How (and Why) Shall We Worship?

December 8, 2014

The worship committee is meeting for the first time. The chairperson of the committee asks the pastor, “What are we supposed to accomplish with this committee?”

The pastor answers, “Our goal is to facilitate good worship for our church.”

The chairperson asks, “How will we know when we have done that? The idea of ‘good worship’ seems a little vague to me.”

The pastor suggests, “Let’s poll this committee to find out what our expectations of “good worship” might be.”

One man responds, “I like worship that uses the old traditional hymns, such as ‘Blessed Assurance.’”

Another suggests, “But my teenagers want gospel songs they can clap their hands to! Remember how much they liked the Christian rock music performed by that touring youth choir?”

A teenager on the committee joins in, “I didn’t like that at all! I find it embarrassing when my church tries to do that stuff.”

Another teenager says, “I do like it, as long as it helps me and all of us feel the presence of the Holy Spirit.”

A woman comments, “I think we should always say the Lord’s Prayer.”

Another woman asks, “But do we have to say it every Sunday? I like it when the pastor just makes up the prayer.”

Someone else suggests, “Isn’t worship supposed to give us something to think about?”

The second teenager, “We think all the time. We don’t need more thinking. We need more of the presence of God.”

The teenager speaks up again, “We can’t just think or feel all to ourselves and call ourselves Christians, right? We need worship to get us out there, to focus more on the social issues and people all around us,  like hunger,  or the homeless man who tries to wash our windshields when we get in our cars.”

The man who spoke first comments again, “But let’s not forget personal conversion. That’s what Christianity is for. We can feed and house people all we want, but that won’t save them from hell or get them to heaven.”

The chairperson of the committee finally makes a comment. “I think we are headed for trouble here.” We know worship is important, and we want it to be vibrant and vital. Yet, we have many diverse and sometimes incompatible ideas of what "good" worship on Sunday morning should include.

Does this scenario sound familiar in your United Methodist congregation? We know worship is important, and we want it to be vibrant and vital.  Yet, we have many diverse and sometimes incompatible ideas of what “good” worship on Sunday morning should include. Some prefer what we call “traditional worship” that gives us a strong sense of continuity with our tradition, using traditional hymns, prayers, and creeds. Others prefer what has been called “contemporary worship,” which uses different technologies, leadership and music styles, and seems to appeal more to the experience of God in the now than the people’s connection with God across the ages and eternally.  Some idealize worship that culminates in a call to conversion or commitment, while still others expect worship primarily to inspire or challenge their thinking.

These differences in expectations turn out not to be simply about style. More fundamentally, they’re about what we think we’re doing in worship, what we understand the ultimate purposes of worship may be.

A reflection on the history of worship movements among our forebears in the United Methodist Church may help us get a sense of where our varying and competing expectations may have come from, and, perhaps, give us greater clarity about how we wish to proceed from here.  

Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century Methodism

Our earliest forebears, participants in John and Charles Wesley’s United Societies, might be called “bi-modal worshipers.” These early Methodists would have been expected to participate actively in the worship of their local Anglican parishes each Sunday morning, following the historic liturgy and rituals of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Such worship called for active participation by worshipers as priests before God, offering themselves, their “souls and bodies, to be a holy, reasonable and lively sacrifice” to God.  On Sunday evenings, they would alsogather for the meeting of the Methodist Society, where they experienced a service of hymns, prayers, Scripture readings and preaching exhorting them toward holiness of heart and life. While some may have preferred one form of worship gathering to the other, John and Charles Wesley constantly held before them the value of both, each in its own integrity and place. On Sunday mornings, we might say their worship involved them as intercessors for the world and beneficiaries of God’s saving grace. On Sunday evenings, their worship involved them as givers of praise and receivers of inspiration and instruction to live out the way of salvation. While some may have preferred one form of worship gathering to the other, John and Charles Wesley constantly held before them the value of both, each in its own integrity and place. When John Wesley authorized the creation of a separate Methodist Episcopal Church for America in 1784, the liturgy he sent for Sunday morning worship was a mild adaptation of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer services of Morning Prayer and Holy Communion. He expected Methodists on this side of the Atlantic to continue both “congregational worship” on Sunday mornings and “society worship” on Sunday evenings as they had before they were made a separate church. Wesley’s expectation quickly proved unsustainable. There were simply not enough ordained elders to provide for weekly services of Word and Table on Sunday mornings and “society style” services on Sunday evenings. So in 1792, the General Conference adopted a major revision of the ritual of the church, essentially setting the “society service” (an exhortatory “preaching” service) as the norm for most Sunday mornings, and leaving the sacramental and pastoral rites (Communion, baptism, marriage, and funerals) relatively unchanged for those typically quarterly occasions when an elder might be present. The resulting “typical” Methodist Sunday Service was thus both repackaged and repurposed by the end of the eighteenth century. The role of worshipers for Sunday morning worship also changed. Worshipers still offered prayers and rousing singing of hymns, but the focus of “typical” worship was now clearly on inspiration and instruction.  The sermon by the (lay!) preacher was the chief vehicle for both.

Nineteenth Century Revivalism and Seeker Sensitive/Mega-Church Worship

The significant shift in the purpose and design of “typical” Sunday worship also positioned Methodists to be particularly open to the innovations and even purposes of worship that would be found in the revival movements starting in the 1820s and 1830s, including those developed by the Presbyterian revivalist Charles G. Finney. In the face of statistical declines in the percentage of professing, active Christians in the early nineteenth century, Finney believed congregational worship and typical congregational life were inadequate to generate conversions or sustain the converted in genuine Christian life. Revivals were thus necessary. Only through periodic revivals, Finney believed, would the churches be likely both to convert sinners and grow saints. Finney thus designed everything in his revival services to spark or re-spark passion and commitment to Christ by every means possible. Often this would require “excitements” and “new measures” never or not often used in typical services of worship.  There may be “protracted meetings” during the week, using visiting evangelists to preach the “message,” anxious benches for those seeking conversion, and large choirs, animated  song leaders, a wider variety of  musical instruments than might be found in the typical congregation of the day (including the “fiddle” in some places!) to lead the music.1 The pattern for a Finney revival began with “the preliminaries.” These would include rousing songs and testimonies, introductions of visitors and the newly saved, prayers for a successful meeting, and special music sung by the choir or a soloist.  These preliminaries were conducted by a host pastor and the song leader, and they served the purpose of warming up the audience for the visiting evangelist.The evangelist usually read a Scripture lesson (a few verses at most), and then began the “message.” Note, “message” rather than “sermon,” because the line of communication was clearly from the speaker to the audience. The message was typically anecdotal, beginning with humorous stories that gradually became more and more melodramatic. The pay-off came at the conclusion when the evangelist gave the “altar call” (also called the “harvest” or “invitation”). At this time, while the choir or choir and congregation sang an “invitational” hymn, those who had been moved by the message were invited to come forward to an “anxious bench” to be further exhorted by the evangelist to go to the altar, kneel and “pray through” for conversion or recommitment to Christ.3 This three-fold pattern of preliminaries, message, and altar was a very different style of worship than what was typically experienced on Sunday mornings in most Protestant churches in the United States at the time, though not incompatible with the changes in worship already introduced by the Methodists with their twin focus on inspiration and instruction. And these revival services were very effective in drawing crowds and producing new members for many Protestant churches, including Methodists. Thus, many Protestant churches, including Methodists, began incorporating some of Finney’s methods in regular Sunday morning worship as well. This included, but was not limited to, a general view of what preceded the sermon as “preliminaries,” the introduction of choirs and “special music” to rouse the congregation and lead into the sermon, the reframing of the sermon less as inspiration and instruction for the faithful and more as a call to conversion or recommitment, and the culmination of worship involving an “altar call” complete with “anxious bench.” Few United Methodist churches today have regular revivals of the sort that Finney advocated.4 Nevertheless, many churches have developed contemporary or “seeker” services following essentially the same underlying pattern of worship with few modifications. Seeker services begin with preliminaries, including professional music by soloists and small ensembles often accompanied or supplemented by professionally produced pre-recorded music. The presentation of Scripture, whether by drama or other means, is done with great attention to high quality performance practices. The “message” tends to be far more motivational than doctrinal, using simple, clear stories and illustrations to enhance their emotional appeal. There may or may not be a formal altar call, but typically the words and emotional content of the final music enable worshipers to affirm the “message” in some way through what they sing.  If there is an invitation to a more specific action, it may be to consider joining a small interest group that corresponds with the needs addressed in the message.

