Saturday, August 8, 2009

Death: Why Evangelicals are Missing the Sacraments

Michael Spencer wrote a thought-provoking piece on the things that Evangelicals make sacraments besides the sacraments. Growing up in an Evangelical church, we "had communion" twice a year: Good Friday and the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Also, I had to request to be baptized, because for my church "getting saved," was the key, not baptism. That is not an atypical story for anyone growing up in that kind of church.

A lot has been said and written about why Evangelicals just "don't get it," when it comes to the sacraments. These reasons usually point to the Evangelical gnostic tendencies or the fear of Roman Catholicism, which are both valid critiques of what is going on. You can check out Michael Horton's books for a very good exposition of what is going on there.

Yet, I have had a suspicion that there is a slightly different psychology of the thinking going on in modern Evangelical churches about the sacraments. I think that American Evangelicals haven't embraced a sacramental theology, because they haven't accepted mortality. Evangelicals have dealt thoroughly with what it means to be "Pro-Life," but have they consciously dealt with death? I believe that they have just accepted the current Western position on death, which is to invest as much money as possible in postponing it as long as possible. The modern attitude is to choose avoidance rather than acceptance. For example, ask most moderns if they would rather have a quick, unexpected death or a more drawn out death, and they will almost all choose the former. Just ask an Evangelical, "What do you expect to happen when you die?" or "What does it mean to die with dignity?" Evangelical churches largely do not have a coherent narrative or a language for facing death.

The uncertainty about death can be explained away in several ways. One could point to the fact that Evangelicals rose to power at the same time as modern medicine. It is much easier to avoid death around us than it would have been 300 years ago. Also, there is no liturgy/ritual Evangelicals share concerning death. Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans all have liturgies and language that demonstrate the continuing fact that we all die. What words do Evangelicals have to offer about death? Finally, Evangelicals don't embrace the martyr narratives like the older traditions do. The narratives about the early Christian martyrs give us an insight into what it means to die with hope and faith in Jesus.

There is a lot of confusion, and perhaps denial and anxiety, about death for the typical Evangelical. This attitude about death takes much of the power of the sacraments away, because the sacraments force us to face death. The story in baptism and the Eucharistic meal is that we all will die, but Jesus has given us the hope of the Resurrection. Yet, if we first refuse to understand our own deaths, then we miss the good news of the sacraments. It's much easier to just "get saved" and then I don't have to think about death any longer, because it is basically all taken care of. However, if we are to grasp the power of the gospel story, then we must somehow grasp that death is part of our own story.

For the early Church, participating in the Eucharist was also a call to (literally) die with Christ. The Eucharist was explaining the reality that to be a Christian is to expect to die for Christ. One can find this attitude all over early Christian literature. A very memorable narrative of this sort can be found in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, where Polycarp is put into the executioner's fire, and his burning skin was like "bread that is baked," an allusion to the Eucharist.

Have Evangelicals accepted death, and the call to die for Christ? I think that they have yet to work such a theology out, and in not doing so, they have missed the power of the Eucharist.


  1. Some good thoughts here. I think you're onto something. I also wonder sometimes if it has something to do with the co-incidence of the rise of Evangelicalism and the development of consumerist and entertainment culture. I might also speculate on connections between the assumption of American Protestantism as a "ruling/wealthy class religion," which may not cohere well with the solidarity with the poor that is generally implied by more sacramental theologies (even in times when the solidarity was not well-practiced, there was still an ideal of almsgiving and the poor as Christ among us). It seems to me there are a number of points of disconnect between the cultural context of Evangelicalism's development and that of more sacramentally-oriented branches of the Church.

    Happily, though, there is a real resurgent interest in a better understanding of the sacraments, as well as disciplines and other ancient practices. To me, that is a very potentially positive development.

    Martyrdom of Polycarp is an amazing text, and the Greek in the part you mention is VERY evocative. I haven't read it for a while, I'll have to go back and do that soon. This is about the third time it's come up in conversation in the past week! :-)


  2. Ryan, Thanks so much for this post! I read Michael all the time, and generally lean his way when it comes to understanding the evangelical problem. I look forward to reading more of what you have to say. God Bless!

  3. Eugene Peterson dedicates an entire chapter on the subject of the way we handle death in his gem of a book, "Leap Over A Wall". Good post, found you via imonks blog.

  4. Not only does Evangelicalism typically not offer a compelling narrative (biblical theology), it also typically does not offer any depth of or appreciation for mystery (sacramentalism).

  5. Good stuff. I've been to plenty of evangelical funerals and you never know what your going to hear. Could be anything - usually some form of "well, they were a good Christian, so don't worry. They're OK". As if anything more formal and ritualistic we'd be throwing our lots in with the ancient Egyptians with their nasty mummies and pyramids. Or something. I went to a Catholic funeral recently and the incense was surprising and potent. Military funerals with taps played at the grave also carry more meaning. Those are the ones I remember anyway. And it's worth remembering.

  6. I hadn't thought about military funerals, but you are right that they carry much more significance than the average Evangelical one. Interesting...


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