The following is a portion of Frank Senn’s exposé in the May 1995 issue of Worship, pages 194–224.
In an effort to appeal to the unchurched, congregations within mainline denominations have begun offering “alternative worship services,” sometimes also called “contemporary services” to distinguish them from “traditional liturgies.” Such “alternative services” may feature lite rock combos, on-stage dramatizations by church players, testimonials from celebrities, and upbeat messages which draw on the insights of popular psychological theories.
Advice given in church-growth seminars on “worship that attracts and holds the unchurched” includes such admonitions as “make it user-friendly,” “keep it simple,” let it be “from the heart,” cultivate informality, maintain a hospitable atmosphere, give a positive message, keep the music up-beat, and exercise quality control. Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and even some Episcopal congregations have provided options for such “alternative worship” as well as “traditional worship” on the Sunday morning menu (sometimes two services being held simultaneously in different spaces).
It is not surprising that a market-oriented approach to the Church’s life and mission (aiming specifically at “baby boomers” and now also at “baby busters”) would emulate the shopping mall with its varied choices. It is also not surprising that this atmosphere has encouraged a great deal of liturgical entrepreneurship, with megachurches sponsoring “how to do it [like us]” seminars and publishers providing “celebration kits” and “Worship Alive!” resources.
In spite of its seemingly anti-liturgical stance, there is a whole liturgical movement going on in the church-growth movement which is oriented toward “reaching the unchurched” on their own terms. Promoters of church growth are absolutely convinced that dynamic, corporate worship is the key to successful evangelism.
The serious membership hemorrhaging that has occurred in the mainline churches over the last twenty-five years has prompted denominational staffs to encourage the implementation of the principles of church growth in their congregations. A worship style, quite “ecumenical” in its own terms, has evolved from these principles. Yet while this kind of worship is called “alternative” or “contemporary,” it has not emerged ex nihilo.
The task of this article is to explore its historical roots, analyze its cultural context and appeal, and probe the challenge that it raises for orthodox Christian worship and confessional theology. Since the use of contemporary popular music characterizes most “alternative worship services,” the celebrants and devotees of such worship may not have discerned that it stands in a tradition at least two centuries old. The ethos, if not the form, of this “alternative worship” is found in the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. Especially in Lutheran and Reformed Churches, there was a pietistic reaction to the perceived “sterility” of orthodox church life which sought to “convert the outward orthodox confession into an inner, living theology of the heart.” The orthodox reaction to pietism was probably overly caustic; on the other hand, examples of actual orthodox church life, such as in Leipzig during the music directorship of Johann Sebastian Bach (1723–1750), show such church life to be far from sterile.
Pietism had no liturgical program of its own. Its aim was to inject some “heart” into the church orders authorized for use and to deepen the personal religious life. However, hymnwriting for worship and devotion was an ongoing activity in Lutheran Churches, and hymns around the beginning of the eighteenth century reflected the more subjectivistic faith of pietism, as well as pietism’s stress on sanctification. Indeed, the pietistic movement gave a new impetus to hymnwriting and congregational song that even secured a place in the worship of the German Reformed Church around the beginning of the eighteenth century through influence of the Lower Rhenish poets Joachim Neander (e.g., “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”) and Gerhard Tersteegen (e.g., “God Himself Is Present”). New hymnbooks reflected the emphases of pietism, arranging their anthologies according to the “order of salvation” rather than the church year.
New tunes were composed for the new lyrics, which had a more sentimental quality than the old chorale tunes. Even the syncopated rhythms of the old chorales were “smoothed out” to even note values. The lyrics and the lyrical musical qualities popular in “alternative worship” reflect the warm Jesus-mysticism of pietist hymns, though hardly with the same theological depth. But nothing under pietism could match the assault on the liturgy that occurred under the influence of rationalism.
The Enlightenment held that the chief function of worship was “edification.” This was an emphasis on which both pietism and rationalism agreed (and against which J. S. Bach stood with his old fashioned notion that worship is rendered soli Deo gloria). Everything that “edified” was kept; everything else had to be revised or abolished. To “edify” meant to induce feelings of reverence. Simplicity was the order of the day. Church music accordingly underwent a thorough revolution in which the simpler homophonic harmonies, but quasi-operatic oratorios of G. F. Handel served as more of a model than the complex contrapuntal structures and chorale-based cantatas and organ works of J. S. Bach.
Preaching, too, had to have a practical purpose. Whatever did not teach a practical moral lesson could be dismissed, for the way the pastor could make himself useful was, for example, “by helping the farmer to follow a better plan of life, by replacing superstitious quack medicines with truly effective remedies, and by giving prompt aid to those suffering from external lesions and wounds.” The pastor, as an educated person, had a responsibility to help simple people deal better with the needs of everyday life.
Immanuel Kant denied that prayer, church-going, and the sacraments were “means of grace,” and suggested that clergymen dominated the hearts of others by attaching to themselves exclusive possession of the so-called means of grace. But he found the sacraments useful in social terms in that baptism is “the ceremonial initiation, taking place but once, into the church . . . community” and Holy Communion is “The oft-repeated ceremony . . . of a renewal, continuation, and propagation of this churchly community under laws of equality.” If the sacraments had any efficacy, it was understood in terms of natural rather than supernatural purposes.
In the religion of the Enlightenment, we are already dealing with the desiderata of the church-growth movement: concerns for simplicity, authenticity (worship which is “more from the heart”), singable music, and practical preaching, although informality is not something one would associate with the German Aufklärung. But it is something one would associate with revivalism. In spite of some differences in theological emphases, the kind of worship fostered by revivalism was in line with the principles of worship championed in the Enlightenment under both pietism and rationalism: it was oriented toward human ends; it was a tool used to accomplish sanctification (pietism), edification (rationalism), or conversion (revivalism) rather than an offering “to the glory of God alone."
It should be noted that bringing the forms and styles of revivalism into the mainline churches is not new. Even Lutherans in America have flirted with revival practices. Most Lutheran immigrants to North America were imbued with a pietistic spirituality and had their own Jesus-songs which matched those of revivalism (e.g., “Beautiful Savior”). Having brought to North America also their own spiritual folk songs (especially the Scandinavian Lutherans), they resonate with the folk character of the songs popularly sung in “alternative worship services.” For several decades John Ylvisaker has been providing American Lutherans with their own spiritual folk songs.
“American Lutherans” (as they were called in the mid-nineteenth century) were also influenced by evangelical revivalism. Their leader, Samuel Simon Schmucker (1799–1873), believed that the practices of revivalism could be incorporated into Lutheran services. They were, including the singing of revival songs, a breakdown of liturgical order and (especially in Pennsylvania) a strong commitment to the abolition and temperance movements (which Finney also supported).
Those partisans of confessional revival in the mid-nineteenth century who were opposed to Schmucker, such as Charles Porterfield Krauth (1823–1883), came to see that forms of worship were not incidental to confessional theology. They instinctively realized that revivalistic worship supported a theology that was opposed to Lutheran confessional theology. They embraced the romantic liturgical restoration movement as that eventuated in the compilation of the “Common Service” and in the recovery of church hymns. But while the “church songs” were sung in the liturgy, the revival songs continued to be sung downstairs in the Sunday School. The result is that Lutheranism in America has been a church with confessions and an ordered liturgy, but these have not served to form spirituality, so that liturgical worship and popular devotion have often been at odds with each other in American Lutheran church life.