Sunday School Assembly Worship

The Sunday school movement in the United States rose up roughly alongside the revival movements. Unlike the revival with its professional evangelist and song leaders, the Sunday school was primarily a lay movement. Also unlike the revivals, the primary focus and location of Sunday school assemblies was in local congregations on Sunday mornings. But like the revival movements, the worship practices developed for the specific purposes of Sunday school assemblies would come to influence worship practices in “regular” Sunday worship as well. In the typical Sunday school assembly, a layperson serving as Sunday school superintendent would call the gathering of childrento order with a rousing song and opening prayer. There might be a few general announcements before the children and adult leaders were dismissed to their classes. Following the class sessions, the assembly reconvened. There would be more rousing music, such as “Onward Christian Soldiers,” during which children might march around the assembly room in procession. The superintendent took attendance, introduced visitors, and took up the collection. Children recited the Scripture memory verse of the day. Someone might share a short devotional reading or recite a poem on a theme of the day, such as “Mothers’ Day” or “Mission Sunday.” Finally, there would be a closing prayer to dismiss the assembly. Large, city congregations and others with a full-time pastor would typically have a “regular” Sunday worship service after Sunday school. For many smaller, rural congregations that only had a “preaching service” once or twice a month, the lay-led Sunday schoolbecame the regular weekly service. If the revival aimed at the “gut” to produce an emotional response, the Sunday school assembly aimed at the head. Its ritual was designed to support the educational aims and activities of the Sunday school itself. Memorization of Scripture, catechisms, and creeds found a place along with participatory skits, programs, and songs to reinforce what was learned in class. Unlike the slick professionalism of the revival, the ethos of the Sunday school assembly was anything but “slick,” with rowdy processions, many responsive readings, and performances of “programs” by children. The Sunday school assembly finds its current manifestation in creative styles of worship using various interactive means to educate the congregation about theological or social issues. For example, I participated in a service in which the congregation was asked to gather and hold hands in a circle during the prayers to symbolize our turning to God for guidance, and then to face outward for a dismissal to symbolize our going out to serve in the world. The prayer itself was a printed litany (a responsive reading, in effect) mentioning various social justice concerns of the congregation and larger community.  The congregation read it awkwardly as we attempted to keep holding hands with fellow worshipers. The fact that this was awkward was actually worked into the liturgy as the leader explained, “We sometimes find it difficult to keep in touch with our neighbors and to focus our attention on God. . .” The purpose or “why” of “creative worship,” as in the Sunday school assembly, is primarily to educate. The methods or “how” are often didactic, participatory and wordy, with lengthy, printed or projected prayers, responsive readings, and congregational responses. Here, the congregation participates primarily by expressive reading rather than as “priests” (Anglican) or audience (revival).

