The Americanization of Christian Worship

January 16, 2018

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.

 

 


Kenneth Woodward’s Requiem for a Lost America

January 30, 2017

Responding to Kenneth L. Woodward’s Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama (New York: Convergent, 2016)

woodwardFew people have had the opportunity that has come to Kenneth L. Woodward who devoted most of his career to writing about American religion. His base was one of the most favored journalistic posts of the half century during which he worked: religion editor for Newsweek. This position provided financial support and entrée so that he could go places, watch from the inside, and talk extensively with people who were central to what was going on.

He wrote extensively and frequently in disciplined and lively, readable language. In later years, institutional archives have made this backlog of material available for him to draw upon when needed. Among the strengths of Woodward’s reporting is that he writes as a Christian believer and as a self-aware old man, conditions he affirms in the final paragraph of the book.

“One of the blessings of old age is the clarity with which diminishing energy of mind and body allows us to see what has been our human lot all along—namely, contingency, transience, and finitude. We cannot control what may happen to us. Nothing lasts forever. We must die. These hold true for believer and nonbeliever alike. They are the existential facts of life that all religions in different ways address. In reply, Christians like myself are called to abide in Faith, Hope, and Love. What matters is that God’s grace is everywhere” (413).

Everyone interested in the life of our nation during this half century can benefit from this book of “lived history” that Woodward has written. It is clear, articulate, vivid, and filled with insight concerning the central topic, which is the interaction of religion, culture, and politics during this period.

As soon as I started reading the book, I liked it. Perhaps the most important reason is that we are close to the same age (I was born in 1931, Woodward in 1935). We grew up in an era when the United States was characterized by what he calls embedded religion, marked by a fusion of faith, culture, and politics. He grew up in a Catholic culture in Cleveland, Ohio, whereas I grew up in a low-church Protestant culture in Portland, Oregon. Although the details of church life and education differed dramatically, there was an undergirding system of values, especially as focused on family structure, transmitted by church and school, that was much the same.

The first half of the book held my attention as Woodward describes the traditional patterns and then reports on the rapid changes that occurred, especially during the fifties and sixties. He describes the entrepreneurial religion of people like Billy Graham, basing his accounts on frequent interaction with leaders of these religious responses to changes in American life.

He gives careful attention to major changes in his own church, pushed in part by the Vatican Council, and describes the dismantling of the embeddedness that had been so important in his growing up years. Changes in Catholic liturgy and debates over birth control are carefully chronicled, and Woodward’s ambivalence about what was happening is clear. He quotes from his feature essay in a 1971 issue of Newsweek to describe why he and other Catholics of the time could remain steady in their faith.

“When the Catholic faith runs deep, it establishes a certain sensuous rhythm in the soul, a sacramental sensibility that suffuses ordinary things—bread, water, wine, the marriage bed—and transforms them into vehicles of grace. In these spiritual depths, doctrine and church laws fade in importance” (92).

At this point in his book, Woodward turns in a new direction. He describes the civil rights movement, as led by Martin Luther King, Jr., in which religious faith and zeal led to public engagement and the vigorous efforts to realize religious aspirations in public life by transforming a racist society. He emphasizes the restructuring of American religion, as described by writers like Richard John Neuhaus and Robert Wuthnow.

Woodward quotes from James Davison Hunter’s book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America in order to state the central feature of the change that was occurring. “The great polarity in American religion, he argued, was between ‘orthodox’ believers who appealed to an external, definable, and transcendent authority and ‘progressives’ who tended to resymbolize the contents of historic faith according to the presuppositions of contemporary life” (179). Read more: woodward