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Sunday’s Structure, Style & Content Sample Resource

Characteristics of Traditional Protestant Worship

Traditional Protestant worship has benefited from the findings of modern scholarship regarding early Christian practices. Today’s Protestants recognize that worship is a celebration of God’s saving deeds, a celebration that makes the benefit and power of God’s healing action available to the worshiping community. 

During recent years many churches have experimented, separately and together, in the effort to be faithful to their own life and to find renewal. It is now possible to identify six convictions or principles that are emerging from this period of reform, principles that may help us think afresh the purpose, pattern, and practice of Christian worship.

Retelling the Biblical Story.

Authentic worship is rooted in the church’s experience of the gospel, especially as it is expressed in the Bible and in the church’s living experience through history. Churches are rediscovering the significance of “recital,” the importance of retelling in worship the wonderful deeds of God. From the Exodus and Easter to contemporary examples of new birth, these stories show how our own lives may be shaped by God. The touchstone for comprehending God’s action in our lives is most certainly Scripture; but Scripture itself is a product of the early Christian community and is necessarily reinterpreted in each succeeding generation if it is to be a living witness to the love and power of God.

Scripture and “tradition” thus form an inseparable basis for our worship. Together they testify that the disclosure of God-in-Christ to which the Bible witnesses is a living, present reality. To say that worship is rooted in Scripture, therefore, is not simply a call for solemn recollection of what God once did, but an acknowledgment that worship is encounter with the divine here and now. 

Theological Worship.

Worship is deeply and inevitably theological. Worship expresses ideas about God, God’s relationship to the world, and the world’s response to God. Other aspects of theology are also implied in worship, including ideas about Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, the church, salvation, and the meaning of life. This theological quality is present in the service not only as a whole but also in its parts—from the order of its parts to the wording of all that is spoken or sung, to the manner in which the service is conducted. Thus the key question for the service as a whole and all its parts is this: Does this act of worship speak the truth? Decisions about worship are sometimes made on the basis of practicality: “Will it work?” This criterion, though useful, is incomplete. Prior to every other criterion for worship is that of faithfulness to the will of God.


The church encompasses significant diversity in the theological positions on which its worship is based. Principles two and three must be held together, for the church contains not one but several theologies, all of which are intended to witness to the one true and living God.

For example, how should we answer this question: Is worship primarily a matter of God’s gift (grace) or of our human response to that gift (faith)? Most churches are now able to answer, “Both.” Christ’s presence at the Lord’s Supper, for example, does not depend upon our faith, for that would limit the freedom of God; but we now agree that the faith needed to discern it is also the worshipful celebration of a believing community.

To take another example, is worship primarily a remembrance of God’s saving acts or an anticipation of God’s sovereign reign which is to come? Do we emphasize the great tradition of Christian witness or the dynamic presence of the Spirit that opens us to the possibility of genuine newness? Again, churches are able to resist either/or answers, insisting that authentic anticipation is rooted in the memory of what God has done for our salvation.

Christians have long espoused a commitment to theological diversity. What this has often meant, however, is simply a lack of attention to theological issues, leaving the patterns of our worship to be determined by functional considerations. An authentic appreciation of diversity should lead us to take theology more seriously, not less so. While we happily acknowledge that there is no one correct way to offer thankful praise, it remains true that “as we worship, so shall we believe.” Every tradition thus needs to give close attention to the theology expressed in its worship.

Worship and Mission.

Worship is intimately connected with the church’s mission, including its struggles for peace and justice in the world. This connection goes back to Christianity’s Jewish heritage in which sacrifice, meditation on the law, and a life of obedience to God are intertwined. Christians, however, have often forgotten, or preferred to ignore, this relationship between worship and mission. Worship, they argue, is something that happens between individuals and God at certain specified times and places and should not be confused with social concerns.

The churches involved in the new consensus on worship have strongly rejected this line of thinking. The experience of God’s presence in worship should lead, they argue, to responsible care for God’s creation, and especially for those creatures who bear God’s image. Thankful praise is rendered not just by what we say and think, but by what we do. God is glorified through the lives of Christians in the world, even as those lives are renewed and sustained by coming together and sharing food in worship.

Universal and Local.

While worship involves ideas that are timeless and universal, it should be expressed through the culture of the local worshiping community. This principle may seem obvious, but it masks difficulties and dangers. On the one hand, the unity of the church demands that Christian worship in each place be recognizable as such to Christians from other contexts. We share the same Lord, the same faith, the same baptism, the same Scripture across all differences of language and culture. Surely our worship should reflect this universal inheritance.

On the other hand, people must hear the gospel and pray to God in speech that is their own, using art and ritual borrowed from their distinctive contexts. The modern consensus regarding worship recognizes that such contextualization inevitably takes place. The task is to encourage this process, while at the same time, insisting that the indigenous elements be carriers of the gospel that transcends all particular ideas and experiences.

Creative and Traditional.

Worship should be both open to creative transformation and conformed to enduring standards in its meaning and patterns. Churches have been divided into two groups: those that require the use of officially prescribed books and services and those that expect ministers and congregations to order worship locally. Today, the two groups are moving much closer together. Although they still use officially required service books, many have increased the choices that may be made by leaders of worship, and the mood of these prayers and services is very much like the mood that has characterized free church worship. The new publications of other churches, though, are examples of movement in the opposite direction. While continuing to value freedom of choice in their congregations, these churches are giving much more attention than before to form and order in their services.