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Our Fathers Left Us Evangelicalism

January 6th, 2020 | 9 min read

By Cameron Shaffer

My Father Left Me Ireland is a memoir of longing and reclamation. Michael Brendan Dougherty recounts his rediscovery of his cultural roots and taking possession of an absent heritage as he reconnected with his absent Irish father. Dougherty sought an identity with meaning in contrast to his bare cultural experience, one of kitsch artificiality and vapidity. The cultural identity he found was in his father’s gift of Ireland, a legacy and heritage that went beyond them both. 

Reading this left me wondering. What had I been left? My own father never abandoned me, but what was my legacy, my heritage that transcended the immature and vapid? I am a minister in a Reformed church, but in looking for what my forefathers had left me and my peers, I found that it was not the Reformation, but something far more puerile, and it left me yearning for more.

I am a seminary student attending a missions conference. A seasoned missionary announces to us that the key to missional success is each subsequent generation of the church reinventing the church’s worship. Making it our own. He doesn’t belong to a particular denomination. 

I wonder if he is aware that the faith of the church has already been once delivered.

Years later I am at a synod of a denomination that claims to be confessionally reformed. A pastor who came of age and faith in the 1970s talks to us about how faith is passed on in the church. It’s tied fundamentally to the worship of the church, which needs to be reinvented for each era! The old approach was stiff, stodgy, formal! We need to feel Christ’s joy! This means that energetic singing, uninterrupted by prayer, scripture, confession, or creed, is how to achieve success. For your church to succeed this needs to be updated for your era! Updated, not by returning to the era of responsive reading of scripture, but by keeping up with changing musical styles. (And make sure you do it professionally!) That, church, is how you survive, thrive, and pass on your faith.

We destroyed your heritage. If you want success, you must never reclaim it.

How are we doing this morning?!

Lord, have mercy on us.

Are y’all ready to worship?!

Christ, have mercy on us.

We are told to honor our father and mother, but what happens when what we want to retrieve is their own inheritance, which they first dishonored? What are we to do when honoring our forefathers in the faith requires rejecting the faith and practice of our fathers?

Inescapably, my thoughts regularly return to this First Things essay on The Young Pope. Some with parents are still orphans. If what keeps us from being orphaned is the connection to our heritage and past, then the evangelical worship practices of our parents have made orphans out of us, the children of the Reformation. Liturgy is the habit, the custom and practice of embodying belief in worship. It is the practice that passes on birthright and birthrite. It is the family name of the faithful in motion. To reinvent it is to sever the cord and chord of the past, to emancipate by orphaning. 

A young man I pastored had recently graduated from high school and began attending college in a different town. I recommended several churches for him to visit, including a Lutheran congregation. He later told me that they felt too Roman Catholic. I expected to hear about the mass or clerical collars, but instead heard: “They sat in pews rather than chairs, and sang hymns instead of praise choruses. It felt too Catholic.”

To be Protestant, for this young man apparently, did not include that which felt solemn or formal, even if that formality only extended as far as pews and Fanny Crosby on the organ. Evangelicals have become so distant from our foundation that we confuse the practices of 50 years ago with the practice of 500. When you are orphaned, anything that appears to provide structure evokes family. 

The gospel is foolishness and unintelligible to the unbelieving world. What sort of arrogance possesses us to think we can make our worship any more intelligible than our gospel without losing both? Get rid of the psalms, get rid of confession and absolution, remove the creeds, minimize the practice of the sacraments, eliminate any motion beyond standing with arms raised (during songs only), and the world will come. 

And that’s how it’s panned out, right?

Making the church’s gathering indistinguishable in its practice from the world’s customs accomplishes exactly that. Telling your children to make their own way and avoid your example means they follow the pattern of someone else. 

What, exactly, does the church offer now?

The local megachurch has begun to recognize that the younger generations want something with more substance, something that feels older than the American suburbs. They have started a liturgical service (acoustic guitar by candlelight) to appeal to them. The pastor is happy that his older generation escaped the shackles of tradition and found real faith, faith independent of the motions. And he’s glad that the reinvention of Christianity for the next generation looks different than his own. The fact that it’s an attempted return to what he destroyed doesn’t seem to bother him. It’s only incidental that the reinvention looks like the ruins of what was before. Besides, the similarities between what is actually provided and the Book of Common Prayer are superficial. The next, next generation will reinvent again.

My wife and I walk into an allegedly confessional Presbyterian church. It’s called “The Gathering” or “CrossPointe” or “Life Community”. The band, made of up of men and women in their 40s-and 50s, rock out to songs written between 1985 and 2000. Besides us, there are no people under 30 in the sanctuary. They celebrate how relevant and missional they are. The pastor informs the congregation that Jesus offers more grace than you can find in a plastic communion cup. I wonder if he knows that,

just as truly as we take and hold the sacrament in our hands, and eat and drink it with our mouths, by which our life is then sustained, so truly we receive into our souls, for our spiritual life, the true body and blood of Christ, our only Savior.

We’re told that we’re all fine, God’s fixing our brokenness, and another praise chorus goes up, the flow of worship uninterrupted. I didn’t really want absolution of my sins, anyways.

I’m visiting several churches in Scotland. The air smells of Highland single malt and reformation. The Free Church allowed their congregations to sing hymns alongside unaccompanied psalms a few years back. Most of the churches that have made the adjustment are no longer exclusively sings psalms, but exclusively sing the Gettys. 

Reinvention for the new means stepping over the church past. Reinvention means abandonment. Forget the communion of saints.

I visit a congregation in Glasgow. They’re still singing psalms; their old minister died of a heart attack when he heard the denomination was allowing hymns. That was 15 years ago. I’m told they’re introducing hymns to the congregation next week. Of course, they’ll still regularly sing unaccompanied psalms. Of course.

Dougherty celebrates that his legacy and the Irish spirit have not entirely disappeared after centuries of English colonialism. How? Through intentional, defiant cultivation of an Irish legacy by those who love the Emerald Isle, by ensuring a love of his forefathers’ culture in his own children by passing it on. It is slow work, but worthy work. Martin Bucer says much the same in Ground and Reason about reformation in ministry. It’s slow work. It’s hard work. It’s worthy work. It’s the work of recovering the gospel in motion from the colonialism of a regressed and callow faith. 

I have a son now. What can be left to him? Something retrieved from before and beyond us, something that is not our legacy, or theirs, to reinvent. Something venerable and transcendent. Our fathers left us evangelicalism. We can, and ought, to leave our children something better.

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Cameron Shaffer

Cameron Shaffer (PhD candidate, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) is the Senior Pastor of Langhorne Presbyterian Church in Langhorne, Pennsylvania and serves on the Board of Directors for the World Reformed Fellowship.