Some Lenten meditations for baptists

Some Lenten meditations for baptists February 20, 2012

I grew up Pentecostal and became Baptist. I tell Baptists attracted to high church worship that “Baptist is as high church as I can go.”

I composed this little axiom to explain much of what goes on in American Christianity: Pentecostals want to be Baptists or Methodists; Baptists and Methodists want to be Presbyterians or Episcopalians; Presbyterians and Episcopalians want to be Catholics; Catholics want to be Pentecostal.

Over the years I’ve observed what I call (I didn’t coin this phrase!) “the lure of the other” in churches and among Christians. Especially those with education seem never satisfied to be what they have been. They are always looking around for something better to imitate.

Yes, I succumbed to that lure. But I didn’t really have a choice. I desperately wanted to remain Pentecostal, but my Scandinavian-Germanic genes just wouldn’t let me get my hands high enough (is the way I like to put the fact that I just couldn’t be sufficiently emotional to please my Pentecostal mentors and friends). Also, I was kicked out; I didn’t leave voluntarily. The Baptists took me in.

Several Baptist churches and institutions I’ve been part of want very much to incorporate high church Protestant and Catholic practices into Baptist worship and spirituality. And it’s not only among churches with the word “Baptist” in their name. So I’ll switch now and speak instead of “baptist” by which I mean free churches James McClendon’s sense. It includes Pentecostals, Evangelical Free, Brethren, etc.

Baptists (baptists) often realize that our tradition focuses too much on “learning and serving” and not enough on experiencing God. Some of us discover and embrace the latent Pietism in our own tradition. But I fear for the most part we’ve put it in the closet and closed the door out of fear of fanaticism. But true, historical Pietism is not fanatical. It’s just heartfelt Christianity. We often talk it, but when it comes to “doing” we emphasize “learning and serving” instead.

Not that there’s anything wrong with learning and serving! Certainly not. But can man or woman live by them alone? That is, in the immortal words of the song “Is that all there is?” Our own Pietist heritage says no, but we’ve by and large only paid lip service to that because we fear more than anything else being perceived as “like those holy rollers.” We know Lutherans (for example) think Baptists are holy rollers and we want to run from anything that would reinforce that impression. So we’ve pretty much set the Holy Spirit aside except to mention him/her once in a while as the source of our ability to serve.

But many baptists yearn for something more than “learning and serving” (and doing our Sunday morning duty). Especially those of us with college educations who call ourselves “moderates” turn toward Canterbury or Rome. Well, God forbid we’d ever say “Rome!” So let’s just say Canterbury and try to forget it was those folks who imprisoned our spiritual ancestors for refusing to use the Book of Common Prayer. Now we get comfortable with it.

So, we celebrate the church calendar, including Lent. That’s our moderate baptist way of moving beyond just “learning and serving” and doing our Sunday duty. I have nothing against it except it doesn’t really go far toward enhancing one’s experience of God “in the inner man” (as the Pietists used to say). It could, and we do our best to help it, but by itself it doesn’t fill the need we feel.

Why don’t we baptists plumb our own tradition, including its Pietist aspects, to go beyond the “learning and serving” and doing our Sunday duty syndrome? I’m not saying throw out the church calendar or Lent and all that, but I’m sad when baptists think observing Ash Wednesday is by itself a step toward experiencing God. In fact, I think for many people, all this baptist flirting with high church is just a way of putting more distance between ourselves as God. It makes us feel more in touch with Christian tradition; it helps us feel less “sectarian” and more ecumenical, but how does it really enhance a profound personal experience of God that is life transforming? By itself it can’t and won’t.

