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Are Millennials Returning to Liturgy?

Over the last several years, maybe even decade, we’ve seen discussions about whether young people are turning to more liturgical or high church traditions.

One of the first to broach this conversation was Robert Webber in his important text The Younger Evangelicals. Following this the rise of “Ancient-Future Worship” seemed to expand into many churches, and especially in the emerging/emergent type churches. (I’ve talked about this in a post called “Generational Divides.”)

Also, during the early part of last decade there were a number of notable departures of evangelicals to return to Roman Catholic roots or the embrace the Catholic communion anew. Most notably here was Dr Francis Beckwith during his tenure as the the President of the Evangelical Theological Society. As a result many books have been written on the subject of evangelicals returning to liturgical and high church roots such as: Evangelicals on the Canterburry TrailBeyond Smells and Bells The Accidental Anglican, and several others.

As a result, there has been an increasing growth in discussions about high church, liturgical forms in present day church movements. These discussions seem to arise about every other year and eventually flare out with little change having taken place. In light of the increasing dramatic declines in mainline and traditionally liturigcal denominations, this conversation has been harder to advance with substantial legitimacy (specifically in North America.)

Earlier this week another post, over at The Christian Pundit by Rebecca VanDoodewaard, stirred the pot again and brought up a good conversation. The central contention of the piece might best be seen as this statement:

Young Christians are going over to Catholicism and high Anglicanism/Lutheranism in droves, despite growing up in low Protestant churches that told them about Jesus. It’s a trend that is growing, and it looks like it might go that way for a while: people who grew up in stereotypical, casual evangelicalism are running back past their parents’ church to something that looks like it was dug out of Europe a couple hundred years ago at least.

I certainly appreciate the desire to engage this topic and I do find myself fascinated with liturgical and high church models for worship and church. Perhaps it is my upbringing in the first Catholic colony, but I have enjoyed reading and hearing from friends who are part of these movements.

However, I would challenge the extent to which this movement of young Christians is being made “in droves.”

As we’ve been seeing, there is a departure of young Christians from regular and trackable church attendance in their college or post-high school period. This data is troublesome but, in my opinion, should be understood as not a lack of faith across an entire generation but simply the challenges of regular and consistent church attendance in environments where these young adults on now on their own. I do believe there is credible information that many young adults return to their faith following college, though in different ways than the generations before them. Pew Research has clearly shown that church attendance patterns in Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1996) are not comparable to previous generations.

In our own research and discussions, many of my peer group ministry leaders are seeing Millennials (including those in college or having finished college) stay connected with church, or reconnecting. What is attracting them back to church involvement is not, however, liturgical movements or high church ecclesiology.

Instead we are seeing a movement of Millennials who are involved with churches that are, primarily, large church (running over 1,000), have a progressive worship style, have a low church method, and are attractional in outreach. (Check out my post about “Reaching Twentysomethings.”)

This is a notoriously challenging topic because no reputable agency polls on these matters and when they do they rarely, if ever, ask specific questions about worship style, orientation, and tradition which Millennials (or anyone) might attend. However, when we see polling data that is done by appropriate agencies this appears to reinforce our top line conclusions.

As Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research has noted when comparing worship trends from 1972 to 2010:

  • Mainline Protestant numbers dove from 24% to 6% and their worship attendance slid from more than 4% to less than 2%.
  • Young evangelicals rose in number, up from about 21% to 25%. But only about 9% attended church at least once a week in 2010, up from about 7.5% in 1972.

When one considers the annual list of the 100 fastest growing churches (based on percentage of growth) there are few, if any, purely liturgical communities represented as “fast growing.” If mainline liturgical churches were seeing this uptick, shouldn’t the list have grown to include them?

Still, there is an aspect of ad hoc rationalization being done. (On both sides.)

I will agree with this: that Millennials (and young Gen-Xers) are embracing a faith that is multi-faceted and they are open to worship experiences that are varied in style and the relation to liturgy.

This does not, however, translate to a massive shift of Millennials reengaging liturgical, high church traditions “in droves.” The data seems to suggest otherwise. Right now the largest movements of Millennial Christians are happening within specifically evangelical circles that embrace progressive methodology and free church ecclesiology. The Passion Movement, which we can look back into the late 1990s as the 268 Generation or One Day parts, is specifically centered around this methodology.

Where is the data backing up the point that Millennials are engaging liturgical, high church elements in such compelling numbers? Why have we not seen this movements being reported?

Perhaps it is because most liturgical, high church communities are relatively smaller (below 300…yes that is relatively smaller) and haven’t prepared adequate tracking mechanisms like the larger, big box attractional model churches. This is, perhaps, the reality.

Usually when we hear about Millennials embracing sacramental movements, such as pre-Vatican II Catholic liturgy, the stats presented are specious as they only survey committed Roman Catholics. Also, when the mainline denominations discuss these trends they do so from within their own perspectives. 

