Summary: A realignment from attendance based worship to participatory Christianity.
I was both interested in reading the Eternal Current and hesitant to read it. In some ways I feel like I have been on a similar journey as Aaron Niequist. I have been following him for years on social media and through his wife’s (Shauna Niequist) writing. We have different places in the Church (he is a worship leader and musician and church leaders, I am a stay at home Dad). As I have watched his work with The Practice and read an occasional article or interview or heard about him from some mutual acquaintances, it has felt like we have been moving in similar directions.
As I read The Eternal Current, it is clear we have also been reading similar books. NT Wright, James KA Smith, Scot McKnight, Eugene Peterson, along with lots on Catholic, Orthodox and historic Christian authors. We both started spiritual direction about 5 years ago. We both attend megachurches that we are reluctant to leave, but also do not find completely fulfilling.
Aaron Niequist led a project of Willow Creek Community Church, The Practice, for several years. It was a project that was attempting to put into place a more liturgically informed and historically aware practice of Christianity. Willow has been oriented toward reaching non-Christians for the past 30-40 years. But it has also been aware for at least the last 10-15 years how it has been weak at developing people as Christians. Aaron, based on his passion, and probably at least a bit on his relationship as the son in law of Bill Hybels, started a worship setting that was focused on spiritual development in a historical and liturgical mode.
I cannot really review this book without commenting on Bill Hybel’s status as the former pastor of Willow Creek. Yet another article came out about Hybel’s sexual harassment of a staff member at Willow on Sunday. That makes at least 10 women that have publicly accused Hybel’s of sexual harassment. In addition to the article on Sunday, the head teaching pastor at Willow, which moved into place early because of Hybel’s resignation, himself resigned abruptly Sunday. He had asked to resign earlier because of differences of opinion on how to deal with the allegations against Hybel between himself and other leaders, but after the NYT article on Sunday, he did not show up at church, it was announced that he was sick and then Carter released a statement later in the day.
I bring all of this up, not because Neiquist’s book isn’t important and worth reading, it is. But because one of my questions about the book is whether the liturgical and historically aware form of Christianity can really happen outside of a ecclesiastical structure that supports it. The Practice stopped in 2017. It had a loyal attendance, but it was not large enough to continue. And within the megachurch world, size and resource allocation does matter.
As Niequist talks about his church within a church, there are guest speakers almost every week and there were a number of staff devoted to worship planning and design and support of the members that were attending. These people all seemed to be doing good things, but from what I understand, the attendance at the Practice never really much above 200 people regularly.
At roughly the same time, an acquaintance of mine left Northpoint staff as a worship leader, joined the Anglican church and was ordained and started a new church. The size of The Parish today is roughly similar to The Practice but The Parish is within a structure that support the liturgical and theological system that Neiquist was attempting to create. Today the Parish is still thriving and The Practices has been closed for a year.
I have routinely thought about whether I should leave my megachurch, where I am simply a member, and join a liturgical church that would more closely align with my theological convictions. I have not, both because I do not feel like I have been released to do that from the Holy Spirit and because my family is happy with our church, but also because while I theologically lean Anglican/Episcopal, I am also increasingly uncomfortable with the racial segregation of the church in the US and for the most part, liturgical church tend toward a mono-cultural membership.
There is something that has been lost when parts of the church distanced itself from historic liturgy. But the historic liturgy has not been enough to keep the Catholic church from losing so many members that if ‘former Catholic’ were a denomination, it would be the third largest in the US. And it has not kept the US Episcopal church from nearly being kicked out of the Anglican Communion while rapidly shedding members.
Liturgy is not a magic bullet to save the church from its current problems, even though I believe that Niequest, Jamie Smith and a number of others are right that we do need to have a renewed focus on spiritual formation, and one aspect of that formation is liturgical practices.
One of Niequist’s central metaphors in the book and in the Practice was that the church needs to be more like a gym than classroom (or concert). We are not transformed simply by the application of knowledge. We have to actually put that knowledge into place. We do not get into shape by hearing about good health and nutrition and exercise, we have to actually eat well, exercise and do what is necessary.
I think that metaphor still carries through on the negative side as well. It is likely that you know someone that has eaten well and exercise all their life and done what seems right and still died young. And we probably also know people that smoke and eat badly and never exercise and live into their 80s or 90s. It is not the best practices that save us, but Jesus Christ. The practices can open up space for the Holy Spirit to work in us. But it is not the practices that save us. The Eternal Current handles that nuance well, but it is a reality when trying to talk about the importance of spiritual practices, that many in the Evangelical world still see spiritual practices as a form of ‘works righteousness’ or legalism.
There seems to have been lots of wisdom shared and wise counsel followed as the Practice was developed and worshiped together for a couple years. But sin still impacts it, even a year after it was ended because of the sin of a leader and the inadequate response by other leaders around him. The church will always be made up of sinners. There will always be Christians seeking to reform the church, many of them doing exactly the right things at the following of the Holy Spirit. But nothing will completely solve the problems of humanity. The human church that will always be made up of sinners that keep sinning and always follow God inadequately.
The Eternal Current is worth reading. Even though it is more oriented toward an introduction to a ‘practice based’ faith, I think it is worth reading for those that probably have read many of the same books and thought many of the same thoughts that Niequist has. We are in the world that we are in. Megachurches are not going away soon. Inadequate church structures should be worked on to be made better and more healthy, but every church structure will be inadequate in some way.
Many of my questions about structure and ecclesiology, the bias toward mono-cultural (and mono-racial) worship that happens with most liturgical churches, and how we help people move out of their all ready too busy lives to actually be impacted by the liturgy are not really answered. That isn’t to say that the questions that are raised here are not important. But that there are additional questions that I still have.
One of lines from early in the book, “Christ does not invite us to simply spiritualize how we’re already living. Baptizing the American dream does not make it Christian” (Kindle Location 259), seems eerily prescient. Christianity is not an add-on to our current life. Somehow we have to be Christians that also lives in our current culture and geography. The Eternal Current has some thoughts on how that might work. But those those are limited if for no other reason that the situation of our culture is constantly changing.