Monday, August 11, 2008

The Protestant Sacrament

Lately my dissatisfaction with much of the Christian lingo we toss around with little to no thought as to what it really means has caused me to consider the whole subject of salvation. It’s impossible to bring up the topic in church or anywhere else without everyone getting very uncomfortable because the fire and brimstone preacher they heard as a kid still echoes in the back of their head. “Be saved or go to Hell” seems to be the paradigm most people are familiar with, even if they don’t totally buy into it, and as such they see this as the central tenant of Christianity, or worse, of all religions.

In much of my reading and discussion in the emerging church conversation I find pretty much the same thing, even if it’s talked about in a more sophisticated way. We’re afraid to express any definitive opinion because we’re afraid of who we’ll offend or whose painful childhood memories we’ll awaken. Perhaps this is not an entirely bad thing, because for us to rethink what these things really mean we actually have to spend some time thinking about them and not just race to an answer for the sake of having one. Still, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve become so comfortable with sitting with these questions that we’re afraid to take the next step and test out some ideas.

That being said, I have a theory I’ve been working on for a while that I’d like to share and get some feedback on. It’s not an explanation of what it means to be saved or how the process (if it is, indeed, a process with definable stages) works. Instead it’s a working hypothesis on the central problem of our conversations on salvation in modern American Protestantism.

My theory is this: American Protestant Evangelicals have turned the concept of “accepting Christ” into a sacrament. I will hereafter refer to this as “The Protestant Sacrament”.

I use the word “sacrament” intentionally because of how the meaning of the term has evolved over time. In the Roman Catholic Church the term has classically meant a means through which one receives and partakes in the grace of God (the Council of Trent did refine the definition somewhat, but the council was in response to the whole Protestant problem). Protestants changed the definition somewhat because of the desire to get away from the perceived ecclesiocentrism of Catholicism. Definitions differ depending on who you ask, but most Protestants would tell you that a sacrament is a tangible manifestation of God’s grace, but that grace is not confined to these rituals and can be experienced in many ways.

It is the classical Catholic understanding of sacrament that leads me to speak of the Protestant Sacrament (the definition I just gave is grossly over simplistic, of course). In our efforts to package Christianity as a consumable product on par with the Big Mac we have reduced being a Christian into whether or not one has had a saving experience with a specific time, date, and place. If you’ve come forward at the altar call at church, at the Billy Graham crusade, or prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer” after someone walks you through the tract, then you’re a Christian. You’ve accepted Christ, you’ve received the Protestant Sacrament, therefore you’re saved and are going to heaven.

That’s all I’ll say for now. I’ll put up another post soon and talk about some of the reasons I think this is a huge problem. What I’m trying to sketch out right now is how this came to be. I have a general idea, most of it having to do with frontier revivalism in the respective Great Awakenings in America (leading me to think that I, as a person of Wesleyan persuasions, have inherited some of the blame for this) and the gradual decline in the regular practice of Communion at many camp meetings.

What I need right now is feedback. Is this small seed of an idea something worth pursuing? Has somebody already fleshed this out and I just haven’t picked up the right book? Let’s discuss.