The Aesthetic Movement

A counter-reaction to the perceived “coarseness” of “frontier worship,” the emotionalism of revivals, and the didactic emphasis of Sunday school exercises began to develop in a number of larger Methodist and other Protestant churches in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was especially the case in “county seat” or “tall steeple” churches in larger cities where respectability was an expected norm. This period, not surprisingly, corresponds with a neo-Gothic revival in Protestant church architecture, including massive stone buildings and exquisitely crafted stained glass. “Aesthetic worship” valued classical hymns, formal anthems, and robed choirs and preachers. Furthermore, as churches began to use printed orders of worship for the whole congregation, first in their hymnals6 and then in larger churches with worship bulletins, “aesthetic worship” employed neatly-printed prayers and creeds that typically used the Elizabethan English style, if not always the words, of the Book of Common Prayer. “Aesthetic worship” is structured and dignified rather than spontaneous and emotional. It was intended to be impressive, reflecting the transcendence of God, rather than primarily expressive of the emotions or commitments of the people. It suited the American Methodism, both North and South, that emerged from the U.S. Civil War, as during the war it had begun to see itself as more a national church rather than a frontier movement. “Aesthetic worship” has continued in relatively stable form, more often referred to now as “traditional” worship. Classic hymns, printed prayers, and elements such as “choral introit,” “pastoral prayer,” “invocation,” “offertory anthem,” and the like are typical in churches influenced by the ongoing legacy of this movement.  The language appearing in the worship program of church bulletins and the design, use and care of worship space connote stability, respectability, and “the beauty of [God’s] holiness.” The pattern of worship, as was true of early Methodist and revivalist patterns, privileges preaching, placing the sermon as the penultimate act before a closing hymn, choral extroit or recessional, benediction, and organ or orchestral postlude.  Here, however, preaching and the “pastoral prayer” function more as inspirational oratory than as exhortation or emotional appeal to commitment. Sacraments are celebrated, if relatively infrequently, always with dignity and attention to detail, though typically as an adjunct to a service order that reflects the priority of preaching and congregational and choral singing.

Pentecostal and Praise Worship

At roughly the same time as the aesthetic movement in Protestant worship was stressing dignity as a counter to the emotionalism of the Revival and the didacticism of the Sunday school, the Pentecostal movement began to develop and took worship in a different direction. The roots of Pentecostal worship run deep from  African American worship practices characterized by an African awareness of the inherent connection between the spirit and the body.  Other precursors included the frontier camp meeting with its various exercises, such as being slain in the spirit, dancing in the Lord, and spiritual singing. Pentecostal worship made a strong connection between spiritual expression and the body through worship that was and is especially participatory, with vigorous singing and praying that involved the whole body. Central to early Pentecostalism was the belief that worship, as all of life, must be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. That is why Pentecostals generally resisted the idea of fixed order. Improvisation was important for Pentecostal worship, but this did not mean Pentecostal worship was utterly unpredictable. Like the musical improvisations of a jazz ensemble, Pentecostal worship expressed freedom within certain established conventions. Some historically Black churches with their heavy emphasis on singing and congregational participation (even during preaching) have always contained elements of Pentecostal style worship.  In the second half of the twentieth century, Pentecostal worship entered more widely into American Christianity through the charismatic renewal of Protestant churches and the Catholic Pentecostal movement within the Roman Catholic Church. As this form of worship became more widespread, it attracted the labels “Praise Worship” or “Praise Service,” which was basically the first half of a two-part pattern.  The second half is the “teaching” or “message,” which would conclude with any responses to the message during a final song. Superficially, the pattern is similar to the Seeker Service. Both often get lumped together under the label “Contemporary Worship” because of similarities in musical style.  However, at close examination, there is significant difference.  For example, Seeker Services do not typically require much congregational singing.  In Praise Worship, on the other hand, people expect to raise their hands and sing, pray and dance energetically. For Seekers or for those who are new to the faith, Praise Worship can be a little overwhelming. Robust singing is central to Pentecostal or Praise worship, so much so that it is no exaggeration to say that congregational singing of praise songs is worship in this pattern. The opening “praise and worship” in this pattern typically involves a song set with a fairly predictable pattern. There are several songs for congregational singing in sequence with no perceived interruption between them, even if somewhere in the set there is a performance primarily by the soloist or praise team. High-energy, fairly fast, upbeat songs of praise build to a high point, followed by a transition to  slower “centering” songs, more intimate in text and tone, leading into an intense time of concluding prayer.   And as a leader offers the concluding prayer (extemporaneously), the congregation will participate with arms raised, voicing their own prayers in their own (or “heavenly”) languages, alleluias, and “amens.” The role of the second half of this worship, the sermon (called “teaching time” in some circles) may be likened to the role of “interpretation of tongues.” The purpose of the sermon is to give clear instruction about what God requires of the people. This instruction is not simply didactic, however.  Preachers in this model, as in some African-American contexts, often move the congregation back into touch with the “God-experience” they’ve just shared through their oratory. Sermons themselves, then weave between worship and biblical exegesis, often leading the congregation at once to deeper commitment and even “higher praise” as the concluding actions of worship. The goal of Pentecostal or Praise Worship is uninhibited encounter with God, with strong feelings of emotional elation and oneness. Leaders pay attention to flow and emotional entrainment. The focus is on an intensity of the believer’s relationship with God. In short, such worship strives for the physical, participatory experience of giving oneself over to the Holy Spirit, “lost in wonder, love and praise.”  

