Alternative Worship: Where Do We Start?

The first consideration in designing alternative worship for progressive churches is to choose the liturgical rite that will be the focus of attention. Will it be the Word/Table pattern that has been the theological norm since apostolic times? Or will it be the Music/Message pattern that has been common practice in many churches since Reformation times? My discussion will be based on the Word/Table pattern—the eucharist—for the following reasons.

First, during the church’s formative years, Christians drew upon the synagogue with its focus on Torah and prayers, and meal-centered practices, including Jesus’ fellowship meals with his closest friends and followers, to create their distinctive Christian rite. In the generations that followed, liturgical practice stabilized in several regional variants and became the normative pattern for Christian worship. The challenge for Christians in progressive churches is to inculturate classic worship into their theological culture.

Second, as I learned from Margaret Mead, the most basic human actions—actions like bathing and eating—are especially useful as the basis for human ritualization. Because the actions are so basic, we do them without having to think much about the detail. Therefore, they can become the carrier of meanings distinct from their function in ordinary life. It is easy to understand why the ritual bath of regeneration (baptism) and the “bread of heaven” (eucharist) are the basic sacramental forms of the church’s life. Meal ceremonies generate are used to remember the past (anniversaries and birthdays), anticipate the future (weddings), celebrate important events, delimit and manifest family and associational connections. It is no surprise that some of the most complex theological and sociological discussions in the Pauline epistles are stimulated by meal imagery in 1 Corinthians (especially chapter 11). Similar challenges face progressive Christians today.

Third, central affirmations of the Christian faith are intertwined in the prayers and actions of the Word/Table pattern. Furthermore, the elaborated theological systems of the several ecclesial traditions come into focus in eucharistic worship. Part of our responsibility as progressive Christians is to affirm, in appropriate ways, the central claims of the Christian faith, including teachings about God, the nature and work of Jesus, the world, humankind, sin, salvation, and atonement.

What these three points imply is that developing an alternative way of worship for progressive churches is a specific form of the task that faces every generation, which is to inculturate Christian worship. The work has to progress at several levels: theological (how we define and explain our faith), artistic (how we embody faith and theology in rites, ceremonies, song, dance, and drama), practical (how we form and maintain communities) and missiological (how we live our faith in the world “groaning in travail waiting for its redemption).

I have addressed the challenge of inculturation in a paper entitled “Each of Us in Our Own Native Language” (2006). The subtitle indicates my focus in that paper: “Connecting Classic Worship and Popular Culture.” Although I address challenges facing progressive churches in only tangential manner, this paper provides a fuller exposition of what it means to express the eternal and living Word of God in melodies, rhythms, and languages that touch the hears and satisfy the minds of people whose cultures are rooted in contrasting and often conflicting ethnic, generational, and intellectual communities.

Note: My thanks to Bob Cornwall who has recently posted excerpts from some of my published work. Although most of my books are no longer in print, most of them can still be purchased from secondary sources listed on the internet.

8 Responses to Alternative Worship: Where Do We Start?

  1. Bob Cornwall says:


    Thank you for this next step in the process. I know the historical context in which the Table was removed from its earlier central place among Protestants. My question would focus on why we still seem to be in the same place.

    It started out as a protest against Catholic practice and the influence of transubstantiation, but that no longer seems pertinent. Now its a question of “over-familiarity.” Why is that?

    • Bob, worship in the Reformation period was partly the effort to correct practice that was deemed unsatisfactory. In the process “Word of God” became the dominant metaphor. The theology of worship in Protestant churches, even after the liturgical movement of the latter part of the 20th century, has not changed. Add to this the relocation of experiential religion: charismatic experience of the Spirit rather than union with Christ through the sacrament of the altar. I used the phrase “music/message” to describe one liturgical unit. Perhaps it should be enlarged to “music/message/ecstasy.”

  2. Keith, this is a really helpful starting point. I find your categorisation of the two main liturgical streams (Word/Table or Music/Message) very helpful – I’m surprised that I haven’t seen them described in this way before.

