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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