The Traditionalist Evangelical
Jason Smith grew up as a good evangelical. He accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior, became active in his church, and was an expert on determining God’s Will for his life. The church where he began his relationship with Jesus and spent his formative years was Mission Hills Community Church, a large, family-friendly, relevant community of Jesus-followers. His years at this wonderful community of Jesus-followers had taught him what to expect in the evangelical church and how what they did reflected what they believed. He even got to know his dynamic, relevant pastor and learned a thing or two about useful leadership skills.
Jason finished high school and enrolled in a local community college, unsure of what exactly God had in store for his life. He did discern, however, that God wanted him to move away from home and experience new things, so he moved to a neighboring state and enrolled at a four year university. During his first week of classes, he looked up the nearest community church online and headed out for the worship experience on Sunday morning.
The local church was called Woodland Heights Community Church and from the outside it looked like any other relevant church. The building and parking lot were new, there was a cool church sign that made trendy graphics, and the people in the parking lot looked young and relevant. Once inside he found the visitor’s desk, behind which sat a helpful woman in her 20’s, and inquired where the college-age worship experience was held.
“College-age worship experience? What kind of experience?”
“ The worship experience for young adults, college students, people like me.”
“What kind of experience are you looking for?”
“WORSHIP experience! The service!”
The young lady’s eyes lit up. “Oh, the Divine Service!” she said, “It’s held in the sanctuary starting in 10 minutes. You’re just in time.”
Jason thought to himself that this must have something to do with the current teaching series. Perhaps they were currently teaching on dealing with difficult people. Still, it was an odd way to treat a newcomer, especially since they had no way of knowing if he was yet a fully-devoted Christ- follower.
He began looking for this thing called a sanctuary. The idea of a sanctuary was really very quaint; perhaps it was a coffee-house venue based on the style of an old sanctuary, maybe with a little bit of antique stained glass right behind the barista.
He soon found the sanctuary venue and entered. It was apparent to him from the moment he entered that this was not the main venue for the young adult crowd. There were people his age here, but there were also young families with children, teenagers, baby-boomers, and (gasp!) old people. There was no coffee bar, and most of the people were already seated. He didn’t want to deal with the welcome desk again, so he decided to just have a seat and stick it out.
He had a seat and looked up at the stage. The screen at the front said, “Welcome to the Divine Service at Woodland Heights.” Jason surmised that the earlier confusion at the desk was all because this service was called the divine service and it took place in the sanctuary venue. He was very curious how the service was going to start, as the band was not set up on the stage, and there was only a keyboard at the front.
It turned out that all the music was to be led by the keyboard, using an old organ setting. The songs themselves were filled with dead religious language and some of them sounded quite old. The congregation sang them well enough, but only a few people raised their hands, and it seemed most of the people were not really worshipping at all. The pastor’s message did contain practical, relevant teaching for his life, but the rest of the service was completely dead and religious. The songs and prayers were in a form of Christianese he knew could never be authentic.
The next week Jason looked online for a more authentic community church, but he found that the area where he now lived was a stronghold of denominationalism. These churches all had belief statements on their websites about their “doctrine”. Some of them even adhered to creeds. He worshipped by himself for a few weeks, but finally decided to give Woodland Heights another chance.
This time he came prepared. He arrived at the church 30 minutes earlier, found the youth pastor, and asked about alternative worship options. The youth pastor proceeded to ask Jason to join him for the divine service, but Jason asked again for the alternative. The youth pastor then said something quite shocking, “Oh, we worship together as a Christian community here at Woodland Heights.”
After enduring another hour of dead worship, Jason found the head teaching pastor, Pastor Mike, and asked for some of his time. The pastor invited Jason to join his family for lunch and afterwards they came back to the pastor’s office, which he liked to call his study, and sat down to talk.
Pastor Mike knew exactly what Jason was feeling, “I’m guessing that worship here at Woodland Heights is unlike anything you’ve experience before”, he said.
“Yes, that’s right, but it’s not weird to me because it’s new, it’s weird to me because it’s old and dead and religious”.
“And what about worship here seems dead and religious to you?”
“Everything. Why do you use old songs that are so full of jargon? Why do you use old prayers? And where is the praise band? Were they fired? Are they on vacation?”
“Praise bands and improvised prayers,”, Pastor Mike replied, “are things that you would traditionally see in worship, but we at Woodland Heights made the decision two months ago to move to what we call more theological worship”
“Yes, when you look at different churches and denominations, non-denominational community churches have been pretty good at attracting people, and we have nothing against that, but we’ve struggled with teaching our theology. Looking at different denominations, we’ve decided that the Lutheran church does the best job of placing a high emphasis on their theology. Their worship experiences focus on teaching, from beginning to end. Traditional evangelical music is inspiring, but it does not teach the faith. The new songs we’re doing at Woodland Heights do teach the faith from a biblical perspective.”
“But we’re not Lutheran” said Jason.
“No, and we don’t teach Lutheran doctrine. We do, however, use their style of doing church. We have freedom to do that.”
It was at this point that Jason noticed the book on the pastor’s desk; it was titled Lutheran style, evangelical substance. He didn’t respond to Pastor Mike, but gave him a blank, confused stare.
Pastor Mike handed Jason a big blue book and said, “This is the songbook where we’ve been getting our worship songs. CCLI and the Christian music industry are fine if you’re into that sort of thing, but we don’t see why we can’t use diverse resources.”
Jason took the big blue book home. It was called Lutheran Worship. It contained prayers (which all seemed to be in a stiff, archaic language), old songs, and these things called divine service settings. One of the service settings looks familiar, as he remembered singing a song called, “This is the Feast” in worship on Sunday. He also noticed that many of the pages had been torn out, some verses of songs had been crossed out, and an occasional word was removed with white-out and replaced with another. He emailed Pastor Mike and asked about the deletions. Pastor Mike said in his reply that they remove songs that explicitly teach something false, but keep everything else. It seemed to Jason that the whole approach and philosophy behind this old blue book was the problem, not the occasional word and song that could be crossed out or deleted.
Things would get worse and worse at Woodland Heights over the next few years. This new way of doing church affected not only the Sunday morning worship experiences, but infiltrated every area of the congregation’s life. The youth group regularly attended Lutheran hymn festivals. The Sunday school used materials from Concordia Publishing House, the Lutheran publisher. Most people in the congregation listened to Lutheran radio. It seemed that the only real experience of Jesus was limited to the act of accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. He even heard a youth talk about regularly receiving sacraments during her testimony after receiving Jesus into her heart. The small group ministry was replaced by teaching and Vespers at the church. The worship screen was taken down and they began singing hymns directly from their Lutheran Worship hymnals. An electronic organ was purchased and the pastor, who now called himself Pastor Anderson, started wearing vestments.
Despite all of this, the congregation complained. Some of them visited the local Lutheran church and discovered that they had a real pipe organ, used a new hymnal called Lutheran Service Book, had a choir that sat in the balcony, and even chanted the liturgy. Jason went to this Lutheran church with friends from Woodland Heights one Sunday. He sat through the service with patience, only mumbling something at the end about the uninteresting, uninspiring music and dead religious language. Some Woodland Heights members began leaving for the Lutheran church. Some even joined the Anglican Church.
At the end of his four years of school, Jason felt called by God to return home and get back to Mission Hills. Things at Mission Hills had changed too, but as a larger church they were able to offer what they called a “traditional evangelical” service for people like him. The worship band had to maneuver around the organ, and the worshippers had to read the song lyrics from a printed sheet, but at least it was better than Woodland Heights.