A Protestant Worship Manifesto

by James F. White

When this article was written, James F.White was professor of liturgy in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana.

This article appeared in the Christian Century January 27, 1982, p. 82. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org.  This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The prophetic and priestly modes come together in worship. The service shapes Christians to do justice. Worship’s chief contribution to justice is persistence. We receive God’s self-giving regularly, enabling us to give.

A new reformation of word and sacrament is occurring in North American Protestantism. Yet so unnoticed has this movement been that it lacks a name. This inconspicuousness contrasts with the highly publicized liturgical reforms within Roman Catholicism since Vatican II. My purpose in this article is to delineate the contours of the movement -- in the conviction that, although they are unpublicized, the goals for the reform of Protestant worship have reached a stage of consensus.

In the absence of a document such as the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II, this Protestant consensus is elusive. Indeed, it could be argued that the Constitution itself has provided the agenda for Protestant as well as Roman Catholic reform. But the Constitution dealt with a number of problems endemic to Roman Catholicism; many recent reforms go far beyond what that 1963 document envisioned.

My chief concern is with changes under way in churches at the center of the liturgical spectrum. Changes within the Episcopal and Lutheran churches (the liturgical right) are well known. Significant changes are also occurring on the liturgical left (Quakers, Pentecostals and, especially, the free-church tradition), but it is difficult to generalize about such disparate groups. My present concern is the liturgical center: the Reformed churches, Presbyterians, United Methodists, United Church of Canada and portions of the free-church tradition (United Church of Christ and Christian Church [Disciples of Christ]). A rough but convenient way of defining the liturgical center in North American Protestantism is those churches that consider a service book normative for sacraments but never mandatory for the usual Sunday services.

I intend to articulate a consensus, increasingly evident but as yet unformulated, among such a diverse group of pastors and scholars as William Willimon and Laurence Stookey, Horace Allen and Arlo Duba, Doug Adams and Keith Watkins, to mention only a few pre-eminent leaders. A smaller group consists of people of various neo-Reformation or neo-Wesleyan persuasions. But these divergences are slight compared to the broad support that exists for the reform of Protestant worship.

One does not necessarily do people a favor by changing the ways in which they worship. Yet polls indicate that more than 66 per cent of Roman Catholics approve recent liturgical changes. Change in worship, as in any other human activity, is inevitable. But deliberate and carefully planned change in worship is a new phenomenon in U.S. Protestantism, just as it was unprecedented for Roman Catholics before Vatican II.

For change to be desirable, it has to be based on sound pastoral, theological and historical reasons. Only then can one act in confidence that the changes will be beneficial to the Christian people for whom they are designed. Criteria to judge changes are necessary so as to ensure that something more than personal preference is being promoted. Yet on major matters there seems to be remarkable agreement among those working for liturgical change.

One could designate the present movement as a “reformation of Word and sacrament.” It is certainly an effort at reforming current practice in almost every aspect of worship. Or one might speak of it as the “renewal of worship” in the sense of efforts to infuse new vigor into it. Yet another dimension is represented by the phrase “recovery of worship.” Much of the new is also very old. Many practices long dormant in Christian worship now seem relevant and useful. Greater knowledge of the first four Christian centuries has provided much impetus for recent reforms. Other possible terms could be revitalization of worship, or restructuring of worship.

The present movement is all that these terms indicate and more. I shall try to delineate as concisely as possible 12 reforms generally advocated by almost all those working in this crusade, however it is labeled. Each reform will be presented in normative rather than descriptive terms. There seems to be sufficient agreement to state what should be done.

1. Worship should be shaped in the light of understanding it as the church’s unique contribution to the struggle for justice. Protestantism has often identified preaching with prophetic ministry and relegated the rest of worship to a priestly role, as if there were some distinction between these two aspects of ministry. Yet the weekly reiteration of the entire service (including the sermon) is the church’s most-used method of shaping people for attitudes and acts of ecclesial and social justice. Although it is a byproduct of worship, which exists for its own sake, constant exposure to words, actions and roles within the worshiping community does more to reinforce a Christian’s attitudes about justice than anything else the church does (see my articles “The Words of Worship: Beyond Liturgical Sexism,” Dec. 13, 1978, and “The Actions of Worship: Beyond Liturgical Sexism,” May 7, 1980). Unfortunately, these same words, actions and roles can promote injustice as well as justice. Worship is a potent, possibly dangerous act -- when it fails to do justice to all by being inclusive of all ages and races and both sexes.

Frequently the sacraments are more prophetic than preaching is. Baptism has long been recognized as the sacrament of equality (Gal. 3:27-28). Ordination of women is essentially a question of baptismal theology. Can one be baptized into Jesus Christ and not into his priesthood? Much has been made of the koinonia or fellowship of the Lord’s Supper (I Cor. 10:16-17); more ought to be said about the Eucharist’s exclusion of compromise with evil: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons” (I Cor. 10:21). The eschatological vision of the just reign of God which the Eucharist provides is far more, radical than any human social program.

