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Introduction to Christian Worship Third Edition: Revised and Expanded

Introduction to Christian Worship Third Edition: Revised and Expanded

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by James F. White

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Introduction to Christian Worship, Third Edition traces the development of the major forms of Christian worship, and includes discussion of the newest service books of the principal churches of North America and the British Isles. This staple of liturgical history is used widely in Protestant seminaries and is read by clergy and laity alike as an accurate,


Introduction to Christian Worship, Third Edition traces the development of the major forms of Christian worship, and includes discussion of the newest service books of the principal churches of North America and the British Isles. This staple of liturgical history is used widely in Protestant seminaries and is read by clergy and laity alike as an accurate, informative, and accessible introduction to all aspects of Christian worship. This revision keeps pace with the latest scholarship and includes more maps, tables, woodcuts, and photographs.

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Introduction to Christian Worship

By James F. White

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2000 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-2285-1



In order to speak intelligently about "Christian worship," one must first decide just what this term means. It is not an easy expression to define. Yet until one reflects on what is distinctive about authentic Christian worship, it is all too easy to confuse such worship with irrelevant accretions from present or past cultures in which Christians have worshiped.

First of all, "worship" itself is an exasperatingly difficult word to pin down. What distinguishes worship from other human activities, particularly those noted for their frequent repetition? Why is worship a different type of activity from daily chores or any habitual action? More specifically, how does worship differ from other recurring activities of the Christian community itself? What distinguishes worship from Christian education or works of charity, for instance? Is a "seeker service" meant to be worship?

And second, once we have made up our minds about what we mean by "worship," how do we determine what makes such worship "Christian"? Our culture is full of various types of worship. A variety of oriental religions have made their advent in many communities. Many practice worship but obviously it is not Christian. What distinctive marks make some worship "Christian"? For that matter, is all worship offered by the Christian community always "Christian"?

None of these are easy questions to resolve but they certainly need to be probed. And they are not simply speculative matters of theoretical interest alone. Defining what is distinctive about Christian worship is a vital practical tool for anyone who has responsibility for planning, preparing for, or leading Christian worship. The continuing appearance of new forms of worship has made this type of basic analysis even more crucial for those people charged with worship ministry. Such people are constantly involved in decision making as they serve the Christian community through worship leadership. The more practical the decision, the more necessary the theoretical foundations often become. Is a certain act, such as pledging one's allegiance to a national flag, appropriate in Christian worship? Or is that act out of place? Should other acts, such as celebrating the adoption of a child, which we have not customarily included in worship, find a place in the worship life of the church? Or is that not appropriate in Christian worship? Only if one has a working definition of "Christian worship" can one cope with such practical problems.

I shall explore three methods of clarifying just what we mean by "Christian worship." I have increasingly come to feel that the most adequate approach is a phenomenological one, which simply describes what Christians usually do when they come together for worship. Although this may seem the most simple and straightforward method, careful observation is essential if we are to understand the meanings of the structures or services Christians use over and over again for worship. Most of this book will concentrate on describing the development, theology, and use of actual structures or services.

It is helpful, second, to explore some definitions of greater abstraction that Christian thinkers have used to explain what they understand Christian worship to be. Athird method examines some of the key words Christians choose most often (in various languages) to express what they experience as worship. These three methods should force us to reflect on what we ourselves mean when we speak of "Christian worship." In addition, we must consider some of the factors giving both diversity and constancy to Christian worship.


One of the best ways to determine what we mean by Christian worship is to describe the outward and visible forms of worship by Christians. This approach looks at the whole phenomenon of Christian worship as it might appear to a detached or alien observer trying to grasp what it is Christians do when they come together.

Christian worship belongs to a wide category of human behavior known as ritual and is the subject of the academic discipline of ritual studies. The term "ritual" is used in a variety of ways but seems to have certain abiding characteristics. First, it is behavior; second, by its very nature ritual is repetitive. Third, it is social activity and serves some communal function. George Worgul describes it succinctly: "as a repeated interpersonal behavior, ritual is purposeful." It is of great interest to anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists. Various kinds of ritual are necessary to the cohesive existence of any human community. Whether it is the celebration of a national holiday, the opening of a new highway, or a college football weekend, ritual plays a vital role in making a proper observance. Family rituals include birthday parties, anniversary celebrations, and visits from grandchildren.

