Evangelical, Sacramental & Pentecostal. Can we be all three?

A few years ago, I was talking to an Anglican Priest friend about how difficult it is for a pastor to balance all the priorities of ministry. “There’s leadership development, administration, pastoral care and then spending 15-20 hours a week preparing a sermon.” She was completely dumfounded. How on earth can someone spend that much time on a sermon!? In her tradition – sacramental – the focal point of the church service is the Eucharist, and the homily is a short 5-minute reflection on the lectionary reading. In my evangelical tradition the most important part of the church service is the preaching of the Word, and when I was growing up in a Pentecostal church it was the time of singing worship. In this conversation with my friend, it struck me how Christians can really be from different worlds.

In his book, Evangelical, Sacramental & Pentecostal Gordon T. Smith tries to bridge these worlds by arguing that the church should be all three. This is one of three books I’m reading which overlap in theme to the book I’m writing, so I felt it important to write a longer review. Smith is an American professor of systematic and spiritual theology and comes from the evangelical theological tradition. It is clear he has discovered the riches of the sacramental tradition resulting in a shift in his theology. But there seems to be a gap in his experience of the Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition, and I believe it begins with the title. I was surprise the book wasn’t called ‘Evangelical, Sacramental & Charismatic’ as they flow better as descriptive words that can operate regardless of denominational affiliation. Pentecostal is a denomination, something you can tick on the Australian census, whereas charismatic is a vibe.

Smith begins by answering this question: ‘…how do the church and the individual Christian dwell in Christ?’ (pg.20) Through biblical and historical exploration, he pitches that there are three equally valid answers.

  • ‘through the Word – the ancient text, made present and effective through teaching and preaching’
  • ‘through the sacramental actions of baptism and the Lord’s Supper’
  • ‘through the immediate presence of the Spirit in the life of the church and filling – breathed upon – the individual Christians’ (pg. 20)

Each of the principals are then explored in greater detail with a focused chapter, using each principal as a lens to critique and sharpen the other principals. He concludes with some observations and a case study, which explores hypothetically how we the church can operate as evangelical, sacramental and Pentecostal in initiating new Christians. Smith did a great job of winning me over to the biblical importance and historical thread for each principal but he stopped short of offering a vision of exactly how a church can be all three at once.

Recently, I wandered into a little vintage shop and I couldn’t help but notice a huge oak pulpit with intricate carvings. It came from a church in the city doing a refurb and apparently it was ‘too churchy for the church’. They opted for a lectern instead. “Gordon T. Smith would be mortified!” I whispered to my husband. Smith believes that the removal of the communion table in the church downplays the sacraments and the removal of the pulpit downplays the Word. He mentions, twice, that in many churches the visual centrepiece of worship is now the drum kit. He decries the “pentecostalization” of evangelical worship events for their sentimentality and manipulation of emotions. He then goes onto say:

‘Yes, all Christian communities surely need to know the very thing that the mystical and pentecostal tradition has consistently affirmed: the immediacy of the Spirit in the life of the Christian and the life of the church. But it is not at the expense of either the authority of the Word and of preaching or the vital and defining place of the sacraments.’

pg. 116

Essentially, I felt Smith was saying, “the whole living in the Spirit thing, I love that. But please don’t mess with the church service, that’s sacred!” I don’t think we can use the label ‘pentecostal’ and dismiss how Pentecostals worship – a massive part of their identity –  as ‘sentimental experience’ and ‘not truly able to foster genuine koinonia, or fellowship with God’ (pg. 82). 

The high point of the service. Is it singing worship? Is it the preaching? Is it the Eucharist? That depends on whether you charismatic, evangelical or sacramental. At the conclusion of his chapter on the sacramental principle Smith writes: ‘And the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, becomes the focal point, the high point, of the gathering of the people of God for worship.’ (pg. 97) Smith’s passion for the sacramental is evident throughout, but in the end it overshadows his central argument. He is unable to offer an integrated vision of church community, as he’s too prescriptive as to which evangelical and pentecostal elements can be grafted into the true vine of sacramentalism.

Evangelical, Sacramental & Pentecostal is an academic book, and as a practical theologian I was itching for him to flesh out his ideas more. How can the church be all three? Are their real examples of this happening? But I realise, this is the focus of my own research, and I’m grateful for Gordon T. Smith’s academic groundwork in proving the importance of each of these traditions.

One thought on “Evangelical, Sacramental & Pentecostal. Can we be all three?

  1. Now you’ve got me thinking deeper about how worship should integrate all three. I feel like my tradition firmly emphasizes and places focus on both Word and Sacrament, but we definitely need work on the third.

    Liked by 1 person

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