What face does the church show the world?
Mainly four, if we look at popular worship liturgies or “styles.” Drop in of a Sunday, and you will likely find one of four quite distinct liturgical patterns, or some mix of them.
These worship patterns are telltale genetic traces of the varied history of evangelicalism and its global missions outreach. Let’s look briefly at these four patterns, asking what they say about the state of the Protestant church in 2019.
The popular face of Christianity has four expressions, yet all showing a family resemblance. Let’s call them Anglo-Catholic, Revivalist, Pentecostal-Charismatic, and Rock Concert liturgies. You will recognize two or more, I am sure.
These patterns imply different ideas of what the church is. The face of public worship shows how salvation is understood—what the church truly believes about the gospel. Each pattern has its own general timeframe, with variations. I suggest average timeframes based on my own experience of visiting churches in twenty or more countries of the world, though principally in the United States.
1. Anglo-Catholic Pattern
Anglo-Catholic worship generally runs about an hour. It employs a traditional liturgy tracing back many centuries. Worship includes readings from both the Old and New Testaments, often based on a lectionary; read prayers; and hymns in predictable meter, often based on the Psalms and biblical imagery.
The singing is accompanied, and in some cases overwhelmed, by organ music. The hymns will be more doctrinal than experiential in tone. Often the hymns are Trinitarian in form. There will be no hand-clapping. A fairly brief sermon or homily will be given, and Holy Communion will likely be celebrated, seen as the central act in worship.
In most cases the architecture, like the liturgy, harks back to medieval Europe. The congregation will mostly be quite well educated and economically rather secure, though a scattering of poor and marginal folks may be there, also.
This Anglo-Catholic pattern is familiar to everyone in the Christian liturgical tradition. Its roots are found in medieval and earlier Roman Catholicism, reformed or modified by the English or Continental Protestant Reformation. Lutheran worship often represents a Germano-Catholic variation of the same form.
2. Revivalist Pattern
The Revivalist pattern is very different. It often takes a little longer, averaging perhaps 60 to 75 minutes. Anyone who knows the history of revivalism recognizes that the worship has roots in the traditional revival meeting. Much of the music will be gospel songs from nineteenth- and early twentieth-century North America or England, or maybe translations from the Continental revivals of the 1700s. The songs will have several verses, plus a chorus with repeated phrases.
I found this pattern, surprisingly, in Shenzhen, China, when I visited a church there decades ago. The church used a hymnal published before the 1949 Communist revolution. Although I didn’t understand the language, I recognized the gospel songs, such as “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us.”
In the Revivalist pattern, worship is more informal. Hymns and songs are experiential, much of the language focusing on “my” experience of God and on conversion and Christ’s atonement, with very little emphasis on the Trinity. Emotive biblical imagery is used effectively. The biblical Promised Land is transposed to mean salvation, or the Christian life, or heaven, often quite individualized and spiritualized. Singing is usually accompanied by piano or electric organ, unless this happens to be a church in the non-instrumental tradition. Possibly a guitar or digital keyboard or some other instrument will be added.
Usually just one Scripture will be read, providing the sermon text. No lectionary will be followed. Though singing is very important, the sermon will be the high point and will probably end with some type of appeal for commitment. Generally the accepted response will be for people to come to the altar or the front of the sanctuary for prayer, or perhaps to raise their hands.
In the Revivalist pattern, architecture is usually a hybrid—an adaptation of the plain meeting-house style with elements from older traditions. There probably will not be stained-glass windows, except perhaps at the front; however windows may have the pointed arch that originated in the Gothic cathedrals of the 1100s and 1200s. The most visible religious symbols will be a cross, pulpit, altar rail, and open Bible.
A profile of the congregation would likely find that overall the people rank somewhat lower than the Anglo-Catholic folks in education, income, and jobs. Average age may be somewhat younger. If this is the United States, a significant proportion of the congregation will be school teachers, nurses, small entrepreneurs, office workers, or maybe farmers.
In my own experience growing up in the Free Methodist Church, I found these first two patterns were usually blended. Generally the morning service was more recognizably Anglo-Catholic, but with some revivalist elements. The regular Sunday evening service, often called the “evangelistic service,” was almost pure revival-meeting style, including personal testimonies. Holy Communion was celebrated quarterly and was even more Anglo-Catholic, with a liturgy tracing back a thousand years before the Reformation.
