In 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.