I participated on Friday in the Southwest regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. The theme of the meeting this year was the decline of denominationalism, and here is the paper I read:
This paper examines the role of worship philosophy and practice in both dividing and unifying Protestant denominations. I am using the term “denomination” in its more broad sense of an informal collection of common beliefs and/or practices rather than a structural entity.1 With this in mind, I focus my attention primarily upon groups in the United States categorized by similar distinctives, which I will suggest center at least in part on matters related to worship.
First, I will demonstrate how worship philosophy and practice is a central denominational divider. Second, I will evaluate the role traditional psalmody, hymnody, and liturgy have played in providing appropriate unity across denominational lines. Finally, I will reveal two recent developments in evangelical worship that blurred denominational distinctives: the Praise and Worship Movement and the Church Growth Movement. I will show that traditional hymnody and liturgy unifies Christians while preserving appropriate denominational distinctiveness, but Praise and Worship theology and seeker-sensitive worship philosophy contribute to denominational decline at least in part due to their elevation of musical style as central to church identity.
Church historians have suggested different ways of understanding denominations. I will suggest here that one plausible way to understand them is, in the words of David Dockery, “through the window of liturgy and worship.”2 Indeed, a brief examination of how denominations developed during the Reformation reveals that worship theology and practice played a much more significant role in denominational divisions among emerging Protestant groups than other core theological beliefs. While the Reformers agreed concerning central doctrines of justification and biblical authority, their disagreements about worship issues such as the Lord’s Table, baptism, and how Scripture regulated worship practice were what led to irreconcilable divisions, resulting in the development of denominations.
This is perhaps no more true than with understanding and practice of baptism and the Lord’s Table. In the early years of the Reformation, differences over the Lord’s Table presented one of the most divisive issues. For example, while the Reformers agreed in their repudiation of transubstantiation, Luther and Zwingli could not come to a consensus on the meaning of “this is my body” (Luke 22:19), the only one of fifteen articles in the Marburg Articles the Zwinglians could not sign. Zwingli insisted that Christ was present only at the Father’s right hand and that the elements of the Lord’s Supper were a memorial only, while Luther argued that Christ could also be literally present in sacramental union with the elements.3 Calvin maintained his own unique understanding of the presence of Christ in the Supper, asserting that Christ was not actually present in the elements but that “all that Christ himself is and has is conveyed” to believers through the Spirit of Christ at the Supper,4 a view that prevented him from fully unifying with the others as well.
Luther and Zwingli agreed on the matter of baptism at Marburg, but this ordinance has created denominational division with others. Tom Wells cites four separate categories of disagreement on the matter of baptism: mode (immersion, affusion, and aspersion), proper candidates (paedobaptism vs. credobaptism), proper administration (an issue for groups like Landmark Baptists and Churches of Christ), and effect.5 Each of these categories became significant matters over which various groups coalesced into denominations. Most of the early Reformers agreed with Rome on candidates for baptism (infants) but disagreed over its effects. Rome taught that a baptized infant was forgiven for both original and actual sin.6 Lutherans believed that faith was a prerequisite for baptism but insisted that infants could exercise faith.7 Calvin taught that “infants are baptized into future repentance and faith, and even though these have not yet been formed in them, the seed of both lies hidden within them by the secret working of the Spirit.”8 Baptists, however (as Anabaptists before them), differed most significantly from other groups by insisting that baptism is a visible sign of profession and thus must be administered only to those who have expressed faith in Christ, and they practice the mode of immersion.9
In addition to differences over theology and practice of the ordinances, disagreements over the authority of Scripture upon worship practice also led to denominational division. As with the Lord’s Supper, Luther and Zwingli could not agree on this point. Luther taught that
whatever is free, that is, neither commanded nor prohibited, by which one can neither sin or obtain merit, this should be in our control as something subject to our reason so that we might employ it or not employ it, uphold it or drop it, according to our pleasure and need, without sinning and endangering our conscience.10
Zwingli disagreed, insisting that worship practices must have explicit biblical warrant, leading him to denounce images, other ceremonial adornments, and even music from public worship since he could find no warrant for them in the New Testament.11 Calvin agreed in principle with Zwingli’s regulative principle of worship, arguing that “a part of the reverence that is paid to [God] consists simply in worshiping him as he commands, mingling no inventions of our own.”12 Calvin did, however, allow unaccompanied, unison psalm singing, since he found support for such practices in Scripture.13
The regulative principle of worship also came to define denominations with Anabaptist and Calvinist roots14 as well as early Baptists.15 Denominations such as the Church of England ascribed to a position more closely resembling that of Luther.
