Let’s Talk About Worship Taxonomy

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With the great diversity of worship practices in American Protestantism, it’s more and more difficult to share meaningful conversations about worship without an agreed upon taxonomy. By that word, I refer to ways of grouping things together, to an orderly classification of Sunday services according to their presumed connections with one another.

While taxonomies have their limitations (the most obvious of which is that they only approximate reality), we benefit from them in fields other than worship. In the field of music, as one example, we have developed and utilized an extensive taxonomy of musical style. As a result, if I describe a piece of music as country, you have a pretty good idea of its style. From that point of understanding, we can advance the conversation by discussing instrumentation, rhythm, and vocalization.

Those who spend a lot of time talking about worship have sought to develop a taxonomy of worship. Thus far, the broadest classification is between Christian and non-Christian worship. The broadest classification within Christian worship is Roman, Orthodox and Protestant. There appears to be little disagreement over those classifications.

Things aren’t so clear when classifying types of Protestant worship. The most popular classification is traditional, contemporary and blended. But that taxonomy has proven unsuitable because of their lack of specificity. Eventually, for example, the contemporary becomes traditional. Then what?

This past year I had the privilege of teaching a course at Northern Seminary (Lombard, IL) entitled “Current Practices in Worship.” The course proved challenging to prepare for with worship practices changing at alarming rates over the past few decades. Add to that, a classroom with twenty-one students representing a variety of ethnicities, nations, theological traditions, and worship practices.

During the course, we dedicated a significant amount of time to the subject of taxonomy, only to discover that each one failed to include the current worship practices of one or more of the students. So, we decided to craft our own taxonomy: one broad enough to include the variety of traditions represented in the classroom. 

We began with Paul Basden’s (Exploring the Worship Spectrum) taxonomy. While we didn’t find his idea of a “spectrum” helpful, we affirmed the presence of his five types: Liturgical, Traditional, Revivalist, Praise & Worship, and Seeker. Then we tweaked and built upon Basden’s typology. We ended up with seven types of worship currently in vogue among Protestants:    

  1. Ecumenical Ritual Renewal Movement – This is Basden’s “Liturgical” type. But since we wanted to affirm that every worship service is liturgical, we removed that word as a descriptor for this type. Contemporary champions of this type include the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies and the Institute of Christian Worship. In this type, the dominant image of Christ is the resurrected one; the pastor fills the role of priest.
  2. Traditional – This type has roots in Western European Protestantism. Today it is best represented by Michael Horton (A Better Way), and embraced by many in the Gospel Coalition. It can be experienced by visiting a Missouri or Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Church or an Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In this type, the dominant image of Christ is Holy Other; the pastor fills the role of teacher, but one very acquainted with the historic catechisms.
  3. Revivalist – The hallmark of this liturgy is the presence of an altar call or invitation to discipleship. This type is not as popular as it once was, but can be found among a number of traditional Baptists and traditional African American congregations. In this type, the dominant image of Christ is as the crucified one; the pastor fills the role of evangelist.
  4. Neo-Pentecostal Charismatic Movement – This type has its roots in the American Pentecostalism (Azusa Revival of 1906). It best represented by the Vineyard Movement and the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church. One distinguishing characteristic of this type is the place of the “extraordinary” gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as prophecy. In this type, the dominant image of Christ is healer; the pastor fills the role of prophet.
  5. Seeker or Culturally Relevant – This type has its roots in the Second Great Awakening and the groundbreaking work of Charles Finney. Today, it has been championed by the Willowcreek Community Church and the Church Planting Movement. In this type, the dominant image of Christ is friend; the pastor fills the role of encourager.
  6. Praise and Worship or Sermon and Song – This type blends the Traditional (and its focus on the sermon) with the Seeker (and its cultural relevance). It can be found in mega-church and non-denominational church circles. James McDonald (Harvest Bible Chapel) comes to my mind when I think of this type of worship; but there are many others. In this type, the dominant role of Christ is teacher; the pastor, then, naturally fills the role of teacher.
  7. Convergent – This type is the newest and remains somewhat unclear. On the surface it appears as a blending of Praise and Worship with Ecumenical Ritual Renewal. However, many of those finding their way into this type are coming out of the Culturally Relevant camp. Constance Cherry (The Worship Architect) is one author among several who represent this type. Many in the Missional Movement have also migrated to this type. The dominant role of Christ is the Ascended One who is present with us through the church – the body of Christ. The pastor fills the role of equipper.   

