Two Thousand Years of Worship In One Thousand Words

Featuring Daniel Collison Posted on October 13, 2008

Worship and Mission in Christian Tradition
 Biblical history ended with the completion of the book of Revelation (96 A.D.) and the death of the apostle John (98 A.D.). However, the story of Christian worship continued to be written through three major eras. The first period is Ancient and Medieval Worship that focused on the mystery of God and the Mass. The second period, Reformation and Free Church worship, ushered in seismic changes with its focus on the Word of God. The third period, inaugurated at the start of the twentieth century, reflects expansive world wide missionary efforts that launched increasingly diverse worshipping communities.

Ancient and Medieval Worship: Mystery and the Mass
 The centuries immediately following biblical history feature the Christian Mass as the primary form of corporate worship. The persecution of Christians in the second and third centuries forced many to worship in houses or other intimate contexts.  When Christianity moved from the shadows of persecution into the limelight of state religion in the fourth century several aspects of the worship liturgy changed. In a position of significant power and influence the Christian church formulated it’s theology in various creeds and developed a more fixed form in its worship: The Mass.
Entrance into these worshipping communities was through the act of baptism. Author Patrick Keifert (In his book, "Welcoming The Stranger") believes that “a chief source for our knowledge of the method and content of evangelism in the early church is Hippolytus’s Apostolic Tradition” which carried the person coming for baptism through seven steps, four of which were periods of development and three of which were passage rites laden with rich symbolism. The entire process took up to three years in some places.

The medieval period marked a subtle shift in the focus of the mass. The institutional church increasingly emphasized worship as a ‘mysterious’ encounter with God while the monastic movement stressed the personal devotional character of worship. In one sense the idea of worship as a mystery (an epiphany of God) was in sync with the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 18:20 and 28:20. Robert Webber believed, however, that the shift towards the Mass as mystery was a dysfunctional combination of local mystery cult influences, a shift of power to the clergy to control the meaning of the mass and outlandish claims that participating in the Mass ensured personal salvation. The monastic movement stood in sharp contrast to these trends in it emphasis on the coming kingdom of God and the importance of personal piety. 

Reformation and Free Church Worship: The Word of God
 The Reformation was principally a reform of theology.  However, it was inevitable that new theological beliefs would have a major impact on existing worship forms. The most significant changes to worship instituted by the reformers were the rejections of the doctrine of transubstantiation, the restoration of the Word of God to its ancient and proper place in worship and an emphasis on experiencing worship in the vernacular of the people while maintaining a twofold structure of Word and sacrament.

 The Free Church tradition originating with the Anabaptists and English Puritans followed Ulrich Zwingli’s emphasis on the Word only. The Anabaptists and other emerging Free Church traditions refused to allow any form of worship that could not be substantiated by Scripture. There was a growing emphasis on personal experience continued with movements like Pietism, Moravianism, and Revivalism that swept across the West and into the newly formed United States of America. Evangelism and worship were dramatically merged in the revivalist tradition with field preaching and the rise of the sermon as modeled in people like Charles Finney.

Worship in the Twentieth Century: Diversity and Convergence
 The twentieth century represents one of the most accelerated periods of change in modern history. The Newtonian worldview established during the Enlightenment was assailed by waves of new ideologies. Contrary to its promises the mechanistic, rationalistic, and empirical approach of the Enlightenment had not made the world a better place.  Movements of thought ranging from quantum physics to new age religion challenged the Enlightenment’s presuppositions and created a breeding ground for a focus on the supernatural, multiple forms of spirituality and the rediscovery of mystery. Robert Webber described the changes that took place in Christian worship during this period:

Worship changes of the twentieth century began with the rise of the holiness Pentecostal movement, which, in its rediscovery of the supernatural is regarded by many as the first post-Enlightenment approach to worship. Next, the Roman Catholic Church, which had been locked into a rigid rubricism since the sixteenth century Council of Trent, underwent an upheaval of enormous proportion with the publication of the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” in 1963. The impact of worship renewal soon affected the mainline Protestant church.
-Robert Webber in Worship Old and New

Within the Protestant tradition six identifiable streams developed: formal-liturgical worship, traditional hymn-based worship, contemporary music-driven worship, charismatic worship, blended worship and emerging worship.

Summary of all Three Periods
 There are many lessons to be learned from biblical history and Christian tradition. The Early Church development of the Mass with an emphasis on mystery teaches us the importance of understanding what you believe and creating systems to express those beliefs. However, we have to note that devastating consequences ensue when church leaders use those systems of belief to create hierarchies and diminish the involvement of people in the act of worship. The Reformation period teaches us the importance of the Word of God and our personal acquisition of faith and salvation. However, stripping corporate worship of visual beauty, symbolic richness and liturgical depth can influence congregations to become overly focused on the performance of preachers and musicians. Twentieth century history of worship teaches us that human philosophies are frail and transient but God, who never changes, faithfully reveals himself to every generation in new ways. Now, at the turn of the millennium, the time to re-imagine worship practices for the twenty first century has come.

For the word counters out there. 1,000. Amen.

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