Two Christianities, Different Christs

February 14, 2009


It seems that there are two definite and different major forms of Christianity in the world (and especially in America) today. Of course there is major overlap between the two as well as churches and believers that fall in between the sort of classifications either form may take. Many want to point out the existence of an inclusive moderate balanced form of the two extremes (and the extremes tend to be labeled “Fundamentalist” and “Radical/Liberal”). My focus here is that past all of the name calling and arguments, there exist two strikingly different major forms of Christianity that differ on everything from worship style and typical Sunday sermon to role of the Bible in the church and major doctrines as well as the view on what the real role of the church is or should be. So what follows is my attempt to describe the major differences these two types of Christianities have and how ultimately they see the purpose and role of Jesus and the church quite differently from each other.

The major forms I’m referring to, to give them blanket terms, are:
(A) Mainline Christianity, which includes Traditional/Classical Christianity, Moderate Christianity, Progressive and Liberal Christianity.
(B) Conservative Christianity, which includes Legalistic and Fundamentalist Christianity as well.

To start off, I’ll discuss service styles.
Mainline Christian church services tend to be of moderate to high church atmosphere. A typical Sunday tends to involve Mass, Eucharist or Communion.  The music is usually traditional or classical-oriented “church” music played with organs, pianos, bells and horns. The ministers, priests or reverends typically wear robes, but not always. Often there are recited prayers, creeds and affirmations introduced in a fairly predictable order of events. The church buildings tend to be traditional looking churches—stained glass, traditional lay out, candles.
In more conservative, evangelical, legalistic or fundamentalist churches, services today are often quite different. These type of churches have produced the “mega-church” in which the building often looks no different than a theater, concert venue or arena. Video projectors and TVs abound. The music is very often guitar and drum driven “praise” music. Many leading evangelical pastors from mega-churches readily admit they try to incorporate and emulate much of what occurs in sporting events, movie theaters and rock concerts. Of course not every conservative church is a mega church (but almost every mega church is conservative). Many churches, especially in the rural areas and smaller towns are still fairly small, but even the smaller conservative churches tend to look a bit more modern than the small liberal churches. The lights are brighter, the stained glass is becoming more and more a thing of the past in such churches, candles and traditional worship decoration is fading more and more. Not every rural conservative church has replaced all of the music with praise and worship music– some still sing country hymns and southern gospel, yet more frequently such culture affirming expressions are becoming globally conformed to the above-mentioned praise music–whether it is performed acoustic and folk-like or “rock” driven with electric instruments usually depends on the average age of the church members. Younger evangelicals vastly prefer the electric and older members still love their traditional gospel hymns.

Many evangelicals have criticized liberal Christianity for maintaining traditional services while being progressive with doctrine. For evangelicals, the service style is the area in which they feel free to stretch out and modernize, to make their visitors feel at ease by the atmosphere which emulates the type of cultural events they are used to attending. For evangelicals the church doctrine must be unchanging –it is what they cling to in the traditional sense as they feel they’ve always done.
Bruce Bawer’s excellent 1999 book “Stealing Jesus” goes into detail on this conflict. He describes typical, daily life events and practices as “horizontal experiences.” Spiritual and elevating factors seek to invoke “vertical experiences.” For traditionalists, liberals, progressives and mainline churches, the high church atmosphere, liturgy, music and recited prayers in conjunction with Mass/Eucharist seeks to transform and elevate the worshipper into experiencing something “vertical.” In this sense, the traditional worship style invokes centuries of practice, of worshipping in the way Christians have for hundreds of years to participate in something timeless. Where conservative churches have modernized their service for the dual reasons of it being the only area in which they can do something they feel is truly progressive and also to make visitors and members feel relaxed and comfortable in familiar surroundings, the other type of Christians take the opposite approach. Bawer points out that a building and service style that unabashedly dwells in the sense of church and worship and challenges the participants into stepping outside of comfortable and ordinary surroundings aids in leading them to a “vertical” and transcendent experience. These types of churches also feel no pressure to maintain traditional interpretations of doctrine at all cost without regard to new developments, thoughts and culture. For these types of churches, as Bawer suggests, every traditional interpretation, viewpoint and doctrinal assertion must be evaluated in light of new historical, theological, societal and cultural discoveries and developments. Simply because the early Hebrews or the early members of St. Paul’s churches may have held one view doesn’t mean we today must cling to it blindly and ignore any thoughts, feelings or personal revelations that seem to contradict it. Rather, the church must take deep looks at what its teachings and doctrines are and present them to the modern world so that the central and timeless meaning and message is clear and strong and not bogged down in details, prejudices, misinterpretations or fallacies. For this type of Christian, God gives us reason and intelligence so that we can accept science and history in conjunction with spirituality rather than in opposition to it.

