked these days. But surely she has heard of Perpetual Adoration at designated churches where rotations of people meditate before the Blessed Sacrament 24/7. My parish is one of those so-designated in our diocese and there are others all across the world.

  • Mollie

    Julia wrote:

    Why did Mollie let this pass?

    Is Mollie accepting the false . . . Maybe Mollie’s contact with Catholicism has only included . . .

    I’m not sure why Julia’s note is so unnecessarily harsh but my response is pretty standard: We don’t debate religious issues here. We simply look at mainstream media coverage of same.

    Further, if notes are unduly negative and stray off the topic of the blog — as this one does — I tend to get a bit trigger happy with the delete key. Just fyi for future reference.

    I prefer if folks treat the conversations we have here as they would if we were in each other’s physical presence.

  • Jason

    When I first read this:

    I thought, “that’s not really satire, it is just reporting a story that hasn’t happened yet.”


  • Julia

    Sorry, I didn’t realize it had a negative tone.
    Correction accepted.

  • Kenny

    We should note that “confessional, sacramental, and liturgical” is not necessarily mutually exclusive with “evangelical.” At least, one somewhat prominent organization with “evangelical” in its name is The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, a group comprised (I think) mostly of conservative Presbyterians and Reformed Baptists. How similar is LCMS to this group? (That’s a question, not an insinuation.)

    I think “evangelical” is used three different ways: theologically, historically, and stylistically. ACE uses “evangelical” next to “confessing” because they are evangelical theologically, but fall into a somewhat different categorically in terms of historical tradition. Does LCMS have evangelical theology, at least to the same degree as ACE?

  • Mollie


    I’m not terribly familiar with ACE but I think D.G. Hart’s work in this area is helpful.

    He argues that the division of American Protestantism into liberal (mainline) and conservative (evangelical) is flawed. For one thing, both of those groups have similar beliefs about the political work of Christians on earth — just very different policy outcomes.

    But, more importantly, it completely leaves out confessional Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc. who aren’t political but, rather, focused on liturgy, creeds, sacraments, etc.

    Like I mentioned, Lutherans *are* evangelical — just not in the way the WashPost reporter meant it.

    Most LCMS churches, I think, actually have the word “evangelical” in their church name. But, again, it refers to the original meaning. See Gene Veith’s book Spirituality of the Cross for more on this.