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Why do many churches have such
different ways of worship?

In our society, one church may conduct worship in a highly structured, formal fashion with prescribed liturgies, ritual or ceremony. On the other hand, another church may worship very informally, with little structure, spontaneous expressions of praise to God, lively, hand clapping music or even manifestations of spiritual gifts. Such differences are largely a matter of whether a church follows post apostolic traditions handed down through the historic church, or subscribes to various conventions of reform which have sought to return to more authentic, New Testament patterns.

Worship is the fundamental objective of a church service, whose basic idea is simply stated as "worthship," the act of ascribing a value of high worth to something. Worship is the esteemed value in one's heart toward God, with honor and reverence expressed through acts of devotion, obedience and service. In the broad sense, worship can be displayed to God through such things as attending church, reading scripture, singing hymns, giving tithes and offerings, prayer, public testimonies of thanksgiving, receiving communion, offering oral praise, clapping or lifting hands. But in the strictest sense, worship is pure adoration, lifting up the redeemed spirit toward God in contemplation of His holy perfection. "God is a Spirit; and they that worship Him must worship Him in Spirit and in truth" (John 4:24).

In the beginning of the church, it is believed that early Christian worship was a continuation of the traditional Jewish order, combined with the Apostles' teachings and fervor of the Holy Spirit. According to scripture, the services consisted of: Preaching or Exhortation (Acts 20:7), Reading the Scriptures (Acts 2:42, 17:2,11), Personal and Corporate Prayer (Acts 2:42, 4:31, 12:5, 20:36), Singing (Acts 16:25, Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16), Water Baptism (Acts 2:41), Communion (Acts 2:42, 1 Cor. 11:18-34), Stewardship (1 Cor. 16:2), and Charismatic Gifts (1 Cor. 14:26).

Many of these observances were described of a typical Sunday service in the year A.D. 140, by Justin Martyr: "On the Lord's Day, a meeting of all, who live in the cities and villages, is held, and a section from the Memoirs of the Apostles (the Gospels) and the writings of the Prophets (the Old Testament) is read, as long as the time permits. When the reader has finished, the president, in a discourse, gives an exhortation to the imitation of these noble things. After this we all rise in common prayer. At the close of the prayer, as we have before described, bread and wine with water are brought. The president offers prayer and thanks for them, according to the power given him, and the congregation responds the Amen. Then the consecrated elements are distributed to each one, and partaken, and are carried by the deacons to the houses of the absent. The wealthy and the willing then give contributions according to their free will, and this collection is deposited with the president, who therewith supplies orphans and widows, poor and needy, prisoners and strangers, and takes care of all who are in want." (Songs were not mentioned here, but were elsewhere in his writings — Charismatic gifts are mentioned by Iraneus in 150).

Both the scriptures and later historical writings suggest that gatherings of early Christian worship were organized with some measure of liturgy (formal order). But the book of Acts shows that the believers also possessed a spontaneous freedom of worship, not confined to formality or structure. There was remarkable intimacy with God, with an inclination to worship God any time, any place. For example, while Paul and Silas were jailed in Philippi, in the middle of the night, they were heard throughout the prison, singing and worshiping the Lord. They had no song books, no worship leader, nor padded pews. Their feet were fastened in stocks, and were likely in pain from the earlier beating — but in the unlighted, stench-filled dungeon, the sounds of their spontaneous, heartfelt praise were heard. "But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them" (Acts 16:25).

In the New Testament church, oral expressions of giving thanks and praise to God were never intended to be restricted to a formal ritual — they were meant to be personal, continual and spontaneous. "Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name" (Heb. 13:15). The services were not confined to rigid structure, but there was sensitivity to the promptings of the Holy Spirit who might redirect the order on the spur of the moment (Acts 13:2). And unlike today's well-polished, twenty minute sermons, the preaching was extemporaneous and the length of services were flexible. "Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight" (Acts 20:7).

Furthermore, another unique characteristic of the early church was that its ministry was not confined to clergymen. The meetings were mainly in homes, and the laity were not mere spectators — all were participants to what was happening. They were "...teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in their hearts to the Lord" (Col. 3:16). James even exhorted the believers to confess their trespasses to each other and to pray for one another (James 5:16). The trend of whole-body ministry apparently continued through later centuries, as one of the third-century church fathers, Tertullian, described his church services: "In our Christian meetings we have plenty of songs, verses, sentences and proverbs. After hand-washing and bringing in the lights, each Christian is asked to stand forth and sing, as best he can, a hymn to God, either of his own composing, or one from the Holy Scriptures."

