With six months to go before we planted a new church in Newport Beach, California, a tawny beach-side community in southern California, one hour south of Los Angeles, we decided to visit as many different churches in the county as possible to get an idea of the church culture around us. Being protestant and evangelical, we mostly attended non-denominational churches but we also visited some mainline churches as well. Mega churches, mid-sized churches, small churches, churches of all shapes and colours, worship from every end of the liturgical spectrum—we visited them all. After about two months of this we had never been so thoroughly depressed, demoralized, and discouraged by the state of evangelical worship—its shallowness, its hyped emotionality, its lack of historic roots, its anti-intellectualism, its cultural captivity.
A few days later, I ran into my friend, a former colleague and organist from the Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, who now worked in Orange County. I had one simple question for him: Do you know of any local churches that do liturgy well, that have their roots in historic Christianity, and that challenge the head as well as the heart? He looked at me with a blank stare, unable to think of one. Finally, he mentioned a church named St. Simon’s and St. Jude’s in Huntington Beach. I thanked him and went home to Google it. I discovered the church was close to our house. It looked vibrant, alive. They had six weekend services and childcare. There was only one problem— it was a Roman Catholic Church. I had not stepped foot in a Catholic church since I was twelve years old and I went to a funeral for a friend.
We decided to try it out. Immediately, the reverence, the joy, the depth of the prayers, the music, the sense of gospel flow, and the balance of Word and Sacrament amazed us. It was eye opening. It challenged preconceived notions. We went back the next week and the week after that. We realized that we were in the midst of a paradigm shift.
Paradigm shifts such as this are happening more and more today. For years we have heard of Roman Catholics converting to evangelicalism, where, after hearing the gospel for the first time, they join Protestantism. But over the past ten years, it seems, more people are making the trip the other way, some of them well known authors, intellectuals, and public figures. And not just to Catholicism but to Eastern Orthodoxy as well. To explain this growing phenomenon, Robert Plummer, a professor at The Southern Baptist Seminary, has published Journeys of Faith, a collection of essays from four people who have made the journey from one faith community to another. Each account is then followed up with a response and counter response.
What I found interesting about reading the accounts is how long these particular journeys took. Most of them (save for Chris Castaldo who converted from Catholicism to evangelicalism at a young age during a religious tent meeting experience) didn’t convert on a whim or after a Damascus road experience. Most of them spent many years wrestling with the deficiencies in evangelicalism, looked for solutions to these weaknesses and tried to remain content right where they were. But slowly they found themselves intrigued by another faith community and began to explore it, soon preparing themselves for the transition to their new religious home. Hours of reading, conversations, and soul searching went into the decision. None took it lightly, none made the decision without a great deal of agonizing. And one gets the sense that they lived in a crisis mode for many years until they made the leap. Even paradigm shifts that are painfully slow are not without pain.
Christian Smith, who like me graduated from Gordon College, an evangelical liberal arts school outside of Boston, recently converted from evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism and has written a new book, How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps, to help evangelicals cross the Tiber.
He writes, “Most evangelicals who become Catholic do not simply find out some new information, change their minds as a consequence, and then join the Catholic Church.” The change is usually more complex and profound than that. It is more like what I am calling here a “paradigm revolution.”
He says that for an evangelical to become a Catholic “a basic reorientation of assumptions, perceptions and concerns that changes the way one views and lives life” must take place. And the way a paradigm usually shifts is when the original paradigm can’t explain “anomalies,” that is, problems, challenges, and discrepancies. “When too many anomalies accumulate, some of the adherents of an established paradigm begin to doubt its validity and so may be thrown into a ‘paradigm crisis.’” At this point, “all they need is to encounter an alternative paradigm that promises to do the work . . . better than the previous paradigm does. Then the ‘ah-ha’ light goes on and the paradigm revolution is underway.”
This “paradigm revolution” explains exactly the journey of all three evangelicals to another faith community in Journeys of Faith. They write about the weaknesses in evangelical worship and life and how over the years these weaknesses left them empty. They write about wanting “something more” but not sure where to find it. Until, that is, another paradigm came along.
