What We've Learned Along the Way: Reformed Worship Through Twenty Years of Liturgical Change

Robert Webber has been an editorial consultant for Reformed Worship for many years and has written for RW several times. To help us start off our twentieth anniversary year, we asked him to reflect on “what we’ve learned along the way.” This article is the first in a series by a variety of writers associated with Reformed Worship since we began twenty years ago.


Today’s worship movement began back in the sixties and early seventies from two very divergent sources. First, renewal within the liturgical movement was prompted by the publication of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the first document of Vatican II. On the date of its release (Dec. 4, 1963) Pope Paul VI spoke of worship as “the first subject to be examined [by the Vatican Council] and the first, too, in a sense, in its intrinsic value and in importance for the life of the church.” The second worship renewal movement was born in the “Jesus Movement” of the late sixties and early seventies. The leaders of this movement, like Tommy Coombs, actually “found Christ” in worship at what is now Calvary Church in Costa Mesa, California.

It is significant, I think, to note that both the liturgical and contemporary movements, out of opposite histories, recognized the need to prioritize worship as the first thing—or at least, one of the firsts among several equals—that the church must be about. Worship is a first, because it is a source from which the mission of the church in the world proceeds. One may see these two worship movements as a “thesis” and “antithesis,” which spawned a “synthesis” or convergence worship movement. Throughout its years of publication, RW has served both these movements of renewal.

Thesis: A Protestant Worship Manifesto

It was scholar James White, professor of liturgy of Notre Dame, who began the crusade to apply the principles of Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy to the Protestant Church. In “A Protestant Worship Manifesto” first published in The Christian Century (Jan. 27, 1982; available at www.religion online.org/showarticle.asp?title+1278), White called the Protestant community to pay attention to the following twelve themes of worship renewal:

  1. Worship should be shaped in the light of understanding it as the church’s unique contribution to the struggle for justice.
  2. The Paschal (Easter) nature of Christian worship should resound throughout all services.
  3. The centrality of the Bible in Protestant worship must be recovered.
  4. The importance of time as a major structure in Christian worship must be rediscovered.
  5. All reforms in worship must be shaped ecumenically.
  6. Drastic changes are needed in the process of Christian initiation (discipleship and baptism).
  7. High on the list of reforms is the need to recover the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) as the chief Sunday service.
  8. Recovery of the sense of God’s action in other “commonly called sacraments” is essential.
  9. Music must be seen in its pastoral context as fundamentally an enabler of fuller congregational participation.
  10. The space and furnishings for worship need substantial change in most churches.
  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.
  12. Liturgical renewal is not just a changing of worship but is part of a reshaping of American Christianity root and branch.

As I have recorded these twelve goals set forth by White twenty-three years ago, I’ve noted, twelve times over, that this particular concern has been and is being addressed by Reformed Worship. There is no question in my mind that RW has, for twenty years, served the full spectrum of the issues that proceed from worship as a first-order concern of the church.

Antithesis: A Contemporary
Worship Manifesto

But what about the contemporary worship movement? Has Reformed Worship spoken to the concerns within that body as well? This question is more difficult to answer for two reasons. First, contemporary worship has not evolved in a straight line. It has many permutations within the historic Pentecostal movement, the contemporary movement, and, of course, the evangelical mega-church movement. And second, Worship Leader has been the primary voice of this movement. However, RW has also served the contemporary movement by addressing contemporary issues and by encouraging the leaders of the contemporary worship movement to draw from the rich sources of historic worship.

To help you see how RW has addressed contemporary worship issues, let me introduce you to a little-known manifesto written by Henry Jauhiainen, pastor of a contemporary Pentecostal Charismatic (yes, they can all be brought together in worship) church in Crystal Lake, Illinois. I asked Henry, a very thoughtful and deep person, to write a contemporary manifesto for the Complete Library of Christian Worship: Vol. II, Twenty Centuries of Christian Worship (pp. 337-340). His comments help put into perspective another side of the ministry of RW. He calls the church to seven cutting-edge concerns that bear on contemporary worship:

  1. We should see our worship as Christian, occurring within the Pentecostal-Charismatic context—not the reverse
  2. We need to see the vital relationship between Christian worship and Christian truth.
  3. We need to maintain the Christological focus, the “Paschal Center” of all worship.
  4. We need to place our music more purposefully throughout the service.
  5. We need to recover a true sense of mystery in Christian worship.
  6. We need to rediscover the essence of the kingdom of God in our worship.
  7. We need to rediscover a deep sense of our constant need for the grace of God.

