The Americanization of Christian Worship

Much of my working time is focused on two book  length manuscripts, both of which are related to my part of the church family, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.) In his 1989 book, Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition, United Methodist church historian James F. White places my church in a chapter that he entitles “Frontier Worship.”

He devotes eight chapters to patterns based on earlier traditions, including Roman Catholic, major protestant, separatist and Puritan, Quaker, and Methodist. He then turns to what he terms the “most prevalent worship tradition in American Protestantism (and maybe American Christianity),” noting that it “lacks any recognized name.”

While “Frontier-revival tradition” would be more complete, he decides that this term is too cumbersome and abridges it to “Frontier religion.” As the prominent representatives of this tradition, he names Southern Baptist, Disciples of Christ, and Churches of Christ.”

The “essential discovery” of these churches, he writes, was “a form of worship for the unchurched. . .Although several traditions practiced evangelistic preaching outside the church, none of them developed a whole system of worship that led to baptism rather than leading from it.“ While worship in the other churches was “still operating within a world of Christendom when it reached the American frontier,” churches of this new tradition “acquired their distinctive characteristics on the American frontier” (171).

The practical problem was ministering to the scattered population in the newly occupied middle-western territories.  Church leaders found that evangelizing the unchurched was better served by sacramental worship, based on the sacramental seasons within the Presbyterian traditions, than by preaching services. These multi-day, ecumenical events began with preaching and spiritual awakening and led to baptism and the eucharist. The music that developed was easy to sing. “Even obdurate and unrepentant sinners might be worn down by four days of incessant singing, praying, and preaching.” Baptism would be administered and the converts welcomed to the eucharistic table. When they returned to their home communities, they would be received into membership in a congregation there.

Another characteristic of the Frontier tradition was the use of the Bible as the source of teachings about the shape  of church organization and practices of worship. New Testament worship was most clearly seen in the Disciples of Christ movement where conducting the communion service every Sunday became standard practice. Because of the influence of Sidney Rigdon, an early Disciples leader who later became a Mormon, that new church also adopted a variant of the Lord’s Supper as part of its regular weekly meetings. The frontier churches also established the practice of adult conversion and baptism by immersion.

“Sacramental piety,” White continues, “was largely shaped by the rationalism of the Enlightenment [which was] the only available option. They did not go out of their way to refute the traditional approach found in Calvin or Wesley; they simply no longer lived in a sacral universe” (181). The pastoral prayer as a regular part of the Sunday service and the use of evangelistic music also emerged in the Frontier tradition churches. The traditional Christian year was given little attention and instead a pragmatic year with new events such as Mother’s Day, Rally Day, and Homecoming became normal practice. White also notes that these churches have largely resisted post-Vatican II reforms in worship.

White describes the later manifestations of worship designed for the unchurched in revivalism and the development of variant groups such as Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists. Radio and television preachers and their churches represent this continuing strain. White does not, however, note that the Disciples of Christ has in later years identified more fully with other ecumenical protestant churches, such as Presbyterian and United Church of Christ, rather than continuing forward with variants that embrace conservative theology and other characteristics of the twentieth-century evangelical movement. Disciples combine distinctive Frontier features, such as the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper and prominent lay leadership. I think of Disciples as being “low-church Episcopalians” rather than “high-church Baptists.”

We live in a time when a new cultural frontier is opening upon us. The Christendom that was still dominant in the early 1800s has essentially disappeared in American life. Instead, we inhabit a post-Christian frontier, in which former mores and prejudices are disappearing. New generations of unchurched, individualized, unconventionally defined ways of life are coming into being. If there is a religious modality common among younger generations, it could be described, Kenneth L. Woodward writes in Getting Religion, as “moralistic, therapeutic deism” or “religion with a shrug.” It’s time for churches, like my own, that emerged to serve the frontier 200 years ago, to remake themselves to serve the new frontier in which we now live.

Protestant Worship was published in 1989 by Westminster/John Knox Press; Getting Religion was published in 2016 by Convergent.



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