Three Modes of Christian Formation: Experience, Doctrine, and Liturgy

Here is the paradigm that has helped me understand the wide range of Christian expression

“Regardless of the denomination, there seems to be three modes of Christian formation: experience, doctrine, liturgy. These three modes have proven true to my religious life, but they have also been borne out in conversations with friends, with remarkably little variation.”

 

A year ago I attended a conference at Georgetown University in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the Vatican II council. The conference, entitled “Remembering the Future,” drew an ecumenical group of presenters, respondents, and observers, including a colleague of mine who spoke to the unique opportunities for mutual service between Roman Catholics and the confessionally Reformed. The spirit of the conference was one of comity. We should be able to acknowledge serious doctrinal disagreements between Protestants and Catholics, but we should also be willing to admit where we share similar visions on a variety of issues.

Hearing these papers and intermingling with the crowd during breaks, I was struck by some surprising similarities and dissimilarities represented in these distinct expressions of the Christian church. The experience brought to mind my own church background, which I have referred to as “denominationally promiscuous,” and how I have made sense of it in my own life. Like many Christians in the modern world, my traditional background is comprised of a hodgepodge of influences, and I deliberately chose my current tradition, the Reformed position, somewhat later in life as a result of a personal spiritual experience mediated by the influence of family and friends.

So as I looked around that gathering in Georgetown, I saw something familiar with stages in my own autobiography. How should I understand these other Christian communities with which I have so much in common?

Experience, Doctrine, and Liturgy

Here is the paradigm that has helped me understand the wide range of Christian expression in the world as well as the different modes of individual spiritual formation. Regardless of the denomination, there seems to be three modes of Christian formation: experience, doctrine, liturgy.† These three modes have proven true to my religious life, but they have also been borne out in conversations with friends, with remarkably little variation.

Each mode has a predominant virtue, realm of meaning, and objective.

For the experiential mode, the key virtue is spontaneity, the realm of meaning is feeling, and the objective is ecstasy, expressed in the sense of euphoria or relief that comes from worship of and surrender to the Lord through Jesus Christ. In the experiential mode, the personal encounter rises in estimation, marked by the authenticity of spontaneity, because planning and deliberation imply a scripted, insincere, and therefore false experience. Emotional response becomes the means by which encounters are evaluated, logic and rationality seem cold, and recital or participatory reading indicate that true faith has been abandoned for the outward appearance of devotion. Much of the religious life is marshaled to the cause of finding and nurturing the proper emotional response. Oftentimes emotion is synonymous with spirituality, as the presence of Holy Spirit is most present in personal feeling and intuition. Recently converted adults usually occupy the experiential mode for some period of time due to the power of their personal conversion experience.

In the doctrinal mode, the key virtue is organization and system, the realm of meaning is logic and syllogism, and the objective is clarity and certainty. For the doctrinalist, the system of belief, usually expressed in propositions, rises in estimation, particularly the individual’s ability to cite and connect doctrines in a way that reflects certain commitments (is the teaching biblical, covenantal, literal, subversive, charismatic, liberating?). Personal experience and relationship are not as important as a clear expression of the terms and meaning of belief, including the terms and meaning of experience. The Holy Spirit is most present in the interpretation of Holy Scripture. Those who are intrigued by the teachings of systematic and biblical theologies traffic heavily in the doctrinal mode.

In the liturgical mode, the predominant virtue is heritage, the realm of meaning is participation and performance (though this latter term is often used pejoratively), and the objective is belonging. For the liturgicalist, the community rises in estimation, particularly the communitarian modes of worship but not only those, also the identification as a group and participation in community activities like mercy ministries, public gatherings, and so on. Individual speculation and meditation on theological belief is not as important as appreciating and being subsumed in communitarian statement. The Holy Spirit is most present in community support and interaction. Admittedly, the liturgical mode finds broad expressions and need not be accompanied by a change in denomination or tradition, but there is a notable interest in corporate worship, sacrament, and shared confession. Individuals or groups who do not think they have liturgical resources of their own will adopt the liturgical resources of another group (think of conservative Presbyterians wearing vestments and employing the Book of Common Prayer in worship services, as well as observing the liturgical calendar).

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