Earlier this year, my husband Jonathan flew to Dallas, Texas to check out some ministry opportunities (and see the Dallas Mavericks play some bball!) and he met Ryan Flanigan. As well as being shaped by different streams of Christianity throughout his life, ancient future faith is something he has thought deeply about, having studied under Robert E. Webber (who you’ll hear more about). It’s fitting that Ryan is the first to be interviewed for the Ancient Future Practitioners series, as he really is living this out, both in his role as Music Director of All Saints Dallas and founder of the band, Liturgical Folk.
Ryan Flanigan, Dallas
Interview via email, August 2019
For each of these areas, what experiences have shaped you?
Charismatic – I grew up in a Pentecostal church in the south suburbs of Chicago. The preachers shouted fiery messages of holiness and told lots of stories of miracles. They took a more narrative approach to Scripture than doctrinal. The music was deeply emotive, targeting the soul above all else. There was a determination to “be filled with the Spirit;” we didn’t passively wait for a spontaneous infilling. We would spend hours at the altar (the front of the stage) “getting lost” in the “presence of the Lord.” Ministry teams would go around praying for healing, praying for children and adults to be filled with the Spirit and to speak in tongues. Sometimes after a time of worship and before the sermon there would be a word spoken in tongues from the congregation and an interpretation given by another congregant. I saw my peers healed of back injuries and their parents healed of chronic illnesses. People were always falling down, “slain in the Spirit.” From as early as I can remember I memorized Bible verses in Sunday School and for Wednesday evening gatherings. I heard all the Bible stories, including the crazy ones, in Sunday School. I also heard some pretty specific interpretations of the Bible, especially from the Books of Genesis and Revelation, but that was later in my teenage years. It was assumed that everything in the Bible was literal and historical. For the most part, however, the Bible was approached from a narrative standpoint; there was an innate trust that the stories themselves were what our souls needed to hear. Even Scripture memorization was not for the sake of accumulating knowledge, but rather because something protective (preventative) happens in our souls when we “hide God’s word in our heart.” Looking back, it was all very mystical, although we would have never used that word; too catholic or superstitious.
Evangelical – My introduction to the evangelical world was The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther. I was leading worship at a small church plant, and my pastor asked me to read it with him. Having grown up in a charismatic church, with its emphasis on “choosing” to press into to the things of God, “commanding” our souls to praise God, “willing” ourselves into obedience and holiness, and ultimately falling short in my early twenties of such discipline and devotion, Luther’s words, as harsh as they were toward poor Erasmus, were a salve to my soul. I was at Christ for the Nations Bible Institute (CFNI) at the time. I remember memorizing Ephesians 1 while I was reading Luther. I was learning about grace, not as a charis-matic term, but as an evangel-ical one. I had fallen short of my charismatic calling to holiness. I couldn’t get my act together. I was a failure. Luther showed me that I was a helpless sinner. And then one night the gospel (evangel) of God’s grace leveled me. It was definitely a charismatic experience, but it was also a truly evangelical one. I couldn’t sleep, so I went and laid on the disgusting bathroom floor of my dorm at 1:00am. I cried out to the Lord, “I can’t do it anymore.” And the Lord spoke to me, “You don’t have to do it. I did it for you. Stop trying.” I was suddenly free of all the pressure I had put on myself to be holy. My Savior is holy and blameless, and by his obedience I have been adopted into the family of God. Grace. Gospel. Charis. Evangel. In that moment I officially became a charismatic evangelical. This experience also led me into a love for theology and the intellectual/academic pursuit of God. So when I finished at CFNI I went to Dallas Baptist University (DBU), where I was baptized (not really) into evangelicalism. My last year (sixth year) of undergraduate college felt like the beginning of my education. Studying systematic theology and philosophy was the first time I actually enjoyed my classes. So, I decided to go to seminary. I went to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) back home in Chicago. While at TEDS I led worship at a Vineyard church. We called ourselves Reformed charismatics. For my second year of seminary I had the absolute privilege of studying with Robert Webber. Bob would set me on a course that would invite catholicism to my charismatic-evangelical party.
