By Robin G. Jordan
Are we witnessing the demise of common prayer?
The closing decade of the twentieth century and the opening decade of the twenty-first century has seen the introduction into Anglican churches patterns of worship that are not truly corporate. These patterns are described with the catchall phrase “contemporary worship,” are borrowed from non-Anglican evangelical and Pentecostal churches, and reflect the influence of nineteenth and twentieth century revivalism and the twentieth century Seeker Service movement. Congregational participation is minimal. The congregation is limited to singing along with the vocalists in the church band. The voices of the latter are amplified electronically as are the instruments of the musicians. The members of the congregation cannot hear themselves much less those around them. The thinking behind this practice is that members of the congregation do not sing well and therefore must be spared the embarrassment of hearing the singing of their fellow congregants and themselves. Those who do not care to sing need not do so. They can listen to the church band. Today’s young people also like to feel the music viscerally. They are not satisfied with hearing it. The objective is to make the service “friendlier” to seekers—that is, make it less strange and unfamiliar to them and more like what they might experience in a secular band concert.
A typical service begins with a “worship set,” a block of songs, which may be interrupted by a brief extempore prayer and may be accompanied by occasional exhortations to worship. The songs generally are contemporary Christian and praise and worship with the occasional repackaged hymn or gospel song. The lyrics are projected onto one or more multimedia projection screens. A video clip, dramatization, interview, or testimony may follow the worship set. This ushers in the main focus of the service—the sermon. An invitation to discipleship follows the sermon. The invitation is in turn followed by an extempore prayer for those making a commitment to Christ and sometimes special music. An offering may be taken at some point in the service. The service may end with a final song, a reprise of an earlier song, or a simple dismissal. While the music, the dramatization, and the video clips are contemporary, the “shape” of the service can be traced to the revivals of the nineteenth and twentieth century.
There has been heated debate over whether “contemporary worship” is truly worship. It has been criticized as more entertainment than worship. Based on my own observations I believe that “contemporary worship” can be accurately described as a form of worship even thought it may lack certain elements that traditionalists associate with worship. Those who plan the services and those who conduct the services see themselves as honoring God in the services. In the worship set, the extempore prayers, the sermon, the special music, and the other elements of the service homage is paid to God. The elements of the service do make known God’s worth. They direct the congregation’s attention to God. They may cause individual congregants to contemplate God, his character, his attributes, and his mighty deeds and may draw individual congregants into praise and adoration of God. In this respect the service can be viewed as truly “worship.” It is the public performance aspect of “contemporary worship,” its similarity to a secular concert, which prompts the criticism that is more entertainment than worship. However, those who attend “contemporary worship” services come away feeling that they have worshiped God even though they may have done nothing more than be present and listen to the music, the testimony, and the sermon. One explanation is that they may have worshiped vicariously through the worship of others. Another explanation is more alarming: they perceive their attendance of the service as worship. They are honoring God with their presence. Both explanations point to an immature understanding of worship.
The songs and the other elements that precede the message portion of the service, however, do serve another function, that is, to prepare the congregation for the sermon, to put them in the right frame of mind, to cause them to be more receptive to the message. The purpose of the service is not solely to glorify God. It is evangelistic and revivalistic. The testimony and the sermon are directed toward bringing about the transition of the seeker to a believer and the believer to “a fully-devoted disciple of Jesus Christ.” It is also edifying, that is, it builds up the believer through a combination of uplifting music and inspiring messages, encouraging him or her to persevere in the Christian faith and life.
The thinking behind the bare-boned structure of the service is similar to the thinking behind its very loud music. This thinking is that anything that may put-off the seeker during his first or subsequent visits must be eliminated. This includes excluding from the service any elements that may be associated in the mind of the seeker with traditional worship (e.g. recitation of the Apostles’ Creed). Liturgical elements and vestments (e.g. choir robes, preaching gowns) are equated with traditional worship and therefore are eschewed.
I am wondering how future generations of seekers may react to what is now described as “contemporary worship.” Will it be off-putting to them as traditional worship is reportedly off-putting to today’s seekers? Is it already off-putting to some in today’s unchurched population?
The Journey is the five-year-old new church plant with which I have been sojourning for the past four years. The church modeled upon Northpoint Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, It is primarily targeted at university students and other young adults. The worship is contemporary and seeker-friendly. For a number of students this type of worship does not hold enough attraction for them to forego sleeping late on a Sunday morning. One Murray Student University student told a friend that invited him to the Journey that he was not going get up on Sunday morning for a rock concert. The average Sunday attendance at the Journey’s two services is high but the church only reaches about 5% of the student body.
