When I was a religion reporter, one of the things I loved about my job was exploring the diversity of Christianity. I worked in Colorado Springs, which has long been known as an “evangelical Mecca” because it is home to some huge megachurches and Christian ministries. But that reputation obscured an incredible stew of religious expression. I thought that stew was great. For a guy like me, raised in a Presbyterian Church with its 20-minute sermons and reliable Sunday regimen, it was stunning to see the variety of forms that Christian faith could take.
But that very variety sometimes pointed to some serious divisions within Christianity, too. Let me show you what I mean.
In 2005, I noticed that Roman Catholics would stream into New Life Church in Colorado Springs every Sunday. These Christians, raised in a tradition steeped in millennia-old liturgy, would attend services at this 20-year-old non-denominational megachurch. Many of these Catholics would celebrate a traditional Mass at their home parish and then go to New Life later that day. They weren’t running away from Catholicism, but New Life was a respite of sorts — from tradition to a place where they could raise their hands, sing modern praise songs, and maybe even dance in the aisles.
New Life’s pastor estimated that at any given service, a third of the worshippers were actually Catholic. Peter Howard, executive assistant to the local Bishop Michael Sheridan, believed this trend was not only troubling, but perhaps soul-endangering.
“If you know somebody is engaged in something unhealthy, you have at least the duty to inform them of what they’re doing,” Howard said.
Take the Eucharist, Howard said. While Protestants typically believe that communion is a symbolic act of remembrance, Catholic doctrine holds to the idea of transubstantiation — the wafers in the Eucharist literally and miraculously become the body of Christ. Howard had other problems with New Life’s services: their praise songs might be pretty, but the lyrics didn’t always adhere to Catholic doctrine. The preachers may be passionate, but they didn’t acknowledge the primacy of the Pope. Howard quoted Pope Pius XI, who rose to the papacy in 1922 and declared that Catholics shouldn’t participate in Protestant “assemblies” because they’d “be giving countenance to a false Christianity.”
“Why do Catholics leave the faith? Because they don’t understand what the Catholic faith is,” Howard said.
Shortly after I published a story about the Catholic flood to New Life with The Gazette in 2005, the bishop fired Howard and apologized for Howard’s remarks.
While I’m no expert in Catholic doctrine, I wonder whether Howard got in trouble not because of what he said, but because he said it aloud.
In the Nicene Creed, Christians say that we “believe in one holy catholic [universal] and apostolic Church.” But when you survey Christendom, it doesn’t look very universal. We see the first hints of tension in the New Testament. In Acts 6, we learn the Greeks felt that Jewish Christians were overlooking their widows. Later on in Acts 15, Christians argue over circumcision. In Galatians, Paul documents a disagreement he had with Peter where the two pillars of the early church argue over whether Jews and Gentiles should eat together. While the two of them resolved that issue, Christians have been in the process of spiritually divorcing themselves from each other ever since.
According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, about 41,000 different Christian denominations exist worldwide. Causes for division are perhaps as numerous as the divisions themselves, and almost all show up during a church’s weekly services.
In many churches, style is substance. You didn’t need to delve into a church’s statement of faith or quiz members about their stance on gay marriage to uncover the tension. You can see it in the pulpit, hear it in the music, and feel it in the sacred rites. In church, how we sing and what we say is a deep reflection of what we believe. And when we see something that runs counter to what we’re familiar with, it can make us deeply uncomfortable.
But frankly, I think that discomfort can be good. It’s important for us to understand that we don’t have a monopoly on understanding. Our faith has been in development for 2,000 years. Differences are bound to spring up, and I think it’s good for us to understand why they did.
Diversity: Beauty or Blasphemy?
An example: when I attended a Vespers service at the Saints Constantine and Helen Orthodox Church, I was struck by how ancient it felt. The sanctuary was filled with candlelight, dimly illuminating the icons on the walls. There were no pews, so everyone stood. For 90 minutes they stood. And the place swirled with the smell of incense and the sound of unaccompanied singing.
Father Anthony Karbo, who started his religious life as an evangelical youth pastor, told me that one of the things that he found attractive about the Orthodox church was this sense of ageless reverence — that the service of today looks much as it did a thousand years ago and will still look the same a thousand years from now. I thought it was beautiful.
But as congregants came forward to bow to and kiss a set of held icons, I could see a point of tension between this church and the city’s evangelical majority. While Orthodox Christians see this act as simple veneration, some Protestants would see it as idolatry. The beauty of the service would, for some believers, border on blasphemy.
And another: my own home church — a pretty standard evangelical congregation — observes communion about once every month or so. Our pastor would always tell those in attendance that they were welcome to partake if they were “followers of Christ” and if they had no hidden and unconfessed sin. The Bible, our pastor said, was quite clear that the Last Supper was a sacrament for Christians committed to the faith.
But another local evangelical church offered communion every week — and to anyone who came through the sanctuary doors. Go to a meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and you’ll likely never see them pass around the bread and grape juice. They believe a person’s whole life should be sacramental — not sequestered to a few moments on a random Sunday.
Some believe time-honored liturgy best honors God. Others believe services should be as spontaneous as possible. There are Christians who believe we should come to God on our knees as a supplicant. Others stretch their arms aloft like a child, as if begging for their heavenly Father to lift them up. Imagine an average Presbyterian going into a Charismatic service where speaking in tongues is common. The mainline Protestant might wonder whether the noise was the product of psychosis or groupthink — or a simple desire to grab attention. Meanwhile, a Charismatic attending a Presbyterian service might be truly saddened by its lack of spirit — that it feels dead, somehow.
This stuff matters to people. And many adherents believe that it matters to God, too.
And yet, perhaps there are hints of truth in many of these forms of worship. Perhaps they’re not all mutually exclusive. We find passages in the Bible that stress God’s kingship — his sovereignty over all of creation. Before such a God, we should rightly kneel. And yet there are others that express his love for us — his desire to pull us up in his arms and hold us, like children. Holding our hands up to such a Father feels natural, too.
There were more than 400 places of worship in Colorado Springs when I was covering the city — some big, some small, and all a little different. And in almost all those places, I found believers who loved their God devoutly, fervently, and maybe a little quirkily. I’d like to think that, given God’s grace-filled nature, he’d understand the heart behind the worship.
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