The Church As Worshiping CommunityMost evangelical thinkers agree. The main problem that plagues evangelicalism is its faulty ecclesiology. Because of this inadequate understanding of the doctrine of the church, our worship suffers.

Simon Chan’s Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community (IVP Academic, 2006) seeks to remedy the problem by grounding our theology in the historic liturgies of the church. Chan puts his finger on many of the problems with our worship, including our targeting a “market niche” instead of asking the perennial question: What does it mean to be a Christian?

I agree with many of Chan’s complaints regarding shallow worship, man-centered services, and an emphasis on instant conversions instead of life-long discipleship. I also find intriguing Chan’s declaration that the church does not exist for the world, but the world for the church. Could it be though that this inward focus on the church has undesired implications?

I do have to part ways with Chan when it comes to the rest of his proposal. Though I agree (for the most part) with Chan’s description of evangelicalism’s shortcomings, I firmly disagree with his solutions. Chan sees the answer to evangelicalism’s problems in readopting the worship of the ancient church. Not the New Testament church, but the early church.

In order to do this, he must do away with sola Scriptura, which he does in the first chapter. He makes the case for seeing Tradition as authoritative, and even declares that tradition (not Scripture) is the means by which the church understands its true identity. Once he establishes Tradition as authoritative, he is free to blaze right through the remaining chapters and argue for a liturgy like that of the third and fourth centuries, footnoting church fathers all along the way.

To be fair, there are times when Chan believes evangelicalism corrects the excesses of the early church. But overall, he unapologetically calls for evangelicals to return to the forms and beliefs of the ancient church.

I do not have a problem with Chan’s proposal that we learn from the ancient church. After all, there are plenty of traditions within Christianity’s 2000 year history that are worth keeping, including the liturgical rhythm of Word and Sacrament in a worship service, the Church calendar which re-tells the Gospel story every year, and the reestablishment of catechesis as an initiation into the church.

Unfortunately, Chan seems to uncritically adopt ancient church rituals and beliefs, including many of the false presuppositions that come with them. At one point, he argues forcefully for the doctrine of transubstantiation. He confuses conversion with discipleship by declaring “conversion must be seen as a process rather than merely a crisis event.” But the most surprising of Chan’s suggestions is that we begin to read Scripture allegorically again, according to the “spiritual sense” advocated by many church fathers.

Perhaps that last example best shows what I disliked about this book. Chan is right to see the shortcomings of modern day evangelicalism, especially the ways we have been formed by culture instead of by Scripture. But I would ask: What about the shortcomings of the ancient church? Weren’t there ways that the ancient church was formed by culture as well (especially in the Greek-influenced hermeneutic that influenced Bible interpretation)?

Liturgical Theology sounds promising for evangelicalism, but it ultimately brings us to the border of Roman Catholicism. The problem is that Chan chose to critique evangelicalism based on a romantic view of ancient church tradition instead of going back even further… to the New Testament itself.

written by Trevin Wax. © 2007 Kingdom People Blog