Looking Back, Looking Ahead at Changes in Worship: An interview with James F White, one of North America's foremost liturgical scholars

Dr. James F. White is currently professor of liturgical studies at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana, where he has supervised nearly twenty Ph.D. dissertations on worship-related topics. His sixteen books on worship include A Brief History of Christian Worship, An Introduction to Christian Worship, and Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition, all texts that are frequently assigned in college and seminary courses on worship.

White was a featured speaker at the Conference on Liturgy and Musk (COLAM 95) held at Calvin College, July 17-21,1995. In conjunction with the conference, he was interviewed by John D. Witvliet, doctoral student in the graduate program in liturgical studies at the University of Notre Dame, and chair of COLAM 95. He is also director of music and worship at the South Bend Christian Reformed Church.

Christian worship has undergone such vast changes in the past generation. Which changes do you think are most significant?

At least two kinds of things are going on, things that I call centripetal, bringing things closer together toward the center, and things that I call centrifugal, flying apart at the margins.

Of the centripetal, the most obvious and most important is the lectionary and all the change that has come with it. The use of the lectionary brings with it a whole different style of preaching, exegetical rather than topical. It also leads people into the church year, whether they like it or not. And often what seems to happen is that they move into special services like those on Ash Wednesday or All Saints' Day. So there has been an enormous amount of convergence around the Christian year and the lectionary.

Of the centrifugal, the most obvious example is the church growth movement and its impact. And that's led to the discarding of all the above and everything else that is distinctive in Christian worship. Often members of this movement have used market analysis as their basis for throwing out anything that seems distinctively Christian.

What you describe as centripetal forceóthe use of a lectionary and the Christian year—sounds like it belongs in so-called "liturgical" churches. But has it been limited to that?

The strange thing to me is that the lectionary has gone far beyond these churches. Even the Nazarene Seminary where I lectured for a week taught preaching on the basis of the lectionary. So does the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville and some of the Brethren and Mennonites. Use of the lectionary is pretty pervasive across the spectrumóexcept for the Quakers, of course.

What's happening is that Catholics are getting more Protestant, and, in a way, Protestants have become more Catholic.

Regarding your comments on church growth, isn't there a historical precedent for this approach?

All of this sounds very familiar. It is similar to what happened in the nineteenth century when the churches developed ways of reaching unchurched people out on the frontier. This was obviously a very pragmatic technique that managed to Christianize the continent. And I see the same thing happening now with the baby-boomer generation: churches are trying to reach an unchurched segment of the population.

It's interesting, though, that the fastest growing church is the Roman Catholic Church, which is very firm on the retention of Christian symbols. They add a million members per year. And they don't compromise.

In light of these developments, how do you view churches in the Reformed tradition?

Well, here there is an irony. The Christian Reformed Church and the Missouri Synod Lutherans are two of the greatest confessional churches in the country. Yet it seems that the orthodoxy of these churches is being eroded by the temptations of the church-growth technique. Both denominations seem to be giving great attention to church-growth techniques, even to the point of ignoring what has made their denominations distinctive: they are confessional bodies. It seems strange that those two churches seem particularly influenced, especially since they are the two churches we most count on for orthodoxy.

When you look at the Reformed tradition as a whole, as you've done in your book on Protestant worship, what surface as some of its strengths and weaknesses?

Well, unfortunately the Reformed church has not always been a good custodian of its own heritage. It has been faithful to the importance of the centrality of God's Word in worship, but it has forgotten most of what Calvin had to say on the sacraments. That's a great tragedy, because of all the Reformers, Calvin had the best understanding of human nature and of Scripture with respect to the sacraments. I'm afraid that the typical Reformed congregation is more a child of the Enlightenment than of Calvin when it comes to the sacraments.

Questions about a particular tradition really raise a larger question regarding the distinctiveness of various traditions and their role in this ecumenical age. What is your view of recent ecumenical trends in worship?

Well, I think one of the things that has united us the most has been biblical and historical scholarship regarding worship. We read the same sources and come to the same conclusions. What has happened in recent years is that much of Western Christianity has opted for an early-Christian rather than a late-medieval/Reformation approach to worship.

The pitfall, I suppose, is that we may become oblivious to some things that are significant developments in our own traditions. For example, it would be a terrible pity for Methodists to give up hymn singing (not that that's likely). Each tradition must know its own gifts.

Speaking of scholarship, there has been a virtual explosion of scholarly attention to liturgical topics of late. What is the result of all of this?

