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.