Thus today one could explain the differences between denominations by irreconcilable disagreements in specific areas of worship theology and practice. Roman Catholics hold to baptismal regeneration, to the doctrine of transubstantiation in the Mass, and to a normative principle of worship. Lutherans reject transubstantiation in favor of sacramental union, practice a non-regenerative paedobaptism, and are governed by a normative principle, with Anglicans holding to very similar views with differences in polity. Presbyterians affirm a spiritual presence of Christ in the Supper, practice a non-regenerative paedobaptism, and shape their worship according to the regulative principle. Baptists ascribe to the Zwinglian/Anabaptist memorial view of the Table, practice credobaptism by immersion, and traditionally followed the regulative principle.16
One specific matter of worship practice that was not mentioned in the previous section is music. On the one hand, music does present another example of an issue that historically divided denominations. For example, Luther promoted the liberal use of psalms and hymns in worship, Zwingli prohibited music altogether, and Calvin limited singing to psalms without instrumental accompaniment.
However, this division can be interpreted primarily as a result of the more significant matter of the regulative principle vs. the normative principle. All three Reformers agreed concerning good music’s spiritual benefits and cautioned against the degenerating influence of some music.17 What separated them is whether they believed they had biblical warrant for particular musical practices (or, in Luther’s case, whether biblical warrant was even necessary).
Furthermore, even though differences over the governing principle of worship did lead to distinctions in practice with worship music, groups springing from these early Reformers shared their songs across denominational lines. For example, many of Luther’s earliest German hymns were translations of Latin texts from the Roman Church.18 Lutheran chorale texts, in turn, were brought to the Anglican tradition, first through Myles Coverdale’s Goostly Psalmes and Spirituall Songes drawen out of the Holy Scripture (c. 1535–1536),19 and later to other denominations through the translations of those like Methodist John Wesley20 and Anglican Catherine Winkworth.21 Additionally, the Genevan Psalter arose out of the psalmody-only Calvinist tradition, but “within little more than a decade it was translated into several other European languages,”22 which at that time would imply transdenominational influence.
This transdenominational use of traditional psalms and hymns continued well into later centuries. For example, in 2002 Stephen Marini conducted a study of 200 of the most significant American evangelical hymnals from 1737 to 1969 and compiled a list of those hymns that were published in at least one third of the 86 hymnals published between 1737 and 1860. Marini comments on what he discovered:
The most popular evangelical hymns cited in this essay were transdenominational, all of them published outside their original denominational family as well as within it, and published more times than can be accounted for by that family’s hymnals alone. Their inclusion on the most popular list indicates precisely that they circulated beyond the confines of editorial opinion or denominational identity. Therefore although actual use of hymns cannot be empirically determined, transdenominational hymns with high frequency of publication can reasonably be assumed to have been genuinely popular and used more generally than any others.23
Similarly, in 2011 Robert T. Coote surveyed 4,905 hymns in the 28 hymnals of six mainline Protestant denominations from 1883 to 2006, and analyzed the 13 hymns that appeared in every hymnal, 9 that appeared in 27, and 5 that appeared in 26, observing that the hymns manifested transdenominational popularity.24
Yet, this unity across denominational lines did not blur the important theological and practical distinctions between the denominations. In other words, the use of hymns from outside a particular denomination did not cause those in the denomination to weaken their denominational loyalty. This is largely due to the fact that the psalms and hymns that crossed denominational boundaries were catholic in doctrine and thus avoided expressions that were unique to the denomination of the author. Coote in particular notes that the most used hymns “focus on such foundational themes as the enduring triumph of the Cross, assurance in the ultimate rule of Jesus, and prayer for the continuing experience of God’s love.”25
The other factor that influenced the transdenominational nature of traditional psalmody and hymnody is the fact that tunes were exchanged liberally between psalm/hymn texts and thus across denominational lines as well. For example, tunes from the Genevan Psalter made their way into the Anglican Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter, primarily through the Anglo-Genevan Psalter.26 Likewise, Luther borrowed tunes from Gregorian chant and other Roman Catholic office hymns for his early German hymns,27 and many tunes originally composed for Lutherans were transplanted when their corresponding texts were translated and brought into other denominations.