Most traditional African American worship follows the Revivalist pattern, though with distinctive cultural elements. Generally there is more use of choirs and longer, more interactive preaching. The service typically will last two hours or more, with some people coming and going throughout the service, unlike in predominantly Anglo-American congregations. Depending on the locale and history of the congregation, some elements of the Pentecostal-Charismatic pattern may also be included in an African American congregation in the revivalist tradition. If the congregation has a Methodist heritage, some Anglo-Catholic elements may be present.
3. Pentecostal-Charismatic Pattern
This pattern (say, 75 to 105 minutes) also has identifiable elements, though it covers a broad range from classical Pentecostalism to more recent Charismatic styles. Overall this pattern resembles the Revivalist more than the Anglo-Catholic genre. The service however will be more emotive and energetic, with an accent on the Holy Spirit and the present experience of the Spirit more than on Jesus Christ and conversion.
Music consists largely of praise songs coming from the twentieth-century Charismatic renewal and the Jesus Movement, with some folk elements mixed in. The singing will be accompanied by guitars and possibly other instruments, including a piano or electronic keyboard, and several onstage singers or a praise choir. During many of the songs people will clap rhythmically and enthusiastically. A traditional hymn may be sung with an upbeat tempo. The service will have quite long periods of singing and praise, interspersed with brief prayers and possibly “singing in the Spirit.” Probably there will be some speaking in tongues within the congregation, and perhaps from the platform.
In the Pentecostal-Charismatic pattern, the worship space will be a large auditorium, possibly a converted theater or warehouse. Few or no liturgical symbols will be present, unless banners have been added. The sermon will focus on daily Christian living and practical life problems; how to live in the Spirit in the everyday world and be happy and successful. Many in the congregation will be young professionals, though this can vary, and a considerable socioeconomic range may be evident. If the congregation is more classically Pentecostal, other Pentecostal elements such as words of prophecy (perhaps spoken in tongues), healings, and earlier Pentecostal songs may be present, and the architecture may possibly reflect some older Protestant traditions.
In the past twenty years, Vineyard churches have adopted a variation of the Pentecostal-Charismatic pattern that is less classically Pentecostal and more recognizably Charismatic. This was pioneered by John Wimber (with some influence from the Jesus Movement). Today this popular pattern is found not only in Vineyard churches but also in many non-charismatic congregations.
4. Rock Concert Liturgy
The Rock Concert pattern has emerged since the birth of rock ’n’ roll music in the 1950s. It may blend in elements of the Revivalist and Charismatic patterns, but still it is distinctive. The time frame generally runs 90 to 120 minutes.
In this pattern the underlying rock-concert structure is dominant, even if the service at first appears Pentecostal or Charismatic. The important point is not just that the music has been influenced by rock music, but that the structure of the rock concert has become a liturgical form. The whole service will be high-energy and electronically juiced, with an ensemble of electric guitars, keyboards, and drums, and usually a much higher decibel level. There will be extended “sets” of music in which most of the people remain standing, possibly with hands raised, or maybe with fingers pointing upward or other gestures derived from rock concerts (rather than the typical receptive open-palm gesture of Charismatic worship).
The music consists of short phrases repeated many times. The content may be biblical expressions or phrases relating to feeling God’s presence, often with a focus on commitment or recommitment and on the present and future coming of the Spirit. There will be syncopated or irregular rhythm underscored by a strong pulsing beat, but with very little melody or recognizable tune. The congregation will often applaud after each song, or set of songs.
In the Rock Concert pattern, often no Scripture is read. There will be little prayer, except perhaps briefly toward the beginning or between songs, or a few moments of quiet meditation before or after the teaching. The sermon may be a Bible teaching relating to personal experience and perhaps delivered in the form of a personal testimony, perhaps reinforced by a brief dramatic presentation. The congregation will tend to be quite young—or aging a bit, if the congregation has been around for a decade or two.
Today a distinctive trademark of the Rock Concert Liturgy is bright colored moving lights. Colored light beams sweep back and forth and sometimes directly into the eyes of the worshipers. Auditorium lights are dimmed to accent the “stage” and the platform lights. What the purpose or theological justification for this fixation with lights might be has not yet been made clear. But to darken the auditorium and highlight the stage sends a clear signal: What is important is the performance on stage. What is happening with the “audience” (i.e., congregation) is not especially important. This of course contradicts New Testament teachings about the church, the priesthood of believers, and the universality of gifts (1 Cor. 12).
Here, then, we have four worship liturgies: Anglo-Catholic, Revivalist, Pentecostal-Charismatic, and Rock Concert. These are the four most common public faces of popular Christianity.
