The Low Church and the Whole Church

“If you take away the Spirit the letter kills, and then what hope will remain?” — St. Augustine

Maybe I need to write this to resolve an inner conflict.

I grew up in a non-denominational, charismatic environment. I loved it. I connected deeply with Christ, the scripture, communion, prayer, giving, serving, teaching, worship, and fellow Christians.

As I matured and became more intellectual and had more experiences of human folly in and outside of the Church, I saw gaps and pitfalls. I saw the shallowness of evangelical protestantism, the rigidness and folly of sola scriptura in the more dogmatic denominations, and the tendency to go astray, blown by “every wind of doctrine.”

I explored Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism. I found much there that was missing from my own tradition and upbringing. But I found pitfalls and folly there too. Most of all, I found an aesthetic that was so foreign to my nature I hardly knew how to engage with the Church in that form. Like a fish trying to climb a tree.

As I moved through phases in life and moved cities many times, my priorities changed. A regularity for my children, a basic body of good people around, and some semblance of connection to the Church I knew became paramount, as we were uprooted many times.

I’ve spent chunks of time not going to church at all. I’ve spent much larger chunks not only going, but leading worship, mission groups, service groups, prayer groups, Bible studies, and small groups of all kinds. I’ve preached sermons in wood huts in Africa, played guitar in plywood and sheet metal shacks in Mexico, chanted in Greek with the priest at Vespers, and sung on stage in mega church arenas in Nashville.

I have experienced God in a three and a half hour black Southern gospel service as well as a four and a half hour Latin Mass on Holy Saturday. I have experienced him in thirty minute Reformed sermons, outdoor worship concerts, and midnight prayer vigils.

I am deeply drawn to the theology of the ancient faith found in Eastern Orthodoxy, and am an avid listener of podcasts like The Lord of Spirits and The Whole Counsel of God. I’m currently reading several Orthodox classics, as well as my constant diet of the Bible and C.S. Lewis (who is the closest thing to a spiritual mentor I’ve had).

Orthodoxy (mostly) makes sense to me. Yet when I attend the services, though I feel holiness and awe, I cannot help but feel that this is not my home.

I remember driving through rural Tennessee, at a time when I was attending mass at a small Catholic church every Wednesday morning while also attending a local satellite of a large modern evangelical church every Sunday. I would walk in the stations of the cross garden and pray, asking God what my role in His Church is.

The closest thing to an answer I got was a consistent, small voice every time I drove by any church of any kind. As I drove past a tiny country Presbyterian church, He said, “That is the body of Christ.” A few miles down the road, I drove by the flashy megachurch and again He said, “That is the body of Christ”. I passed the Catholic church, and again He said, “That is the body of Christ.”

It brought me to tears. It humbled me. This has continued on every drive for several years. I knew God was whispering a humbling reminder to me. I was not going to find the perfect version of Church, nor even be able to sort out all the correct and incorrect things about any one of them.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t correct and incorrect things about every Church, nor that some aren’t more off base than others, or even heretical. That is certainly true. But I don’t think I’m the person to make those calls, certainly not for anyone else. I am called to find the Church in the place and way that I can be a part of Her.

This meta-realization doesn’t make connecting with any particular body of believers easier. But it does help give me perspective.

Through all my searching, and all my love for the ancient Orthodox theology, ritual, and liturgical calendar, there’s one thing that has always been out of place: my deep and abiding love for “modern worship”. I feel like David when I cry out to God with my whole voice and my whole heart.

Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs.” — Psalm 150:4

I am overcome with joy, weeping, brokenness, wholeness, and the Holy Spirit when I listen to and participate in musical worship. I would go so far as to say I need it. It was put in me from my birth. I am called to it. I can feel the chains of the devil breaking, the heart of stone softening, the tears of grace flowing.

Musical worship with screaming electric guitars, drums, base, keys, and the full force of (sometimes cheesy) contemporary song is a decidedly low church phenomenon. It is often raw and undignified. It is not liturgical, and it is certainly prone to error and excess. Yet I cannot deny that the Spirit of God is in it.

“David was dancing before the Lord with all his might…with shouts and the sound of trumpets...when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart…David said…”I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes.”” — 2 Samuel 6:14-23

The low church is a mess. It is unconstrained and tends to get too weird, too emotional, and too intellectually thin. But it, too, is the body of Christ.

It is good to remember too that every form of the Church is prone to error. The low church likely errs more frequently than the high church, but the errors are also probably less dangerous. A child gone astray is less of a danger to the world than an adult who is corrupt.

In all these years and all this pondering and praying and searching and experiencing, I have also noticed something else: every land and every people has their own culture, mannerisms, norms, and traditions. And from the earliest days of the Church, these have manifest when Christians gather. Christ doesn’t squash them.

The Church in Jerusalem, mostly Jews, did not look the same as the uncircumcised believers in Greece. The Apostles had to figure out what this meant, and concluded it was normal, as a people came to Christ and were saved from the local gods who enslaved them, that they would bring their own traditions into the Church. Christ goes down to the very bottom and redeems everything. The unique aspects of each culture and people do not dissolve, they blossom in Christ.

“If the whole body were an eye, the body would not be able to hear. If the whole body were an ear, the body would not be able to smell anything. If each part of the body were the same part, there would be no body...And we give special care to the parts of the body that we want to hide.” — 1 Corinthians 12:17-23

I am an American. America is a young, brash, foolhardy, open, emotional, wild, passionate, immature, and sincere culture. We are too naive to be subtle and savvy; too foolish to know the dangers we flirt with. We are the children approaching Christ, oblivious to his great power; or the Centurion who didn’t deign to bother Jesus to come to him but thought, very practically, that he could heal from afar. We don’t know what we don’t know. But we go at things hard. We go all the way.

Maybe Americans need a little charismania. Maybe it’s in our blood.

I was born into the low Church. I value, respect, and am in awe of the high Church. But I am a ranger, a rebel, a frontiersman, and outcast, roaming the outskirts of the Kingdom, doing my best to serve the King in the wilderness.

I do not always do well. I am not always good. I am not always faithful. I am not always a servant. I can only hope that, by the Grace of God, at the resurrection I can stand side by side with my brothers and sisters from every variation of the Church across the globe and worship the Risen Savior together.