August 23, 2014

Finding a middle ground between evangelical and liturgical churches

“Evangelical Versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy” by Melanie C. Ross (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 137 pages, $17)

Praise worship or bells and smells: On which side do you cast your lot?

Those who like to argue the merits and demerits of free-style Christian worship (praise worship) versus a traditional, liturgical form of worship (bells and smells) will find Melanie Ross to be an even-handed mediator in the battle of worship rites.

Her aim isn’t to declare a winner and a loser; neither rite is wrong, she says. Instead, she contends that both sides have something to learn and to gain from the other.

For the uninitiated, evangelical Protestants prefer a freer form of worship that emphasizes lively preaching, emotive responses and extemporaneous prayers, while Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans and most mainline Protestants favor historical rites (liturgies) and rituals with a higher priority on Communion. Ross argues that both brands of Christians share a commonality of worship despite their overall differences, and they need to appreciate what each has to offer.

Why should you care about these matters, you might ask? Because the differences have sharpened prejudices and aroused contentious attitudes about who has a genuine expression of meaningful and effective worship. “All use the rhetoric of ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ “ says Ross, an assistant professor of liturgical studies at Yale Divinity School and Yale Institute of Sacred Music. Of course it’s more than a battle over worship forms. Tack on the labels of “liberal” or “conservative” because of theological and political agendas, and it’s easy to see how the chasm between evangelical and liturgical Christians is deeper and wider than the way one worships.

Undaunted, Ross proposes to bring together “the best of liturgical scholarship with the best scholarship on American evangelicalism” and engage them in “conversation with worship practices of contemporary congregations.” She highlights the evangelical movement in this country and examines two contemporary evangelical churches – Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wis., and West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, Penn. – to see how they contribute to the ecumenical nature of worship. Understanding the roots of worship, the role of the Bible for individuals and churches, and the personal/communal nature of faith are key factors for engaging in meaningful dialogue, she contends. And both churches in her book wrestle with aspects of each.

Her rather brief book, with its somewhat clunky title, began as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Notre Dame, and its contents can be challenging to those unfamiliar with some of its liturgical and theological terminology. Yet it can be rewarding to those willing to learn from their counterparts about the integrity and value of one to the other despite theological and political divisions.

“Although there is no universal blueprint for overcoming the evangelical/liturgical dichotomy,” she says, “middle ground is regularly being forged at local levels.” And that’s what she hopes her book will continue to foster among those who claim the name Christian.

Tom Schaefer is a former columnist and religion editor for The Eagle. He lives in Wichita.

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