Word and Table

The late nineteenth century saw a flourishing of ecumenical scholarship of early Christian worship that continues to this day. Much of this scholarship was made possible by the rediscovery of many ancient liturgical texts that had been, in essence, “lost” for a number of centuries. What became clear as Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox scholars alike studied these materials was that the early Christian norm of Lord’s Day worship was a weekly Sunday service of Word and Table, celebrated in a common pattern of Entrance, Proclamation and Response, Thanksgiving and Communion, and Sending Forth -- what United Methodists refer to as "The Basic Pattern of Worship." The oldest description of this ancient pattern comes from Justin Martyr, and dates from around 150 AD. In his account, found in his First Apology, the Christians gathered together for worship early on Sunday morning at a designated meeting place (Entrance). Someone read lessons from the Old Testament and the writings of the apostles, after which the pastor exhorted the community to imitate these things. Following the sermon, someone else led the congregation in prayers of intercession for the needs of the world (Word and Response). The prayers concluded with a sign of peace, followed by the offering of the bread and wine the congregation would use for the Lord’s Supper. The pastor then offered a lengthy prayer of thanksgiving over the bread and wine, concluded by a resounding “Amen!” from the congregation. The pastor and other helpers then distributed the bread and wine to congregation, saving some for deacons to take those who could not attend because of illness (Thanksgiving and Communion). Then the pastor sent forth the congregation to live as Christ’s body in the world (Sending Forth). The pervasive evidence of the early Christian pattern of both Word and Table posed a serious challenge both to traditions that had privileged the celebration of the sacrament over all other actions and to those that had privileged preaching to the virtual neglect of sacramental practice. The result was significant movements among Roman Catholics and Protestant leaders alike to reform and realign Christian worship in accordance with these documented ancient norms. The reforms of the Mass in Vatican II in the 1960s were one major result for Roman Catholics. Among Protestants, the 1970s and 1980s saw Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Methodists, and the worship resources office of the United Church of Christ, just to name five mainline denominations in the United States, all set about doing major work to reform their “official ritual” to conform more closely with these ancient norms. In fact, this standard has become nearly universal among the newer official worship resources of most historic Protestant churches worldwide. There have been four main drivers of the Word and Table movement in worship. One has been scholarship, as already noted. Another has been the worldwide ecumenical movement that was rising to prominence just as this scholarship was getting underway.  The ecumenical movement was certainly significant in leading so many different denominations to revise their ritual in such similar ways. A third may be an underlying belief that the church today may be more faithful when it patterns its life and worship on the most ancient examples available. The fourth, and perhaps most important, has been the associated recovery of an ancient and more robust theology of baptism, baptismal vocation and Christian discipleship made clear in the deep connections between early Christian liturgical texts and the early catechumenate. Through sharing in this common pattern of worship, we are enabled to embody connections of worship with discipleship in ways that link us with Christians across time, cultures, and denominations. Proponents of the Word and Table pattern also bring a distinctive vision about how worship is offered. It is neither simply the “bounden duty” described in the Book of Common Prayer, nor the “rowdy” or “pushy” emotionalism typical of revivalism, nor the word-heavy didacticism of the Sunday school assembly, nor the serious solemnity of aesthetic or “traditional” worship, nor the ecstatic union in the Spirit experienced and expressed in Pentecostal worship.   The Word and Table pattern, inspired by the language of the earliest Christian liturgies on which it is based,  primarily intends celebration. Worshipers are gathered to offer themselves as a sacrifice to God, but it is a sacrifice of “praise and thanksgiving,” not of self-abasement or self-harm. Our service of God in gathered worship and in daily discipleship is meant to be our joy. That’s why this pattern always incorporates a symbolic party, the “great banquet” of the Lord’s Supper, and has sometimes spoken  of the presider at the Lord’s Table as “celebrant.”