The chief contribution of worship to justice is persistence, the ability to “hang in there.” The need to worship, which we never outgrow or outlive, is recurring just as the struggle against evil is. As one who weekly receives God’s self-giving through Word and sacrament, the Christian is enabled to give himself or herself for others in a struggle that outlasts each of us.

2. The paschal nature of Christian worship should resound throughout all services. Baptism, grounded in the Easter event, starts the Christian life, and the same paschal joy echoes even in the service of Christian burial. Above all, Christian worship is rejoicing in what Christ has done for us, a form of God’s self-giving in which the historical events are again offered to us. In worship, we experience anew the events of salvation history in terms of our own lives.

The penitential cloud of late medieval-Reformation worship continued to build in the neo-orthodox decades. Too often people go to church to be scolded rather than to experience the liberation of the divine. An opening prayer of confession sometimes does little more than suggest that worship is primarily about our failures rather than God’s triumphs. An individualistic, introspective, subjective approach to worship makes it easy to forget that we have something far more important to focus on than our peccadilloes; we have the joyous Easter faith to proclaim. The proclamation and re-enactment of resurrection goes on week after week throughout the entire year.

3. The centrality of the Bible in Protestant worship must be recovered. A curious link unites the worship of many liberal and fundamentalist congregations. Their use of Scripture in worship falls into the “when convenient” category. Scripture functions in the worship of thousands of Protestant congregations only as a means of reinforcing what the preacher wants to say. This use makes the Bible an optional resource rather than the source of Christian worship. It is forgotten that Scripture is read in worship not as a sermon text but as God’s word to God’s people. The sermon follows as a faithful exposition of what the Scriptures mean for our time. The new reforms encourage the reading of three lessons plus the singing of a psalm each week.

Reforms in this area have been the most successful, largely because of widespread use of the ecumenical lectionary. Unprecedented numbers of Protestant ministers have made the lectionary their organizing basis for the Sunday service. This is all the more striking in that, prior to 1970, such use was virtually nil to the liturgical left of Lutherans and Episcopalians. I was invited recently to speak to a ministerial association in a rural county in Indiana and was told not to mention the lectionary because most of those present would be Nazarene or Church of the Brethren preachers. But when I got there, the lectionary was all they wanted to talk about!

The discovery of the lectionary has had a major impact on preaching. A subtle form of oppression has been the subjection of the congregation to the preacher’s own private canon of Scripture, which frequently excluded most of the Old Testament and much of the New. Conscientization has resulted in confrontation with all of Scripture. Use of the lectionary has meant a return to exegetical rather than topical or thematic preaching. And its use has surprised many preachers by making their preaching far more relevant than their own favorite thoughts, good advice, and Reader’s Digest illustrations.

4. The importance of time as a major structure in Christian worship must be rediscovered. Many congregations are moving to a richer calendar as an unexpected by-product of the ecumenical lectionary. The calendar is the basic document of Christian worship since it determines everything we do on a given Sunday. Those who use the ecumenical lectionary have discovered themselves following a common calendar shared by 80 million American Christians. For most churches, it has almost doubled the festivals by adding occasions such as Baptism of the Lord, Transfiguration and All Saints’ Day. The new festivals are all christological events rather than human programs. At the same time, World Communion Sunday and Reformation Day are downplayed, along with promotional events.

Very important has been discovery of the most dramatic part of Christian worship, Holy Week. Drama is intrinsic in Christian worship, not something added to it, and Holy Week is the climax of Christian drama. Holy Week is being celebrated in thousands of churches with an excitement unknown for centuries. Countless parishes have found popular a calendar that breaks the usual 11:00 A.M. Sunday structure with night services on special occasions:

Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Easter Eve. For millions, the liturgical year has become a major vehicle for living with Christ.

5. All reforms in worship must be shaped ecumenically. The widespread use of the lectionary and common calendar are the most important ecumenical developments of recent years. No one organized a national office or set up a committee to bring this about; pastors in towns and cities all over America simply began meeting to study the texts prescribed for worship. And laity learned of our oneness as they heard neighbors discuss sermons they had heard the previous Sunday. This is true grass-roots ecumenism.

Less obvious is the convergence of liturgical rites. Yet there are fewer and fewer distinctions between them as different churches publish new versions. Bernard Cooke, the Roman Catholic theologian, is said to have remarked that he could use the new United Methodist eucharistic rite “without qualms.” And Methodists certainly help themselves to much that is Roman Catholic.

