Churches in the African-American community share a distinct worship culture that is the result of the integration of Christian worship forms with a worldview shaped by a traditional African ontology (understanding of being). In addition to the African heritage and religious perspective, the experience of blacks in American slavery has also helped to shape African-American worship patterns.
A number of Protestant churches trace their descent from the Puritan heritage. In their worship, these groups share a commitment to a common principle: worship must be ordered according to the Word of God alone. Puritan worship is also characterized by covenant theology and an emphasis on prayer.
There is an integral correspondence between the Christian Lord’s Supper and the Israelite Passover. Like the Passover, the Lord’s Supper is a joyful reaffirmation of the covenant. And like Passover, it recalls the Lord’s great act in the deliverance of a people. But the Lord’s Supper also points ahead to the ultimate destiny of Christians: freedom in the presence of God.
The Lord’s Supper, as instituted by Jesus Christ and elaborated in the Epistles, has its roots in the ancient rite of covenant, a practice that predates Abraham. Indeed, the covenant forms the basic structure of Yahweh’s relationship with Israel and is, for this reason, the underlying motif for the establishment of Christ’s relationship with the new people of God.
Although the New Testament offers several versions of Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, common themes emerge. In observing the Lord’s Supper, the church puts the worshiper in contact with the redemptive death of Jesus—the act that has brought the church into being as one body, the eschatological new covenant community.
Protestants commonly use the term Lord’s Supper for the act of worship that centers on the table of the Lord. The Lord’s Supper originated with Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, in the context of the Passover, and shares with the Passover the theme of the Lord’s deliverance of Israel. As interpreted in the Gospels and by Paul, the Lord’s Supper is symbolic of Christ’s death, a memorial that places the worshiper at the Cross. It is the ratification of the covenant between the Lord and the people of God, an emblem of the communion or mutual participation of all members of the body of Christ. The Supper is a proclamation of the gospel and a symbol of faith in Christ.
Several traditional acts of worship accompany the receiving of the Lord’s Supper. Some form of “fraction,” or breaking of the bread, is found in most observances of the rite. In addition, the distribution of the Eucharist may incorporate the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”), the acclamation “Christ Our Passover,” and a concluding prayer of thanksgiving.
Early Christian gatherings for worship included assemblies for the Lord’s Supper, for the sharing of spiritual gifts, and for the baptism of new believers. The discussion of these assemblies in the New Testament, especially the writings of Paul, is clarified when we understand that some of these descriptions apply to the gathering of the citywide church, while others refer to the setting of the local house church.
Though the New Testament does not give any detailed information on the structure of the first Christian services, it leaves little room for doubt concerning the basic elements of primitive worship: prayer, praise, confession of sin, confession of faith, Scripture reading and preaching, the Lord’s Supper, and the collection. Early descriptions of Christian worship, such as that in Justin’s Apology, reveal a close similarity to the practice of the synagogue. Even without the synagogue model, however, the fundamental elements would surely have found a place, and distinctive Christian features would have their own origin.
Recent studies of the history of Israel’s religion have demonstrated convincingly that the formative events of Israel’s faith were dramatically acted out in worship. In fact, some of the Old Testament narratives have reached their present form as a result of the historicizing of cultic dramatic re-presentation.