Prominent Pentecostal Pastor’s Conversion to Catholicism Has Wider Implications for Evangelicals

ulf ekman

A common story heard around evangelical / charismatic circles in the ’70s and ’80s went something like, “I grew up Catholic but then I got ‘born-again’ when I was at college” or “I was raised Methodist, but didn’t get really ‘saved’ until I was an adult.”

The assumed progression of Christian faith was to leave old stale wineskins (mainline denominations) for new flexible wineskins (independent evangelical or charismatic churches).  In fact the term “born-again” became the in vogue moniker to describe the transition.  How else does a Christian, raised in a Christian culture, communicate to the Christians all around them that they’d become a Christian?

They become a “born-again” Christian!

Made sense…

…sort of.

However news this week that Sweden’s most prominent Pentecostal pastor, Ulf Ekman, was converting to Roman Catholicism has sent theological tremors through the evangelical community.  In a sermon entitled “Follow the Lamb Wherever He Goes” Ekman stood before his 3,000 member Word of Life church to make the announcement and explain to his congregation the path that led he and his wife to make their life changing decision.

Says Ekman;

We have seen a great love for Jesus and a sound theology, founded on the Bible and classic dogma. We have experienced the richness of sacramental life. We have seen the logic in having a solid structure for priesthood, that keeps the faith of the church and passes it on from one generation to the next. We have met an ethical and moral strength and consistency that dare to face up to the general opinion, and a kindness towards the poor and the weak. And, last but not least, we have come in contact with representatives for millions of charismatic Catholics and we have seen their living faith…

…All this has been both attractive and challenging. It really challenged our protestant prejudices, and we realized that we in many cases did not have any basis for our criticism of them. We needed to know the Catholic faith better. This led us to the realize that it was actually Jesus Christ who led us to unite with the Catholic Church

Wow!  Converting from evangelical to Roman Catholic?  Now there is something my post Jesus Movement ears never heard growing up in the ’70s and ’80s.

But I’m hearing it more and more.

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Not long ago an evangelical friend told me that when he sent his evangelical daughter to a very famous evangelical college…

…she converted to Roman Catholicism.

So is the whole world going Catholic?

Probably not.  Although Pope Francis seems to have singularly made being Catholic cool again there are other forces at work here.  As I mentioned in a earlier post Why Young Evangelicals Are Going Liturgical there is a growing trend for younger people raised in evangelical circles to be drawn to the liturgical denominations their parents had previously rejected.

They’ve grown up dancing, so they long to kneel.  They’ve grown up with masterfully orchestrated services, so they long for worship that may be planned, but never rehearsed.  They’ve grown up with the latest, so they long for the oldest.  They’ve grown up with, “God is here, let’s celebrate!”   They long for “God is here, let’s kneel and be silent.”

They’ve grown up being urged, “Now, everyone can just worship God however you might want.  Just let the Holy Spirit move you.  We are all different.”  So now some are seeking worship where the implied advice is, “Now, everyone leave your hyper-individuality at the door.  Let’s say words together.  Let’s make gestures together.  Stand together.  Kneel together.  Let’s listen to the wisdom the Holy Spirit has given over the centuries.”

Adorate: Sneaking into Worship

In Ekman’s conversion he notes that he found the richness of the sacramental life in Catholicism attractive.  For many evangelicals there has been a growing sense of shallowness that we seem unable to shake but by which the liturgical denominations seem to provide an answer.  Some evangelical churches have begun experimenting with liturgical elements in some services.  Tradition, a word that has typically been anathema in evangelical circles, is being resurrected in new forms of Christian expression.  The richness of the Church’s theological and spiritual past is being mined for exciting new ideas for it’s future.

Even the observance of Lent is making a comeback!

 

The Lord’s Table

Many people came into an evangelical / charismatic relationship with Christ in the last 40 years thinking perhaps they had finally found the missing piece of their Christian faith only to discover there were pieces still missing.

And that is the real issue.  Christians are waking up to idea that we are the Body of Christ.  That there are various expressions of the Christian faith within that body and the “pieces” are scattered among them.  I’m an evangelical pastor but I need to visit an Anglican, Lutheran, or Catholic church on occasion because they provide an expression of the “Body” my own tradition often can’t…

…and vice versa.

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That’s what makes communion, The Lord’s Table, such a beautiful gift.  Jesus knew people are just different.

He made us that way.

We have a hundred different theological traditions and and go round and round trying to convince each other that our understanding of a Biblical text is the “orthodox” view.

But in the midst our differences God provides a holy place…

There…at that table…The Table of the Lord we can lay aside our divisions and diversity, our creeds and our Statements of Faith, our denominational loyalty and church affiliation and, in that beautiful moment, become One in Christ.

We can break bread, drink wine (with a non-alcoholic grape juice option available for the evangelicals) and gather around that sacred space to remember together how much Jesus loves us.

