Feeling Renewed By Ancient Traditions
Evangelicals Putting New Twist on Lent, Confession and Communion
Saturday, March 8, 2008; Page B09
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.