Search this site
My Book

Entries in ancient modern worship (5)


Was Early Church Worship Reserved and Stoic?

Lunette with Orante. From early Christian fresco, second half of the third century. Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, Italy. Photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY.Traditionalist critics of modern worship often point to the hyper-emotionalism associated with the movement as evidence of its imbalance toward expressiveness over and against theological depth, biblical accuracy, and historical connectivity.  Sometimes, these critics will point to "how the church has historically worshipped" to advocate for more reserved, "reverential" forms of worship expression.  They will admonish the church that, unless people reserved and somber in worship, they will be downplaying the fact that in worship we do indeed encounter a holy God who should inspire fear, silence, and meekness.  

Many, many folks have pointed out that the Psalms give us a bigger picture.  They don't necessarily subtract from the above, but add to it.  The Psalms give us a picture of reverence and jubilation, being reserved and being expressive, both physically and emotionally.  

So what about those arguments about "historic Christian worship?"  Perhaps when we look to post-Reformational Anglican, Lutheran, or Presbyterian worship we see a more stoic model of corporate worship expression.  But if we go back earlier...much earlier...we see a different picture which may surprise us.  If, in our minds, we picture the early church at worship in homes and church buildings engaging in liturgy in formal, reverential postures with solemn faces and expression-less bodies, our picture is wrong.

The above picture is taken from an early Christian fresco, painted in the late third century.  It depicts a worshiper in prayer.  Contrary to our postures of folded hands, closed eyes, and sitting or kneeling, this early Christian was standing, head covered, with eyes open and hands lifted toward heaven.  (It's interesting that modern worship hand-raising, especially when we realize that singing is a form of prayer, is actually a more ancient, historic worship-posture than the still-bodied, stoic-faced, hymnal holding that characterizes some of traditional worship today!)

If this reality of early church worship is as surprising to you as it was to me, perhaps you, too, should check out Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth-Century Jerusalem, by Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk, and John Witvliet.1 Along with brief commentary on the above picture, here's what they had to say as they observed the documents and art produced in and around fourth-century Jerusalem:

[Commenting on the picture:] Although this portrayal dates from the late third century and from a different place than Jerusalem, such portrayals can help one imagine what it would have been like forJerusalem's buildings to have been filled with worshipers. Envision, for example, hundreds with hands upraised, gathered around the tomb of Christ.2

Early Christian nun Egeria, from her diary, wrote this in describing a portion of a worship service in fourth-century Jerusalem, as the people traveled from site to site surrounding the story of Jesus' death:

When everyone arrives at Gethsemane, they have an appropriate prayer,  hymn, and then a reading from the Gospel about the Lord's arrest.  By the time it has been read, everyone is groaning and lamenting and weeping so loud that people even across in the city can probably hear it all.3

Here's the sidebar comment by the authors:

The loudness of the people's reaction to the acount of Jesus' arrest is another reminder of how demonstrative late patristic worship could be. Congregations were not quiet and passive at this time.4

The authors summarize Jerusalem worship in the fourth century in this way:

Jerusalem worshipers were moved emotionally by their worship, mirrored by how they moved outwardly in its rhythms of time and space. Egeria depicted how deeply people's affections could be touched in worship, thereby dispelling any notion we might have that the early church's worship was staid and stuffy because it involved a great deal of ceremony. Egeria drew a picture of worship in which people wept, shouted, called back to the preacher, and applauded with delight.5

And here we see that more formalized and ceremony-oriented worship doesn't necessarily have to be "staid and stuffy."  Our doxological ancestors gave us a different picture.  It seems, then, if we want to talk about getting back to the worship of the early church, we need to be careful about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  With traditionalists and formalists, we can prize "ceremony," liturgy, and even high levels of structure and content in our worship.  With modern worship, we can appreciate and incorporate the fullness of physical and emotional expressiveness.  It doesn't seem that, from a biblical and historical perspective, either needs to be encouraged to the exclusion of the other.  

So we would do well to celebrate and incorporate the ideals of early Christian worship, even as we find new ways of expressing our ancient Christian doxology.


