My post title is the subtitle of Darryl Hart’s 2002 book, That Old-Time Religion in Modern America. As of this date I’ve read it twice and will soon start on a third reading. It’s not so much that it’s a difficult book to understand (it isn’t thermodynamics), but that it introduces ideas that make your brain work (a good thing). I want to quote two paragraphs from early in the book that establish, what I think are his basic theses.
Before the First Great Awakening, churches in colonial American took their lead from European Protestantism, with a learned clergy and the formalities of liturgy and church polity informing Protestant faith and practice in the New World. Ministers needed formal training in order to be ordained; their sermons were supposed to reflect that learning, and the services they conducted were designed to immerse church members in the beliefs and ceremonies that religious authorities had prescribed. This kind of Protestantism, whether Episcpalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, or Congregationalist —the main branches of the Reformation— stressed faith as a lifelong struggle with sin and temptation, for which the teaching of and worship in the church provided assistance and encouragement. This older version of Protestantism was objective (rather than personal) in the sense that to be a church member involved being conformed to the doctrines and liturgy of the church. And it was corporate in the sense that by participating in the worship of the church, Christians lost some of their individual identity and became part of a community of believers united by the teaching and ministry of the church.
He then goes on to write two pages later:
Evangelicalism is essentially a low-church expression of Protestantism, because what matters most to born-again Protestants is what occurs not inside the church but in their own personal affairs. Simply put, evangelicalism is synonymous with born-again Protestantism because evangelicals stake the authenticity of Christian faith upon the conversion experience, not church membership.
A knee-jerk reaction to either of this statements needs to be avoided. But, as part of a liturgical church (PCA) and having been associated with non-confessional, non-liturgical, non-denominational churches in the past I think he’s on to something.