Reflection #5 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number five in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #5:  Most contemporary worship follows a two-fold pattern that could be augmented to be even more formative and beneficial for the Church.

Let me begin this week’s reflection by giving props to one of my grad-school profs, 41-dcAhhxOL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Dr. Constance Cherry, from whose modern-day classic, The Worship Architect, I borrow liberally for this blog.  All three of the books in her Architect series, which includes The Special Service Worship Architect and The Music Architect, are must-reads for worship leaders.

The structural norm for contemporary worship is a two-fold pattern consisting primarily of Music and Word.  Typically, the worship leader mounts the stage, offers a word of greeting, and launches into the worship set.  Next come announcements (which can be a third fold for churches that spend a lot of time here) and then the message.  A brief word of farewell (and sometimes a reminder of an aforementioned announcement), and it’s all finished.  To be clear, every week, in churches all around the country, God is glorified and His people are blessed via the current manifestation of two-fold worship.  So what’s the big deal?

Cherry–on the heels of her mentor, the late Robert Webber, whose efforts helped spark the worship renewal movement 40 years ago–feels there’s much that is missing in this approach.  She advocates for the four-fold pattern that has its roots in Scripture (where the book of Acts documents the Church meeting for instruction and the breaking of bread, i.e., Word and Table) and the early historical documents of the Church (particularly the Didache), where we see elements of entering and dismissing come into focus, thereby establishing the four-fold pattern of worship.

Rather than struggling to summarize what Cherry articulates so clearly, I am going to quote her directly for further elucidation.  All the following quotes come from chapter 3 of The Worship Architect:

“[The four worship parts] form a progression–there is actual motion forward from beginning to end.  In a real way, worship moves!  Worship is a journey–a journey into God’s presence (gathering), of hearing from God (Word), that celebrates Christ (Table), and that sends us into the world changed by our encounter with God (sending).  Each movement leads intelligently to the next so that, in the end, it is the journey that is experienced.”

Here she utilizes the story from which this blog takes its name:

“[In] Luke 24:13-15 . . . there is a marvelous example of this type of journey, the story of two disciples of Jesus traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the evening of the resurrection.  At first glance, this passage appears to have little to do with Christian worship.  Yet the . . . events provide a striking parallel with what is to occur in worship:

  • Christ approaches his followers (Luke 24:13-24)
  • Christ engages them in the Scriptures (Luke 24:25-27)
  • Christ’s identity is known in the context of the table fellowship (Luke 24:28-32)
  • Christ inspires them to go and tell the story (Luke 24:33-35).”

“These four movements provide a marvelous picture of the church at worship.  We move from our life in the world, through an encounter with Christ by way of his Word and Table, to an eagerness to share his presence in a spirit of renewed joy.  The incarnational presence of Christ is made known in the entire journey of worship: we are approached by his presence, instructed in his presence, fed by his presence, and we depart with his presence.  Gathering, Word, Table, sending: a journey with Jesus together.”

Finally, Cherry offers her pièce-de-résistance argument:

“[T]he order is the gospel.  Robert Webber is helpful in demonstrating how the order itself parallels the gospel message:

The Gathering: God acts first; God seeks us, calls us; God desires to be in fellowship with humanity; God initiates an awakening through the power of the Holy Spirit; God comes to us.

The Word: Because our relationship with God is fractured through the fall, he sends his Son to restore the relationship; Christ, the living Word, is freely given to the world through his life, death, and resurrection; Christ is God’s revealed truth.

The Table: Such revelation demands a response; we are offered an invitation to repent and believe the gospel; we come to Christ in faith and respond to God’s plan of salvation by saying “Yes”; we lay our sins on Jesus, accept his forgiveness, and resolve to take up our cross daily and follow him in true discipleship.

The Sending: Becoming followers involves being sent; God intends for his people to be active representatives in his world; the message of Christ is now our message.”

Structure, not style, is the key here.  The four-fold pattern can serve any style of downloadworship, as contemporary worship leader/liturgist Aaron Niequist attests: Aaron Niequist: “What Is Liturgy?”  His worship-as-well-balanced-meal metaphor is attractive for further contemplation, and I pray that the second wave of worship renewal that seems to be springing up among 30- and 40-something worship leaders will continue to posit the historical four-fold pattern of Christian worship as a model worth pursuing.

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): CCLI compliance (and the lack thereof) in contemporary worship.


About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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