“Contemporary worship” is popular especially in the Southern Bible Belt. A part of the reason is that the population of the Southern Bible Belt still has a modern mindset and contemporary worship is attractive people with a modern mindset. “Contemporary worship” attracts large numbers of people and therefore holds a certain appeal for pastors who want to increase the Sunday attendance of their churches. It is the most common pattern of worship seen in megachurches. It is also the form of worship that many North American evangelical Christians favor.
“Contemporary worship” suffers from the drawbacks of seventeenth century Puritan worship during the time of the Westminster Directory of Public Worship. In this period of English Church history the minister dominated the service, reading the Scripture passages, saying the prayers, and preaching the sermon. The minister chose what passages of Scripture he read and determined the content of the prayers and the sermon. Except for singing the metrical psalms and saying “Amen” to the prayers, the members of the congregation were relegated to the role of passive spectators. This pattern of worship would persist in the Non-Conformist chapels of the eighteenth century and would become the typical pattern of worship in a number of nineteenth century Protestant denominations with hymns and gospel songs replacing the metrical psalms.
Revivalism would lead to the disappearance of Scripture reading and the pastoral prayer from the service. The result was a two-part service—the “song service” or “preliminaries” as they were called and the main event—the sermon and the invitation to discipleship. The same pattern can be seen in “contemporary worship.” “Contemporary worship” has been described as an updated form of the revival service with bands with guitar, keyboard and drums and contemporary Christian and praise and worship music replacing the piano, organ, and choirs and hymns and gospel songs of an earlier generation. The revival soloist did, however, survive the transition into the twenty-first century.
In my opening paragraph I suggest that the patterns of worship that are described as “contemporary worship” are not truly corporate. They are corporate only in the broadest sense. True corporate worship is worship that is shared. In “contemporary worship” the corporate character of worship is not strong. Worship is not fully a corporate action. The congregation does not sing together. The congregants sing along with the vocalists as isolated individuals. The congregation does not pray together. The extempore prayers offered from the platform are not the prayers of the whole congregation. They are the prayers of particular individuals on the platform, the pastor, a worship leader, a band member, or a vocalist. What takes place is parallel worship rather than shared worship. Corporate intercessory prayer is conspicuously absent from “contemporary worship.” It is more common in Pentecostal congregations than it is in evangelical congregations and then it may take one of two forms. A worship leader may ask the congregation to break into small groups and to pray for a particular concern or request. Or a worship leader may ask the congregation to pray for a particular concern or request and the entire congregation prays in concert for this concern or request, those who are led to pray, praying at the same time aloud, in tongues, or silently as the Spirit moves them.
This is why I am prompted to ask, “Are we seeing the demise of common prayer?” By common prayer I am not referring to the use of the same liturgy. I am referring to prayer that is shared by the entire congregation.
Common prayer is an important part of the Anglican tradition of worship. The congregation joins the service leader in the prayers. When the service leader is praying alone, he is praying as the mouthpiece of the congregation. With a few exceptions, his prayers are the congregation’s prayers. Although hymns are not generally considered a part of the liturgy, they are a part of the congregation’s worship and prayer. The congregation sings them together. They also sing the canticles and the Psalms, which are a part of the liturgy.
In the second Book of Common Prayer Thomas Cranmer gave back the congregation their part in their service. They had lost their part when the Western Church retained Latin as the language of worship, effectively excluding the people from the liturgy as they did not speak or understand Latin. The liturgy became the possession of the clergy instead of the work of the people. When Mass was celebrated on Sundays, the people gathered in one room—the nave—and the pious said their private devotions and prayers, while the priest celebrated the Mass in another room—the chancel. A rood screen separated the chancel from the nave and hid the celebration of Mass from the people’s rude gaze. After the priest had consecrated the host, he elevated the host for the people’s adoration. He then received communion and dismissed the people.
As David Philips points to our attention in his Church Society leaflet, “Why Liturgy?” Cranmer wrote his liturgy for a country where the majority of the people could not read. His intention was that congregations should “learn certain texts by repeating each line after the minister and by saying the same texts week after week.” The trend in recent years in a number of Prayer Books (e.g. An Australian Prayer Book 1978) has been to take Cranmer’s liturgy, render it in good contemporary liturgical English, and make it even more congregational and participatory.
