This past weekend I had the great privilege of emceeing and presenting at the first (hopefully annual) Praxis Conference held at my home church (Sanctuary) in Tulsa, OK. The purpose of the gathering was to explore, celebrate, and dialogue about how evangelical and charismatic churches are creatively and thoughtfully resourcing the Great Tradition to live faithfully as the people of God in the 21st century. The gathering was absolutely STACKED with amazing presenters (get the full list here) who spoke on everything from their own personal journeys into learning to appreciate and recover tradition to the historical and philosophical reasons why the recent renaissance of tradition within certain portions of evangelicalism is taking place to how to begin to recover the riches of the past for our time. For many, myself included, it was shocking and beautiful to discover so many like-minded and like-hearted brothers and sisters in Christ.
Since I learn best when I “produce” out of what I’ve taken in, I thought it might be worthwhile scratching out a few reflections on the event. So here they are, in no real order:
The old charismatic pastors are by far the best storytellers among us. Ed Gungor, Brian Zahnd, Bishop Moore, Dr. Cheryl Bridges Johns… I’m looking at you (with Chris Seay not far behind). All of us younger pastors and speakers have a lot to learn from how well you embody the truth through the vehicle of story… thanks for the gift of that.
David Gungor and the Brilliance are doing this whole neo-liturgical deal on the musical front better than anyone I know. The way their music narrated the event was just so beautiful and appropriate. (And David, who produced the event – huge kudos to you on your work there. The event was masterfully orchestrated, and in my opinion you were the unsung hero of the whole thing.)
I don’t think it’s an accident that the bulk of those represented at the event are from pentecostal/charismatic or broadly evangelical traditions. That much of the renaissance of liturgy and tradition is coming from those circles is hardly surprising to me, and really stood out in sharp relief this weekend. The ahistorical, context- and tradition-less traditions many of us were raised in left us hungry and thirsty and longing for more. For those who were raised in “higher” traditions, much of this passion for saying the Gloria, praying the Lord’s Prayer each week, taking communion, engaging in fixed-hour prayer, etc etc., must look like an enormous oddity. But for those of us who were brought up in ecclesial contexts that gave us no footing to create a coherent faith, the journey into the Great Tradition is not a matter of fad or personal preference. It is a matter of life or death. Which leads me to my next thought…
This is not a passing fad. One of my friends over lunch a couple weeks ago expressed concern that this passion for all things tradition/sacrament/liturgy/etc would become “the next big thing” in evangelicalism. After all, we’ve got a pretty good track record of running from thing to thing to thing… whether it’s marriage and the family or social justice or the mission of God or the end times… every so often our imaginations get captivated with some new thing that for us is, seemingly out of nowhere, the ne plus ultra of what it means to be the faithful. I do not get the impression that this is that. Of course, having said that, I’ll also be quick to add that once this “movement” (I hate calling it that, but it has all the markings) goes “mainstream”, for some people it will be a fad. (And make no mistake, it WILL “go mainstream.” Once churches like Willow Creek start creating space for liturgical expression, the masses will begin to catch on… which by the way is not a hate on Willow Creek or any other megachurch that starts doing this stuff. It’s a frank admission that the Willow Creeks of the world are going to take what the early adopters have been doing and make it accessible to the majority – which is a good and beautiful role.) But at least for those of us represented at the conference, given the life-or-death nature of our journey into this, it will not be a passing fad. I am of course not altogether certain that in 50 years we’ll still be having “Praxis Conferences”–we’ll certainly be on to other things. But that will be because out of our desperation for spiritual stability we have taken the Great Tradition and worked it into the depths of our lived spirituality, both individually and in our communities… the medicine will have worked its cure, so to speak, and our sense of “practiced catholicity” will simply be an only occasionally-noticed lens through which we view the world–which is probably as it should be. But there is more…
I have come to the conclusion, and my time at Praxis only reinforced it, that ultimately this is FAR bigger than some mere existential or aesthetic angst.
It would be an enormous mistake to think that this is all MERELY about a bunch of evangelicals and charismatics who happened to feel spiritually or aesthetically impoverished by their paper-thin traditions rummaging around in the “high church” attic, finding a few vintage leisure suits and family photo albums, and then wandering off feeling better about themselves. I don’t, to be quite honest, think it’s about that at all. I think it’s more than that. I think it’s about a desire to come home. Speaking from my own experience (which is the only thing I can really speak very authoritatively on), my own fascination with all things “Rome” is not first pragmatic or intellectual–it is born of a spiritual yearning to be reunited with that which gave me, and all of us, birth. For me, beginning to learn to believe along with the Church and worship along with the Church feels like learning the language of my homeland. But the more I learn to believe and worship in the language of my homeland, the more I long for the homeland itself.
Let’s face it–the Protestant evangelical scene at the dawn of the 21st century is a lonely scene. We’re far off. We want home. And along the way, as we meet other estranged brothers and sisters, there is a feeling of joy… but not of arrival. We’re not staying here. We’re headed somewhere. We’re looking for home. This is about a pilgrimage. And it’s not just a pilgrimage from our side either. As this video taped by Pope Francis makes plain, the pilgrimage is one that all of us must make. We’re going to find each other. It may be a long way off, but we’re going to arrive…
I believe that. I believe because, as Jonathan Martin put it so well, Jesus asked the Father for it (John 17), and nothing the Son asks the Father is conceivably going to be denied. If that vision and hope puts wind in your sails and makes your heart melt with joy, then you know what I’m talking about. And if it doesn’t, you just don’t get it. And if you’re a church leader and your heart doesn’t simply burn over that vision, then I want to gently suggest that your personal empire building has eclipsed your love for the Father and his family. Quit sniffing your own buns. Lift up your eyes, and behold the magnificent work of God! We can’t remain alone. Jesus isn’t coming for a harem, as they say. He’s coming for a single Bride. And he’s gonna get it… one way or another.
We move towards this by starting where we are, in our traditions, living out our catholicity even when our friends or the churches around us aren’t. This insight was perhaps the highlight of the conference for me. It was perhaps always a subtext (there was a spirit of remarkable respect, I thought, from each participant for the reality of our social and theological starting points), but it was Sarah Bessey and Dr. Chris Green who both made it explicit. I was particularly taken when Sarah, at the end of her first talk, brought her story full circle by saying that after it all, she’s back in a (her words) “happy clappy charismatic church” where many folks just won’t get her fascination with the Tradition, but she’s living it faithfully all the same there. I thought, “That is one of the most mature and appropriate things I’ve ever heard.” We cannot deny who we are or where we’ve come from. And when the antagonism within us between where our journey has taken us and where we started dissipates… well that just smells like the Spirit to me. Let us begin where we are, honoring the “wombs” out of which we were birthed, as God leads us all towards his future.
Lastly, I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t thank Ed Gungor for his vision. Ed was my pastor growing up, my first boss in ministry, and has been a good friend for many years. I have a mountain of respect for his vision and his leadership, and this past weekend was a sterling example of it.
Ed – thanks for the great gift that you gave all of us. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that you are appreciated and deeply loved. All grace to you…
Here’s to next year.