Evangelicals and the Church Year

I grew up knowing almost nothing about the church year.  I say “almost nothing” because my childhood Southern Baptist church did celebrate Christmas and Easter. Unlike some other traditions, our church had no principled aversion to seasons of reflection on certain aspects of Christ’s life.  We just didn’t know about anything but Christmas and Easter. And these two seasons were so predominant in the broader culture that their legitimacy was never in question. I suspect this is a common story for many Baptists and low-church evangelicals.

In recent years, however, many evangelicals have started to expand their embrace of the church year.  Many churches are focusing more intentionally on the seasons leading up to Christmas and Easter: Advent and Lent, respectively.  But I think there is benefit in embracing the whole-kit-and-kaboodle (is that still a recognizable phrase?), that is, celebrating the whole year: from Advent and Christmas through Epiphany, Lent, and Easter all the way to Ordinary Time (also known as the season of Pentecost).

A couple years ago, Daniel Montgomery, pastor of Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote a helpful post titled, “Why We Observe the Christian Year at Sojourn.” I encourage you to read the whole thing, but here’s an important bit:

In our narcissistic culture, we ignore the wisdom of the Ancients and the traditions of those who came before us. We act like we’ve invented the wheel and we’ve got this whole thing figured out.

You see this in contemporary church services. You see it in the “latest and greatest” songs we sing, in the haphazard way we order our services, in the easy-come, easy-go mentality of our people and the consumer-culture mentality of our service planners. And you see it in the way we’ve laid aside and then forgotten the wisdom of our church fathers, who devised the Christian Calendar.

Rightly understood, there is nothing mystical about the Christian year. There is nothing about it that requires us to treat the Christian year as if it were commanded in scripture, like baptism and communion are commanded. Yet there is nothing about it that requires us to steer away from it or regard it as an unbiblical intrusion on our services and our daily lives.

It is simply a practice of historic Christianity that continuously stirs reflection, anticipation and action in the hearts of God’s people for the whole, big story of the gospel. More and more Christians are rediscovering this historic practice, and growing in the truth and knowledge of Christ.

Let me pose some similar questions here that Montgomery poses at the end of his post:

  • Have you been a part of a church that celebrates part or all of the church year? If so, how have these patterns of worship and reflection helped you in your spiritual growth?
  • Do you see any danger in celebrating the church year?
  • If you are convinced that there is benefit in the church year, how might we encourage our churches to move in this direction?
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5 thoughts on “Evangelicals and the Church Year

  1. I’ve heard of pastors going through the church year without even calling it that. The congregations often love it and ask more about it. When they find out that it was the church year, they are often surprised. I think that might be a good way for a church to move that direction without all the baggage?

  2. I hate to hijack discussion away from the questions you pose, but I cannot help but to ask questions about our presuppositions concerning this sort of thing. Ecclesiologically speaking, who has the authority to determine what is normative concerning life in the church? Whether or not we follow the liturgical calendar is but one question of thousands that separate Christians in terms of disciplines that may or may not have real spiritual benefit. How do we decide what practices to follow, what methodology is utilized in determining whether or not something is of “benefit”? Is this a non issue due to a dispensation of freedom given out to all Christians; and if it is, how do we know?

    • Good questions. As a congregationalist, I’d say each local church and its leaders have the sole authority to determine worship practices. So no authority above the local church level can mandate this. As each local church seeks to determine best practices, so to speak, I think Scripture is foundational (obviously) and the historical consensus of church tradition can be a helpful guide as well. So if historically, Christians have benefited from, say, the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed or responsive scriptural readings or weekly Lord’s Supper observance or attending to the church year, then I think churches and pastors would be well advised to respect these time-honored traditions. But only what is mandated by Scripture can be treated as binding.

  3. This was a great introduction to the usefulness of the Christian Calendar. I was in a group of believers taking about this last week and we all had the following experience: Grew up in a ‘low’ liturgy context. One random year we started doing advent… and it was awkward at best.

    I believe the Christian calendar has value in that it encourages thoughtfulness and intention in the teaching and practice of how to and why we worship our Triune God. But like any other tool the calendar can become another stumbling block. I think James Whitten has a great approach. My advice would be, ‘Worship leaders incorporate these elements and when people ask ‘why?’ tell them and then give them a book.

  4. Pingback: In Defense of Evangelical Eclecticism | Secundum Scripturas

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