After testing it, they found that it worked better. At some point they all had that “ah-ha” moment. They converted and now they feel at home. The paradigm revolution was complete.
Faith That Cannot Explain Anomalies
By 2000, I was a candidate for conversion. I was in my very own paradigm revolution. Like Smith, I grew up in evangelicalism, attended evangelical schools, and read evangelical books. I grew up in a strongly evangelical Baptist church in Rhode Island filled with faithful people. But at the same time, it was an anti-tradition, anti-authority, independent, “no creed but Christ” church. In college I read the critiques of evangelicalism, heard some of them from my professors, and witnessed popular English professor Tom Howard get kicked out after he converted to Roman Catholicism. After college, I went to Fuller Seminary and witnessed the best and sometimes the worst of our tradition. Two years after Fuller, while working on my PhD in Washington D.C., I stumbled upon Robert Webber’s books and his teaching about the ancient/future faith. Through his books and others by Tom Oden, I discovered the Great Tradition, learned about Word and Table worship, realized the need for mystery, studied ecclesiology, and admitted the importance of the church for my spiritual growth. As more and more anomalies built up in my evangelical faith, these new discoveries worked better to explain and experience the Christian life.
After finishing my PhD in 1996, I was on staff at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena leading the “twenty-something” group. Armed with my new insights, I introduced these emerging adults to what I was learning. But over time, my vision for the church and worship no longer squared with Lake Avenue and it was time to move on. The year was 1999. We became members of a wonderful, historic, liturgical Episcopal church near our house. Our first son, Jordan, was baptized there. But soon we felt called to church planting in Orange County and made the move for this new opportunity. In January, 2000, we relocated to the Newport Beach area.
And that is when we found ourselves visiting local church and discovering St. Simon’s and St. Jude’s. By that time, we were in the thick of the paradigm revolution. In fact, it was almost complete. We knew we were about to leave the evangelical, free church, non-denominational world forever. We had had our “ah ha” moment. We knew once we made the leap there was no going back. I recall being worried, maybe even scared, not sure what our evangelical friends would think and say. But we had no choice. In some ways, the decision was already made. All that was left was to take the plunge. Though we loved evangelicals, though we would always consider ourselves evangelicals, we no longer could find our true home with them, at least exclusively.
So we took the plunge. But we did not become Catholics, we became ancient/future Presbyterians, joining the Presbyterian Church in America, mostly under the influence of Tim Keller and his teaching ministry. It was a big move for us. We had joined a historic denomination, with roots in the reformation, stretching all the way back through the ancient church to the apostles, a church with a commitment to confessions, creeds, and Word and sacrament worship. We left behind the independent church world, devoid of adequate spiritual authority and accountability, lacking roots and depth, deficient in tradition and ecclesiology. Instead, we had become mere Christians, part of the universal catholic church. We now lived our faith under the authority of the Scripture that is read and interpreted with the authority and wisdom of the Great Tradition, under godly ordained elders, who were also under the same authority of the Word, Great Tradition, and church. It was a whole new world for us.
For the past twelve years this has been our home. And it has been a wonderful place to live out the Christian life and community. It is not the only way to be a Christian but it is the best way for us.
I can hear my Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends saying that this is great— welcome to the Great Tradition—but you are still protestant and this is not enough. You are almost there, they say, but you need to come a little further. If you want to take the Great Tradition seriously, if you want to be under the authority and care of the church, if you want to experience true deep worship, then you need to join a church that has never broken from the apostles’ teaching or their authority. Without this authority, there is no final arbiter in matters of Scripture and morality, and the church, like the protestant church has, would devolve into doctrinal heresy, hundreds of denominations, and profound disunity.
The “Authority” Of The Church?
I found it fascinating that in Journeys of Faith, after all the disagreements (which did not take up many pages of the book) over the common sticking points of justification, sacraments, and icons, the greatest impediment to unity is the question of authority. Chris Castaldo, a convert from Catholicism to Evangelicalism, writes, “The issue of Church authority is the fulcrum which separates Catholics from Evangelicals.”
