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A Brief History of Christian Worship

Is there a way to present the history of Christian worship in a blog? I was asked recently to summarize succinctly my understanding of the trajectory of worship over history and found it a helpful and thoroughly daunting task, one I thought appropriate for a blog. Detail has to be surrendered to overarching themes, yet those themes must reflect actual history in insightful ways. I found myself thinking of worship space, which led me to use architecture and the use of worship space as a means of illustrating each age. It is my conviction that worship space reflects not only an understanding of the content of worship, but reflects and shapes a church's

relationship to God, the broader culture, and of its members to each other. As I lay out my thoughts on worship here, I will divide history between the earliest churches, the Patristic Age after Constantine, the Middle Ages, the Protestant Reformation, and Modernity.

The earliest churches inherited a collection of convictions and practices from Judaism, which put an indelible stamp on Christian worship.1 At heart was a conviction that the Old Testament Scriptures were true and authoritative, and that as the people of God by faith in Christ, they held the key to Scriptural interpretation in the person and work of Jesus, with its Trinitarian implications. Thus, corporate worship fell into a weekly rhythm within a yearly calendar centered on historic acts of God, rooted now in Christ. It involved ceremonial rites of commemoration, formation, mission, and hope, again centered in Christ. Worship also involved the reading and explanation of sacred texts, including eventually the New Testament. Prayer, spoken and sung, found substance and pattern in the Psalms, read of course in light of Christ. Worship took a form something like the traditional four-fold structure: the church gathered as the baptized people of God, heard the Scriptures read and explained, celebrated the Lord's Supper, and went out into the world as salt and light.2

Over its first three centuries, the church for the most part had to pour this rich heritage into the small vessel of the family home.3 Evidence is scanty, but it seems that larger homes or apartments were transformed into worship space, and returned after celebration to domestic use. The main gathering could be in an atrium in good weather or in a dining room throughout the year. Indeed, the tablinum, a reception room and shrine in wealthier homes, could serve as a seat for reading and expounding the Word and for celebrating communion. The furnishings of the home – tables, chairs, utensils, a pool for baptism – could become the articles of worship.4 The excavation of a house church at Dura-Europas shows how far the remodeling could be taken: a wall was removed to join two rooms, a small platform was found at one end, and a room opening off the atrium was converted into a decorated baptistry.5 But the house church was a low-cost solution, and it could hide a church in times of persecution.

What effect did this have on worship? Limited space meant intimacy was high, as well as the sense of community participation. Christianity was not mainstream, and in places of social stigma and occasional persecution, commitment must have been strong to the church as the family of God. Local homes meant local language and local customs. While bishops oversaw churches as early as Ignatius of Antioch, they must have enjoyed considerable autonomy given Ignatius' repeated calls for local congregations to listen to their bishops.6 The Didache, 9-10, similarly testifies to the reality of liturgical freedom, needing to proscribe litanies for the celebration of the Eucharist, but giving latitude to traveling prophets who might be present and able to officiate. This signals the reality of variations in worship, though not necessarily informality or a lack of ceremony and liturgy.7

The fourth century saw a radical change in the status of the church in the Roman Empire, and a similar change in worship space. A sometime persecuted religion became legal, supported at the highest levels of the empire. Worship services could be conducted openly; magnificent buildings could be remodeled or purpose-built in major centers. A harassed family of God was thrust increasingly on the public stage, inundated with new members. In the words of James White, “The original intimacy and discipline of the persecuted community was overwhelmed by hordes of converts.”8

The result was not a radical change in the substance of worship, but a series of challenges. A sampling will provide a flavor of the issues confronting the churches. There was more wealth, which enabled more elaborate pomp and decoration. Public standing and numeric growth meant a greater need and capacity for organization, especially in theology and practice. Worship took on public-service aspects for the empire and its calendar. One might suspect that there were more “tares” among the “wheat,” with larger churches requiring more guidance and catechetical training from church officers.

