Melanie Ross. Evangelical versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy.

Sarah Kathleen Johnson

The Conrad Grebel Review 36, no. 1 (Winter 2018)

Melanie Ross. Evangelical versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014.

A persistent pattern in the study of Christian worship “pits evangelical churches against the liturgical renewal movement and allows for little ground in between” (2). In this short volume, Melanie Ross uncovers substantial middle ground. She challenges liturgical scholars to attend to Free Church perspectives, recognizing the validity of evangelical liturgical traditions. She encourages evangelicals not to be threatened by liturgical studies and to be open to becoming more liturgically self-conscious. As a liturgical scholar from a nondenominational background, Ross is well positioned to fully honor and gently critique both evangelical and liturgical perspectives in doing the “translation work” of talking with evangelicals about liturgy, and explaining “‘low church’ evangelical worship practices to those from more ‘high church’ liturgical traditions” (4). Through careful historical, biblical, and theological scholarship, and concrete examples of the worship life of two evangelical churches, she concludes that evangelicalism and liturgical studies can come together in dichotomy-defying dialogue.

Ross uses “liturgical” to describe the churches, theology, and worship of the 20th-century liturgical and ecumenical movements, and “evangelical” to name the Free Churches and theological perspectives not engaged in these movements. Evangelical worship thus stands apart from the ecumenical convergence around the fourfold ordo of scripture, baptism, eucharist, and prayer, and is instead patterned on a threefold “frontier ordo” of singing, sermon, and altar call.

In chapter 1, Ross returns to the historical origin of evangelicalism, often  associated  with  Charles  Finney  and  the  pragmatic  frontier  ordo maligned by many liturgical scholars. She highlights the ecumenical bridge- building of Finney’s predecessor, George Whitefield, who de-emphasized denominationalism in order to prioritize new birth. Ross thereby raises questions about the purpose and future of denominations, and sheds light on the present-day paradox that “evangelicalism draws together people of different churches while dividing those within the same denomination” (26).

In chapter 3, the author examines scripture as a shared authority yet a significant challenge in ecumenical dialogue. Both liturgical and evangelical scholars oppose the fundamentalist divinization of scripture, yet they propose different  solutions.  Liturgical  theologians  emphasize the liturgical origins of scripture, that “all texts are written and read from within socially arranged and culturally constructed worlds” (Louis-Marie Chauvet), and see scripture as a collection of powerful myths and symbols (Gordon Lathrop). Evangelical scholars focus on the Trinitarian revelation of scriptural meaning to reconciled sinners (John Webster); and doing justice to the literary, historical, and theological variety in the Bible, including revealed propositional doctrine (Kevin Vanhoozer). According to Ross, these perspectives are not necessarily incompatible; they are distinct strands running through a single rope, or a book of maps showing different features of the landscape.

In chapter 4, Ross tackles ecclesiology. Liturgical scholars emphasize a church constituted through objective activities, especially the Eucharist. Evangelicals prioritize the subjective experience of new birth, and a church constituted through faith and obedience. Liturgical scholars, including Lathrop, have thus characterized nonsacramental worship as a “gnostic” celebration of individual decision-making. Ross offers Free Church theologian Miroslav Volf ’s emphasis on confession of faith in response: “There is no church without sacraments; but there are no sacraments without the confession of faith and without faith itself ” (89). Rather than expecting a common ordo, the minimum requirement for ecumenism becomes “openness of each church to all other churches that make a confession of faith” (89). Ross argues diverse ecclesiologies can coexist, similarly to the Gospels: the synoptic gospels are associated with sacramental ecclesiology, whereas the Gospel of John represents ecclesiology anchored in personal faith and discipleship.

Chapters 2 and 5 are ethnographic case studies of two American evangelical congregations that challenge the evangelical-liturgical dichotomy in their worship practice, community life, and social service. Ross’s empathetic description and careful analysis demonstrate how her historical, biblical, and theological work applies to contemporary contexts.

Many traditions, including Mennonites, have been influenced both by the liturgical renewal movement and evangelicalism. This influence results in denominations and congregations that are both evangelical and liturgical, and neither evangelical nor liturgical—dynamics that can divide the church or enrich it. Ross’s accessible study, full of concrete images and examples, can help scholars, students, pastors, and others caught up in these dynamics understand the larger evangelical and liturgical patterns shaping Christian worship. Understanding is the foundation for celebrating what Mennonites share with liturgical and evangelical perspectives, without flattening genuine disagreement. It is also a starting point for encouraging the middle ground forged regularly at a local level, including the many Anabaptist communities that defy this dichotomy every Sunday.

Sarah Kathleen Johnson, doctoral student, Liturgical Studies, University of Notre Dame, Indiana.