Why do we baptists, especially those of us who have some education and like to think of ourselves as sophisticated, run from everything emotional? Like I said, I’m Scandinavian-Germanic and displaying emotions doen’t come easy to me. But what I’d like to know is why we baptists are so afraid of showing a little emotion in church or talking about what God has done and is doing in our lives? In my opinion, for what it is worth, bells and smells (and observing the church calendar) just isn’t part of our heritage and always comes off as a little artificial when we do it. But warm, personal, even emotional relationship with God is part of our revivalistic heritage. (Yes, I know all about the “two Southern Baptist traditions”–Charleston and Sandy Creek and all that. But virtually all Baptists in America, anyway, have been touched by revivalism in some way. My point is that even those of us in the Sandy Creek tradition for some reason want to embrace the Charleston tradition once we get educated, affluent and sophisticated.)

IF we are going to observe the church calendar, let’s also return to our own roots and sing emotional hymns and gospel songs and give our testimonies and talk about Jesus and memorize our Bibles and give altar calls and kneel at the altar to pray. What I have observed in many “moderate” baptist churches is a tendency to run from all those things toward something we perceive as more appropriate for our stations in life and theology.

I, for one, won’t be observing Lent. I have nothing against those who do–especially if it’s part of their ecclesial tradition. Fasting has never been easy for me, but I’d prefer to observe fasting and praying throughout the year rather than during one season. The church I grew up in didn’t observe Lent, not because it was “too Catholic,” but because, for us, Good Friday was really, really good. We didn’t believe in mourning our Savior’s sacrifice; we believed in celebrating it every “communion Sunday.”

So, that’s my baptist two cents worth. Sometimes I think people who grew up baptist are a little embarrassed by it. I’m not. I’m not even embarrassed about growing up Pentecostal. I’m a little embarrassed that I took a Presbyterian detour for three years, but I’m quick to point out that it was to earn a living (as youth pastor) while working on my doctoral degree. I left as soon as I could.  But I don’t think Presbyterians by birth or by choice should be embarrassed. The only reason I’m a little embarrassed about that is that my participation wasn’t authentic. It wasn’t me. I was pretending to be something I was not. Sometimes I think some baptists are pretending to be something they’re not because they long for respectability from sophisticated society.

Those are my Lenten meditations. Please don’t be offended. If the shoes doesn’t fit, don’t wear it.

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  • Peter Stone

    I’m a Baptist living in Northern Ireland. Most Baptists here would usually run a mile from anything looking or smelling like canterbury or Rome mainly because of historically and political reasons. If Baptist do look else where it is usally in one of two directions. On one side you will have the fundametalist who generally look towards the more hardline Churches namely the Free Presbyterians (of Ian Paisley fame) or the Bretheren. these people would also sometimes not even associate with other Baptist Churches because they see them as too liberal (which is their version of liberal as the Churches that they refer to as liberal are considered neo-fundamentalist by many English Baptists). On the other side You will have a lot of Baptists here looking also towards Pentecostalism or the newer type Churches. As a result I have seen many Baptist Churches here try to straddle the middle road between both camps and as a result everybody gets upset.

    By the way I have been reading your blog now for the last year and really enjoy it. I must admit that I grew up Calvinist but over the years I have changed many of my views and find myself now going more towards the Arminian point of view.


    • rogereolson

      Thanks for that Ulster perspective and words of appreciation. As I’m sure you know, here in the U.S. we also have all kinds of Baptists. We even have a denomination called the Pentecostal Free Will Baptists. There’s also a small group of Baptists in the Appalachian Mountains sociologists call the “No-Hellers.” They are fundamentalist Baptists who don’t believe in hell. Really. Go figure. Then there are the Primitive Baptists and the Spiritual Baptists (the latter have seances as part of their worship services!).

  • Roger, although I am not Baptist (either with a “B” or a “b”) nor do I have any “high-church” yearnings, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. The longing for the genuine experience of Jesus Christ in our daily living should have a universal appeal to those who are called Christians.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Bob G

    Wow. You hit the nail right on the head. I was dumbfounded when I ventured into the world of “Fill-in-the-blank Community Church” and “Fill-in-the-blank Bible Church” only to find myself trying to engage in a liturgical calendar. Lent? Wasn’t that a Catholic thing? None of these churches had anything in their doctrinal statements regarding regarding this. I grew up in an IFCA church, and find myself longing for much of what you describe.