The Roman civil basilica became a dominant pattern for church construction over the next centuries. Its nave allowed for a larger, standing congregation. The Roman apse, with a raised platform for judge and scribes, became the bishop's throne from which the sermon was preached, with the bishop seated as a reflection of teaching authority. He was flanked by presbyters in a liturgical space that jutted out into the nave, often separated from the laity by a screen. The altar table for the Eucharist sat at the junction of apse and nave. A reading lectern might be to the side of the screen. The domed, central building became common in Eastern churches, but it shared a similar division of space.

There were negative effects on worship. The congregation became more passive as the clergy performed the acts of worship. Larger worship spaces increased the distance between laity and clergy. Greater also was the distance between the laity and the Lord's Table. The intimacy of house worship, where the chosen faithful gathered with their elders around Word and Table, was lessened where crowds stood in sumptuous buildings led in worship by professionals.

Yet there were positives. There can be a greater sense of power and majesty in a larger setting. Professionalism can heighten the artistic, authoritative, and even doctrinal quality of worship. Beautiful decorations could communicate the stories of Scripture to seekers and members alike, create devotional spaces, and through icons and relics link earthly worship with that of heaven.9 Well-designed buildings meant good acoustics and sight-lines, with Word and Eucharist balanced expression in the liturgical centers of the worship space. Architecture could even present the gospel: worshipers might reflect as they move from a courtyard with a fountain into a nave, that the path into the presence of God moves through baptism into the community of the Holy Spirit, and as they approach the bishop's throne with elders and altar between, that Christ is their mediator who guides his faithful through church officers.10

The Middle Ages saw a mix of issues profoundly affect the practice of worship in the Western churches. The use of Latin in worship was one the most significant: as Christianity expanded across Europe, churches filled with congregants who had no understanding of Latin, yet worship continued to be conducted in the language of Rome. As those who knew Latin – the clergy and members of religious orders – took over the words and actions of worship, the evolution of Sacramental theology combined with a stratified, heirarchical society to make worship for the common person too often a dramatic, elaborate, distant, symbolic, mysterious event done by professionals for passive spectators. In the words of Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, written to Archbishop Cranmer in 1547,

"People in the church took small heed to what the priest and the clerks did in the chancel, but only to stand up at the Gospel and kneel at the Sacring, or else every man was occupied himself severally in several prayer.... And therefore it was never meant that the people should indeed hear the Matins or hear the Mass, but be present there and pray themselves in silence."11

One of the most striking physical expressions of this development was the position and use of the altar table. Instead of facing the people, by the end of the first millennium the predominant practice was for the celebrant to stand before the table with his back to the people. The table itself was pushed further into the apse, so that its distance combined with the backward posture of the celebrant to create considerable audible and visible barriers for the laity during the celebration of the Eucharist.12 It is not surprising that private masses and multiple altars in sanctuaries arose to supplement this distant, public celebration of the mass.13

It is hard for a child of the Reformation to find much that is good in this. The laity were reduced largely to spectators. The content of God's story was obscured by Latin, and its living proclamation in the celebration of the Lord's Supper made the domain of the clergy and members of religious orders. When the laity did commune, it was very infrequent. Preaching provided a respite of understanding, and the Franciscan and Dominican orders are to be praised for building preaching churches. But it is unfortunate that in an era when the church could chose and shape its worship space intentionally, its clergy became distant from its laity, its Word was obscured, and its Eucharist became the stuff of professionals, shrouded in ritual mystery.

Yet in a wonderful way the church building itself made up for some of these deficiencies. The soaring architecture communicated the majesty and presence of God. Art work – mosaics, frescoes, paintings, sculptures, carvings, windows, shrines, relics – presented visually the doctrines of the church, its biblical and historical heroes, and its great stories from Creation through the Passion to the Ascension and the Last Judgment. Here were the hosts of heaven and the demons of darkness. Here were the symbols of life in Christ, including water, incense, and candles. Here were marriages and funerals, baptisms and confirmations. Superstition and idolatry were certainly dangers, as the Reformers were want to highlight. Yet to this day, those great churches speak the gospel to the faithful and provide a wonderful context for worship and private devotion.14

At the coming of the Protestant Reformation, for all their differences, the Reformers agreed that worship renewal necessitated a restoration of the laity in worship. Each shared the conviction that skewed or deficient views of salvation, the saints, the clergy, and the sacraments – to name the most grievous concerns – had allowed idolatry to creep into the church, and that the remedy was the Word of God proclaimed and understood. This called for worship conducted in the language of the congregants. The printing press allowed Bible translations to aid in popular understanding, along with prayer books, hymnbooks, and orders or worship, depending on the tradition. Congregational singing became a common means of uniting the church in acts of worship. Renewal also necessitated a restoration of the Eucharist to the people, though differences surfaced between the developing Protestant traditions.15 While the distinction between clergy and laity was generally maintained, it was lessened to varying degrees to emphasize the unity of God's family.