The original New Testament form of worship is the format that every modern church should seek to emulate. However, it seems to be a great contrast to today's conventional service which is sometimes more comparable to the setting of a "theater." The platform is viewed as the "stage." The ministers on the stage are the "performers." The congregation is the "audience" — spectators to the performance on the stage. The order of service or liturgy, is the formal "script" which directs the performance.

These concepts and other perfunctory trends of worship evolved throughout a millennium of formalism that first began to emerge in the fourth century. For over three hundred years, the church had structure and order (1 Cor. 14:40), combined with a liberty that fostered body participation and spontaneity to the Holy Spirit. But now its focus would shift toward a formal replication of ceremony, ritual and symbolic icons, largely from the influence of the newly converted Emperor of Rome, Constantine (A.D. 312), who sought to integrate Christianity with the grandiose paradigms of the empire. It was during this era, that the first cathedrals for Christian worship were constructed and prescribed liturgies were imposed upon the churches. Today, liturgical churches such as the Roman Catholic church, still subscribe to such formalistic views of worship.

The progression of formalism, liturgy, and ritual continued for over a thousand years under the two formal Christian institutions, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. But the era of reformation in the 16th century brought reformed concepts to worship. Two of the principal reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, made significant contributions that would influence liturgical thought for many generations. Luther's liturgical reform was guided by the principle that if the scriptures did not expressly reject a particular practice, the church was free to keep it. Consequently, Lutheran worship retained much of the ceremonial practice of Catholic worship. Calvin however, argued that only practices explicitly taught in Scripture could be used in worship. For this reason, churches influenced by Calvin have been less inclined to restore pre-Reformation practices of worship perceived as unbiblical or Catholic.

The famed spiritual awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries brought about further reforms to worship, developed in the revival movements of the American frontier. Many leaders and groups were instrumental in integrating these influences into the local churches. One such key figure was the legendary evangelist of the early 19th century, Charles Finney. When Finney settled down to a pastorate in the mid 1830's, the methods used in his revival campaigns became the basis for a revised approach to liturgy (called the new measures) which increasingly became adapted by churches on the eastern seaboard.

Finney viewed evangelism as the primary focus in church life, and integrated the concepts of the camp meeting into Sunday worship. He tried to do away with what he described as "dead orthodoxy" — prepared and lengthy prayers, written sermons, ominous psalm-singing — in favor of sprightly songs directed to the needs of the sinner, emotionally stirring sermons designed to promote repentant response on the part of the souls for the lost. The focus and content of sermons changed to imitate the revival pattern as well. With conversion rather than corporate worship as the focus, the sermon became the most direct means of persuading the unconverted in the congregation to give their lives to Christ. Altar calls, previously unheard of in a worship service, became frequent elements of a standard service. This "revivalistic" approach to worship continued as the dominant tradition of free churches and is today the general order within the fundamentalist and evangelical churches.

In the twentieth century, attitudes of worship were again greatly influenced by spiritual awakenings. The Pentecostal movement of the early 1900's, and the Charismatic renewal of the 1960's, both emphasized the operation of spiritual gifts and a return to New Testament practices of worship freedom. The influence of these movements upon celebrated ministers, Gospel music artists, and media personalities, combined with a widespread hunger for spiritual renewal, effectuated the birth of what became called the "praise and worship" movement. This describes a growing, popular worship style that draws on contemporary choruses, usually in a flowing or connected sequence, and often features the lifting of hands in praise, ministry through the laying on of hands, and an inviting and informal worship climate. More than all other liturgical reforms, these more recent renewals have brought worshipers closer to the authentic New Testament patterns of worship.

Baker's Dictionary of Theology
History of the Christian Church, Philip Schaff
Twenty Centuries of Christian Worship

This article is from the book, What People Ask About the Church, authored and copyrighted © by Dr. Dale A. Robbins, 1990-2015, and is a publication of Victorious Publications, Grass Valley, CA - Nashville, TN. Unless otherwise stated, all scripture references were taken from The New King James Bible, © Thomas Nelson Inc., 1982. You may download this article for personal use as long as you retain credit to the author. Obtain permission before reproducing copies for any reason, by filling out our simple permission form. Many of our writings are also available as free pdf tri-fold pamphlets, which can be downloaded for reproduction from our Online Catalog. For media reproduction rights, or to obtain quantities of this title in other formats, email us.