This practice of borrowing traditional tunes from other denominations continues to this day. Paul Westermeyer notes this when in 2005, after surveying hymn tunes in fourteen denominational hymnals from 1978 forward, he observed that “the tunes we use cross our confessional divisions, and their number is small enough to form a common core. In spite of our fractures, we still tend to sing a common song.”28 He found 179 tunes common to nine or more of the hymnals and 147 texts common to those tunes that “come from the fourth to the twentieth centuries and from across the whole gamut of the church’s liturgical year, occasions, and themes.”29
Another worship element that has encouraged transdenominational unity while preserving denominational distinctives is traditional liturgy. While specific features of the liturgy may reflect particular denominational theology, most post-Reformation denominational groups traditionally preserved a similar shape to their worship services. As Bryan Chappell notes, “where the truths of the gospel are maintained there remain commonalities of worship structure that transcend culture”30 and, I would add, denomination. Groups with various denominational identity have traditionally shared a liturgical shape of adoration, confession, assurance, thanksgiving, petition, instruction, charge, and blessing.31 As with traditional psalmody and hymnody, this common worship structure allowed Christians of various denominations to share an appropriate unity while maintaining their important distinctiveness.
As the previous sections have shown, while differences over worship theology and practice have been one of the most significant denominational dividers, traditional psalmody, hymnody, and liturgy provided a means by which distinct denominations were able to enjoy an appropriate unity while at the same time maintaining necessary theological and practical boundaries.
This delicate balance between healthy unity and appropriate diversity among denominations has been diminished, however, in more recent worship trends. Indeed, as the following section will show, contemporary worship movements have significantly contributed to denominational decline,32 primarily due to the emergence of music style as an essential feature in church identity.
The first contemporary worship movement to contribute to denomination decline is the Praise the Worship movement, which emerged out of the Charismatic movement of the 1960s.33 Whereas Pentecostalism had produced its own denominations,34
Christopher J. Ellis observes that charismatic worship contributed to “what we may call a “pan-evangelical culture” with its contemporary expression in music and informal worship.35 Randall Bradley agrees:
In recent decades, as denominational lines have blurred, Free Churches have been most influenced by music that finds its origins in the charismatic stream, of which “Praise and Worship” is the best known.36
The importance of contemporary music styles in this movement flows directly from its theology of worship. Praise and Worship uses the typology of the Hebrew tabernacle or temple in its worship theology and design. Breaking from a more confessional liturgical structure, Praise and Worship instead aims to bring the worshiper through a series of emotional stages from rousing “praise” to intimate “worship.”37 Early Praise and Worship proponent Judson Cornwall explains this process:
Praise begins by applauding God’s power, but it often brings us close enough to God that worship can respond to God’s presence. While the energy of praise is toward what God does, the energy of worship is toward who God is. The first is concerned with God’s performance, while the second is occupied with God’s personage. The thrust of worship, therefore, is higher than the thrust of praise.38
This progression through which worshipers are helped to experience “the manifest presence of God” is engineered primarily through musical style. Worship leaders are encouraged to begin with enthusiastic songs of thanksgiving, leading the worshipers to an emotional “soulish worship,” and then bringing the mood to an intimate expression where “a gentle sustained chord on the organ and a song of the Spirit on the lips of the leaders should be more than sufficient to carry a worship response of the entire congregation for a protracted period of time.”39 As Chapell notes, “In this modern tradition, contemporary praise music has been the prime instrument to lead worshipers from celebration to contemplation to preparation for preaching. In fact, what many think of as ‘contemporary worship’ is defined only by the style of music.”40 This raised the matter of musical style to a level of significance it had never before seen.