Sacramental – When I was a late teenager, before I attended CFNI and before I had my evangelical experience, I was in a music group called the Celebrant Singers. We ministered mainly in the Roman Catholic Church, where I was introduced to the liturgy in a tangible, impactful sort of way; worship was brought into our bodies in a different way than before. In my Pentecostal days worship was a powerful, emotional soul-experience, but in the Roman Catholic Mass, liturgy was a holistically aesthetic experience; it was embodied, we knelt, we felt in our physical bodies and in all our senses the Story of God coming to life, the same Story I received mystically into my soul as a child. So I fell in love with the liturgy as a 19 year old, but it wouldn’t become an immersive part of my life until many years later. It was a good and beautiful experience, but it was too distant, too foreign, for me to have any imagination for a liturgical future. Let alone the pain it might cause my parents who left dead liturgy behind for Pentecostalism. Flash forward six years. Now I’m 25 and find myself at Northern Seminary with Bob Webber. I considered myself a charismatic-evangelical. Bob had been talking about the “convergence” of Catholic, Pentecostal, and Evangelical worship for decades. His vision for ancient-future worship brought it all together for me. He required us to get a Book of Common Prayer (1979) for his History of Worship and Spirituality course. He also assigned for us to read his Ancient-Future Time. I was hooked. It took about nine years on the “Canterbury Trail” from that point for me to finally become an Anglican. I spent seven years after seminary trying to turn a non-denominational church near South Bend, IN into an Anglican Church, employing many of the practices of Ancient-Future worship, but ultimately finding that without a strong ecclesial foundation, and within an church that was founded upon the seeker-oriented, or church growth, model, the historic practices can only go so far, until a new vision is needed to keep things fresh. In 2015 I finally joined the staff of an Anglican church in Dallas, Texas, where my kids received the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, and my wife and I were received into the holy catholic Church by Confirmation.
With such an array of experiences, it is amazing you were able to study under Robert E Webber. Tell us a little about him and what you learned from him?
I had the privilege of studying with Robert Webber in 2005-2006 before he passed away in 2007. I was enrolled in other classes at TEDS, but a friend of mine, the Chaplain of Trinity, and probably the only other person at TEDS who had previously attended CFNI, pulled me aside and told me to drop all my classes and to go study with Bob Webber for a year. Somehow he knew what I needed, and that Bob Webber would be taking a sabbatical the following year, and that I would miss my opportunity to study with him if I didn’t do it now. So, trusting my friend, I did as he said, and I have never looked back. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. What did I learn from Bob? In a nutshell, Bob gave me the vision for bringing the best of all Christian traditions together into one cohesive worship life. He was the first person to tell me that I didn’t have to choose between being charismatic, evangelical, or catholic. At first he called it “Convergence Christianity,” but later it came to be known as Ancient-Future worship: the way forward for the church in the West is to rediscover the ancient practices of worship that we find in the historic liturgy, which have been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years. Bob himself was an Episcopalian, in part because Anglicanism had enough space theologically and in form and expression for him to be a charismatic, evangelical catholic. He passed this vision on to me. That year and for the years to follow I oozed Bob’s vision from my pores. I immediately put his vision into practice at the Vineyard church where I was leading worship, and have continued evangelizing to all my friends in the charismatic and evangelical worlds for the recovery of the ancient practices of worship. One thing I will never forget about Bob is how available he made himself to his students. He offered to take us to Starbucks after every class, just to shoot the breeze or to ask him crazier questions. He was full of so much joy and was such a non-anxious presence.
Where is the best place to start in looking at Robert E. Webber’s research? Are there some essential books you recommend?
The beauty of Bob’s work is that he created different on-ramps for folks coming from many different directions. Although most of his students had pretty standard Western evangelical upbringings, others came from catholic backgrounds, and others came from charismatic traditions. My introduction to Bob’s work was his book Ancient-Future Time. The discovery of the Christian Year laid a foundation for me to begin constructing a more historically-connected theology of worship. There was something deeply refreshing about approaching the subject of Christian worship from the standpoint of time rather than doctrine; we get our annual worship cues from the life of Jesus; our days don’t have to be marked by the academic year, or the sports calendar, or the quasi-liturgical Hallmark calendar. Ancient-Future Time is usually the first of Bob’s books that I recommend to my worship leader friends. It is the third of five books in his Ancient-Future series. For a broader introduction to Bob’s worship I might recommend Ancient-Future Worship, which is the culmination of his life’s work, published posthumously. But again, depending on an individual’s spiritual journey, a different starting point may be more helpful, such as Journey to Jesus for the young believer just beginning a process of discipleship, or Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail for the evangelical who is wanting to dig deeper into the historic Faith.
I love that all this hasn’t been just theoretical for you, you’ve found ways of living that out. Tell us about your work as Music Director of All Saints Church Dallas and Founder of Liturgical Folk?
