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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?