Understanding our Expectations for worship

Whenever Methodists plan worship, as in the opening scenario of this essay, these six patterns of Anglican (1662Book of Common Prayer), early Methodist Society (exhortatory preaching and prayer), revival (seeker service), Sunday school (or creative worship), aesthetic (or traditional worship), Pentcostal (praise and worship) and Word and Table, are often all in play both in the minds and in the practice of congregations. This is why our expectations about why we worship and how we worship are so diverse. This diversity of patterns in our history is at once a great treasure trove and a challenge to developing coherent Sunday worship in our congregations today. We can find rich and meaningful resources in all of these patterns we have experienced over time. Without attention to the purpose (the "why" of worship), we may inadvertently and with the best of intentions develop and continue patterns and practices in worship (the "how" of worship) that are at cross-purposes with each other. But the question we have to consider about this variety of resources is: “Rich and meaningful for what purpose?” Without attention to the purpose (the “why” of worship), we may inadvertently and with the best of intentions develop and continue patterns and practices in worship (the “how” of worship) that are at cross-purposes with each other. For example, we might take elements of the Word and Table pattern but twisting them into a revivalist pattern by dropping the Lord’s Supper and adding an “Invitation to Christian Discipleship” as the consummate point of the service.  Or we might put in a “call to worship” that uses didactic “creative-worship” language to educate the congregation about the “theme of the day,” such as Mothers’ Day. In such a case,  worship might begin with a formal choral introit (“aesthetic” or “traditional”) followed immediately by an interchange such as this: Leader: Why are we here today?

Congregation: We are here to honor our Mothers and to acknowledge that God is like a mother to us all.

Or we might begin the service with this didactic call to worship (Sunday school), then go into a time of praise and worship that involves singing a medley of first verses of hymns all on a grand scale, concluded by a choir or praise team solo that takes it to a dramatic finale (“aesthetic” attempting to lead a praise and worship set), followed by a film clip or dramatic skit presenting the Scripture for the day (Sunday school).

