Progressive Christian Worship -- The Starting Point

Keith Watkins is in the midst of an ongoing discussion of what an alternative worship for progressive churches might look like.  Keith is a theologically liberal/progressive Disciple with strong commitments to the historic liturgical tradition.  In setting out a starting point for our discussion, he asks whether we will start with a "music/message" position, which has been common among Protestants since the Reformation -- that is, we sing and then we finish with a sermon -- or will we choose the "Word/Table" position that has ancient roots.  Being that he is Disciple, a tradition that places great emphasis on weekly communion, it's not surprising (at least to me), that Keith chooses the Word/Table position.

In this week's post he suggests three bases for this choice.

  • He notes the early Christian dependence on both the synagogue  worship practices using Torah and Prayers, which were then combined with Jesus' Table fellowship practices.
  • Noting dependence on Margaret Mead, he points out that bathing and eating are basic to human life, and can become important bearers of meanings that are distinct from the actual functions of these acts.  He writes:    

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.
  • Finally, intertwined with this pattern of Word and Table one can find the basic theological affirmations of the Christian faith -- the nature of God, the person of Christ, sin, salvation, atonement.

Keith goes on to say:

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).
As I read this, Keith is saying that there has been a historic pattern that provides us with the key elements by which worship can be formed, but these patterns must be re-inculturated in each new day.  Starting with this perspective one can look at what is happening today.  Much "contemporary worship" is of the music/message variety, while many mainline churches have the Word/Table pattern but remain stuck in the 1950s as far as the culture part of the equation.  By placing the focus on Word/Table, however, the emphasis is not placed on music, which is not to say that music isn't important.  I believe that music is critical to vital worship, but music supports the pattern, while not forming the pattern itself. 

You can read the entire piece at Keith's blog by clicking here.  While there you will find a link to a lengthy paper dealing with the question of inculturation that Keith wrote several years ago.  As you read this post I invite you to engage in conversation at Keith's blog and here as well. 


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