Christian worship, as a repeated social behavior with definite purposes, is probably the most common form of ritual in many Western societies. We can analyze it as a whole because, despite all the different cultures and historical epochs in which it occurs, Christian worship has employed remarkably stable and permanent forms. We shall speak of these as structures (such as a calendar for organizing a year's worship) or as services (such as the Lord's Supper). Despite constant adaptation, these prove to be remarkably durable. One way to describe Christian worship is simply to list these chief structures and services. We do not need to go into great detail here since most of the book will discuss them much more thoroughly.

In the late twentieth century, liturgical scholars often speak of the essential structures and services collectively as an ordo, from the term used by the Russian Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann. Gordon W. Lathrop, a Lutheran theologian, describes the ordo as a "core Christian pattern" of worship which he identifies as consisting of Sunday and the week, the service of word and table, praise and beseeching, teaching and bath, and the year and Pascha (Easter). United Methodist theologian Don E. Saliers prefers to speak of a "canon" of basic structures "that have endured the test of time."3 He adds the "pastoral offices" to the list.

While useful in identifying historically central items, the limitation of such categories is that they suggest that the ordo or canon is limited and, presumably, closed. This method ignores ecstatic worship which has been around for centuries (1 Cor. 14:6-19), in which Paul himself excelled (v. 18), and which may have been the most prevalent form of Christian worship at mid-first century and may again be predominant at mid-twenty-first century. It overlooks the richness of recent centuries in developing new functions for worship and creating new forms to fulfill them. For example, early Methodist worship in England took on a new missional function which demanded new services (watch nights) and new components in familiar services (hymnody).

With these cautions in mind, we shall immediately do what Schmemann, Lathrop, and Saliers suggest: list the chief components of the perennial structures and services as a means of defining Christian worship. Even within the New Testament, we see indications of a weekly structure of time. This structure was soon elaborated in various annual calendars for commemorating events in the memory of the Christian community: Christ's death and resurrection, for example, and memorials of various local martyrs. Eventually, daily schedules for public and private prayer were devised. Daily, weekly, and yearly schedules of time are still important components of Christian worship, and we shall survey the operation of these in chapter 2. For our present purpose, however, one thing we can say about Christian worship is that it is a type of worship that relies heavily on the structuring of time to help it fulfill its purposes.

Just as they have found it necessary to arrange time, Christians have always found it convenient to organize a space to shelter and enable their worship. Though various forms have been tried by different cultures over the centuries, the requirements in terms of space and furnishings have remained remarkably consistent. We turn to these in chapter 3.

In addition, since early times, Christians have found music a vital means of expression for their acts of worship. Music is the subject of chapter 4.

In ancient times and up through today, Christians have used a small number of basic services. The first of these is services of daily public prayer. Within the category of daily prayer, there are various forms, some of which are described in chapter 5.

A second type of service focuses on the reading and preaching of scripture and hence is often referred to as the "service of the word." It is familiar as the usual Protestant Sunday service; it also serves as the first portion of the eucharist or Lord's Supper. We shall examine the various forms of this type of service in chapter 6. It provides a constant order, which many Christians identify as their prime experience of what Christian worship is.

Virtually every Christian community has some means of distinguishing those who belong within its body from outsiders. In terms of forms of worship, this designation takes place in various services of Christian initiation. Baptism is the most widely known of these rites but catechesis, confirmation, first communion, and various forms of renewal, affirmation, or reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant are important parts of the ritual process too. Most Christian communities are currently rethinking their theology and practice for making one a Christian, which we shall discuss in chapter 8.

Since New Testament times, we have testimony of Christians gathering to celebrate what Paul calls "the Lord's supper" (1 Cor. 11:20). For many Christians, this is the archetypal form of Christian worship. Only a small minority avoid celebrating it in outward forms. In many churches, it is a weekly, or even daily, experience. Chapter 9 will deal with the forms and meaning of the Lord's Supper.

Finally, there are a variety of occasional services or pastoral rites common in one form or another to almost all worshiping Christian communities. Some of these mark steps in life's journey, which we may or may not repeat: services of forgiveness and reconciliation or services for healing and blessing the sick and dying. Others are onetime rites of passage such as weddings, ordinations, religious profession or commissioning, or funerals. Many of these are called for only as the occasion demands. Many of life's stages and experiences are common to all people, Christian or not. Occasional services to mark some of these journeys or passages have evolved into permanent types of Christian worship. We shall explore these in chapter 10.

