Why American Christianity is So Conveniently Non-Sacramental

I would venture to say that I talk to several dozen young adults (18-30 years of age) every year who are actively entertaining the merits of non-denominational Christianity. Conversely, I talk to roughly zero young adults who are considering a switch to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. This probably tells us something about the direction the arrow of young American Christianity is pointing.

Admittedly, this conversation initially often has tones of style or programming attached to it, which is a fairly superficial critique.

The results are nonetheless very real. Barna’s research has shown that while Millennials are, in fact, somewhat likely to make a change from a non-liturgical church to a liturgical church (22%), they’re also significantly more likely to move from liturgical churches to non-liturgical churches as well (44%). 

If nothing else, a major takeaway from this data should simply be that young adults are less committal when it comes to church allegiance.

A related component to the prevalent church migration, however, is a matter more important than style – the teaching of the Sacraments, Baptism and Holy Communion.

There are many ways to teach the Sacraments. Obviously, you should first start with a biblical foundation. (If you’d like a Scriptural refresher on sacramental theology, you can find a summary in a message I preached back in Dec. 2017.)

However, since you have people on multiple sides of the debate of Baptism and Holy Communion, who ALL claim they’re faithfully using Scripture to arrive at their conclusions, then part of what this debate becomes is an issue of biblical interpretation. And therefore, I’d like to share with you today another valuable way to look at the debate. 

Simply ask the question, “Which side of the debate over Baptism and Holy Communion lines up more conveniently with our current cultural ideology?”

In other words, we all understand the concept of twisting the Bible in such a way that it works in your best interest. And we all know that if your interpretation of Scripture consistently always works out in your favor, there’s a good chance that your hermeneutic (i.e. Scriptural interpretation) may be a little off.

So, to the point, which interpretation of Baptism or Holy Communion that exists in American Christianity more conveniently overlaps with American cultural ideology?

Baptism

The sacramental understanding of Baptism is that Baptism is an adoption ceremony at which God the Holy Spirit places the name of the Triune God upon you, washes you with water and the Word, cleanses you of the eternal consequences of your sins, and gifts you the planting of the Spirit in your heart. 

The sacrificial understanding of Baptism is that a believer who has become convinced of the truths of the gospel makes claim to those gospel promises by dedicating their life to Jesus Christ. 

So which understanding of baptism lines up better with our current cultural climate?

American ideology is most definitely one of self-determinism and personal empowerment. We like to consider ourselves the product of our choices. This gives us a sense of control in a big world. It helps us believe we can turn our lives into anything we want if we simply make the right choices. 

Consequently, in the same way that I’m taught from childhood to believe I can become the president of the United States if I just put my mind to it and work hard, I’m similarly culturally conditioned to believe that I can become a child of God simply through my own choice. A sacramental understanding of Baptism, on the other hand, whether referring to a child or an adult, seems to suggest I have little to no control, and am allowed to take zero credit.

So, if I’m determining which brand of Christianity would be supported by cultural overlap – liturgical or non-liturgical, sacramental or sacrificial – it seems obvious that non-denominational churches are going to find an advantage here.

But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.Titus 3:4-7

Holy Communion

The sacramental understanding of Holy Communion is that Christ makes himself truly present in, with, and under the bread and wine. This Real Presence assures us of the forgiveness of sins, strengthens faith, and renews our life and hope of salvation in the context of spiritual family. However, since this spiritual meal is powerful, it could either be taken to our benefit or to our destruction. Like pharmacists distributing spiritual medicine, clergy reasonably require education prior to participation. Consequently, we celebrate the meal only with those whom we are convinced will take the meal to God’s glory and their benefit.

The sacrificial understanding of Holy Communion is that, in the Supper, we remember the great love that Jesus showed to us as we receive symbolic representations of the body and blood that he gave up for us at the cross. As we celebrate this memorial meal, we enjoy the company of spiritual family. Since this meal is perceived only as a remembrance, and since it is good for all people – adults and children, brand new or long-time Christians – to remember who Jesus is and what he did, ALL are welcome to come up and partake. 

So which understanding of the Lord’s Supper lines up better with our current cultural climate? 

Perhaps the most appropriate word to define the concept of love in America in the 21st century is “inclusion.” Anything that comes across as exclusive, almost by mere cultural reflex, is perceived as unloving

Sacramental churches believe that Holy Communion is more than just bread and wine, that it is Christ’s actual body and blood. They are naturally then far more likely to practice what is called “Close/Closed Communion.” In this practice, there are some sizable qualifications for participation. It is undoubtedly perceived by someone off the street as an exclusive practice. 

Non-denominational churches generally believe that Holy Communion is simply bread and grape juice. They are naturally then far more likely to practice what is called “Open Communion.” There are few qualifications for participation. Some non-denominational churches would require that you at least be a baptized Christian, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Again, the logic is that there is very little damage that could come from remembering Jesus. It is undoubtedly perceived by someone off the street as an inclusive practice. 

So, if I’m determining which brand of Christianity would be supported by cultural overlap – liturgical or non-liturgical, sacramental or sacrificial – it seems obvious that non-denominational churches are once again going to find an advantage here.

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.1 Corinthians 11:27-29

Result: Anticipate Resistance

The point in this mental exercise is to see that if, like me, you hold a sacramental understanding of Baptism and Holy Communion, in this particular cultural moment, you should anticipate resistance. Culturally speaking, you’re essentially trying to run up a down escalator. A portion of the reason why non-denominational Christianity has taken a massive bite out of more traditional church bodies in the past several decades is that non-denominational theology tends to line up quite conveniently with the current American spirit.

This is all necessarily an oversimplification for the sake of brevity. But I’m trying to point out that the Sacramental debate is one piece of a highly affective movement. 

Consider the following aspects to non-denominationalism: 

  • a non-sacramental understanding of Baptism and Holy Communion that aligns with American ideology
  • a less-committal approach to church membership or theological stance (i.e. NON-denominational)
  • an immersive sensory “event” designed to generate positive feelings 
  • a sizable borrowing of the methodology of American business pragmatism 

The confluence of these factors have contributed to the single most impactful shift in American Christianity over the last half century.

None of this rationale, by the way, disproves a sacrificial understanding of Baptism and Holy Communion. Just because a doctrine lines up conveniently with the cultural spirit does not make it true or untrue. But if you have a young adult who is considering a switch to non-denominationalism (and don’t kid yourselves, many are), it’s worth mentioning to them that there might be factors attached to their desire for change that, with a little guidance, they can easily recognize aren’t as noble as they might first believe. Almost every young adult that I’ve had this conversation with has acknowledged that our current cultural mindset favors a sacrificial understanding of Baptism & Holy Communion and all of them have been a little uncomfortable with that.

The obvious question for church leaders or parents then is: “What Can I Do?” So I’ll leave you with a couple DON’Ts and several DO’s…

Finish article HERE.

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