In all these liturgical forms, I speak from personal experience. I have participated in all these, and in blends of them, and not only in the U.S. and Canada. Usually these different liturgies are instantly recognizable, so one knows what to expect.
Even if incomplete, this fourfold typology does capture the main flavors of current evangelical worship. Like all typologies, it is an oversimplification. We may experience blendings and mutations, though the distinctive elements are still recognizable. The four patterns represent overlapping circles.
In the United States and increasingly globally, an influential blending of these styles has been the Willow Creek model, developed by Willow Creek Community Church in affluent Barrington, Illinois, northwest of Chicago. The Willow Creek model is a “soft” blend of Charismatic and Rock Concert patterns with some elements of a nightclub (comfortable; non-threatening). Yet it is carefully time-limited and high-tech, with an accent on planned excellence. This can also be seen as an adaptation of the Revivalist pattern in that the primary focus is evangelism and the communication of the core gospel message (as understood in this tradition).
Today, worship music and patterns from a variety of evangelical and/or charismatic megachurches often get blended into the Rock-Concert and Pentecostal-Charismatic patterns. Particularly influential has been Hillsong music, since its rise in the late 1990s. This music grew out of Hillsong Church, a charismatic mega-congregation in Sydney, Australia, with roots in the Assemblies of God.
Most popular church life in America is a varied blend of several elements: Protestant traditions tracing back into Roman Catholicism, the Free Church tradition, revivalism, and American democracy and entrepreneurship. These are the roots of the four liturgies summarized here.
The point in identifying these four patterns is not to make a sociological or generational analysis. Nor is it to evaluate or criticize. The point rather is to ask: What does this range of worship patterns say about popular conceptions of the church and Christian discipleship today?
My book Salvation Means Creation Healed (with Joel Scandrett) explains the longer history from which these four worship liturgies arose. The book also shows how a theological divorce between heaven and earth developed over centuries, making it difficult for Christians fully to grasp or embody the biblical salvation of creation healed.
Streams of renewal following the Protestant Reformation and later the Great Century of missions brought new life to the church and spread the gospel around the world as never before. The great Protestant missionary enterprise of the 1800s was in fact a key fruit of the evangelical awakenings of the 1600s and 1700s. But these currents and renewals did not really address the unbiblical heaven–earth split that still plagues much of the Christian church and compromises its discipleship.
Today’s popular Christianity is a hybrid. This is so because conceptions of the church involve not only doctrine but also social practices, manner of life, various structures—in short, the whole spectrum of the social embodiment of the church. Popular ecclesiology springs from a complex range of sources which shape not only its form but also its theology. The four patterns sketched above hint at this. There are good things to learn, and not-so-good things to avoid, in each of these patterns.
My fundamental concern is embodied in two questions: First, what theology of church and discipleship is reflected and promoted in these worship styles? Second, what would happen if churches were to do a rigorous biblical/theological analysis of their worship forms and the integrity of the discipleship that results?
More basically: Where is the Bible, and where is the earth, in all this? Strikingly, Scripture is a pretty faint source in much popular ecclesiology.
So also with regard to the earth. God’s good creation plays a tiny part in contemporary popular Christianity, compared with the Bible. For most Christians the actual physical earth has become both secularized and spiritualized—cutting the nerve of both creation care and hope for the marriage of heaven and earth and the fulfillment of the biblical promise of the kingdom of God. These issues are discussed more fully in Salvation Means Creation Healed.
This brief blog focuses on worship liturgies. Yet stop and think, and we know that church is much more than an hour or two in worship! Church is Christian community, kingdom-of-God discipleship that shapes our time, money, politics, and allegiances. The purpose of worshiping together is to deepen our discipleship and kingdom loyalty in the face of competing loyalties. If worship doesn’t actually do this—whatever the style—it is vain and very possibly idolatrous and apostate.
Rock Concert, traditional liturgies, charismatic spontaneity—all are on display in today’s churches. Strangely, the Rock Concert pattern has become dominant in many traditional churches, congregations that feel they must go “contemporary,” hoping for growth. Yet a growing number of Christians today are discovering that nothing is so contemporary as liturgical worship, as Winfield Bevins nicely documents in Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation (Zondervan, 2019). (In my own denomination, a group of folks has recently formed a Free Methodist Liturgical Network.)
Friends, sisters and brothers, let us rethink and reimagine and newly incarnate genuine, authentic, life-changing, community-building, God-honoring, kingdom-imagining worship in this twenty-first century! Let us look first to the Word and trust the Spirit. It is time.