Because of the transdenominational influence of charismatic theology and the Praise and Worship movement, this philosophy and method of worship that places a high emphasis on musical style to bring people to worship has influenced many non-charismatic churches as well. According to a 2010 study by Faith Communities Today, the percentage of Protestant churches characterized by contemporary Praise and Worship rose from 29% in 2000 to 43% in 2010. The percentage change was even higher when they factored out mainline denominations and focused exclusively on Evangelical Protestants (from 35% to 51%).41 Today, the worship in a majority of evangelical churches is more characterized by Praise and Worship philosophy and contemporary music than by traditional practices.
The church growth movement built off this tendency to define a church’s identity by musical style and recognized it as a technique to grow a church.42 Church growth leaders such as Ed Dobson insisted that musical style was an essential element of church growth:
We wanted a musical style that would elicit a response. Unchurched people come to a service hesitantly. Their mind-set is “you’re not going to get me.” Their defenses are up. We felt that a style of music that would get them moving in a physical way (nodding heads and tapping feet) would help break down their defenses.43
Rick Warren agrees:
The style of music you choose to use in your services will be one of the most critical (and controversial) decisions you make in the life of your church. It may also be the most influential factor in determining who your church reaches for Christ and whether or not your church grows. You must match your music to the kind of people God wants your church to reach.44
Randall Bradley notes the similarity between the Praise and Worship Movement and the Church Growth Movement in their emphasis upon music style as central to church identity:
In addition to “Praise and Worship,” other elements that have significantly influenced congregational song include the increasing popularity of Contemporary Christian Music, the influence of the Church Growth Movement with its emphasis on “user friendly” worship.45
This has further contributed to the blurring of denominational distinctives in favor of nondenominational churches. John P. Dever notes that megachurches, even though they often remain part of a denomination, nevertheless tend to form a new kind of church that is its own denomination.46
Both the Praise and Worship and Church Growth movements emphasize musical style as a predominant feature of a church above traditional denominational distinctives such that an increasing number of evangelical Christians today choose their church based on worship style over traditional theological or practical reasons. As David Holeton observes,
When people move from one region of the country to another or even to another part of the city, denomination is less and less their first criterion in finding a new parish. Proximity, programme (what is there for our children?, teenagers? & c), style of community or liturgical life are often factors that take precedence over finding a church of the same denomination.47
Importantly, in a 2009 study of megachurches, researchers found that worship style was the number one factor that attracted attenders to megachurches, with denominational affiliation eighth on the list under the church reputation, music/arts, and adult programs.48
Worship theology and practice has always been central to denominational distinctiveness. Yet psalmody, hymnody, and liturgy has traditionally provided a means for appropriate unity across denominational lines without diminishing the importance of theological matters. Contemporary worship trends, however, have raised musical style to a place of prominence that tends to make style more important for a church’s identity than denominational issues.
What distinguishes traditional psalmody and hymnody from contemporary Praise and Worship songs in this study is not the transdenominational character of their lyrics or tunes; this is a characteristic feature of most successful congregational songs throughout history. What distinguishes them is the importance placed upon the contemporaneity of musical style in each category. In other words, traditional hymns were both transdenominational and transcultural. Paul Westermeyer describes this characteristic after noting the traditional hymns that have been used in multiple denominations:
That song, from Baptists to Roman Catholics, relies on a common core that has not been coopted by cultural fads, but sings out the subversive message of liberation in Christ in spite of all the forces—no matter how large—that are arrayed against it.49
Contemporary worship songs and structure, however, reflect current culture rather than transcend it, and thus “relevant” stylistic matters and appealing to particular cultural demographics have become central to a church’s identity rather than important theological matters that have historically defined denominations.