Melanie C. ROSS, Evangelical Versus Liturgical?: Defying a Dichotomy. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014. pp. 149. $17.00 pb. ISBN 978-0-8028-6991-3. Reviewed by Wilburn T. STANCIL, Rockhurst University, Kansas City, MO 64110


Melanie C. Ross is assistant professor of liturgical studies at Yale Divinity School and Yale Institute of Sacred Music.  The book is a part of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies Series and originates from Ross’ doctoral dissertation at the University of Notre Dame.  Evangelical Versus Liturgical includes a foreword by evangelical historian Mark Noll.

Ross’ thesis is that the evangelical-liturgical divide is a false dichotomy, largely created by liturgical scholars. She believes that “low-church” evangelicals have important gifts to bring to the ecumenical table but that little academic literature exists to explain those contributions to scholars from “high church” traditions. Additionally, Ross believes that liturgical scholars fail to make distinctions between “fundamentalism” and “evangelicalism,” have limited historical views of evangelical worship, and hold outdated models of evangelical worship today (p. 5).

Ross believes that the starting point for exposing this false dichotomy is the “fixation” (her term) that liturgical scholars have on evangelical worship patterns from 19th-century American revivalism. Scholars trace this “frontier ordo” to Charles Finney, and it can be reduced to three movements in worship:  First, preliminary songs to “soften up” the crowd; second, a fervent sermon; and third, an altar call for new converts.  Finney’s threefold ordo became standard for most evangelical congregations and was utilized most famously in the 20th century by evangelist Billy Graham.

Ross argues that liturgical scholars—James White is often cited in particular—have negatively assessed evangelical worship by their selective focus on the Finney tradition. She believes that Finney’s predecessor, George Whitefield, is a better model for understanding the historical roots of evangelicalism and its worship patterns.  For example, she notes that Whitefield’s emphasis on the “new birth” had the result of downplaying the importance of denominational identity in favor of the larger ecumenical family. The legacy of this emphasis on the “new birth” for evangelicalism is the bringing together of people of different churches, which undercuts the notion that evangelicals are non-ecumenical.  

The remainder of Ross’ book has two foci:  One, she analyzes the worship traditions of two megachurches, Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee and West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, which is located a few miles west of Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania. Two, she places in dialogue scholars from liturgical traditions (Aidan Kavanagh, Louis-Marie Chauvet, Gordon Lathrop) with scholars from evangelical traditions (Kevin Vanhoozer, John Webster, Miroslav Volf).  The issues that underlie differences in worship traditions are these: liberalism and conservatism in matters of faith, the nature of God’s action in the world (an interventionist versus an immanentist position), the use of the historical-critical method (questions about the historicity and authority of Scripture), and the constitution of the church (individualism versus catholicity).

While Ross’ desire to highlight worship contributions of evangelicals is commendable, a couple of concerns surfaced for me. Ross concludes that “Evangelical and liturgical scholars alike share a commitment to ecumenism, a nuanced understanding of Scripture that eschews fundamentalism, and a desire to think together about issues of ecclesiology and sacraments.” (129). While this may be true of the scholars she surveys, I’m less certain it’s true of the rank and file who make up evangelical churches, or their pastors.  In their book, Who Needs Theology?, Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson speak of five levels of theology: folk, lay, ministerial, professional, and academic. At the level of professional and academic theology, it’s not difficult to find scholars who are interested in breaking down the worship divide.  And Ross acknowledges that even among those scholars, the celebration of commonality does not “deny or flatten differences” (130). But the fact is, academics do not necessarily reflect the views of the people in the pews, or their pastors.

A related concern lies in Ross’ choice of churches to highlight in the book.  Both are urban/suburban, megachurches, and both are pastored by individuals who are highly educated. The pastor from Eastbrook was originally a physician, and the pastor of West Shore has a Ph.D. in theology from Cambridge.  How representative are these churches and pastors of the typical evangelical church in America? For example, the largest evangelical denomination in America is the Southern Baptist Convention, which, according to their website, boasts some 50,000 churches and missions.  Most of these churches are small, rural, composed of simple but sincere believers, and led by a bi-vocational pastor who may or may not have a seminary degree.  Over the years, I have personally witnessed the worship patterns of many of these churches, and their ordo is remarkably similar to Finney’s: hymns, sermon, invitation (altar call). While I have no doubt that some evangelical churches have moved beyond this ordo, at the level where most evangelicals worship, I suspect the dichotomy is alive and well.

Even though Ross’ call for a breakdown of the dichotomy is more hope than reality, Evangelical Versus Liturgical is an important reminder that the “us” versus “them” mindset is unproductive and, in some cases, outdated.