Underlying Ulf Ekman’s conversion seems to be a genuine desire for unity among the Body of Christ.  So whether we are Catholic or Protestant, Charismatic or cessationist, evangelical or emergent,  let our Lord’s prayer be answered that the world would know we are his followers by the love we have for each other.

8 comments

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  • Christopher

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    No comments yet?
    I do agree that unity is imperative in the body of Christ, and I have seen wonderful Catholics who have discovered and live by the grace of God. My only issue is denominational-ism, e.g “I am no longer an evangelical, but a Roman Catholic”. There is no distinction in the body of Christ, and whatever denomination we come from is irrelevant. Legalism is rife in every denomination, therefore it doesn’t make any difference that an Evangelical is now a Roman Catholic.

    • Steve

      Reply

      All the comments for this one seemed to be on Facebook 🙂 Thanks for yours though. Yes, and I would add that legalism is in every denomination…non-denomination…and inter-denomination.

  • Beautiful Steve, and I wholeheartedly agree with what Chris says. I got choked up reading what you said about the Lord’s table.

    I came to terms w a lot of this when I read Chasing Francis years ago and even more when I spent some time w the author, Ian Cron.

    The Body of Christ – indeed.

    • Steve

      Reply

      Thanks Bob! Growing up evangelical we didn’t put near enough emphasis on communion (at least in our church). Reading more and more on the Eucharist makes me see how needed it is as a central sacrament in our faith!

  • I heard many of those stories in the 70s and 80s myself. I grew up Charismatic Episcopalian. We were the weird ones in the diocese. While I am thrilled to have the rich heritage I have (most of it was because we were NOT like the “other” Episcopal churches – I have been to those, thanks but no thanks!), I don’t miss it at all. I was always non-denominational at heart and finally left the church in which I spent 35 years about 6 years ago for non-d church life. Not coincidentally, this departure came about not long after I gave my life to the Lord and got baptized (technically, I got “saved” in 6th grade – at an AOG altar call – but I didn’t really become a Christian/true follower of Jesus till I was 34, though I had spent my life in church/church culture). I was baptized at 35 – Believer’s baptism, as shown in scripture. I was “baptized” as a baby in the Episcopal church but I consider that just my “baby dedication” since I wasn’t actually a Christian at that time.

    While I have sometimes missed the pageantry of Christmas and Easter/Holy Week, I have broken free of much of that need as I look closer and realize how unnecessary much of that is (I am now looking at celebrating the Biblical feasts which have tradition and ceremony, as well as being God-designed and designated).

    There are aspects of different worship styles that I love (not all of which are found in the church where I am a member). I personally prefer an exuberant, dancing, clapping, jumping style (although, at times, I will just sit quiet and still) but I don’t require it.

    The saddest part about this story (and others like it) is the “conversion to Catholicism.” There are many wrong things that can be found in a number of churches (mainline and non-denominational both) but the Roman Catholic church puts extra-biblical chains of bondage (so do many other liturgical/mainline churches) on its people and that is intolerable! It isn’t that some of the liturgical traditions are bad in and of themselves (extra biblical though they may be). It is when those things become so codified that they are “required” that they become chains instead of free expression of worship and relationship.

    I won’t deny that there are true believers in mainline churches. There are. I have met some of them. However, in my (not exhaustive) experience, there is generally more “life” to be found in non-liturgical churches.

    I remember, years ago, hearing a woman (at the Episcopal church) fretting over whether or not we had the correct color on the altar cloth for that particular church season. And, she was clearly upset! Wow!

    • Steve

      Reply

      Thanks for sharing your story. Yes, different people are going to prefer different modes of worship and expression. As a friend commented on Facebook though the “non-denominational” churches put just as much “extra-biblical” stuff into their expression (Senior pastor anyone?) its just the Catholics are honest that they regard church tradition as well as the Bible as authoritative. He suggests (and I tend to agree with him) whether its Catholic, Mainline denomination, charismatic, evangelical etc. each one is simply a re-construction of the old testament “temple” system (Church building is the temple, pastors are the priesthood, tithes are the temple tax needed to keep the system in place) and a shadow of what Christ intends for his New Covenant “bride”.

  • Brian Midmore

    Reply

    I was brought up in an evangelical anglican church. As a young man I moved in ‘charismatic cirles’. Now at the age of 57 I find myself in an Anglo-Catholic church. This to begin with was by default. I couldnt cope with evagelicalism (it was empty). Charismatic seemed full of stuff that was of extremely dubious origin so it was the catholic expression of Anglo-Catholicism that provided a refuge. We follow a strict liturgical form to which all, both laity and clergy are submiitted. This prevents the tyrrany of the head pastor deciding what the church should be into on that day. I suppose anglo-catholicism gives you catholic but without the pope!

    • Steve

      Reply

      Would love to visit a church like that. Thanks for sharing Brian!

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