The theological problems that have separated us in worship have been eliminated. A monk teaches worship at Yale; students in some Roman Catholic seminaries study worship from a Protestant textbook. I often wonder: “Why teach ecumenism when you can teach worship?” Differences, if they occur, are more apt to appear within churches. For example, a leading Roman Catholic liturgist refers to infant baptism as a “benign abnormality,” while an Instruction from Rome defends the practice. But it is quite possible to teach liturgical theology today, making use of sources from every tradition -- Orthodox to Quaker. Much that has occurred is the result of borrowing with discernment. Even oriental rites and the practices and concepts of the Greek Orthodox have touched Western Christianity in crucial ways -- the more reason for us to affirm and study the values of our own traditions so that we can offer them to others. An unexamined tradition often disappears simply because there is no one to expound it in the presence of one that is highly researched and articulated.

6. Drastic changes are needed in the process of Christian initiation. This point is basic to current developments in worship and evangelization. Certain common themes seem to be emerging: initiation is an integral process that ought to be complete at one time in a person’s life; God does not act to incorporate us into the body of Christ in halfway fashion; what is done ought to be full and complete in itself.

Unfortunately, liturgical leaders have been forced to compromise in this area. Probably all of them would like to end present practices of confirmation and certainly to eliminate the term “confirmation.” But there is a vast confirmation industry in the churches that is threatened by such suggestions. And so United Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians were forced to compromise and retain the use of the term even though many now practice confirmation and communion of babies and children of any age. No longer do these acts seem contingent on us, but on God alone. A subtle form of ageism -- the prejudice that children do not count until they think abstractly -- is being assaulted from a theological basis.

The same churches also recognize the importance of human development and affirm that growth in Christian understanding is lifelong. Accordingly, rites for “affirmation,” “reaffirmation” or “renewal” of what God has done for us in baptism have been published. The new Roman Catholic “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults” has also attracted attention as a means of making the conversion of an adult an experience shared in community rather than an individual matter.

7. High on the list of reforms is the need to recover the Eucharist as the chief Sunday service. This is the most dramatic reform needed, as well as one of the most difficult to achieve, except where already present, as in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Even many Lutherans and Episcopalians still experience resistance at this point. So desacralized has much of American Protestantism become that anything employing the physical and visible is suspect. The vast majority of Christian experience, past and present, witnesses to the value of weekly Eucharist, and study of our biblical and historical roots underscores this importance.

Yet to replicate the Lord’s Supper on a weekly basis just as it is now celebrated monthly would be to court disaster. Until we develop genuine concern about the quality of celebration, greater frequency will reform little. Pastors need special sensitivity about the sign value of every aspect of the rites, not as a fussy rubrical matter, but as genuine pastoral concern that people better perceive and express what is ultimately real for them.

Two items need particular care. The eucharistic prayer, the central Christian doctrinal statement, must be rediscovered as prayerful proclamation. The pre-Vatican II rites of Roman Catholic and Protestant alike were woefully inadequate in this regard. And much work must be done to improve the method of distribution so that people gather to stand, kneel or sit about the Lord’s table, rather than remain in pews. We must discover how to act out fully the act of giving.

8. Recovery of the sense of God’s action in other “commonly called sacraments” is essential. There is no Protestant consensus on just which sign-acts ought to be called sacraments other than baptism-confirmation and the Eucharist. This is as it should be, and was, for most of the church’s history. But certain sign-acts provide the community the clearest experience of God’s activity in its midst.

Reconciliation, once called “confession” or “penance,” is an important part of the ministry of the sacraments. Eventually we may see quarterly or monthly public services of reconciliation. Public services of healing may also become common as we minister to whole persons rather than to disembodied souls. Ordination might as well be seen as a sacrament; it has kept sacramental characteristics in most churches.

Marriage and burial for Christians are special events of witness to God’s self-giving in the midst of community. It is time to emphasize the special character of Christian marriage and Christian burial as these crucial passages are celebrated in the context of God’s acts in the church.

9. Music must be seen in its pastoral context as fundamentally an enabler of fuller congregational participation. It is frightening to analyze honestly how music functions in most Protestant churches. Usually it ranges from entertainment calculated to make palatable an otherwise bland service to innocuous Muzak used to fill in gaps and awkward moments. Gradually we are moving beyond a sense of “liturgical music” to a sense of “musical liturgy.” Music thus used is seen as an integral part of the service rather than as gems of choral or instrumental music dropped into it. The problem with most choral music in Protestant worship is not that it is good or bad but that it is simply irrelevant. When it is not an integral part of the service, it cannot help being entertainment or background Muzak. The new lectionary benefits musicians as much as preachers by making integration of sung and spoken word much more readily achieved.

