An Alternative Way of Worship for Progressive Churches

“What you should do, Keith, is develop an alternative liturgy for people like us.” My friend made this proposal as we were driving to his home following the celebration of Holy Communion at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. In earlier conversations, we had talked about our frequent disappointment with Sunday morning worship in churches of our own communion. He presumed that my long career as professor of worship, and my continuing interest in progressive Protestant church life, qualifies me to develop suggestions.

During the next few weeks, I intend to offer my reflections upon these matters. My goal is to outline characteristics of the church’s definitive liturgy of Word and Sacrament that meet three criteria: shaped by the historic tradition, expressed in the culture of our own time, and performed in a manner suitable to the occasion. In this first column of the series, I give a preview by noting characteristics of worship at All Saints Church, which I believe are consistent with these criteria.

First, the celebration conveys the sense that what is going on is important—important enough for the leaders to be well prepared and skilled in the performance of their respective parts of the liturgy. The liturgy is always well staged so that the visual and dramatic character of the event reinforces the meaning of the words and actions. The principal leader was at the top of his form. Although he and other leaders expressed a sense of personal presence, there was nothing trivial or inept about their words or actions.

Second, it was clearly an occasion of public worship rather than religious lecture, concert, seminar, support group, or political rally. By using the word worship, I mean that the primary orientation of the event was toward God who was addressed in the prayers, especially the prayers over the bread and wine during the communion. The scripture reading and sermon were presented in such a way that they prepared the congregants for their parts in the words and actions of praise. By public, I mean that participation was open to everyone. Except for the informal words and parish notes midway through the service, nothing was said or done in ways that implied congregants had to be insiders in order to understand and participate.

Third, the liturgy was fully consistent with the long-standing pattern of worship that began early in Christian history and, with important revisions, has continued in most churches ever since. At the same time, the liturgy at All Saints was revised in ways that allow it to be more appropriate for congregants at this progressive church. Contrary to the Prayer Book pattern, only one Scripture lesson was read rather than three. The ancient Nicene Creed was omitted. Most interesting to me was the fact that the Eucharistic prayer was carefully modified so that it more fully manifested conditions in the world and implications of the proclamation that had preceded this part of the liturgy.

While Episcopalians, as part of the Anglican Communion, maintain the tradition that the words of the Eucharistic prayer are to be read from the Book of Common Prayer, All Saints clergy make subtle variations in the early portion of the prayer while leaving unchanged the theologically important words at the prayer’s center. An exchange of e-mails with one of the church’s clergy indicates that the modifications of this prayer are developed or chosen with great care. Although the words of the service indicate an immediate awareness of current conditions, there is nothing left to chance in what was said and done.

Fourth, the style of the event was consistent with the geographical and cultural location of this church. All Saints Church is located at the very heart of Pasadena, California. This wealthy, politically important city east of Los Angeles is the center of major educational institutions, including Fuller Theological Seminary, museums, governmental buildings, commercial activities, and major churches. In some ways, this part of Los Angeles County, with its leaning toward politically progressive convictions, is the counter balance to politically conservative Orange County. Several years ago, a National Public Radio program featured All Saints in Pasadena and Saddleback Church in Mission Viejo as contrasting versions of churches that are appealing to younger, unchurched people in Southern California. All Saints Church appears to be advancing despite the malaise that marks many progressive churches. One reason is the skill with which the classic liturgy is adapted to the congregation’s natural constituency.

Fifth, the liturgy conveyed a sense of movement and energy. In part, this was because the order of service expressed the theological logic of the historic liturgy. The pacing, staging, language, and music of the morning were chosen and conducted in such a way that everyone was moved forward to a dramatic finale in communion. When we left church that morning, we felt as though we had actually done something that moved us from spiritual malaise to a sense of union with the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.

14 Responses to An Alternative Way of Worship for Progressive Churches

  1. Bob Cornwall says:


    I do appreciate this accounting of a theologically responsible, progressive, and historically rooted worship. I’m looking forward to seeing how you lay this out for us who are Disciples.

    It’s funny that despite the fact that I went to Fuller and am Episcopalian in my roots, I’ve never attended a service at All Saints. But the important thing to note is that it is progressive and it is vibrant!