The Puritans in the seventeenth century sought to take the people’s parts away from them and give them to the minister. They would have replaced the priest with a preacher and the Mass with a sermon. They would have changed the role of the members of the congregation from passive spectators to passive auditors. They did so during the Great Rebellion or Interregnum when the Prayer Book was abolished and replaced with a Directory of Public Worship. The people’s parts were restored with The Book of Common Prayer of 1662.
In the nineteenth century the Ritualist Movement took away the people’s parts and gave them to the choir. The priest’s part was amplified with material from the pre-Reformation medieval service books. The people were once more relegated to the role of passive spectators in a non-communicating Mass.
With the twentieth century Liturgical Movement the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. It emphasized the liturgy as an action of the whole people of God, not the clergy and the choir. It taught that the ministry of the members of the congregation is expressed through their active participation in the liturgy, and by some of them reading the Scripture readings and leading the prayers. It stressed that it was highly desirable that a different person read each Scripture reading and a different person lead the prayers. The practices of licensing Readers to read the Gospel and preach the Sermon and of licensing Communion Assistants to assist in the administration of Communion were encouraged. Revised services were produced that were more congregational and participatory. The congregation was recognized as the primary musical resources of the church. The result was the production of a large repertoire of music—hymns and worship songs, canticle and Psalm settings, and service music that was winsome from a musical perspective while being accessible to most congregations.
The Seeker Service movement was an offshoot of the twentieth century Church Growth movement. Seeker Services were designed for seekers. They were not intended to be a form of corporate worship. Congregational participation and common prayer are not features of the Seeker Service. They were a multimedia presentation of the gospel and involved dramatizations, discussion panels, interviews, music, short videos, talks, and testimonies. The original concept was that having heard the gospel in a Seeker Service and come to faith in Christ the new believer would move from the Seeker Service to a midweek Believer Service which involve corporate worship as well as teaching.
Saddleback Church and Willow Creek Community Church pioneered the Seeker Service. They found, however, that believers were also attracted to their Seeker Services. The seekers who were becoming new believers in their Seeker Services were not transitioning to the midweek Believer Services. This discovery was not particularly new. It had a parallel in the experience of a number of liturgical churches. In these churches it had been discovered that when children worship separately from their parents in a less formal service with different kind of music from that used in the adult services, they have difficulty adapting to the more formal adult services that also do not use the type of music to which they are accustomed. They prefer the informality and type of music of the children’s services and when they grow older will seek a church that has less formal services and the type of music that they enjoyed as children. It is their type of church service. For the new believers the Seeker Service was their type of church service. The midweek Believer’s Service was not.
This development led to a movement away from Seeker Services to making Believer’s Services more seeker-friendly. My observation is that Seeker Service concept has not disappeared altogether and what is presented as seeker-friendly “contemporary worship” service in a number of churches is actually a Seeker Service. A more recent finding of Willow Creek staff is that their seeker-friendly services, while they result in a high attendance and numerous decisions for Christ, they are not producing mature believers. This has led them to re-evaluate their whole approach.
The Seeker Service movement and seeker-friendly “contemporary worship” originated in non-liturgical churches and denominations, that is, churches and denominations that have historically used informal local patterns of worship instead of a formal and official liturgy. A number of concerns expressed about how traditional worship—read liturgical worship—and the traditional church—read the liturgical church—puts off seekers reflect old anti-liturgical prejudices. These prejudices may be piggy-backing into Anglican churches on “contemporary worship.” At the same time a number of these concerns are legitimate. The challenge is sorting the legitimate concerns from the prejudices.
As well as doing away with common prayer, “contemporary worship” also omits what Anglicans have considered essential parts of the service or it downplays them. For example, in the typical “contemporary worship” service any reading of Scripture is done within the context of the sermon. To ensure that churches using informal local patterns of worship retain these elements, the Church of England in South Africa has incorporated into its canons the requirement that any service on the Lord’s Day must include five elements—confession of sin, praise and thanksgiving, petition, reading of Holy Scripture drawn from both Old and New Testaments, and exposition of Holy Scripture. The Church of England and the Church of Ireland have produced guidelines for informal local patterns of worship, and the Diocese of Sydney in the Anglican Church of Australia has produced a collection of simplified forms of service, Sunday Services (2001) for the use of its churches.
To complicate matters, contemporary Christian and praise and worship music has moved away from the simpler choruses and songs that once characterized these genres and become less accessible to the average congregational singer. More songs are being written for the performance of the professional and semi-professional musicians and vocalists that form today’s church bands. The use of these songs and the tendency to change songs frequently without giving the congregation sufficient opportunity to learn and master new songs have reduced congregational participation in the music of “contemporary worship.” It is becoming more even more performance-oriented. Another factor is that congregations are expecting music of the same quality as that performed at concerts and on MTV. These developments are drastically curtailing a major form of congregational participation in non-liturgical worship. Indeed in a number of non-liturgical churches it has been the only form of congregational participation.