“Pastoral music,” in contrast to “sacred music,” is focused on helping the whole congregation express its worship with the fullest involvement. This means not that choral music should be eliminated but that such music is always a supplement to congregational song. Occasional sacred concerts, of course, are desirable, but they are never the model for the Sunday service. Musician and author Carlton Young said it well: “We tend to treat the choir as if it were the congregation; we should, instead, treat the congregation as if it were the choir.” Renewed emphasis on hymnody, psalmody and service music is encouraging.

One of the present frontiers is rediscovery of the Psalter. In most of our churches, responsive reading has vied with the pastoral prayer for being the dullest part of the service. One of the church’s greatest treasures, the Psalter, is being rediscovered as song. Only the singing of it can do it justice. New methods of singing the Psalms themselves, rather than mangled paraphrases, have developed. These involve participation of choir or cantors and congregation. Suddenly we realize that choirs have been underused, relegated to anthem singing. Responsorial or antiphonal singing of the Psalms contributes far more to an integrated service than anthems used to camouflage the offering. The witness of the Psalms to God’s saving actions in the context of the Psalms’ fervent personal prayer adds an important dimension of participation.

10. The space and furnishings for worship need substantial change in most churches. If the quality of celebration is to be improved, frequently the very first step must be rearrangement of space. There are no possibilities for increasing the sign value of various acts if they cannot be seen. British theologian J. A. T. Robinson’s pessimistic dictum that “the building will always win” may not be entirely true, but it tends to be so. We still see churches being designed as if nothing had happened in worship in the past 20 years -- and in such churches, nothing is likely to happen in the next 20. For worship of the incarnate God, space is a most important instrument.

To improve the quality of celebration, one must acknowledge people’s visual, aural and kinetic senses. Simplicity, utility, flexibility and intimacy must characterize space designed for worship. This means, above all, careful examination of what the church does in each act of worship so as to provide the optimum physical setting for it.

Not much can be done for reforming baptism until candy-dish fonts are discarded in favor of those that make the washing audible and visible for the whole congregation. The font is our most feminine symbol; maybe that is why so many fonts are kept inconspicuous. The Lord’s table in many Protestant churches still must be pried loose from a wall and raised so that it can be used. Learning to use the altar-table would be a big step forward for many. When one sees an open Bible on the altar-table, one can almost be certain that neither is used in worship.

11. No reform of worship will progress far until much more effort is invested in teaching seminarians and clergy to think through the functions of Christian worship. It is amazing how many clergy got through seminary without any serious reflection on and study of the church’s most distinctive activity, its corporate worship. Those who need this help most are those least likely to realize it and seek it. Protestant seminaries have made major strides in teaching worship in the past decade. Nevertheless, in almost a fifth of our seminaries such instruction reaches only a meager number of students or none. Perhaps it is time to warn people planning to study for ordained ministry that if they are seriously interested in preparing for pastoral ministry they would do better to apply to Yale than to Harvard, to Wesley than to Garrett-Evangelical. It is not difficult to determine in which seminaries worship instruction is presented to a significant number of students: lists of faculty are revealing.

For many pastors, educational gaps remain to be filled. Most denominations now offer workshops and various continuing education programs. Much is available in printed materials. The market for books about worship has grown remarkably in recent years. Unfortunately, audiovisual materials are practically nonexistent. We still have not had the imagination or the resources to produce films, videotapes, discs, etc., to educate in this field in which audiovisual presentations would seem so natural.

Strangely enough, clergy frequently have to catch up with the laity in this area. Courses on worship are now becoming common in undergraduate religion departments. Such courses provide one of the best ways of introducing Christianity -- better than presenting it as an abstract system of doctrines. Laity frequently outnumber clergy at worship workshops. An uninformed minister is threatened by such people and often becomes even more resistant to liturgical change. Only by learning can these insecurities be overcome.

12. Finally, it must be realized that liturgical renewal is not just a changing of worship but is part of a reshaping of American Christianity root and branch. Liturgical renewal is not just window dressing, but a major force for justice, ecumenism and rethinking of the whole Christian message and mission. It relates to and affects every part of the church’s life. Liturgical renewal cannot coexist with the status quo in most of these areas. It fits just as ill with liberals’ negations as with conservatives’ affirmations. Both seem to be inadequate reflections of the biblical and historical faith.

The “liturgical circle” begins by observing and listening to what the church does and says when it gathers for worship as the primary witness to what Christians believe, moves on to theological reflection on the meaning of these data, and then proceeds to reform worship so as to express these meanings more effectively. This liturgical circle provides methodology for a liturgical theology in which practice and theory are united.

Thus liturgical renewal is an important agent of change in American Protestantism. Although future historians will be able to isolate its most distinctive features with more precision and detachment than we can, we have the thrill of passionate engagement with the present as we reshape the church.