I think we've discovered that we basically have two options, a late-medieval/Reformation option or an early-Christian option. Most churches in recent reforms have opted for the early Christian model—much like Calvin.

The only difference between Calvin and us is that we know more about the early church. So we can accomplish more readily what Calvin was trying to do. As late medieval Christians, the Reformers had no distance from their time and place and simply took a variety of things for granted, much like a fish not knowing about water. They did not know how distinctive medieval Western worship had become, how penitential it was. The more I work, the more I realize how conservative the Reformation was. They conserved more than they changed.

In addition to liturgical scholarship, we've seen the publication of many new worship resources. Which stand out as being especially thoughtful and helpful?

Well, of course I'm prejudiced in favor of the Methodist material, because I was responsible for a lot of it. But I think that the 1993 Presbyterian Book of Common Worship is the state of the art today simply because they waited until everyone else had done their work and then drew on the best of it all. If you want to see the current best, look there.

A lot of the Presbyterian material is similar to the Methodist material. They took some of it and improved on it. One of the keynotes in all of this is a sense of pluralityóthat we have a variety of routes to the same destination. This is new to Catholics and Protestants alike.

Now if we could turn our attention from the past, what do you see when you look to the future of Christian worship?

Well, it's risky being a prophet, as I found out in 1971 when I wrote New Forms of Worship. I took Marshall McLuhan a bit too seriously, thinking that the electronic media would have more impact than it has. But I think that one of the most important things that is happening is that people are making an effort to discern what is the essential core of Christian worship, what is nonnegotiable. Now, the style of church music is negotiable, I hope you'll agree, but the presence of church music is probably nonnegotiable. The lectionary is negotiable, but the reading of Scripture is nonnegotiable. Twenty years ago I referred to these "nonnegotiables" as "hardcore" Christian worship: what we cannot lose without giving up the ship.

I suppose this is my chief problem with the church-growth movement. It's not that the seeker service is defective, but rather that corresponding believers' services are not really satisfactory. I think they really haven't come as far I as would like in seeing what the core of worship really is.

That comment raises the question of culture, which is a hot topic in liturgical studies nowadays. What about inculturation, especially in North America?

Well, inculturation certainly is taking place, most dramatically among Asian and Hispanic Christians in this country. 1.6 million Chinese, .8 million Koreans, 5 million Protestant Hispanics, and others are busy in the process of developing their own approaches. The most obvious examples are their adaptation of the church year and various rites of passage. The process of inculturation is inevitable and to be encouraged, but first of all you need to have a firm idea of what your core is.

Finally, I'd like to ask about one of your special passions—church architecture. What do you consider to be some recent key developments in this area?

That's a tough one. There have been a number of good things by Catholics and a few by Protestants—buildings like Grand Rapids's Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church. But most often the right theological and liturgical questions do not get asked before such a building project.

Perhaps the most exciting thing in the church architecture realm is what Ed Sovik has done for Protestants. He's been involved in over three hundred church projects and has raised standards because he asks the important theological and liturgical questions. Recently, I've been encouraged by working with a Presbyterian Church in Stow, Ohio, where folks are also asking the right questions.

What is the biggest mistake you see?

Church committees don't know enough to be good clients, to tell the architect what their liturgical functions are. And so the architect simply copies previous mistakes. The right questions never are asked.

If you ask about the function of a choir, then you'll know where to put the choir. If you ask about the meaning of baptism, then you know where the font ought to be.

Where should the font be?

This is probably a minority opinion, but I think that the distinct contribution of Protestants—of which we ought to be proud—is that we have made baptism a public act of the whole community. Thus we should put the font in the front, where everyone can see or gather around. (The traditional answer is to put the font at the entrance of a church.) One of the important things that is happening is that we are rediscovering the importance of initiation and baptism in particular. That means that the little candy-dish fonts won't suffice any more. The importance of baptism is underscored by the physical facilities we provide for it.

Finally, of all that you've written, what has been the most rewarding?

My book on Protestant worship. It meant a major shift in my thinking and is my most original work.

And what can we look for from you in the future?

Well, a book on the history of Roman Catholic worship since the council of Trent (October, 1995) and a collection of essays, a retrospective on Christian worship in North America that will include about 20 of my 183 published items (April, 1997).

For all these contributions and for this interview, thanks very much!

James F. White (JFloydWhite@aol.com) is author of 19 books on worship and was for many years professor of liturgical theology at Notre Dame University. He currently is the Bard Thompson Professor of Liturgical Studies at Drew University and also a visiting professor at Yale University.

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin College.