When it comes to the mission of the church, the two types of Christians typically disagree as well. For evangelicals, the mission is to proselytize– Evangelism and Conversion. Missionaries are sent to other countries for the primary purpose of distributing Bibles and converting those of other or no faith to Christianity. Work in this country itself is typically done for the same manner. If community outreach or social work is done it is primarily to get their attention so that they can be proselytized to and thus converted. Evangelicals also place a very large priority on personal morality. It’s often an extreme form of personal morality though, in which the tiniest details of personal life are examined to ensure they are as free of sin as possible. These type of Christians are often discouraged and angered by films, TV shows, books, music and “secular” culture as a whole. Quite often they worry that secular culture is corrupting their youth and badly affecting those that might be responsive to their message and so they often protest pop culture and public education. Also, the type of morality these Christians seek to promote is very affirming of the so-called “traditional family,” and the image of America from the mythologized “good old days.” Family values are strong for those that hold these views, and for many Christians it is perceived as highly important to maintain the same type of family situation and cultural arrangement that has supposedly always been present and to take care of those that follow the same practice.

Liberal Christians, on the other hand,  place the highest priority of the churches mission on social justice. For these believers, the church and its members must act as the feet and hands of God and do work that helps others in the physical and psychological sense. Caring for the sick, poor, hungry, homeless, misplaced, abused, abandoned, forgotten, subjugated, prejudiced against, hated, vilified and unloved is the central message of God. Healing as Jesus did in his day and age involves helping those that are not whole in the hope to make them whole. Conversion is far secondary, since many of these believers feel God will not toss those that believe a bit different into hell. By helping others, loving others, and being there for others these believers feel that many of those “others” will see the purpose, joy and meaning in the lives of those that are helping them and seek to have that for themselves.

Personal morality can sometimes be a stumbling block for liberal Christians, since the level of importance isn’t as often placed on it in the sermons they hear. Yet it is important and it is a factor. Many of these believers feel that personal morality extends far past discerning pop culture and family values and includes more heavily the choices each individual makes in regards to the environment, society, government, action, treatment of minorities and “others,” etc.

Jesus is often viewed very differently by these two groups– Often Jesus is viewed in multiply different ways amongst different fringes of each group as well. In broad generalizations, liberal Christians focus heavily on the historical Jesus and his teachings of peace, justice, forgiveness, compassion and equality. They focus on his rejection of legalism and strict doctrinal enforcement, his constant focus on the “others” and the subjugated, his role as social prophet, mystic healer and kind, God consumed human. Scripture most heavily focused on are the Gospels. Many, if not most, of these type of believers also take into consideration historical study and work done to discern the proper interpretation of such Gospels and new developments in the historical Jesus studies.
Also, many of this type of Christian strongly holds to what Marcus Borg refers to as the “Post Easter Jesus.” The historical Jesus lived two thousand years before any modern Christian, but believers feel strongly he has revealed himself to them in personal, spiritual and powerful ways. This is the post Easter Jesus, and exists just as real as the historical Jesus yet in a massively different manner.
There may be disagreement on whether the resurrection was physical and literal or metaphorical and spiritual, yet either way it is viewed as miraculous by both camps.

Conservative Christians, when it comes to scripture claims to use all of it equally, yet typical sermons in such churches focus most heavily on Post-Paul yet Pauline styled letters as well as some of St. Paul’s actual letters. Very heavily in rotation in many such churches is the book of Revelation.
Rapture Theology is very big for a huge percentage of conservative Christians. In some conservative churches it’s almost the main focus. The success of Left Behind shows it’s in high interest among the members of such churches. Most of the details that invoke the Tribulation and the literal, physical and violent second-coming draw heavily from The Scofield Reference Bible. That massive tome is a study guide Bible in which each page is detailed with footnotes and side-notes tying the passages on each page to prophecy, the book of Revelation, and the second coming. Often the footnotes outnumber the actual text on a given page in sheer length. Nowadays, not every congregant in such a church owns and checks their own Scofield, but the beliefs propagated by Scofield in the early 20th century inspired traveling evangelists, prophecy writers and thinkers who set their beliefs rooted in such churches to such an extent that the thought has become dominant and unquestioned. Jesus for evangelicals is viewed historically as the embodiment of God living in a man’s body to die for mankind’s sins to save his followers from hell. His teachings are acknowledged by such Christians, but the main focus is on his death as atonement for sins that would have otherwise gone unforgiven. The future Jesus is looked forward to as one who will come in fury to punish those that didn’t accept him and rapture his true followers into paradise.

