- This is a longer article. If you don’t have 10 minutes to read it, come back later.
- For brevity’s sake, I’ve not developed deeply my argumentation for “Low Church” against “High Church” worship and ministry. But perhaps some day I’ll write a book.
- My depiction of High Church traditions is made with broad strokes. No doubt, there are many very healthy churches in those traditions that are doing great kingdom work—I wouldn’t dispute the possibility that their impact is greater than the Baptist tradition.
- Fair warning: this is a polemical piece. I beg the indulgence of my friends outside the Low Church tradition. For the record, I’d be eager to join in ministry with any number of my friends who minister in the High church tradition.
Baptists on the road to Canterbury* can and should be reclaimed through clear theological reflection. A number of Baptist church leaders have found themselves enamored with cultural and even theological aspects of High Church life seen in the Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian traditions. I myself was once on that road. I explain here the theological reason justifying my return to my Baptist roots, and urge Baptist churches to resist the trappings of High church.
I left my Baptist roots, tired of certain aspects of Baptist life which seemed pervasive in Baptist churches. I was sick of people thinking emotionalism was an accurate gage of spirituality. I despised preachers saying, “Sis. Suzie, could you sing a song for us this morning.” I was put out with emotional altar calls. I was worn out with hymns lacking substance in the lyrics or freshness in the music. There seemed to be a lack of appreciation for exceptional theological education and research, and this was often reflected in shallow prayers, shallow Sunday School classes, shallow worship, shallow sermons, and shallow ministry.
Moreover, I was drawn to High Church worship because the prayers that were prayed were well written and tested by time. Musicians who performed were professional or semi-professional, and satisfied my personal tastes toward the classical. Often, such churches had a sense of beauty—reflected in stained glass, architecture, and liturgical vestments. Worship elements were controlled much more strictly, giving a dignity which was often lacking in my Baptist background.
These kinds of cultural considerations drove me away from Baptist life and set me on the road to Canterbury.
Perhaps the most important reason for me being so susceptible to departing from my Baptist heritage was that I was Baptist by default. So many Baptists on the road to Canterbury grew up in the Bible belt where Christian culture is predominantly Baptist. So many of us grow up Baptist without having to justify our Baptist worship, and without having to think deeply about it.
Perhaps the evangelistic success of our Baptist forefathers made “being Baptist” too easy. There was a time when being Baptist meant certain persecution. In the early days, Baptist ministers often, perhaps regularly, languished and died in prison. It was hard being Baptist, and no one accepted Baptist principles by default. So, before we ourselves go down the road to Canterbury, we should think deeply about why our Baptist forefathers were so convinced to separate from the Anglicans that they were willing to put their lives and family at such risk.
At root of their commitment was the Baptist principle of the Priesthood of Every Believer, and the indwelling of the Spirit in every believer. This doctrine not only was behind their congregational ecclesiology, but also behind their commitment to Free Church worship.
While early Baptists did not reject ministerial training, their commitment to the Priesthood of Every Believer did lead them to encourage lay participation in worship. Whereas ministerial candidates within the Anglican Church almost always arose from the upper classes in England, Baptist emphasis on lay participation afforded ministerial calling to all classes. Bro. Pete’s spontaneous testimonies in church and fervent witness at his coal mining job would lead the congregation to think that perhaps God was calling him to ministry. The end result, at least here in the American frontier, was the rise of many Baptist preachers on the basis of the congregation’s recognition of calling, rather than M.Div. credentials. If our Baptist churches lag behind other mainline denominations in education, it does so because of our emphasis on the Priesthood of Every Believer.
It is true that prayers in Baptist churches may not be poetic or theologically profound, but again this is due to Baptist commitment to the Priesthood of Every Believer. Baptists believe that genuine prayer from one of the least of these maidservants who genuinely believes and is led by the Spirit is to be preferred over a well written prayer spoken by a rhetorician. Likewise, if the Lord has lain upon Suzie’s heart a song to be sung as her testimony, this is to be preferred over the professional or semi-professional vocalist’s performance of an aria written by someone like Handel. The development of Baptist hymnody likewise was more strongly influenced by a folk tradition within the congregation which understood that the Spirit could move and empower non-expert believers to compose and write hymns that speak to the congregation. In the same vein, Baptists gravitated toward more easily sung and played hymns precisely because they relied on their own lay members to lead them despite their lack of expertise that the professionals had in their counterparts in the High Church tradition. Baptists probably should not demagogue against professionally written prayers or fine music in worship, but they should rejoice in the freedom that they have to pray from their hearts and to allow their own congregants to minister in music even if their talent is less developed.
Likewise, while Baptists do appreciate thoughtfully prepared orders of worship, we recognize that the Spirit may also move spontaneously in the congregation. We recognize that sometimes spontaneous testimonies in worship have a powerful affect on the congregation, and that God’s power is often manifested through his People’s weaknesses.
To be sure, Baptists fail to capitalize on their theological commitment to the Priesthood of Every Believer and the indwelling of the Spirit on every believer. Often Baptist worship services are devoid of the Spirit, and often Sis. Suzie sings her specials out of the wrong motivation. Often Baptist worship services end up being so bound up with tradition as to choke out the Spirit’s work. Too often, prayers lack genuine faith and passion. In many cases, Baptists have an anti-educational bias and glorify ignorance. We can be plagued by a semi-Trinitarianism of “God the Father, God the Son, and, oh yeah, the Holy Spirit.”
Notwithstanding these problems, the commitment to the doctrine of the Priesthood of Every Believer affords the healthy Baptist church a ministerial framework that allows a certain freedom for lay ministry than possible in those churches with the imposition of a set liturgy.
*The phrase is a metaphor for those leaving the Baptist tradition for High Church worship in the Anglican Church (Canterbury), but I use it more generally for all High Church traditions. See Robert Webber's Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail