Worship Trends in Protestantism

A look at the recent trends and movements to improve worship services.

R.A.A. is editor of the Ministry

In recent times there has been a definite movement among many Protestant groups to improve their services of worship. Some con­gregations have indeed undergone a metamor­phosis. This has been helpful in many ways because reforms in some areas were certainly needed. From its inception Protestantism has stood for freedom, but in their effort to en­courage spontaneity some groups discovered that their services were lacking not only in con­tent but also in culture and refinement. Free­dom is good, but it can be dangerous. Under the urge for simplicity, certain features were permitted to intrude which at times destroyed the very purpose of the worship service. Sim­plicity is desirable, but it must not be equated with crudeness.

It is not surprising therefore that the more cultured congregations among evangelical groups have sought to bring about improve­ments. All too often the spirit of worship was absent. There was emotion, to be sure—and sometimes emotion aplenty—but a conscious­ness of the presence of God seemed to be nei­ther fostered nor achieved. The preacher was paramount. In fact the sermon was about the only thing in the whole service that really mattered. If one arrived in time for the sermon, he scarcely considered himself late because the hymns, prayers, Scripture reading and responses that preceded the sermon were only "prelimi­naries" anyhow. Even the closing hymn and ben­ediction were not important, judging by the large number, who, as soon as the closing hymn was announced, began to make a hasty exit. This unholy procedure is still evident in a few places, even in some Adventist congregations. What tragic evidence of the lack of genuine worship!

Education on the part of both minister and congregation as to the fundamental purpose of true worship has led to an enrichment of wor­ship. A new spirit of reverence has resulted, which in turn has helped greatly in checking these downward trends. Much more considera­tion is being given to the content of the worship service. Some, feeling that the ritualistic churches had something to offer, began to bor­row ideas from their worship patterns, although they were careful to make whatever adaptations seemed appropriate.

Not only has the arrangement and order of service in many churches changed, but the ap­pearance of those leading in the services has also changed. For example, formerly the choirs generally appeared in the variegated colors and style of the day, often resembling more of a fashion parade than a worship service, whereas today the trend is toward the use of well-tail­ored robes. Ministers began to wear their aca­demic gowns.

Choir processionals and recessions have also become common and the pastoral prayer and benediction are concluded by a choral response. Then, too, the worshipers themselves have been given a more active part in the service. Congre­gational confessions and rededications often ap­pear in the printed orders of service.

The selection of hymns is undertaken with much more care today and the main prayer reveals much more preparation. If someone other than the minister is selected to offer that pastoral prayer, he is given time to reflect on its content, and counsel may be offered as to what could wisely be included in the public prayer. All of this is good, for while the prayer may not be formal, it should be expressed in well-chosen words. Crude and grotesque phrases are always out of place, especially when address­ing the Infinite. One may be sincere, but sin­cerity is not enough. Those who understand what prayer is, realize that no part of the serv­ice will make such demands spiritually and physically as the offering of extempore prayer. That is why time should be given for one to make his personal preparation and carefully to weigh his thoughts, for this prayer is really the expression of the congregation's worship. What strange emotions must have stirred some who heard this bizarre petition: "O Lord may we not be like goats eating the circus posters from the billboards, but as sheep in thy green pas­tures."

Church Architecture and Worship

Every attempt to raise the standard of wor­ship, first by careful preparation and then by the elimination of the grotesque, is worthy. But another vital element must not be over­looked, and that is that everything included in the service should have relationship to all that has gone before and also to what is to come. Nothing irrelevant should intrude that would hinder the worshipers' being led more fully into a sense of the presence of God.

Although these efforts to build better services of worship are important, yet among the most notable and extraordinary changes characteriz­ing this movement from the casual and some­times crude types of worship, is one that relates to the church building, itself. In many places the architecture and furnishings have under­gone a revolution. In an attempt to have the building recognized as something more than just a meeting place, such as a school audito­rium or concert hall, transformations have taken place to make the edifice a real "house of worship." This is a move in the right direction, the principle of which is set forth in Testimo­nies, volume 5, pages 607, 608: "Our meetings for worship should be sacred, precious occa­sions. . . . Brethren, unless you educate your­selves to respect the place of devotion, you will receive no blessing from God. You may wor­ship Him in form, but there will be no spiritual service."

As Adventists we rejoice to see more repre­sentative churches being erected. But in recent years many among the nonconformist churches have been remodeling their old buildings and in place of the familiar rostrum with its pulpit they now have a divided chancel. For those not accustomed to ecclesiastical parlance, we might say that the chancel is that section of the build­ing beyond the front of the congregational seat­ing. In a crucifoim building such as a cathe­dral, the chancel is the part immediately be­yond the crossing of the nave and the transepts. It may include "the choir," but it always in­cludes "the sanctuary," or the place of the altar from which the Lord's Supper is served. In church architecture the sanctuary is the place where the ministers perform their most sacred duties. Some of the early reform churches, such as the Lutheran, Anglican, and Protestant Epis­copal churches, retained the divided chancel. Later reform groups, however, placed the com­munion table in front of the pulpit, the pulpit taking the central place on the rostrum. John Wesley's church in London, which became the mother church of the whole Methodist move­ment, is a notable example of this decided change in worship concept. It is true that the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States holds to the divided chancel; also, its prevailing form of polity is a modified episco­pacy. The churches that grew out of the evan­gelical revival of the eighteenth century have in the main held to the pattern of pulpit-centered worship.

In modern trends, however, we note a de­cided change. The pulpit, which once occupied the central place on the rostrum, has been moved to one side in order to permit the com­munion table to occupy that central place. A smaller pulpit, or lectern, is placed on the other side of the chancel, and from this lectern all announcements and features other than the actual sermon are given forth. This, we repeat, is perhaps the most significant of worship trends in Protestantism, and there is little wonder that in some areas it has caused quite a controversy. Not that the sermon is any better for being de­livered from a central pulpit, for history has proved that some of the greatest preachers have delivered their messages in churches with di­vided chancels. Nor would we suggest that such a plan in necessarily wrong. There are those who contend that this arrangement lends itself more to reverence. And this is not hard to sus­tain. As one writer has said, he cannot recall ever having seen a preacher act carelessly when ministering in a divided chancel. But to sub­stitute the communion table, or the altar, as it is called in the older churches, for the pulpit, has far-reaching implications.

Roman Catholic churches place the altar in this position, because with them the altar is primary. Their whole worship centers in the mass, and in their doctrine of transubstantia­tion the worshipers are taught to believe that through the power conferred on the priest the bread and wine are transformed into the actual body and blood of the Lord. "Thus," they say, "Christ is sacrificed every day upon our altars." Protestantism has an entirely different concept. We rejoice in our Lord's finished sacrifice on the cross. On Calvary He offered Himself for the sins of the world "once for all." The Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation was one of the chief points of dispute in the days of the Reformation. As Protestants we do not believe that Christ is sacrificed on any church altar, or that when we come to the Lord's table to re­member His death we partake of the actual body and blood of Christ. In Protestant lan­guage the bread and wine are said to be "sacred emblems." Our worship centers, not in the Eucharist, but in the Word of God. When the Reformers broke with Catholicism, the pulpit supplanted the altar, and worship became pul­pit-centered rather than altar-centered. In the pulpit with its open Bible the worshipers saw a symbol of the living Word of God.

Moreover, it also expressed the New Testa­ment principle of the priesthood of all believers with the minister as a leader of worship and not an intermediary. When the Lord's table is in front of the pulpit it implies a oneness of spirit among the worshipers, for it symbolizes a gath­ering together in fellowship as participants rather than a group of spectators observing a religious rite from a distance.

There are other factors that should be care­fully considered. If there is an architectural separation between where the Word of God is read and where the sermon is preached, does not this imply that the preaching is more im­portant than the reading of the Word? Worship should be a unity. Even more important, in altar-centered worship the priestly function of the minister is exalted above the prophetic function—a sad and lamentable situation.

In the Protestant Reformation ritual was re­placed by forceful proclamation of God's Word.

The recent substitution in many Protestant churches of the communion table or altar for the pulpit and its Bible, so long symbolic of the Reformation, is deeply significant, and would be hard to explain except in the light of prophecies familiar to us. The trend to make more of symbolism and ceremonialism and less of the sermon and its source—the Bible—should have real meaning for Adventist preachers. A few of our more recent churches have a divided chancel, but we are happy to note that an open Bible or its replica rests upon the table rather than the usual brazen cross. But any­thing that suggests an altar-centered worship rather than a Bible-centered worship might give cause for serious thought.

In 1886 the Mansfield College chapel was being built in Oxford. Dr. Dale, the famed Congregationalist preacher of Birmingham, upon hearing that the pulpit was to be placed in the corner of the rostrum, requiring the preacher to speak crosswise so that the "altar" might be visible, declared unhesitatingly that it was "'to dishonour the function of preaching.'" Then when told that this was the only place from which the speaker could be heard dis­tinctly, he "found it a miserable humiliation that the chapel should not 'be fit for its main purpose.' I wonder what would be said of architect and building committee, if after they had erected a concert hall, a fiddler could be heard only when he stood in a corner.' "— Christian Worship (ed. by Nathaniel Micklem, 1936), p. 205. "'The order of the apostles was an order of preachers; and ever since the power of God has lived in His Spirit and in the 'Word. The force that created and has ever moved the Church has been the preacher, not the priest.' "—Ibid., p. 208.

It was the Word of God that created the church and by that same Word the church lives. Although every feature of worship is important, it is vital that the membership be constantly kept aware of the reason for the church's exist­ence—the heralding of the good news of the kingdom. And preachers are ordained of God to proclaim that news and to inspire their con­gregations for such witnessing. The essential element in preaching, therefore, is the prophetic element. Within the scriptural meaning of the term the preacher is a prophet, a spokes­man for God. He comes to his task under divine authority, and his message must be central if the church would hear the voice of God.

Power of the God-inspired Pulpit

The strength of the Protestant Reformation was the strength of its preachers. While hymns, anthems, prayers, and responses all have their place, and when rightly used are a means of grace, yet, as Charles Jefferson has said:

The greatest danger confronting the church of Christ in America today is a possible decadence of the pulpit. Let the pulpit decay, and the cause of Christ is lost. Nothing can take the place of preach­ing. There is no power under heaven equal to the power of a God-inspired pulpit. . . . An ignorant pulpit is the worst of all scourges. An ineffective pulpit is the most lamentable of all scandals. . . . We must guard the pulpit with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life. . . . The Christian church began in a blaze of glory—in the glory that burst from a sermon.—The Minister as Prophet, pp. 13-15.

Now this emphasis on preaching is with no thought of making the sermon the all-inclusive feature of worship. On the contrary, sermons are always more effective when every other fea­ture of the worship service has been carefully prepared. The sermon should be integrated into the total worship experience and then, as each feature of the service progresses toward the cli­maxing hymn and benediction, the congrega­tion leaves the house of God glowing with His love and growing into His likeness. When the people recognize the preacher as God's mes­senger, and his message as the call of God to them, then, though the sermon be as a sharp lancet piercing the hearts of the hearers, or as a comforting balm soothing wounded spirits, they are conscious that God has spoken and they leave His courts inspired for holy living and spiritual conquests. Such experience is true worship. And although the position of the pul­pit does not in the least make the preacher more powerful or his message necessarily more effective, yet it is symbolic of the vital place the spoken message has in the total worship experience.

As Christian leaders we are called to lead. But how essential it is for us to know where we are going. Only he who knows well what has been should be trusted to know what ought to be and why. Is is not our duty to seek to redis­cover the purpose and techniques of true worship?

R. A. A.

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R.A.A. is editor of the Ministry

July 1957

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