Millennials do desire to connect with God in worship, though on their own terms. They desire to connect in unique and varied ways, and are not opposed to multiple worship environments and styles to do this even in the same week. They also, desire control over their own participation and how much authority (or complete lack thereof) a spiritual leader might have over their lives.

So, what’s the bottom line:

Simply, I don’t see a massive shift in Christian Millennials turning to liturgical style worship and high church models of ecclesiology.

The Millennials that are involved with liturgical churches are a) highly engaged in spirituality but b) highly sporadic in their attendance patterns.

Finally, I still believe Millennials desire to have a meaningful spiritual journey, though it will look entirely different than other generations. This means that liturgical communities can grow, they just need to show how their teaching is relevant and meaningful to Millennials and motivate them to engage in authentic worship and community.

So, what do you think? What are you seeing? Is there better data out there? What are we missing here?

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Evangelical Views of Inspiration

With the recent hullabaloo over a three minute clip of a twenty minute presentation by a noted evangelical pastor, perhaps it is timely to think about what is an isn’t an evangelical view of Scripture.

The truth is that the most contentious issue in defining evangelicals doesn’t have to do with worship style, Christology, or any number of important theological topics. To get evangelicals all hot and bothered just bring up their book: the Bible.

Evangelicals take the Bible seriously and believe it is inspired and authoritative.

This has been one of the more agreed upon positions within evangelicalism historically.1 There are many points to this discussion, but the one which might be worth camping out on concerns the inspiration of the biblical text. Inspiration refers to the supernatural process whereby the author(s) of Scripture were moved to compose the texts of the books which make up the canon of Scripture.

One of the statements I’ve made in the past, and continue to hold to, is that there is not a consensus view of inspiration of Scripture among evangelicals.

To get into this discussion, let’s look at a chart detailing some views of inspiration in all theological conversations:

The six views represented here have unique meanings:2

  • Intuition – the authors have a proclivity to grasping divine action but there is little no influence from an external force in the process of writing the words of Scripture. Christian Scripture is no different from other religious writings. (Bultmann, Tillich)
  • Illumination – the Holy Spirit is involved in the process of inscripturation, but only existentially and there is no communication of information to the authors. (Bruggemann, Kaufmann)
  • Dynamic – the emphasis here is on the inspiration of the authors more than the words they actually penned. The Holy Spirit inspires the authors in guiding their thoughts, focus, and concepts while allowing the personality and cultural context of the authors to be evident. (Berkouwer, Strong, Mullins)
  • Verbal plenary – as the Holy Spirit inspires the authors it moves from the concepts anddirectly to every word that is written in the Bible. The human element is not overridden, aspects of the authors’ personalities and context still are evident, but they are divinely sanctioned elements. (Warfield, Grudem, Henry)
  • Dictation – as the authors of Scripture sat to write the Holy Spirit filled them and removed all traces of personality and context and the authors became the stenographers of God’s revelation. (Rice, Dodd)
  • Multimethodological approach – this is the idea that different texts of Scripture are inspired differently, but that all of Scripture is equally inspired. Here various approaches listed above are evident in different books of the Bible. (Goldingay, Marshall)3

I have not added one or two views (the neo-orthodox and Roman Catholic views for a host of reasons4 ) but in these which are listed above, you can easily see the spectrum of theologies they represent. Several of these views are clearly outside the realm of evangelicalism. Both intuition and illumination develop a text which is bereft of divine sanction, influence, or meaningful authority. In these views the text of Scripture is not separated much from other religious texts (the Qu’ran, Bhagavad Gita, etc.)

Of the remaining three primary views (I’m going to remove multimethodological for now) it is possible for an evangelical to embrace any of these three.5

It is most easily noted that the verbal plenary view established a large middle ground for evangelicals. This has been the default view since the evangelical emergence following World War II. However, because of the influence of fundamentalism6 dictation theory has remained part of evangelical views of inspiration. In that same way the dynamic view, often called the dynamic theory, of inspiration has been an effective leftward boundary for the view among evangelicals. Through the influence of several theologians and those evangelicals who are less than convinced of inerrancy, preferring infallibility, the dynamic view has maintained in evangelicalism.

Perhaps the larger challenge here is in that watchword for many evangelicals: inerrancy. When we consider the history of this  word in evangelicalism we are reminded that it has, for many, become a kind of “Maginot-line” in the fight for biblical authority and theological conservatism.7 Some authors have suggested that anyone who does not affirm inerrancy is not an evangelical.8 Others have pointed out the challenge of establishing this kind of litmus test for the category.9

If one takes the three categories for inspiration and evaluates how they influence the doctrines of inerrancy and authority, you find there are acceptable limits in these three categories. You can affirm inerrancy while holding one of these three categories of inspiration.10

So why the attempt to confine the evangelical view to verbal plenary inspiration?