So really, although all believers of all the above groups are thought of as unquestionably “Christian,” they are miles apart, so much so that I often wonder if they truly belong to  separate religions.


3 Responses to “Two Christianities, Different Christs”

  1. Barak said

    It is against the teachings of God, and of the Holy Scripture, that other churches is built in other places, let’s say in the US, or in England, or in Germany, or in Rome. They also claim that another church had also been founded in the Philippines. The truth is, God did not give any right to anybody to build his own church. It is indeed disgusting that today, a lot of ministers build churches of their own. They deliberately oppose and defy what the Bible said – that, the Gentiles, like us, must join or make ourselves a part of the body, or the Church, for us to be saved.

  2. dwhamby1 said

    Just a comment on worship styles. I would not be so quick to draw conservative-contemporary and liberal-traditional view. It is interesting that really many churches of all theological stripes are trying to figure out how to translate worship in the 21st century. Some Episcopal churches have even done contemporary style music and there was even a U2 service (U2charist) service created! Some fundamentalists preach against any contemporary style worship/music. There is a movement for some conservative/fundamentalists to adopt a reformed style of not only theology but also worship that avoids all contemporary style and looks very Calvinistic. Roman Catholic services explored very early with Jesus people music in the sixties. There is a movement among some conservatives and evangelicals to embrace ancient church worship–creeds, weekly communion, music, candles, robes etc and to follow the church year.

    There is actually a lot of literature out there about worship styles that is every changing.

    For example one popular work- The Worship Maze talks about seeker, praise, revival, traditional, and liturgical styles.

    I would say that each faith tradition has historical style/styles of worship that are not necessarily connected to theological thinking. Take Quaker (far far from conservative) and yet it has a style of worship not found in any of the above descriptions- no communion, service of silence. Some black churches can be very liberal (Jeremiah Wright) and while robed is far from formal. Liberal/progressive churches do have contemporary services and conservatives/fundamentalists have formal services. I know of strong reformed, lutheran and others who look very liturgical but theologically ultra conservative.

    Now the mega church model you write about is a interesting twist. That particular view of worship that is very much like you describe is a conservative phenomena. It is found in Baptist, non-denominational and charismatic circles.

    I’ve rattled on about worship! But anyway just wanted to give some food for thought.

    Overall the 2 Christian view for me is a little too dualistic. Borg writes about two Christians much like this and I’ve heard a lecture by him on it. On some level it made sense but I am not sure that Christianity can be placed in two boxes. I am still pondering a model I would use but I do believe if we have a ‘left’ and a ‘right’ in the sense you describe it would be more on a scale with many churches placed somewhere on that scale and no one really completely one one end.


    The stereotypes of each would fit then each local church might fit somewhere on the scale.

    You could take various L or R issues- worship, politics, mission/practice, preaching, etc and then rate where one fits and we would find people vary depending on various issues.

    For example there are some conservatives who abhor the dispensationalism of Tim Leheye (the Bible Answer Man is just such a guy on the radio in this camp) and yet have many other traits that fit the typical fundamentalist church.

    Among evangelicals there are the “Red Letter” Christians who hold to a very traditional view of salvation by Christ alone and are quite evangelistic but very interested in the poor, environment, and social justice.

    I once knew a gay man who went to a local church that was led by and designed for gay people but other than the homosexual issue it was too conservative for him and basically was an evangelical church for gay people.

    I do believe you have painted well the two poles that exist but I would argue that many churches are somewhere in the midst of those poles. Liberal churches often have very conservative members and vice versa! And individual Christians often have various views that take them in one place or the other.

    For myself I don’t really care what someone classifies me. I would be conservative to some and liberal to others depending on the topic I suppose and I don’t really care.

    i read about a seminary that begin in the 90s that is in the NW that is a part of the ’emerging’ church. It’s only faith statement in the Apostles Creed. No interpretation given but that. Pretty cool.

    So I enjoy your blog!!! But just some food for thought.

  3. dmhamby2 said

    dwhamby1- you are definitely right that there are traditions, denominations and individual churches that defy such broad generalizations. Obviously almost all Catholic churches look traditional and have traditional worship styles yet many are very conservative. There are also many Presbyterian, Methodist and Anglican churches that have conservative branches that worship traditionally and liberal branches that worship in contemporary styles. As it always is, it’s difficult to box anything into a label yet I guess I attempted to do that a bit through this article. I do think such details as discussed in my article here are so recurrent as to warrant observation, though, and do somewhat feel that the exceptions noted by you and by me just now are just that-exceptions to the otherwise fairly standard rule.

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