    Thank you for sharing what’s on your heart. You’ve made me realize I’m not alone.

    God Bless.

  • Lawrence Keesler

    Second paragraph of “Lenten meditations” nails it for me. A life-long Baptist, I’m now organist/choirmaster at a small Episcopal parish — which is as high church as I can go. Still chuckling! L. Keesler

  • Scott Gay

    New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, NJ took many people to church on Saturday, Feb 18. It was the funeral service for Whitney Houston. There are thousands of story lines and comments that could be made, and I pray that people would stay as positive as possible, in a situation with negatives galore. But I’m saying it touched people, and will have a “revivalist” effect( although it won’t be chronicled or noticed).
    People who are “in the media” don’t have control, but are largely controlled by agencies, media, elites, record companies, other people. There are thousand stories of them struggling against it. Cissy Houston must be extremely grounded, and simultaneously lifted up in her faith, to have taken control under such sorrowful circumstances.
    Cissy Houston’s selections of venue, participation across extremely conservative to extremely liberal, from media elite people to an obvious elevation of the un-named, to the delicate balance of including and excluding(which needed more than meets the eye, even as the media wants to know), just one camera allowed, and yet it was more beautiful than a super bowl with untold camera ability, down to the end with an unbelievably impressive selection of pall bearers.

    Dr. Olson’s appeal in this post is centrally about returning people to their roots. I bring up Whitney Houston’s funeral as an example of that AND that it is powerful and has hidden impact.

  • Wow. These were exactly my sentiments entering seminary when I discovered how hung up on liturgy many of my Baptist friends (and some professors) were. I thought perhaps maybe I was just immature and needed to be open to new things. As a result, I’ve come to partake in Lent to an extent, but I don’t attend or officiate an Ash Wednesday service at my church or anything like that.

    Dr. Gregory once told me that the neat thing about being Baptist is that we are free not to do things, as well as to do things to the extent that we find beneficial. This remark was in the context of using the lectionary for preaching. I think it can also be applied in a broad sense to observing elements in the church calendar.

    Thanks for saying what I had thought many times but felt slightly ashamed to admit!

    • Shirley Pond Albert

      I was raised Presbyterian but have noting against it. However, the Baptist Church was more to my liking. I have felt very much at home where the churches can be autonomous. As a former teacher who teaches children what THEY need to learn, so it is that the churches should fit the people in them. As the pastor, my sermons are for the people of the congregation. Our constitution fits the congregation. I like bringing in things from other denominations such as candles, Lenten messages, Advent messages, etc. Catholics have made changes in their services that Protestants do. All this brings us closer together and not a bunch of boxes. The challenge, of course, is to make sure that we are glorifying our Lord.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Roger, your post reminded me of my “Low Church” pentecostal background. It’s a little difficult to ‘get with’ all that highbrow worship stuff when you’ve had a taste of the real thing. (sigh)

  • Steve Rogers

    An underlying theme I sense in this post is summarized in a phrase I learned in a cross-cultural adaptation course. “When faced with something outside your comfort zone, remember it is usually not a matter of right or wrong. It’s just different.” The point being that we should avoid judgmental reactions. High church, low church or no (institutional) church, if it is in spirit and truth, go for it. I think the Lord enjoys them all in the same manner he enjoys a sagebrush and a towering redwood equally. Once I embraced that mindset I have encountered God’s presence in many different churches—high, low and even baptist.

    • rogereolson

      I wasn’t being judgmental–especially toward people who observe the calendar year in church contexts where that’s their tradition. It isn’t my baptist tradition and I just want to know why so many of us are rushing toward it and, in my observation, anyway, away from our own traditions.