After a very intense three-year season of vocational wilderness in 2011-2013 (the non-denominational church I was serving got tired of my vision for ancient-future worship, and my identity was wrapped up in my work, and so I suffered from some extreme discontentment and took the church’s rejection of my vision very personally), and after a friend pastored me back to health in 2014 and helped me discern the Lord’s calling into a tradition to which my worship convictions aligned, in 2015 I joined the staff of All Saints Dallas, a three-stream Anglican church in the heart of Dallas and part of the Anglican Mission in America, a mission society for church planting and new apostolic works. By 2015 I had been leading worship in churches for 17 years. I had come to know my strengths and weaknesses and was able to articulate them to All Saints during the interview process. Together we crafted a job description that would enable me to thrive in my strengths. Basically, I spend half of my time planning and performing music for our church services, and the other half of my time on music projects and artist development outside of our church. It is no exaggeration to say that I moved from a culture, 2011-2013, in which I spent 90% of my time trying to convince people we needed to be worshiping differently, to a culture here in Dallas where I spend 90% of my time freely working in my calling. I am now four and a half years in, and it’s still dreamy. As far as Sunday worship and other special services, I love how the songs serve the liturgy. I love how the liturgy speaks for itself and doesn’t demand that I add words between songs to create a seamless worship set. I love the spiritual formation my family is receiving through immersion in a liturgical community that is serious about the transformational power of the historic practices. And I love that this vision has been around for hundreds of years, and that I don’t have to convince anyone that we need to be doing it this way. The joy I have found leading music in the church has freed me to spend the rest of my time writing songs, developing songwriters, and pouring into the lives of other artists outside our church. I’ll talk about two special organizations in particular: Art House Dallas and Liturgical Folk.
Art House Dallas exists to cultivate creativity for the common good. The founding director is a parishioner at All Saints, so when I was hired I was expected to jump right in with their community of songwriters, and I have loved every minute of it. I have also helped them develop a spiritual formation program in which we help local artists connect their faith with their art.
Liturgical Folk is a new apostolic work of the AMiA, which I started when a retired priest and I began writing new hymns together. We are seeking to reimagine the hymnal for a new generation of worshippers. We attempt to make beautiful and believable sacred folk music for the Church and the world. We believe that the Church can once again become a credible artistic presence in the world. Our music is multi-generational, multi-racial, and ecumenical. Our goal from the beginning in 2016 was to release six volumes of new liturgical music in three years; to throw a critical mass of this (new?) kind of music at the wall of the church and to see if it sticks. We have identified a problem in the church’s imagination of the reduction of appropriate music to either “traditional” (choir, organ, hymns) or the “contemporary” (stage lights, fog, arena rock). We believe there is a third way that is grounded in the sounds already resident in a place, and whose words are historically-rooted and socially-informed. Half of our music is service music (liturgical settings, simple choruses, etc.) and the other half is new hymnody, written by Father Nelson Koscheski and tuned by myself and other skilled melodists. We have already released four volumes of music (Table Settings, Edenland, Crumbs, and Lent), and we have just recorded and are about to release Advent and Psalm Settings. We have also been touring the projects for a couple years, spreading the word and casting a vision for the appropriateness of liturgical folk music in the church. We have seen a decent amount of success with hundreds of thousands of streams and stories of hundreds of churches around the world using our songs.
How would you encourage a ministry team to move their church beyond the ‘worship wars’?
My friend Brian Hehn points out the helpful fact that “traditional” and “contemporary” are misnomers; they don’t describe anything about the music itself, except that it “happened a long time ago” or that it is “happening now.” Both sides of the war have a reduced imagination for what music can be in the church. On the one hand you have churches that think organs, choirs, hymns, and the like are the only appropriate musical elements for worship. And on the other extreme you have arena rock, stage lights, and celebrities that project the ideal for what church music should be. In my estimation when a church reduces its musical imagination to one of these two sides it can too easily become a monolithic institution represented mainly by a narrow segment of the kingdom, especially in age and race. Not to mention how difficult and expensive it can be for the average church to pull off really good “traditional” or “contemporary” music. I am finding that a folk approach to liturgical music in the Western church is able to bridge the divides (or blow up the walls) of traditional and contemporary, allowing parishioners to experience the breadth of Christ’s kingdom, especially its intergenerational and multi-ethnic nature. I’m talking about the music that bubbles up from the ground of a place. I would encourage ministry teams to put their ear to the ground and to listen for that sound. Tap into the music that effortlessly engages the soul. God put it there for us to find. And the best musicians are able to capture it and reflect it back to the people. The metric I use is whether the children and the old folks are engaged. They are the ones living the most down-to-earth lives in our congregations, so they will often be the first to access and engage with the music in the bones of a place.
|Lastly, I’d love you to contribute to my new Spotify playlist ‘A Live Tradition’ and it would be great to have a song from Liturgical Folk in there!|
1. Hymnal: “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus (feat. Fernando Ortega)” by Audrey Assad
2. Golden Oldie: “Holy and Anointed One” by John Barnett
3. Millennium and Beyond: “We Labor Unto Glory (Live) [feat. Liz Vice]” by The Porter’s Gate (2017)
4. Ancient Future Fusion: “Prayer of Humble Access” by Liturgical Folk
5. Behold Something New: “Delight in the Lord (feat. Josh Garrels)” by Liturgical Folk