The commonalities and differences of each Protestant tradition can be seen in their response to worship space, largely a result of their comfort with tradition, ceremony, and art. Using James White's classification, the “right-wing” traditions of Anglicanism and Lutheranism were more conservative in their treatment of medieval worship space, with a broader appreciation for the role of ceremony and art in communal worship. One still found candles, images and art, vestments separating clergy from laity, and traditional arrangements of sacramental furniture, though Luther wanted celebrants standing behind the altar facing the people. In Anglican churches the physical distinction between chancel and nave remained helpful in worship, but laity and clergy communicated together in the chancel to reflect Protestant convictions.16

In centrist Reformed and “left-wing” traditions, followed later by Methodists, revision was more extensive to emphasize the hearing of the Word and the communion of saints. Ornamentation was removed from existing church buildings as distracting from the spoken Word and tempting toward idolatry. Pulpits became the chief liturgical centers around which the people were organized. Some Reformed traditions introduced tables in the celebrating of the Lord's Supper to restore the sense of God's family gathering in communion. Purpose-built churches contained some of the most radical revisions – congregants were arranged to emphasize hearing, there was little or no liturgical art, and a pulpit was fronted by a simple altar, save in case of Quakers who had neither pulpit nor altar.17

As always, there are positives and negatives, reflected in the developments of the Modern era. It was critical indeed to restore congregational participation in the prayers and Eucharist, and bring understanding to worship through the use of the vernacular. Centuries later, the exciting reforms of Vatican II acknowledged as much. The Word was properly elevated through the use of the vernacular; the Lord's Supper was restored to all communicant members; altars were moved closer to the people; celebrants were turned to face and engage the laity; congregational singing was emphasized.

Yet there was an impoverishment in worship where the ear was unduly emphasized over the other sensory organs. The richly sensuous worship envisioned in the Old Testament and celebrated in the Eastern churches – sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes – was reduced in many Protestant traditions to largely auditory worship. Ironically, their desire to promote understanding led them to sacrifice these powerful means of instruction and response among the laity. One sees a stream of interest that crosses Protestant traditions in recapturing some of these traditional aspects of worship that celebrate the story of the Triune God in a very ancient, multisensory way.18

One sees another stream flowing in the modern church that crosses traditions as well, in which traditional Christian worship is not as recognizable. Its roots are in the Protestant Reformation, but it arguably grew in the sun of the Enlightenment. The “middle” to “left-wing” Protestant desire to remove distractions and present the pure truths of Scripture through preaching and song found a parallel desire in the Age of Reason to strip away falsehood and find truth through logic and scientific inquiry. A deep distrust for the institutional authority of the Roman Church led many Protestants to appeal directly to the minds of congregants, seeking to release them from traditional falsehoods and enlighten them in truth; Rationalism sought a similar agenda, “predicated on the supremacy of the human reason against any form of external authority.”19 Traditional, external authority was distrusted; uncovering the truths of the past and present, reaching conclusions, and applying them to life was what mattered.