      • Steve Rogers

        I did not mean to imply YOU were being judgmental. As one who has moved away from the experiential emphasis, I can only say that I found it to have a very short shelf life which puts pressure on leaders and followers to make it happen again. There is something stable and substantive about the liturgical calendar and the traditions that go with it that I have learned to appreciate. But, again, I can find life and spiritual value in most worship styles.

  • Matt Marston

    Roger, I am a pastor of Baptist church in Georgia that is about to observe Ash Wednesday in a combined service with the Catholic church in our town. We also observe Lent.

    I think you are on to something- embracing the liturgy can be a move toward greater sophistication and trying to move beyond your roots.

    I just don’t know how you can say that Lent or Ash Wednesday do nothing to change the “inner man.” How can you know that? I myself have been brought to tears during an Ash Wednesday service. As for Lent, I primarily use this as a time for self-examination and confession. I think this is something Baptists actually need to do more.

    You are right to call us Baptists to remember our tradition and what is good in it. Tradition is important- but traditions also can grow and change. I agree with Robert Webber and Scot McKnight that the Christian year and observing it can lead to experiences of Christ. That has been my own experience.

    Thanks for your post. You are always thought-provoking to me.

  • First, is it really fun to see that we are both former Pentecostals (I use the term “Post-Pentecostal”) – I was even ordained Foursquare. I wasn’t kicked out but left (on good terms) because I disagreed Biblically with Baptism of the Spirit as a 2nd event. I am also more intellectually based, so never felt at home in Pentecostal churches.

    Regarding Lent: I have only recently started observing Lent (this will be my 2nd time). You can read a little more about my reasons on my blog, but I just wanted to note one thing:

    We take Sunday “off” from Lent because Sundays are a day of celebration, which has a wonderful unintended consequence — Lent teaches me to REALLY for forward to Sunday and genuinely look forward to it. Even better, my 7 & 8 year-old daughters are giving up sugar for Lent, so they too will really look forward to Sunday. I love that this object lesson teaches them to associate Sunday with happiness!

  • “…focuses too much on “learning and serving” and not enough on experiencing God.”

    Thank you for this post. Learning and serving shouldn’t detract from experiencing Christ and experiencing Christ (particularly the Spirit) shouldn’t diminish one’s pursuit in the truth.

    I think another last bastion for Christian “experience” of God is the contemporary praise and worship scene. It is so crafted for experience- low lights, stimulating screen graphics with the lyrics, talented, attractive, and charismatic band members, and perfectly selected play list. But sometimes I wonder how many people there are actually experiencing God and how many are just experiencing a great concert. It’s not that I am against these things per se, except that I think it’s sad if this is all that Christians know of experiencing God anymore. Why can this type of energy, enthusiasm, and interest be drawn from fellowshipping with God in His word? Or who has any recent, genuine experiences of God in dealing with sin, not loving the world, consecration, or obeying the teaching of the anointing? Christ is both the truth AND the life. Both go hand in hand with being a Christian. In this light it’s easy to be a cake not turned (Hosea 7:8).

  • Fred

    “Baptists (baptists) often realize that our tradition focuses too much on “learning and serving” and not enough on experiencing God.”

    I have to respectfully disagree with this statement. We may focus on teaching a lot but very little learning actually takes place, that is, if we define learning as a changing of the mind. I agree with J.P Moreland: “The contemporary Christian mind is starved, and, as a result, we have small, impoverished souls.” As a result, our worship experience falls flat because we don’t know who we are worshiping.

    This ties in with a recent post comparing sport (entertainment) and intellectual pursuits in society, which has infected the church.

    • rogereolson

      I didn’t say what kind of “learning.” 🙂 I think that varies a lot from baptist church to baptist church. But all I’ve been part of tend to emphasize leaning the facts of the Bible and how to live the Christian life more than how to experience God in such a way as to be transformed into being the kind of person who wants to live the Christian life.