    • Bob, thank you for your interest in this project. I have a clear sense of direction, which is to discuss week by week the main elements of the service. In each entry I intend to state clearly what I believe to be the way churches like ours should plan and conduct worship. In the process, I will give a rationale supporting my proposals.

      My plan is to accent the way we could go and only by indirection discuss the aspects of current practice that I believe to be ineffective or problematic. I may also insert reviews of services I have attended that make it possible to highlight helpful and unhelpful liturgical practice.

      While my own church-going is primarily in congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I intend my discussion to be relevant to congregations in other mainline protestant churches that think of themselves as progressive.

  2. roy donkin says:

    I learned of your blog from Bob Cornwall. I look forward to your reflections. I’ve been thinking about these issues for a bit more than a decade and searching for progressive churches with lively, relevant worship and finding very little. My sense is that most churches with progressive theologies tend to be either conservative in style or overly intellectual when it comes to worship.
    FWIW, I pastor an American Baptist church in Santa Barbara county.

    • Ron, your observations are correct: conservative and intellectual are two characteristics that often mark the style of progressive churches–in ways that can be dreary and threats to vitality. I believe, however, that ideas are important for all of us and can contribute to vitality and energy of public gatherings, including worship. The aesthetics, especially music, have the power of driving a service, providing energy and movement. The ideas and aesthetics have to be appropriate to the Christian faith and expressive within the cultural setting of the worshiping body. I would be interested in your suggestions and in names of some of the churches that you would cite as examples.

  3. sacredise says:

    Hi Keith,

    As a progressive, South African liturgist I am so excited to have discovered this series, and I can’t wait to hear what will unfold as you lead us through it.

    I once read an article in which the writer mentioned that when he visited progressive churches the theology connected with him, but the worship was dry and boring, but when he visited conservative churches, the worship would inspire him, but the theology would make him cringe. He pleaded for churches to think about becoming places where solid theology and vibrant worship could be combined. This has been my quest ever since reading it, and is the basis for my work around South Africa.

    It sounds like you have a similar concern and passion to marry progressive theology and vibrant worship experiences. I look forward to learning from you.

    • John, I look forward to learning about your quest to unite vibrant worship and believable theology. One of my goals for this series is to encourage helpful communication among people with similar interests. In their 1995 book “Rerouting the Protestant Mainstream” C. Kirk Hadaway and David A. Roozen described “the spiritually oriented mainstream church” and stated that in such churches “the key element…is worship. And the key element of worship in a spiritually oriented church is the expectation, the presumption, the surety, that God is present in the service and in the lives of anyone who is open to God’s Spirit.” Quoting Leonard Sweet, they state that such worship is not “conservative summer camp religion” or “camp meeting religion.” Instead, “it is religious experience that welcomes the transcendent God in all God’s mystery–without giving up reason or tradition.” (p. 82)

      • sacredise says:

        Thanks for your reply, Keith. “Rerouting the Protestant Mainstream” sounds like a book I need to read! (Adding it to my wishlist). I certainly resonate with the quote you mention.

        I’m actually in the final stages of writing a book that seeks to develop something of a “progressive theology of worship” or a “theology of worship for the emerging church” if you will. So this conversation is coming at a significant moment for me.

        Thank you again.

  4. Peter Carlson says:

    As a fellow historian of religion *and* a fellow aggressive cyclist, I can only assume we were separated at birth. That being doubtful (my parents were unflinchingly honest, and I’ve no doubt they would have told me), I’ll simply let you know how grateful I am for your account of worship at All Saints, which is my congregation.

    Perhaps one of the most important things you mention is the care with which the liturgy is treated; we do not lightly change the historic words of our tradition. Gendered references to God are sometimes included, but always with an explanation that we believe in a God who both embraces and transcends gender.

    But that care in creating and participating in the liturgy is simply one part of the greater mission of All Saints, which is to foster the peace and justice ministry to which we believe Jesus calls us all as his followers. When we state the words “Who ever you are, and where ever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome here,” we mean it. In that sense, the liturgy at All Saints is easy to join, but challenging to live out.