So, that’s where the class landed. But I would like to test the typology.

What do you think? Does it help you? Is it complete? Is it simple but broad enough to advance conversations about worship? Do you find your worship in this typology? 

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Is there an overacrching principle of worship that the people of God need to observe first when they come into worship and if there is, how do these catagories deviate from this principle or bring people to a closer reality of this priniciple? Is worship first about the people who are doing the worshipping or is it about the One who calls and gathers his people to worship? To often when the church feels driven by a certain "style" or 'catagorie' of worship, they miss the point of why they worship in the first place. I feel the CRC is heading in that direction, thats not to say that the CRC had worship right to begin with. But thats just my observation. 

Participant

Your list seems comprehensive enough, with the understanding that most churches employ a synthetic blend of these styles; a church could say they are mostly # 2 with just a dash of 6 & 7. This list brings up an interesting topic that needs to be pursued.  Certainly all of these categories have strengths and weaknesses, and the subjective nature of the conversation makes rating each style as to it's Biblical adherrance and gospel effectiveness a futile endeavor. What's missing from the overall conversation is how each of these various taxonomies, each with their abilities to speak to the infinite number of socio/cultural situations, can be made compatible with the largely forgotten (and/or ignored) historic Reformed teachings on worship: the Regulative Principle and the Dialogical concept of worship.  

Community Builder

Great word.  You are spot on.  These are just types or models that don't really exist because every congregation expresses a unique blend.  As such, they simple serve as tools for us to converse about worship.

In the aforementioned class on worship, the students tested the taxonomy by surveying about 100 congregations in Chicago and its suburbs. We discovered that Reformed folk (accompanied by both the diaological principle and a version of the regulative principle) can be found in each group, especially the "Traditional" type.

And thanks for referencing the Regulative Principle and the Dialogical Principle, both of which find a prominant role in my teaching at Northern. 

I ilke "liturgical" instead of the complex #1.  By liturgical I mean preset precise wording before and/or after the sermon such as an official opening, and ending, confession and assurance, certain set prayers. The dominant Christ image is that of the crucified one. Anglican, Lutheran are examples.  These are patterned after the catholic and/or orthodox liturgies

As every church is a combination of certain types,The convergent is not really required. The types need to be unique.

In #6, I would estimate that the Christ image is the ascended one. The role of the preacher is an actor trying to be as effective as the praise team which fills the auditorium with very loud music drowning out any reflective thought.

I am not sure what is meant by preacher as "prophet" Teaching or pointing to the future?

Community Builder

Excellent feedback, August.  Thanks. 

I understand the preference for the word "liturgical" because, in common usage, it accurately describes Type 1. I may have to give in to that.  Its hard for me to go down that road, though, for in my setting I am constantly reminding pastors and worship leaders that every congregation has a liturgy, some simply have more rituals than others.

With my reference to the pastoral role of prophet role of the pastor in the Neo-Pentecostal/Charismatic type, I hope to highlight the function of prophet as one who speaks a word from the Lord. I have found this aspect of the pastor's work accented markedly in Neo-Pentecosal and Charistic settings.  I hope that helps.

Not sure I understand the "preacher as actor" role in #6. 

 

In #6,  The praise team actions tend to become performances, and the pastor one of the actors.

Community Builder

Gotcha.  Though I am not sure those who embrace the "Sermon and Song" type would describe themselves as such (unless, of course, you are speaking from that context). Surely, they would grant the possibility that the role of the worship leader and preacher can and has been distorted into that of actors and performers. But, if Worship Leader magazine accuratley reflects this type, I believe they envision themselves more as prompters of worship (Worship Leader) and instruments of God's grace (Preacher). 

What people envision themselves to be and what folk who come from other traditions experience are two different things.

I have been to a small 'liturgical' church in Jasper where the visitors from all over the country spotaneously broke out in 4 part harmony. Then I visit praise and worship churches where I can not hear anyone in the church, but the praise team whose loudspeakers drown out any attempt to hear each other attempt to sing. 

Some churches like to have different wording or actions for the liturgical parts. The 'liturgical' churches avoid new wordings as dangerous experiments where important facts may be misreprented or missed altogether.