Well, perhaps it is because of the theological traditions that one finds themselves within. Though many conservative evangelicals ultimately must appeal to the concept of “mystery” to explain their view of inspiration, that same appeal by other segments of evangelicalism is called out by those same individuals. The reality is, historically, that while verbal plenary inspiration has held the wide middle ground in evangelicalism, there have been others who make legitimate claims for their positions.

One of truths that we must recognize in this discussion is that if we do accept some aspect of mystery in our definition of inspiration. (Does anyone really want to claim they absolutely know how inspiration works? Well other than a dictation theorist?) We must default to the central question: where does it leave your view of biblical authority? Is the Bible authoritative in your position?

Evangelicals have a wonderful tradition of upholding an authoritative and divinely inspired text. Part of this is because the divine inspiration gives validation to the authority. However, the evangelical view takes the Bible seriously and applies a rich historic tradition that is, in fact, Scripture’s own view of itself.  As George Eldon Ladd has said, “Furthermore, the evangelical accepts the Bible’s view of itself as the inspired, normative, authoritative Word of God (I Tim. 3: 16; II Pet. 1:21).”

Our view of inspiration should leave us with a text that is divinely inspired and part of a process whereby the Holy Spirit uniquely and directly influenced the authors of Scripture to produce a series of texts that accurately tells the story of God’s redemptive plan across the actual history of mankind from creation to consummation at the end of the age.

If your view of inspiration removes the Holy Spirit from uniquely and directly inspiring the authors, you simply do not have an evangelical (and I might say biblical) view of inspiration.

Inspiration should leave us with a Bible that is clearly from God and an act of His providence.


  1. 1 See Mark Noll’s essay, “Evangelicals and the Study in the Bible” in Evangelicalism and Modern America ed. George Marsden pgs 103-121 

  2. 2. I’ve drawn from two primary sources, Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology and Steve Lemke’s chapter “The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture” in Biblical Hermeneutics 2nd Edition edited by Corley, Lemke, and Lovejoy. As a side note, both texts were written by professors at Southern Baptist seminaries. 

  3. 3. Each of these listed individuals next to a view is, to the best of research, appropriately noted. Please let me know if you think otherwise. 

  4. 4. Here is a pretty comprehensive list presented a well researched post from James Sawyer

  5. 5. Also, there are some wonderful historical treatments on views of inspiration. I’d particularly point out David Dockery and William Evan’s respective pieces. 

  6. 6. Particularly from the early set of volumes called The Fundamentals, in which there is featured James M Gray’s essay on inspiration

  7. 7.  Many times in the history of evangelicalism the greatest battles have been over this text, how to understand, and the theology around it. FF Bruce once referred to this issue as “The Maginot-line mentality where the doctrine of Scripture is concerned.” Quoted by Robert Johnston in Evangelicals at an Impasse 160, n5 

  8. 8. See Harold Lindsell Battle for the Bible, 1976 

  9. 9. Specifically Bernard Ramm After Fundamentalism. One additional, I am a happy member of the Evangelical Theological Society and sign my statement affirming my belief in biblical inerrancy every year. 

  10. 10. One test would be to take the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and consider articles VI through X as it relates to this conversation and these categories. 

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Your View of Evangelicals

<Note: this is a longer post than usual due to the importance of this topic.>


Over the past decade or so, the primary segment of growth in churches in North America has been among, so-called, evangelical churches. While this is not to say some churches outside of the evangelical tradition (read: segment) aren’t growing, by and large their denominations and networks are not seeing growth. This means that evangelicals are a focal group in America.

So who are evangelicals?

Well, that is a complicated answer. There plenty of theories about the nature of evangelicals, where they came from, who they are…and those theories have been around for about 100 years. (Seriously, look back historically 100 years and we’re having the same discussions…but I’ll move on.) Evangelicalism arose in the late 1800s out of a revivalist Protestantism that was a response to the growing secularization of Christianity.1 (Obviously there is much more to be said here.)

Since its inception, evangelicalism has always struggled with its own identity.2 After the turn of the 20th century, more conservative elements of evangelicalism began their own offshoot that would be called fundamentalism. In many ways the first third of the 20th century saw a culture war between fundamentalists and modernists3 (what we might call…wait for it…liberals.) Also during this time evangelicalism continued to grow. Yet the movement still lacked a coherent identity, defined leadership, and uniform doctrine.4 The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 is seen as the tipping point where evangelicalism (and fundamentalism) lost their place in the culture and moved on. Over the next five decades they separated and started a sub-culture that grew and thrived. The results of this, kind of, cultural hibernation was a continent wide movement that manifested itself in the 1970s through the 1990s in any number of movements and cultural forms. Yet two distinct streams emerged: evangelicals and fundamentalists.