Obviously, these basic structures and services do not cover all the possibilities in Christian worship, but they do describe the vast majority of instances of such worship. Various prayer meetings, sacred concerts, revivals, novenas, and a wide range of devotions may be added to them. But, for most Christians, all of these are clearly subsidiary to the items we have listed above and are, to a certain degree, dispensable. Accordingly, our discussion in this book will be chiefly concerned with the basic structures and services with only occasional mention of other possibilities.

Thus our first answer to the question, What is Christian worship? is simply to list and describe the basic forms Christian worship takes and to say these define it best. Nonetheless, we must also investigate other approaches.


Our purpose in looking at the various ways different Christian thinkers have spoken about Christian worship is not to compare practices but to stimulate reflection. The best way to grasp the meaning of any term is to observe it in use rather than to give a simple definition. So we shall look over the shoulders of several Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic thinkers to see how they use the term. None of these varying uses of the term excludes the others. Frequently they overlap, but each application adds new insights and dimensions, thus complementing the rest. This effort to "say what we mean and to mean what we say" is a continuing one that is subject to revision as our understanding of Christian worship matures and deepens.

One of the most attractive definitions of Christian worship can be found in a sermon preached by Martin Luther at the dedication of the first church built for Protestant worship, Torgau Castle, in 1544. Luther says of Christian worship "that nothing else be done in it than that our dear Lord Himself talk (rede) to us through His holy word and that we, in turn, talk (reden) to him in prayer and song of praise." A similar approach appears in the Large Catechism where Luther says that in worship the people "assemble to hear and discuss God's Word and then praise God with song and prayer." Thus worship has a duality, revelation and response— both of them empowered by the Holy Spirit.

John Calvin had many negative things to say about idolatry and superstition in worship. But "God has given us a few ceremonies, not at all irksome, to show Christ present." The ultimate purpose of Christian worship is union with God: "We are lifted up even to God by the exercises of religion. What is the design of the preaching of the Word, the sacraments, the holy assemblies, and the whole external government of the church, but that we may be united (conjungant) to God."

Anglican Archbishop Thomas Cranmer found the end of the ceremonies of worship to be the "setting forth of God's honor or glory, and to the reducing of the people to a most perfect and godly living." Worship, then, is directed to God's glory and to human rectitude. Cranmer is echoed in modern theologies that link worship to social justice.

The duality of revelation and response is echoed by Russian Orthodox theologian, George Florovsky: "Christian worship is the response of men [sic] to the Divine call, to the 'mighty deeds' of God, culminating in the redemptive act of Christ." Florovsky is at pains to stress the corporate nature of this response to God's call: "Christian existence is essentially corporate; to be Christian means to be in the community, in the Church." It is in this community that God is active in worship as much as the worshipers themselves. As a response to God's work both in the past and in our midst, "Christian worship is primarily and essentially an act of praise and adoration, which also implies a thankful acknowledgement of God's embracing Love and redemptive loving-kindness."

These ideas are reinforced by another Orthodox theologian, Nikos A. Nissiotis, who stresses the presence and the actions of the Trinity in worship. He states: "Worship is not primarily man's [sic] initiative but God's redeeming act in Christ through his Spirit." Nissiotis stresses the "absolute priority of God and his act," which humans can only acknowledge. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the church as the Body of Christ can offer worship that is pleasing as an act both from and directed to the Trinity.


Excerpted from Introduction to Christian Worship by James F. White. Copyright © 2000 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James F. White holds the Bard Thompson Chair of Liturgical Studies at Drew University. He previously taught at the Perkins School of Theology for twenty-two years and was professor of liturgy at the University of Notre Dame until 1999. He has served as president of the North American Academy of Liturgy and received its Berakah Award. He also chaired the editorial committee of the Section on Worship of the Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church. Dr. White holds an A.B. from Harvard, a B.D. from Union Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Duke University.

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Introduction to Christian Worship 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
White presents a very comprehensive overview of worship from the early church to today in this book. It is especially helpful for those without a strong background in liturgy. White presents the arguments of the Reformation according to Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, as well as following the role of the sacraments in the chruch from its conception. I recommend this book as a good starting point for those interested in a historical overview of Christian worship.