Confessions: “Unspiritual” Christian

A Gothic arch soared over the altar, almost to the ceiling. A crucifix hung within the arch. A smaller niche on each side provided further relief within the building's modern concrete circularity. Six sections of pews radiate out and up from the altar steps to the entry from the narthex.

Sunlight streamed in through the tall, narrow, stained glass windows. Worshipers paused and bowed toward the altar before entering their pews.

It was the last Sunday before the Advent season at Holy Apostles in East Wenatchee, Wash. I slipped into a back row.

And I thought about the physicality of worship.

Stadtkirche Lutherstadt Wittenberg,
I grew up in Pentecostal, Assembly of God, churches and remember stories of George Müller and miraculous answers to prayer. There were family camps and revival meetings—places God's power was supposed to move in special ways. I have a cousin who paints water colors as part of her church worship team.

At one of those revival meetings, the evangelist prayed I'd receive the “infilling of the Holy Spirit.”

But nothing happened. And I wondered what was wrong.

It's perplexing in a church where God apparently “speaks” to almost everyone or at least where being “baptized in the Spirit” provides warrant to believe one's intuitions come from God.

When Presbyterian pastor, Robert Drake of Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church in Asheville, N.C. gave nine chapel lessons at a summer journalism program I attended, the rigor of reformed theology felt like a coming home and growing up and working out of things—accepting God's sovereignty in “gifts of the Spirit” to accepting God's sovereignty in the “doctrines of grace.” 

That's why I sought out Christ the King Presbyterian Church the next year when I moved to Oklahoma City.

But by the time I returned to Coulee City, Wash. nine years later and was confirmed at Bethel Lutheran Church, I had also come to desire the sacraments.

That surprised me.

In his article, “Surprised by Sacraments,” Dale M. Coulter notes trends toward sacramentalism within Pentecostal thought. He wrote, “When one considers many of the basic impulses of Pentecostal spirituality, these trends are not so surprising.” First, he writes, “Pentecostals have always held to a sacramental view of the world in which God is immanently at work.” And second, “Central to Pentecostal spirituality is a theology of encounter that accents a conscious experience of divine presence.”

In another article on Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby inviting members of the Catholic Charismatic group, Chemin Neuf, to live at Lambeth Palace, Coulter continues, “In my view, Pentecostalism is nothing less than a modern version of Christian mysticism. Its twin emphases of sanctification and the charismatic mirror the monastic movement from penance to ecstatic union.”

But perhaps it's not just a Pentecostal thing.

In her article, “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy,” Gracy Olmstead tells the stories of young Evangelicals who found their way into more liturgical traditions. She even finds some Baptists incorporating liturgical elements into worship. 

It's a trend Rachel Held Evans equates with the broader trend of young people leaving church entirely. She's written on CNN's Belief Blog, “Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions—Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc.—precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being 'cool,' and we find that refreshingly authentic.”

It's plausible. The biggest differences between myself and my friend Gentry McKeown who rejected theism, for example, have less to do with what seems wrong in American Evangelicalism and more to do with how we process it.

Melissa Cain Travis, an Assistant Professor of Christian Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, identified enough with Olmstead's subjects, she started reading other accounts as well. In one post, she mourns how a common romaphobia has led to a loss of “incarnational worship.” She wrote, “Simply put, incarnational worship and devotion recognizes and celebrates the Lord’s use of the material creation as a means by which the reality of the Holy Spirit can be perceived by those who are in Christ.”

Indeed, it seems the sacred vs. secular dichotomy might really be spiritual vs. material. Even Christians who reject the materialists' rejection of the “supernatural” still seem to accept the materialist distinction between the material and “spiritual.” The gospel then becomes about spiritual salvation rather than the new creation. So that what's left is an ethereal ghostly shadow of what the Hebrew prophets or the historic church seem to have understood. 

In the physicality of liturgy, there is something gracious—reassuring. It is an encounter with the mystery.

Writing from an Orthodox perspective in, “For the Life of the World,” Alexander Schmemann said, “The Eucharist has so often been explained with reference to the gifts alone: what 'happens' to bread and wine, and why, and when it happens! But we must understand what 'happens' to bread and wine happens because something has, first of all, happened to us, to the Church. It is because we have 'constituted' the Church, and this means we have followed Christ in his ascension; because he has accepted us at his table in his kingdom; because, in terms of theology, we have entered the eschaton, and are now standing beyond time and space; it is because all this has first happened to us that something will happen to bread and wine.”

Later he continues: “But this is not an 'other' world, different from the one God has created and given to us. It is our same world, already perfected in Christ, but not yet in us. It is our same world, redeemed and restored, in which Christ 'fills all things with himself....'”

Schmemann is speaking here in something other than modern categories.

In her essay, “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” Mary Karr describes how poetry and prayer brought her to the Catholic faith. She writes, “...the Church’s carnality, which seemed crude at the outset—people lighting candles and talking to dolls—worked its voodoo on me. The very word incarnation derives from the Latin in carne: in meat. There is a body on the cross in my church. (Which made me think at first that the people worshipped the suffering, till my teenage son told me one day at Mass: 'What else would get everybody’s attention but something really grisly? It’s like 'Pulp Fiction''...).”

Stadtkirche Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany,
altarpiece by Lucas Cranach
Indeed, when I was baptized at age 11, I did not feel particularly spiritual, but I could feel the water. And the invocation of the "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," hinted at something more.  

And every month before communion, Pastor Dennis Cooper read or recited, "...But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body." (1 Corinthians 11:28-29).

Though our sense of what we call the spiritual is not the same as is our sense of what we call the physical, it also does not seem as different as we moderns tend to think.

Maybe its some human herding instinct that leads us to find meaning in shared activities.

I tend to think it's not—or that's not all it is.


  1. I had no idea you were such a wonderful, profound thinker and writer. I have transitioned from So. Baptist to American Baptist to non denom to "trans" denom following my music vocation. Now I am a Methodist by choice. Certainly not high church, but compared to So. Baptist - maybe. I have learned a lot about liturgy and the life of church community celebrated in Advent, Lent, Easter. It is fascinating to me and has enriched my spiritual experience in church community. I have never had the privilege of visiting one of the great cathedrals in Europe. I hope to someday. I did visit "Our Lady of the Angels" in L.A. It was, of course, very modern and yet there was a weight there - maybe a bit of God's glory that I glimpsed through the architecture and art. I left with a sense of having been in the presence of divinity. I'm not saying I don't experience that in my small Methodist church - but it was somehow more intense, more physical, very impactful. Thank you for your insights. I look forward to reading more from you. (I am Katie's sister)

    1. Hey, thanks for your kind words. I remember you!

      You should definitely take the opportunity to go see some of the great old churches in Europe. Sounds wonderful.

  2. Loren, your East Wenatchee 'connection' got my attention as I read this (I clicked on over via Glynn Young's Saturday Good Reads).
    We're in Seattle area, Foursquare folks :-)
    Growing up faith-wise in the Charismatic movement I am learning of late how much we have thrown out that is so powerful liturgy-wise, wishing we could bring some of it back--the sacraments, the readings, the contemplation piece.
    At any rate I want to say well done--this is a such a great recap and very well thought out piece. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for reaching out and for your kind words. Maybe someday our paths will cross. 'Till then...


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