Does “contemporary worship” have a place in Anglican worship? If a church begins to offer a “contemporary worship” service as a part of its Sunday schedule either on Sunday morning or Sunday evening or its weeknight schedule, it must be willing to accept that the people whom it attracts with this service are not going to move from the service to one of the church’s liturgical services that may need more people in its congregation. They will exist as a separate congregation from the congregations that are accustomed to liturgical services. They may never develop an appreciation for common prayer or liturgical worship or other forms of church music beside those used in their “contemporary worship” service.
A church that seeks to attract more people with the occasional “contemporary worship” service is not going to keep the people it attracts with this service. They are going to find a church that regularly offers this type of service. This is what has happened in the Church of England where parish churches offer a different type of service on each Sunday of the month to meet the needs of the different constituencies in the parish. This approach does not work. If a church is going to offer “contemporary worship,” it must be willing to do so every Sunday or every week and to live with the consequences.
One of the peculiarities of confessional Anglicanism is that two of the formularies that enunciate Anglican beliefs, norms, and principles are collections of liturgies. They are the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the 1661 Ordinal. The third formulary is the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of 1571. One of the purposes of the Articles is to provide doctrinal standards for interpreting the Prayer Book. As more and more churches adopt non-liturgical “contemporary worship” and acquire the anti-liturgical attitudes that may be associated with these patterns of worship, they are not only going to contribute to the disappearance of common prayer but also they are going to further undermine these formularies as authoritative Anglican standards of faith and worship. The question will eventually be raised, “If we do not need a Prayer Book, why do we need an Ordinal? Why cannot we determine the form of all services at the local level?”
In his Church Society pamphlet, “Why Liturgy?” David Philips lists a number of good reasons to follow a formal and official liturgy. Among these reasons is that liturgy supplements faithful Bible teaching and “safeguards against hobby-horse preaching and comments.” “In Churches where there is false or non-existent teaching,” Philips stresses, “a sound liturgy may be the only source of true teaching.” Further on the pamphlet he writes:
“When people make up their own liturgies not only is there a tendency to focus on their particular likes, they also ignore their dislikes.
Moreover it is easy to produce nonsense, or heresy. Good liturgy will ensure that a congregation receives sound doctrine.”
In “contemporary worship” what is taught is solely at the discretion of the minister of the church. The congregation is subject to the vagaries of its minister.
The Jerusalem Declaration upholds “the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as a true and authoritative standard of worship and prayer, to be translated and locally adapted for each culture.” In Being Faithful: The Shape of Historic Anglicanism Today the GAFCON Theological Resource Group explains:
“Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s liturgical achievement culminated in the Book of Common Prayer of 1552, which was republished with minor alterations and additions in 1662. This has been the standard liturgical resource for Anglicans ever since, translated into many languages and adapted to different circumstances. The orders of service found in this book, together with Cranmer’s prefaces, provide an important and distinctive approach to Anglican sacramental and liturgical life.” [Being Faithful, p. 47]
The GAFCON Theological Resource Group goes on to explain:
”We should not expect uniformity of liturgy across the Anglican Communion, but we should look for a common theological basis. Our commitment to the principles underlying the liturgy of the Prayer Book should produce forms of corporate worship which may be diverse, but which still bear a family resemblance. The 1662 Prayer Book provides a standard by which other liturgies may be tested and measured. One key principle of revision is that new liturgies must be seen to be in continuity with the Book of Common Prayer.” [Being Faithful, p. 47]
They further explain:
”A second key principle of revision should be that of mutual accountability within the Anglican Communion. The further removed a proposed liturgy may be from the 1662 Prayer Book, the more important it is that it should be subject to widespread evaluation throughout the Communion. [my emphasis][Being Faithful, p. 48]
What approach would the GAFCON Theological Resource Group recommend to patterns of worship like “contemporary worship” that only remotely resemble the 1662 Prayer Book and are locally determined—not at the level of the diocese but at the level of the local congregation? Would they recommend the setting of canonical requirements and guidelines as I have noted that a number of Anglican bodies have already done? How would they react to the proposal of a number of the proponents of “contemporary worship” that Anglicans should dispense with a formal written liturgy altogether? These and other questions need addressing as “contemporary worship” grows in popularity in Anglican churches.