  • gently reformed

    Thank you for your comments, I appreciate your perspective even when I don’t generally agree with them. Lent is something this SBC refugee has come to look forward too as a seasonal time of discipline and reconnection with the practices of our forbearers. Tomorrow evening I will take my UMC bred spouse and our two sons to a UCC of the German evangelical tradition to remember through communal actions that from dust we are created and to dust we shall return. To bow our heads, admit our sins and look to the risen Lord for forgiveness and guidance.

  • Emelie

    I grew up in a charismatic church where emphasis was on experience. Unfortunately, in the view of that church God was so small he could fit your pocket with ease and his purpose for existence was to hug us when we were sad or to pat us on our back when we were doing well. There was no mystery about Him, no greatness and Christianity started to become boring. I began to desperately long for a bigger God, a God that I could worship. So I went to the high church (Lutheran church). In its liturgy, the prayers, the church calendar, and even the church building I was reminded of Gods greatness and sovereignty – and I was thrilled. After a while, though, I started to get frustrated because I found no room where I could express my worship of this great God within the set liturgy of the high church. So, I left again, this time to a Pentecostal church, which sadly has an almost equally small view of God but at least provides me with room to worship.
    I long for a church where there is an emphasis on both Gods holiness/greatness and his closeness and where you also find room to worship Him.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Another home run Roger! Over the years, in small towns and big cities, I have happily been Holiness Movement (Nazarene/Wesleyan), Baptist, Pentecostal (Trinitarian), and now Baptist again. In addition, I have ancestral roots that are Anglican and Oneness Pentecostal. I say happily because of the wonderful, Christian people present in all of those congregations. Happy too because of the important package of strengths each group brings to the table. If my wife and I could find a congregation that emphasizes all of the excellent insights and practices represented by the grand variety of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we would be happy indeed. But this is like asking a congregation to enjoy the blessings of singing a combination of old hymns, lively modern songs, catchy choruses, scripture in song and worship songs before settling into a message on the real presence of the Holy Spirit in our attempts to interpret scripture, pray and witness; and then gathering around the alter to annoint and pray fir the sick! Given the way folks move around the country these days, could it be that many in the pews probably understand all this, but just go about their Spirit filled life quietly, not wanting to rock the boat or upset the pastor, or the chairman of the board? God does work in mysterious ways!

  • Bev Mitchell

    Oh yes. I forgot to say something re your point about Baptists celebrating Ash Wednesdays like our Catholic brothers and sisters. We live in Mexico in the winter and, on reading your news, the first thing that occurred to me is if any Baptists you know are planning on joining in the events during the days leading up to Ash Wednesday as well? ! (happy face here)

    • rogereolson

      Not that I know of; maybe that will come later….:)

  • I certainly have question about what I am doing in my church as a Baptist pastor. I am Baptist down to my core. And yet…. Your blog talks about the “and yet” many of us feel. I am 62 years old and for the last 7 years or so have incorporated many of the elements associated with the more liturgical communions. It’s good for me. But I honestly wonder at times if in the long run I am doing a disservice to those core elements of my heritage, the very things that make me a Baptist and have made this faith stream within the larger Body of Christ so rich and contributive. Maybe I should bite the bullet and let go of these things – like Lent, Lectionary, renewal through Eucharist, etc. – that can so easily become a religion we can do rather the plainspoken truth of faith and repentance, heaven and hell, holiness and walking the narrow way. And maybe I am selling short the guest in worship who doesn’t “feel” the difference between who we really are and what we look like in common with all the other churches. Do we just blend in with no recognizable spark? I wonder. I do.

  • Über baptists informiere ich mich regelmäßig. Danke also für deinen Blogpost zum Thema. Vielen Dank dafür, Pia.

    • rogereolson

      Glad to be of help

  • I like reading blogs about Baptists and lent. You did really good work on here. I’ll bookmark your site. Thanks, Frank.