  5. Rodney Allen Reeves says:

    Been busy, busy Keith & just now managed to read your Monday 7/12 blog post, An Alternative Way of Worship for Progressive Churches.

    My-oh-my, your proposed blog reflections “during the next few weeks, sounds like a major undertaking, maybe even the groundwork for a needed published work? 🙂

    Indeed, in my view, to interface progressive Christian theologies with the “characteristics of the church’s definitve liturgy of Word and Sacrement” that meet your three proposed criteria, will be a difficult, sensitive & important challenge. But I know personally of no one better equipped in your life work to so venture. I look forward to your reflections on your venture.

    Why such a challenge? Such a sensitive undertaking?

    In part…..a key dynamic in the chruch’s “historic tradtion”, certainly at least as commonly understood and as largely taught by the church — is that God fulfills a salvific plan to ‘save’ or ‘redeem’ humankind from their ‘sin’ of separation from God and from their neighbor (also daughters & sons of God), via the crucifixion of the pre-Easter Jesus of Nazareth — the soon to be post-Easter Christ — a one time anomaly of “God with us” almost two thousand years ago — outside the walls of Jerusalem at the Place of the Skull, called Golgotha.

    This core Christian affirmation of a salvific vicarious atonement of humankind in and through the “blood which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sin” via the execution of Jesus Christ via the Roman authorities, confirmed in the mysterious empty tomb and resurrection — revivifies imagery of a crucified & living savior each week in public Christian worship during the Eucharistic (Communion) Celebration in the Words of Institution/I Corinthians 11:23-26 used in our usual place of worship in Portland, OR., and by many congregations (especially Disciple congregations) that include many individuals who embody in their faith journey Christian progessive theologies.

    Progressive Christian theologies (yes it is plural “theologies”) takes numerous shapes & forms.

    One key dynamic of progressive theology in my personal experience, is to live in a condition of “progression”, to be & exist in “process” — of moving forward, being grounded less in an event almost two thousand years ago, and more in our existential “sitze im leben” (life situation) relationship with our God of Creating Energy, Presence & Compassion and with our sisters and brothers, daughters & sons of God — in a condition of “ethical grace” that Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Ann Parker describe in their powerful book “Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire.” (2008, Beacon Press) This of course was a read last year that the Religion & Culture reading/discussion group we (you & I) co-founded about 6 or 7 years ago. Without question for me, one of the top six or so books our group has read/discussed.

    Another key dynamic of progressive theologies is the rejection of redemptive violence or valorizing suffering. In this regard, Christian Communion Liturgy is often problematic.

    A concluding one sentence contruction of my progressive Christian theology: Centering more and more deeply in God and in the ‘face of the other’ in our life journey, nurtured/enabled by being in relationship with Jesus, not experienced as a One Time Anomaly of “God with us” but as a Classic Instance of “God with us”, or in the reflection of Edward Scribner Ames (an early 20th century Disciple of Christ scholar) in which Jesus is differentiated from us in degree, not in kind (“The Divinity of Christ”, Bethany Press, 1911). We are all children of God! Thanks be to God!

    Keith, I greatly look forward to your bold venture over the “next few weeks.”

    Your friend & fellow disciple/Disciple of Christ…


    • Rod, the theological issue that you describe is one of the central questions to be addressed by all Christians wherever they locate themselves on the theological spectrum. I am gradually revisiting some of the books that I read in former years as well as new books, such as the one by Brock and Parker that you mention. In this series on an alternative way of worship for progressive churches, I will be able to address this topic only tangentially, but as time goes on I expect to discuss it more directly. At this point, I do want to note that in the New Testament the language is more exclamatory and metaphorical and less didactic and analytical. I find Paul to be more believable than Anselm. The problem is that most of the time we read Paul, John, and even Matthew through the distorted lens of later writers.

  6. I do think the creed is an important part of worship and there should be at least two lessons and a psalm. The main problem, however, is lack of incense.

  7. Patrick Kuhl says:


    I’m music minister at Bob’s church and am looking forward to where you take this.

    • Music is an important consideration. I will address this aspect of worship later in the series. I quickly add, however, that I am not a musician and my comments will suggest principles rather than recommend specific musical elements.

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