Progressive Churches and the “Something Other” Liturgy

Across a wide theological and cultural range, serious Christians are trying to establish what Lutheran theologian Thomas Schattauer has dubbed the “something other service.” In his vice presidential address to the North American Academy of Liturgy, he declared that at its core this impulse is directed “toward imagining and constructing an alternative to conventional ways of worship and conventional ways of being Christian” (italics added). “Conventional worship—and with it, conventional Christianity—focuses in one direction on the maintenance of the church as an institution and in the other on the individual as the recipient of spiritual benefits; it tends to support the social and political status quo.”

Most of the address is devoted to Schattauer’s analysis of five “perspectives on how to shape this alternative practice” in congregations in the North American context: “the liturgical movement, the contemporary worship movement, liberation perspectives, postmodern approaches, and pentecostalism.”

At the conclusion of his essay, he distills five generalizations, one from each of these impulses, proposing that there is considerable crossover of these perspectives. Schattauer encourages his colleagues in the Academy to engage in constructive conversation using these perspectives as the basis for their work.

This same purpose motivates me to develop this series of columns on an alternative way of worship for progressive churches. Whatever our leadership role—scholar, pastor, musician, missiologist, artist, administrator—we can work together to move past conventionality toward a God-centered, mission oriented, culturally relevant pattern of church life and worship.

Here is Schattauer’s list:

  • Recovery of historic practice toward a distinctive community witnessing to God’s purpose in the world
  • Use of cultural materials toward a wider embrace of people (be it the unchurched or particular ethnic groups)
  • Attention to the experience of the marginalized toward justice and inclusion of God’s reign
  • Focus on relational community toward social belonging and wholeness
  • Openness to the movement of God’s Spirit toward personal healing, holiness, and hope

My perspectives have been deeply influenced by the first of Schattauer’s impulses: the liturgical movement. Schattauer says that its central interest is “to give the church clearer definition as a community of Christ through the focus on central practices which constitute persons in relation to Christ and to one another, most especially the reading and proclamation of Scripture, baptism, and Eucharist. Moreover, the purpose of this community in Christ constituted in its liturgical assembly is to be understood in relation to God’s purpose in the world.”

As useful as it is, Schattauer’s list gives insufficient attention to another impulse that I encounter with increasing urgency in theological literature and in conversations with church people week after week: the need to restate central Christian doctrines in ways that can be affirmed by people who have dismissed older ways of stating Christian beliefs and who are searching for believable ways of describing their faith. My early theological studies focused upon the continental liberal tradition and for a generation my closest theological colleagues were advocates of process theology. While I have only limited competence as theologian, the mood, perspective, and themes of contemporary liberal theology are important to the way I think about my life as a Christian.

My plan for this series is to propose that the classic union of Word and Table, understood in its simplest and most direct form, is the place to begin our construction of worship that is “something other.” I then will discuss each of its components, in their order as they appear in the classic shape of the service. Along the way, I will take time out to comment on specific challenges—atonement theologies in the eucharist, for example—that are especially challenging to the progressive Christians whom I meet week after week, in churches on Sundays and lots of other places on the other days.

Questions, comments, proposals, illustrations, and testimonies are much appreciated. They will help to move the discussion forward.

Note: A pre-publication draft of the paper by Thomas H. Schattauer can be accessed at the site below (link provided with the author’s permission):

8 Responses to Progressive Churches and the “Something Other” Liturgy

  1. Bob Cornwall says:

    Keith, thank you for giving further definition as to where this series will go! We are looking forward to seeing it fully developed.

  2. sacredise says:

    This is a helpful framework, Keith – thank you. I find Schattauer’s list very helpful, and I am encouraged by the suggestion it offers that there is a growing group of liturgists and scholars that are seeking to integrate the gifts of these different traditions into a unified, but theologically responsible whole.

    I agree with your critique, though, that it fails to address the need to restate or reframe some of the basic tenets of our faith. I am excited to see how you will address this. Your mention of the atonement theories in the Eucharist has really got my attention – I can’t wait for that.

    If I may add a comparable framework that I use in my work as a liturgist, both for your comment, and as an alternative – or an addition – to Schattauer’s list. I like to think of the liturgy as seeking to fulfill five characteristics of the Church’s life:
    1. Apocalyptic – Worship is essentially a place in which God’s self-revelation can be experienced by human beings.
    2. Therapeutic – Worship is a place where personal and collective wholeness is inspired and developed. This links with the last item on Schattauer’s list.
    3. Didactic – Worship is the most basic environment in which faith, theology or “knowledge of God” if you will, is communicated. It is perhaps here that your restating of doctrine would probably fall.
    4. Koinoniac – Worship fosters the community of faith, and empowers it to be a welcoming representation of God’s welcoming Kingdom.
    5. Kerygmatic – Worship proclaims the Gospel message as both a confrontation against injustice and evil (via negativa, if you will) and an invitation into God’s transformed, just and abundant life (via positiva).

    In both Word and Table all of these characteristics should be consistently present for our worship to be authentic and transformative. Ultimately the test of our worship is whether it leads us into diakonia – acts of service – embodying the servant nature of Christ (as in John 13 & Phil.2)

    I offer this simply as a response and as a possible contribution to the conversation. I hope it is helpful. If not, feel free to disregard it.