    One question that arises for me – perhaps because my background in the South African Methodist Church leaves me with feet in both camps – is whether they have to be dichotomous. Do we have to choose a particular stream for our liturgical thinking and practice, and then adhere to that stream only, or is it possible to either move from one to the other for different times/events, or integrate the two into some sort of hybrid?

    It seems to me that both address potential gaps in the other, and that allowing the two to talk to each other could have exciting implications for Progressive Churches in worship. I wonder if the impression people have is that the theology of Word/Table worship is good, but the experience tends to be dry and possibly even boring, while the theology of Music/Message worship tends to be shallow and conservative while the experience is vibrant and inspiring. If, then, we could draw on both streams to create something that is relevant and exciting, AND theologically responsible and traditionally rooted, wouldn’t we have the best of both worlds?

    • John, congregational life needs several kinds of gatherings, from small groups in intimate settings to very large assemblies. The purposes differ, although they overlap. The pattern in some US churches today is to stage “seeker services,” which would be variants of my music/message pattern, on Sunday morning and celebrate the word/table service at another time (and maybe another place).

      In their own way, some progressive Christians have a similar idea. Sunday morning is where we appeal to the mind, especially of people who are doubtful about the believability of the Christian faith, and therefore music/message, with the emphasis upon message, becomes the mode. At a conference on church growth sponsored by a highly successful megachurch in Atlanta, Georgia, the pastor declared that he was unwilling to turn Sunday morning over to the unbelievers. He wanted Sunday morning to be oriented toward the faithful, but for it to conducted in such a way that unbelievers would be drawn in.

      Our goal should be to do worship in such a way that the most profound expressions of the gospel are embodied in word, music, ceremony, and sacrament that are consistent with the gospel and, to use your phrasing, vibrant, inspiring, relevant, and exciting.

      • Thanks Keith.

        I spent quite some time working with a “Seeker Service” model in one large church I worked at. During that time I discovered Sally Morgenthaler’s book “Worship Evangelism” in which she argues, convincingly, I believe, that the “seeker/believer” distinction is unhelpful.

        She points out that, from a Scriptural point of view, “believers” and “seekers” have always worshipped together. She also speaks of her own experience where sacraments, symbols, ritual and traditional hymnody have drawn “unchurched” people into meaningful experiences of worship. My own experience reflects the same pattern. For this reason I tend to be skeptical of separating the two forms – at least on the basis of how familiar people are with our faith or practice.

        I like really your closing comment about embodying the expressions of the Gospel through word, music, ceremony and sacrament. For me this can be done when we think theologically about both Word/Table and Music/Message forms, and bring them together into what I would probably call something like Word/Table/Practice: “Word” and “Message” are pretty much the same and are preacher driven; Table is largely leader or clergy driven; Practice then (which includes music, but is not limited to it) would allow for congregational participation – which is what I feel is often lacking in the Word/Table form (although with the performance based music of some contemporary hymns, participation can often be lacking in Message/Music, too).

        While I appreciate the theological depth of Word/Table, I am concerned that we may miss some of the real value that can be offered through Message/Music for progressive Sunday worship. Or maybe that’s just my Methodist roots showing!

  3. Larry Snow says:

    This summer — being on sabbatical — I’ve visited a couple of the “cutting edge” churches and was impressed by lots of what I saw — but was very disappointed at the way they did the Lord’s Supper. Yes, they celebrated the Lord’s Supper every day — but it was obvious that they had just tacked it on to the end of the service — after the music and message. I found this treatment of the Lord’s Supper to be offensive and confusing. It seemed to me that they were trying to do the traditional Word and Table on top of the newer? music and message. I think they need to make up their mind.

    Larry Snow

  4. Larry, another way to state the challenge is that the Lord’s Supper needs to be given the same careful attention as the other parts of the service. The same theological and liturgical criteria used in other parts of the service should also be used with the eucharistic climax. To use a cycling metaphor: even a modern carbon fiber frame with a high tech front wheel will have trouble competing if the rear wheel is a 45 mm cruiser wheel with soft tire designed to meander down the beach.

  5. […]     Worship is based on the classic Word-Table model, but with greater emphasis upon Word than upon Table. The Bible is central in worship and teaching, […]

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