The result was a deeply individualistic worship aimed at personal conversion and amendment of life through enlightenment and the experience of the divine. It is seen across denominational lines in aspects of what White calls the “Frontier” tradition and in aspects of the Pentecostal tradition. One finds in this stream some who root authority more in a biblicist appeal to mental understanding – a kind of Rationalism, others who are more taken by the power of experience – tending toward kinds of Romanticism and Existentialism, and various blends of both. Common throughout is a struggle to find a meaningful role for the sacraments beyond personal experience and testimony, and a remembrance of past events. Common also is the powerful tendency to reduce the Word of God to facts and insights aimed at personal conversion and enrichment. Its congregants are tempted to judge worship and worship leaders by their effectiveness in connecting with them and providing personal, powerful, transformative experiences. Even as one modern stream seeks to embrace what Robert Webber calls “Ancient-future Worship,” rooted in the story of God, another struggles with succumbing to the darker – at least from my perspective – aspects of what Lester Ruth calls “Democratic Pragmatism.”20

Architecture might at least illustrate this complex situation. White divides the last hundred and fifty years of liturgical arrangements into two types: the concert stage and the divided chancel.21 The latter makes easy the traditional four-fold worship, with altar and pulpit sharing prime locations, and room for congregations to process to communion and kneel. The former promotes professionalism in music, oratory, and the dramatic arts, with the lectern prominent and often portable, and a premium on personal comfort and a good audio-visual experience. There is some of the power of Medieval worship in these buildings, but also the problem of individualized, passive worshipers. Whatever kind of worship space we use, the issue will be how to use that space as effectively as possible, the perennial question before the Church.


1If nothing else, the synagogue provided a model for translating the worship of the Old Testament into a setting without the Temple cult. See Robert E. Webber, Worship Old and New, Revised edition (Zondervan, 2009), 36–38.

2This pattern is seen in the famous description of Sunday worship by Justin Martyr, “First Apology,” 67, as translated in A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, ed. Alexander Roberts et al. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Pub, 1996), 186. Though he describes the services of the Word and Eucharist in most detail, some form of gathering and sending can be assumed, even if less developed. See the reconstruction proposed in William D. Maxwell, An Outline of Christian Worship Its Development and Forms (Oxford University Press, 1952), 11–14.

3There were locations and times where the church grew sufficiently large and socially secure to construct buildings, but many of these were destroyed in subsequent persecutions. See James F. White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture: Theological and Historical Considerations (Oxford University Press, 1964), 52–53.

4The articles of worship could be elaborate: the record of a Roman raid on a church in Cirta lists among the confiscated goods gold and silver chalices, silver lamps, torches, bronze candlesticks, and bronze lamps with their chains. Gregory Dix and Simon Jones, The Shape of the Liturgy (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2005), 141.

5Jeanne Halgren Kilde, Sacred Power, Sacred Space: An Introduction to Christian Architecture and Worship, 1 edition (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

6See, for example, Polycarp 6:1, Ephesians 6:1.

7See, for example, the summary of baptismal rites gleaned from Justin Martyr, The Shepherd of Hermas, Terullian, and The Apostolic Tradition in James F. White, A Brief History of Christian Worship, First edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 44–47.

8White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 66.

9William Dyrness, A Primer on Christian Worship: Where We’ve Been, Where We Are, Where We Can Go, First Printing edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 21.

10See, for example, the overall description of worship at Hagia Sophia recounted in Walter D. Ray, Tasting Heaven on Earth: Worship in Sixth-Century Constantinople (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), and particularly the recollections of the Kievan Rus' on page 19.

11As quoted in White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 64.

12Kilde, Sacred Power, Sacred Space, 73–75. In churches with long chancels, this became a profound division.

13See the fuller discussion in White, A Brief History of Christian Worship, 86–92.

14Dyrness, A Primer on Christian Worship, 20–24; White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 76–77.

15Though many Reformers desired weekly communion, the established practice of infrequent lay participation became common in most traditions.

16White's discussion of Sir Christopher Wren's building program is fascinating, where Anglican appreciation for the visual and spacial blended with Reformed emphases on hearing and congregational participation. Ibid., 95–98.

17Ibid., 98-116.

18Examples include the Oxford Movement in Anglicanism, the renewed modern dialogue with the Eastern churches, and some current trends in Reformed and Methodist worship. Again, one sees in the modern Roman Catholic renewal a seasoned use of traditional gestures, liturgies, and artistic decoration to create a communal, full-sensory celebration of the Triune God. These current developments have brought the Roman Church radically closer in worship style to churches with “right-wing” sensibilities. White, A Brief History of Christian Worship, 156–158.

19Ibid., 143.

20Class lecture notes from the Institute of Worship Studies, January, 2015.

21White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 118.

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