In Journeys of Faith, the dialogue returns over and over again to this “fulcrum” that separates. I have not done an official page count, but the vast majority of the responses and counter responses focus on the theme of authority. To my experience, this seems accurate. I have never met an evangelical, though I am sure they are out there, who has converted to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy because they reject the evangelical view of justification. In my experience, the paradigm revolution comes down to authority—evangelicals searching for a system of authority that works better than evangelicalism which, in their minds, has produced so much schism and whose commitment to individualism has left people stranded on a lonely epistemological island. They want something secure. They want something more authoritative. They want somebody to arbitrate rival truth accounts. The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches seem to provide this watertight system of knowing and authority. But do they?
Christian Smith warns (this is step eighty of his ninety-five), “Do not become Catholic because you think it will give you certainty.” Some people, he writes, become Catholic because they “decide that the Catholic Church Magisterium provides the epistemic certitude that conservative Protestantism taught them to desire. . . . Don’t do that. Don’t think that way.” He explains that wanting this kind of certitude is a “modern secular project, not a Christian one.” This kind of certitude not only does not exist in the Catholic Church, he says, it does not exist anywhere in this life.
I will admit, this type of certitude was never a temptation for me; at least I don’t think it was. Once I left free church evangelicalism, once I placed myself in the Great Tradition, once I put myself under the authority of Godly elders who, in the spirit of “always reforming,” are also under the authority of the Great Tradition, the Word of God, the historic creeds and confessions, and the Church, I had found the epistemological authority I was looking for. Not air-tight knowledge, not one hundred percent certainty, since these don’t exist, but proper confidence nonetheless. So I saw no reason to become a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.
In the end, and notwithstanding my differences with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy over Mary, the Sacraments, Justification, and the role of the Pope (differences that most Protestants share), I did not see the need to exchange the human and frail authority of Great Tradition Protestantism for an equally, if not more, flawed authority of Great Tradition Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. I have never been convinced that these two traditions brought any more unity or protected orthodoxy any better than Protestantism. “In reality,” writes journalist and committed Catholic Peter Feuerherd, “Catholicism includes those with disparate authority and opinions about almost everything under the sun. There are liberal bishops and conservative bishops. The pope sometimes differs with his own Curia. . . . In fact, some scholars of religion refer to Catholicism as the Hinduism of Christianity, because it is infused with so many different schools of prayer, ritual and perspective, much like the native and diverse religions of India now referred to under the single rubric of Hinduism.”
That may be overstating it; I am not sure. But it makes the point that becoming a Roman Catholic does not automatically solve the problem of authority. Even the decisions of the Magisterium, once handed down to the parish level, still have to be “understood and interpreted by pastors, theologians, and the faithful,” as written by Avery Cardinal Dulles. This process of discovering the truth is not that different from that of Protestants, says Castaldo. In the end, I have decided that to exchange one flawed authority for another is not the answer.
As D.H. Williams says in his magnificent Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism, ultimately the Great Tradition is older than any body of believers, including the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and does not belong to any fellowship to the exclusion of others. It belongs to us all. It was handed down to us from Jesus himself, carried along by the apostles and transmitted to the early church fathers long before it was all written down and canonized by the Church. The Great Tradition has guided the church from the start.
The Great Tradition, because it belongs to us all, also has the best chance to bring unity between Protestants and the other two branches of the church. I was surprised to discover that, while reading Journeys of Faith, I found myself agreeing time and time again with the Great Tradition Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans over against my fellow Protestants, many who are from the independent, Baptist tradition. This surprised me. But it also gives me great hope that the great unifying theme going forward may not be an issue like justification (as key as it is) but a renewed discovery of the Great Tradition or what it means to be a mere Christian.
Two years ago I was a guest at the Lausanne Congress for world Evangelism held in Cape Town, South Africa. On the final night of the conference, Christians from 180 countries worshipped together. As we stood there together, black and white, young and old, male and female, singing the modern day hymn, “In Christ Alone” and taking the Lord’s Supper together, I was overjoyed by the unity in the world-wide evangelical church. But this joy was tinged by sadness. I was sad that our brothers and sisters from the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church were not standing side by side with us in gospel unity, unified by the Word and Sacrament and the Great Tradition. Someday I hope this happens. I pray this day comes soon.