When you plan worship, start with the why, and choose just one why as the overarching purpose of the service Such mixing of patterns may work together smoothly, or it may not. The congregation may find the individual parts to be “worship-like,” since they all come from patterns of worship with which they may be familiar. Yet the experience overall, the sense of the service as a whole, may seem disjointed, confusing, or hard to follow.  This is because it is nearly impossible to have a revival, a Sunday school meeting, a celebration of Word and Table, a “praise and worship” song set, and an aesthetic and inspiring artistic performance at the same time! Between these various patterns are significant clashes both about the purpose of worship (the why) and the ways worship is offered or presented (the how). When you plan worship, start with the why, and choose just one why as the overarching purpose of the service. These purposes might include moving people to commitment to Christ, or educating the people,  or experiencing the beauty of holiness, or praising God in song with all their might, or offering yourselves as a sacrifice in praise and thanksgiving to God. Then select or create elements of worship (the how) that are most appropriate to that particular purpose. The service as a whole will flow more smoothly and feel more coherent when the why and the hows of worship are more fully aligned without clashing. Note the term “more fully aligned.” Few of our congregations are “monolithic” in their approach to worship. Absolute stylistic purity is not a primary goal of worship planning. Still, every service and each element in it should in some way contribute to rather than clash with or distract from the overall purpose a particular service in its context seeks to accomplish.

A Case for Word and Table as Our Common Platform

During the twenty years (1972-1992) United Methodist scholars, leaders and congregations spent to develop the ritual for our new church uniting the former Evangelical United Brethren and The Methodist Church, it became increasingly clear to all involved that the structured flexibility of the Word and Table pattern, what we call “The Basic Pattern of Worship,” was eminently capable of giving our very diverse congregations with diverse histories a common platform on which to develop distinctly United Methodist worship in their own settings. The Basic Pattern of Word and Table is capable of incorporating the key concerns of each of the other models of worship our predecessor denominations had used in the course of their histories. The revival-seeker service pattern reminds us that worship needs to move our hearts. The Word and Table pattern has the capacity to move us emotionally and to elicit response, complete with a call to “come forward” built into it in the Invitation to the Lord’s Table. The Sunday school/creative worship pattern highlights the role of the laity in liturgical leadership and the role of worship to instruct us in the Christian life. The Word and Table pattern provides for all sorts of lay-liturgical ministries, such as readers, prayer leaders and Communion servers, while further stressing that the role of the congregation as active participants and offerers of worship rather than simply recipients of such instruction or admirers of such creativity. Aesthetic/traditional worship and our Anglican heritage reminds us that our worship deserves our best artistic efforts because God deserves our best service. Word and Table promotes a simple elegance in pattern and prayer. And just as Pentecostal and Praise worship strives for an embodied, participatory experience of the living God, Word and Table gathers the body of believers into a participatory, embodied, living encounter with Christ in the sacrament, as well as through the word.  It also reminds us that tradition reaches back more than the last one hundred years to include the whole history of the church and the entire company of heaven. Word and Table also has the capacity to avoid the weaknesses of the other patterns: the individualism of the revival, the consumer-mentality of the seeker service, the unwieldy didacticism of the Sunday school assembly, the wordiness of creative worship, the class bias of aesthetic worship, the nostalgia of traditional worship, and what can often be the “me and the Spirit” individualism of Pentecostal worship. How shall we worship? United Methodists have come to affirm the Word and Table pattern as found in our Hymnaland supported with the resources in The United Methodist Book of Worship and The General Board of Discipleship offers the best answer. It is not merely one option among many.  With its structured flexibility aimed at forming us into the Body of Christ in our service of God, it is the most holistic and faithful pattern available to us.  

1 The use of choirs and instruments except for a piano or flute to accompany the singing was new to early Methodists. John Wesley had sought to forbid them.
2 To this day, many churches in the southern US have three large chairs on a platform behind the pulpit, one each for the pastor, the song leader, and the evangelist.
3 Finney especially admired Methodist church buildings, which had communion rails for kneeling.
4 Though only a few churches in the Southern US still have yearly revivals, Billy Graham’s Crusades continue to employ Finney’s pattern virtually unaltered.
5 The Sunday school was largely aimed at children.
6 The 1905 Hymnal was the first to have printed orders of worship.   

L. Edward Phillips, Candler School of Theology, Emory University;

Taylor Burton-Edwards, The General Board of Discipleship

Originally published in Worship Matters. Copyright © Discipleship Resources. -

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