Which God? The Real Difference Between Evangelical and Liturgical Churches

When people ask me why I want to be part of a liturgical church, I usually start describing the beauty of the liturgy, the excitement of the church calendar, or the historical rootedness that helps placate my fears about the legitimacy of Christianity. But the more I reflect, I realize that, at the bottom, the real draw for a liturgical church is its understanding of God -- its theology. The worship style is one major cosmetic difference, but it is simply an aspect of the much more fundamental distinction of who or what God is like.

When I go to an evangelical church, the songs, sermons, and prayers are directed to a person that each member is very familiar with. God walks with me and talks with me. He changes specific real-world events -- he brings rain in a drought, chooses the political leaders and makes sure that cars arrive safely at their destination. Hell, God even helps NFL quarterbacks in the fourth quarter.

I had the oddest experience one summer as I sat in the pew at a southern evangelical church in a small farming community. Sunday after Sunday, the assigned lay member would approach the pulpit and utter the same words, "Lord, please bring us rain; we desperately need it." The hundred or so members of this small church had one need above any other, that it would rain so their cotton would grow. May, June, and July came and went, as week after week the same prayer was said without divine response. Finally, in August, a few inches of rain fell on a Saturday afternoon. Not only were church attendance records set that following Sunday, every marquee in the county now read: "Thank God for the Rain!"

This caused a serious faith crisis for me. What the hell kind of God answers a well-intentioned request only after making people beg and plead for 3 months? Clearly, a God who is either extremely fickle (and strange), or one that doesn't exist. I sided with the latter.

After that summer, I knew it was time to go. I had finally pinpointed why I could never again worship at an evangelical church. I learned why I couldn't sing the songs, listen to the sermons, or join in the prayers. There was a fundamental problem, a flaw that permeated everything -- I know longer recognized their God.

I realized that there's a difference between worshiping God, and worshiping "___." There's a difference between Jesus being a friend or a homeboy and being the Risen Christ. The God who opens up parking spots is different from the Holy Mystery.

There is a new element that is added, a humility that sees a much larger chasm between God and humanity. It finds awe, not in God's destructive power or intolerance for evil, but in transcendence. Humans are lost, yes, but being saved is not a guaranteed certainty; it becomes a questionable hope. It was this distinction that led me to the Episcopal church.

The liturgical sensibility sees a much further distance between God and the worshiper. Prayer is not the request of an insider or the desperate plea of a powerless servant. Prayer is the expression of reliance on an unfathomable mystery -- an openness to the world's paradox. The prayers, homilies and hymns of the liturgical churches reflect this same theology. God is divine mystery. Any time one speaks of divine action, it is with a careful question mark rather than a definitive period or exclamation mark.

For many liturgical Christians, God did not create the world in six days or recommend dashing babies against stones. God, whoever or whatever God is, is not a male, and God will not eternally torture adherents of other religions. When I say the creed, I renew a strong conviction I have about the world, but that conviction is joined with a humility that leaves open the possibility that I am wrong. After all, shortly after the creed I confess my sins, and once a year I am told that I am ashes -- weak, perishable ashes that have had many different opinions and thoughts about the gods over the last few millennia, many of which were wrong.

This difference in theology -- between the more liturgical humble respect of God's inherent mysteriousness and the evangelical sappy familiarity -- is the same reason that I get so cranky when I hear Christians come to Tim Tebow's defense. I get their point, I think; Tebow is a nice guy with an above average character and Christians have the perception that SNL and Bill Maher don't like him simply because he's a Christian. Those Christians who defend Tebow believe that the critique is a generic attack against Christianity. And there may be some truth to that.

But Tebow, as an evangelical, is perpetuating this warped and philosophically unsatisfactory vision of God -- the same understanding that prays each day that God will send rain and then says that the prayer was answered once those rains finally do come. The criticism of Tebow is fair. It really is ludicrous to think that God is involved in the outcome of football games. Just plain crazy.

But what I want the "Bill Maher"s of the world to know is that the evangelicals' God is not the best form of Christianity -- the best form (or, at least, a far superior form) is the God that liturgical churches worship. It could turn out to be just as religulous, but it is still its own challenge that can't be disproven just by making fun of another Quran burning or "pro-life" rally.

There is a philosophically problematic, sexist, imperialist God that truly is "religulous." But there is another divine being, the Unfathomable Being, that many Catholics, Orthodox, and Episcopalians worship. This important question, "Who is God?" is at the heart of the difference between Evangelicals and liturgical Christians. It is the reason that I can no longer worship at an evangelical church. And it is a question that the critics of Christianity need to address if they intend to ultimately undermine the Christian tradition.