    Thanks again for taking us on this journey.


    • John, thank you for your list of criteria for use when considering worship that is theologically faithful and ecclesially effective. I will keep it in mind as I continue to develop my series. I am in the early stages of research for a book on the history of the Consultation on Church Union which began 50 years ago this coming December. One of the earliest reports (March 1963) stated that “the liturgy or work of the Church is the place where grace as the pardoning and empowering act of God in Christ and faith as the response of man meet together, resulting in adoration, reconciliation, and loving obedience to him in worship, mission and witness to the world.” Except for the gendered language, the statement continues to be worthy of our consideration. Simply to unpack that statement, filling out each of the words, would result in a useful way of conceiving of our task as we seek to create an alternative way of worship.

      • sacredise says:

        I agree, Keith – that is a statement that contains a whole lot of meaning and some great food for thought around our liturgical task. I’m going to note it and spend some time reflecting on it. Thank you!

        I enjoy the ‘dialogic’ approach of this statement – grace as God’s work, faith as our response, which would open us further to grace, leading to further response in faith…

        I hope you’re going to do some of the unpacking as this series continues.

  3. Doug Sloan says:

    (excerpts from “RECLAIMING CHURCH”)

    How many of us have seen or participated in placing a hand on the wall of the sanctuary and then said, “This is not the church.” With this act, we were trying to illustrate that it is the people of our faith community who are the church and not the building. Do we have any idea what we just said? If the building is not the church, why do we spend so much time and effort dealing with it? If the building is not the church, why is it so important to us? After we have said, “This is not the church,” have we ever taken a far look in the direction we just pointed? What happens when we extend that thought?

    Much of what we call successful Christianity and successful worship and successful congregations has nothing to do with living and sharing the Good News.

    Once we begin to think of our faith in terms of largeness instead of largess or in terms of measurable success or significant achievements or community stature or statistically significant gains or business models or congregational models or appropriate budget processes or cash flow direction or generally accepted accounting practices or independent audits or administrative requirements or managerial transparency or proper leadership roles and boundaries or membership trends or effective organizational structures or a current and accurate vision statement – at that point, we have become the money changers – we have lost our faith and deserve to be driven away for we are neither living nor sharing the Good News.

    “Doing” has to be the new definition of faith. A “new definition” will not be statements of purpose/mission/vision or political participation or public stances on issues or styles of worship. It will be specific activities; specific ways of living that are the new definition. Participating in CODA or LifeLine or Habitat for Humanity will not be an outreach activity; it will be what we do and definitive of who we are. Supporting a free clinic or a food pantry or a shelter for the homeless will not be the focus of an annual fund-raising event; it will be part of our continuously active and visible theological and spiritual DNA. Worship will not be every Sunday morning – it will be whenever and wherever 2 or 3 (not 200 or 300, not 2,000 or 3,000, not 20,000 or 30,000) are gathered to live, study, and contemplate the Good News. Indeed, “doing” will be about living and being the Good News, not scheduling it as a repetitive activity on our digital calendar on the same day at the same time that always occurs at the same location and always follows the same program and sequence just so it will be easier to update the Sunday bulletin. “Doing” our faith does not require capital campaigns; local, regional, or national governing boards; seminaries; or licensing/ordination policies.

    “Doing” our faith has to be seen as a radical, counter-cultural, defiant way of living. By its very nature, our faith is not supposed to be institutionalized and not measured by largeness, cultural pervasiveness, or authoritarianism. Our faith is supposed to be personal and divinely humane. Our faithful doing is to be delivered person-to-person, face-to-face, one-to-one – not by an invisible faceless remote committee or collective. “Doing” our faith can be accomplished only with more personal involvement and not with more technology that is better, more pervasive, more invasive, and increasingly remote and detached.

    Congregations should be small groups meeting for worship in the homes of different members. Just imagine: Church with no offerings, no church governing boards and no board meetings, no committees and no committee meetings, no rehearsals, no fund raisers, no capital campaigns, no finances, no buildings, no property, no maintenance or repairs or replacements, no employees, no membership drives. Just imagine: Church as only worship, only studying, only witnessing in word and service to each other and the world.

    • Doug, thank you for posting these paragraphs that so clearly state a point of view that has a long history in the church, beginning with the earliest Christian communities described in the apostolic writings. I especially appreciate your emphasis upon our living a way of life that embodies in a fundamental way the values that we affirm. I also affirm the authenticity of the “two-or-three” definition of worship. I am not ready, however, to dismiss the authenticity and important function of the larger assembly. A few years ago, some of the literature proposed a model of the local church that included both the cell and the celebration. Each mode of assembly has important functions and certain limitations. An especially interesting discussion of these dynamics appears in a book by Sidney Schwarz: “Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews Can Transform the American Synagogue” (see pp 40ff).

  4. […] service,” First Christian in Portland developed its own version of what might now be called “a something other service.” A weekly planning session of laity and pastor, no organ, an informal choir called “The Joyful […]

  5. […] Gradually, these churches and the worship the conduct  become “conventional,” to use Tom Schattauer’s analysis, salt that has lost its savor, to use the cryptic analogy from the Sermon on the Mount. For this […]

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