All of that history is important, because we still face challenges today. Other than the obvious issues, evangelicals are a rather large segment of American society that is transdenominational, accepts basic orthodoxy of the Christian faith, is often expressed in free church forms (though not exclusively), and enjoys rapid adaptation for ecclesial forms and models. If you were to look at the 100 largest churches in America today, it would be almost a list of evangelical churches. Evangelicalism’s numerical and movement success has given it a kind of cultural credibility that is not found in many forms.

However, the challenge remains: Who are evangelicals?

Traditionally in Christianity a group, or movement, is identified by their beliefs, leader(s), and method worship. Evangelicals are an amebic form. Many scholars, usually historians, have developed some helpful definitions of who, or what, makes an evangelical. You can check the books listed above and find their definitions.

One other truth for evangelicals is that too often we forget that fundamentalist wander back in and through our networks, churches, and conversations. Make no mistake, fundamentalists are different evangelicals in degree and definition.5 This doesn’t make fundamentalists bad people, I have some very good friends who are very convinced fundamentalists. However, we need to remember that their views are different and the vociferousness with which they defend their views is extremely different. Fundamentalists can be part of evangelicalism, so long as we patiently remind them that our unity is found in some basic principles and that we should welcome those who affirm them and proclaim the same Gospel that we proclaim.

For evangelicalism, in its history, has struggled with this question. However, in general, evangelicalism has been able to accommodate disparate groups once the foundations of belief are established. These foundational beliefs are what is generally accepted as orthodox Chrisitanity. Now this doesn’t make one evangelical or not (you can be a mainline Episcopalian and hold these.) What makes one evangelical often is about their view of: Scripture, mission, salvation, Jesus, and a few other issues.6

Historically, in evangelicalism we can find room for:

  • egalitarians with complementarians and even patriarchialists
  • young earth creationists with old earthers and even theistic evolutionists
  • creation care advocates with global warming naysayers
  • democrats with republicans and even libertarians
  • dispensationalists with covenant theologians and even progressive dispensationalists
  • premillennialists with postmillennialists and even amillennialists
  • high church with low church and even no church
  • eternal punishment with annihilationists
  • progressive worship with liturgists and even rappers

 

and even those who view

  • dynamic theory with verbal plenary inspiration and even dictation theory

 

I can go on and on about this. Too often we are pushed to extremes of these positions by people who earnestly hold the extreme position and don’t realize that, for evangelicalism, it has historically been a big tent held up by several key poles of belief and action. When those with extreme positions attempt to push out others who have a legitimately evangelical view we must say, “stop.”

Too often our desire to remove someone from the larger evangelical conversation has to do with our own misunderstanding of historical evangelical belief than it does with a shortcoming of someone’s position. Now, there are some positions that evangelicals have been nearly unanimous on (universal salvation, denial of miracles, denial of Christ’s divinity, etc.) We can and should say there are things that are outside the realm of evangelical belief. Our tent is not so large that it covers those who blaspheme Christ.

As we confront an increasingly (if not totally) post-Christian America we need to look around and assess our options. Do we really want to spar with Gospel driven, Jesus affirming evangelical Christians over issues which have never defined who is and isn’t evangelical? Or do we want to move the poles in closer and leave many more out of the tent?

For my life and ministry (and perhaps I am too generous) I simply believe that once we staked out the appropriate boundaries, centered on Jesus, and begin becoming more and more devoted to Him, we are stronger together than we are apart.

Because the reality of our situation is that we agree on far more than we disagree on. We are closer theologically than we are apart. We worship the same Jesus Christ who is risen and will come again. As a lost and dying world looks for hope in the midst of the growing darkness we need the light of Christ that will bring them in and not running around blowing out each other’s candles.

Just some thoughts. Apologies for the length.

One more note: On Monday I’ll post up a discussion about views of inspiration to round out the conversation.


  1. 1. See George Marsden Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, James Davison Hunter Evangelicalism, and David Bebbington The Dominance of Evangelicalism for background info that is far better than I can provide here. 

  2. 2. Marsden, Understanding 64-65 

  3. 3. George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture 2nd Ed. 171-175 

  4. 4. Joel Carptener Revive Us Again 13-32 

  5. 5. Marsden, Fundamentalism 4, “Fundamentalists were evangelical Christians, close to the traditions of the dominant American revivalist estbalsihemtn of the nineteenth century, who in the twentieth century militantly opposed both
    modernism in theology and the cultural changes that modernism endorsed…Fundamentalism was a “movement” in the sense of a tendency or development in Christian thought that gradually took on its own identity as a patchwork coalition of representatives or other movements.” Marsden has been criticized for this view, perhaps rightly so for aspects. A larger discussion to have is whether fundamentalism persists today, I believe it does, and how it has changed in the past twenty years. 

  6. 6. George Barna has a helpful list that reflects evangelical attitudes, often better than historians. 

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