Once again, as I reviewed these contemporary issues of worship renewal, I kept coming back to “Reformed Worship addressed that.” RW has primarily served the Protestant mainline, and its greatest impact has been within the Reformed community, but it has consistently affirmed worship renewal in the whole church and facilitated the renewal of worship and of the church, in every quarter of the body of Christ, including the contemporary movement. In this way Reformed Worship has come alongside of the contemporary movement and has encouraged an ecumenical spirit among the churches.

Synthesis: The Convergence Worship Movement

The convergence worship movement has intentionally brought about a synthesis between the liturgical and contemporary worship renewal movements. It has had a number of different permeations and is difficult to track because it is so diverse. The Charismatic Episcopal church is one example of a concerted and intentional effort at convergence. But then, convergence happens in any community that seeks to integrate another tradition into itself. However, as in the areas of traditional and contemporary worship, a manifesto on convergence worship has also been written—Randy Sly and Wayne Boosahda’s article in Twenty Centuries of Christian Worship, vol. II (pp. 134-141). And like the authors of the previously mentioned manifestos, they have laid out a general agenda for convergence churches to follow:

  1. A restored commitment to the sacraments, especially the Lord’s Table.
  2. An increased motivation to know more about the early church.
  3. A love for the whole church and a desire to see the church as one.
  4. The blending in the practice of all three streams is evident [Liturgical, Charismatic, Evangelical/Reformed], yet each church approaches convergence from a unique point of view.
  5. An interest in integrating structure with spontaneity in worship.
  6. A greater involvement of sign and symbol in worship.
  7. A continuing commitment to personal salvation, biblical teaching, and the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit.

So, has Reformed Worship also spoken to the issues of convergence worship? I think so. The breadth of the articles, the concern for historical traditions (especially that of the early church), the open attitude toward a gentle Charismatic spirit, the concern to be evangelical—all these themes, if not directly addressed in specific articles, underscore the general thrust and tenor of RW from its beginning.

In its twenty years of history, then, RW has spoken broadly to the entire worship renewal movement—Liturgical, Contemporary, and Convergence.

Future Challenges for Reformed Worship

Here is my “short list” of issues that will shape RW in the near future.

1. Consider the new cultural challenge.

Much has happened in culture in the last twenty years. We no longer live in the same world that launched RW. Even though many of the “worship issues” remain the same, the culture in which worship must be formed has changed radically. We now live in a post-Christian, postmodern, neo-pagan world. The sharp distinction being drawn between “secularism” on the one hand and a “biblical worldview” on the other hand will result in a worship that is increasingly counter-cultural.

2. Restore the connection of worship with a storied theology.

The demise of “scientific-Enlightenment theology” and the return to the “biblical story” rooted in creation/incarnation/re-creation opens new possibilities for a worship that is rooted more specifically in the story-formed worship of the ancient church—especially for the recovery of a greater sense of mystery and a more intentional use of symbol.

3. Restore the unity between story/worship/spirituality.

Worship and spirituality are both situated in God’s story. In recent years worship and spirituality have been separated from a storied theology and moved off into a life of their own, drifting toward a self-focused narcissism. Worship, instead of being God’s story sung, proclaimed, and enacted, has been grounded in the self—what “I” do for God. And spirituality, instead of being an embodiment of God’s story in all of life, has turned inward into the journey to self. Only the recovery of God’s story as the source of both worship and spirituality can correct the dangerous trend of self-focused worship and spirituality.

These three issues constitute my “short list” that frame, I believe, the future discussion. And I am convinced that RW will contribute significant leadership to these new issues, even as it has led in the issues of the past, issues that are still very much with us.

Even though many of the “worship issues” remain the same, the culture in which worship must be formed has changed radically.

Much has happened in culture in the last twenty years. We no longer live in the same world that launched RW.

Robert Webber (rwebber@northern.seminary.edu) was the Myers Professor of Ministry at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and president of the Institute for Worship Studies, a distance education school in Jacksonville, Florida. He is author of many books, including the Ancient-Future series (Baker), Younger Evangelicals (Baker), and editor of the eight-volume Complete Library of Christian Worship. These resources and a monthly "Ancient-Future Talk" newsletter are available at www.ancientfutureworship.com. Dr. Webber passed away in April 2007. 


Reformed Worship 77 © September 2005, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.