By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 8, 2008
Evangelicals observing 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. The National Community Church, which has three locations in the District and one in Arlington County, updated the Lenten fast by adding a Web component: a 40-day blog, where participants from as far away as Australia, Korea and Mexico discuss their spiritual cleansing.
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. Others have formed monastic communities, such as Casa Chirilagua in Alexandria, modeled on the monasteries that arose in Christianity's early years.
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."
Those familiar with the trend 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.
"I definitely sense a hunger for acknowledgment of life's mysteries and of the mystery and beauty of God," said John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Mich., which recently hosted a "worship renewal" conference for 1,500 people. "There's a hunger for deeper engagement -- 'Don't just sell me a product at church, but really put me in touch with the mystery and beauty of God.' "
But there are plenty of critics who reject the practices as "mystical spirituality" that don't belong in evangelical Christianity.
"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."
Defenders, however, refute that devotees of such practices are straying from bedrock evangelical beliefs.
"They're still in love with their Bible. They're still in love with their God. They still see the Bible as their primary authority," said Chris Armstrong, associate professor of church history at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., who has studied the trend. "But their experience is one of churches that look too much like the rest of the world -- a little bit too much like malls or rock concerts."
Weekly communion -- where worshipers share bread and wine, or juice, in remembrance of Jesus Christ -- has long taken a back seat in evangelical churches, but is undergoing a revival.
At Common Table, a weekly lay-led church that gathers at a Vienna coffeehouse for an unconventional service that features skits, group discussion and Quaker-style silence, worshipers line up to take communion from bread purchased at a nearby grocery store and sip wine out of a pottery chalice or grape juice from plastic cups.
"In a church likes ours, it serves the role of being that anchor that continually ties us back to the larger Christian church and to Christian history," said Deanna Doan, a member since its founding in 2001.
First Baptist Church of the City of Washington D.C. follows the liturgical calendar observed by Catholic churches. It lights candles at Advent, and observes Epiphany Sunday and the remainder of the traditional cycle of liturgical celebrations.
"We find that following the seasons of the Christian year adds a lot of richness to our experience of worship," said the Rev. James Somerville, the church's pastor, adding: "We wouldn't want the Catholics to get all the good stuff."
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 mysecret.tv, and ivescrewedup.com. 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 Lifechurch.tv, an Oklahoma-based megachurch that runs mysecret.tv, 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."
At Seacoast Church, which draws 10,000 people in Charleston, N.C., each Sunday, worshipers write their sins on pieces of paper and pin them to a cross. Volunteers later remove the pieces of paper and pray over them. The practice, said Pastor Greg Surratt, "has ramped up the sense of God's presence and power in incredible ways."
A growing wave of "new monastics" have updated the role of traditional monks. They share apartments or houses, have outside jobs and wear street clothes instead of habits. But they still believe in collective living, caring for the poor, a humble submission to Jesus Christ, and a commitment to a disciplined, contemplative life.
The number of monastic communities has grown from about 15 to almost 100 in the last decade, according to Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, an evangelical monk in North Carolina and author of "New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today's Church."
Casa Chirilagua is a nine-month-old monastic community in Alexandria formed by three women and is one of six such communities in the Washington area. Casa Chirilagua residents pray every morning, have pledged to remain celibate while single, and assist low-income immigrants in the community.
Says 26-year-old Casa Chirilagua member Dawnielle Miller: "It's communal, it's intentional and we focus on loving God and loving others."