1 Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk, and John Witvliet, Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth-Century Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).
2 Ibid., 31.
3 Ibid., 54.
Ibid., 28.



The Right and Wrong Kind of Ancient Future Worship

As Holy Week rolls around every year, our worship senses are heightened toward tradition.  Evangelical churches who once adopted a more "low church" model for worship are returning to the value of worship expressions which typically have characterized "high church" environments--Holy Week noon-day services, celebrations of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Saturday vigils, etc.  Ancient future worship--blending old forms with creatively new expressions--is something many churches are now seeking, perhaps in reaction to the hyper-now-ness and contemporaneity of the of worship models being held up in the 1980s and 1990s.

But there's a right way and a wrong way to go about it.  Fifty years ago, theologian Jean-Jacques von Allmen parsed ancient future worship quite well:

When we perform Christian worship, we are part of the Church of all places and all times, and this community binds us.  To respect liturgical tradition implies...a feeling of gratitude for what God has taught the Church in the past, for the way in which He has inspired and guided it. That is why there exist in Christian worship and its unfolding certain classical forms which have...such a theological and anthropological plenitude, are of such monumental liturgical importance, that the Church never exhausts their vitality, never wears them out, in spite of constant use. They are transmitted and occur from cult [another word for "worship"] to cult, not so much out of filial piety or lack of imagination, but because to abandon them would not be a liberation but a loss.  For [most] Protestants this is something far more difficult to understand than it is for Anglicans, Roman Catholics or, especially, Greek Orthodox.1

So, on the one hand, a proper appropriation of "ancient" in ancient future worship is to seek out those lasting traditions and expressions that have "a theological and anthropological plenitude"--a potency that seems so fitting that it's hard to imagine improving upon them.  Such potent traditions include the call to worship, confession, and the benediction, to name a few.  (Bryan Chapell's Christ-Centered Worship is a great resource to sniff out potent traditions.  See my review and summary.) 

Von Allmen goes on:

If a fine doxology of Christian antiquity is golden, it is a gold coin rather than a gold chain.  That is to say, that respect for the traditions of worship does not fetter liturgical expression, but on the contrary, enables us to repeat today in a new way what the Fathers said when they assembled to celebrate the mystery of Christian salvation. It is not a question of saying or doing something different; it is a question of not being bound to what is obsolete. Although it is legitimate to have in one's worship some ancient items (just as one has an antique armchair among one's furniture) the cult is not a museum, and if it facilitates access to another world, it is not to a world that has gone by for ever, but to a world that is to come.2

This is a golden nugget of advice for rightly dividing ancient future worship.  Bad ancient future worship has the feeling of a kind of "worship museum," where we're all gathered around to stare at some beautiful old liturgical artifacts.  Engaging in that kind of ancient future worship has folks coming away saying, "Wow, that was very thought-provoking," or, "Wow, I learned a lot about [x] in that service!"  It's always wonderful to provoke thoughts and to educate people about church history, but that simply isn't the goal of Christian worship.  The goal is to encounter the living God with the people of God.  So, utilizing "ancient artifacts" in worship is only as good as they accomplish those ends.  

Von Allmen gives us another helpful tool to find whether or not our incorporation of the ancient has been effective.  Ironically, good ancient elements will end up propelling us forward, not backward.  A good element of worship will point us to the coming kingdom just as much as it pointed back to a previous era of worship.  The Lord's Supper is the pinnacle example of this reality.  If, in our Communion, as we remember Christ's death, we are not propelled forward to long for that future Feast with our Risen King, then we've lost something.  Every good element of worship has an echo of this quality.  By the way, this is why "ancient future" is a better term than ancient modern, because "modern" only implies the present, which is something on which our culture is way too fixated, anyway.  

The "Gloria Patri" is an example of an ancient element that is loaded with futuristic inertia.  In it, we sing:

Glory be to the Father,
And to the Son,
And to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning,
Is now, and ever shall be:
World without end. 

Look at it.  Trinitarian.  Historic ("as it was in the beginning").  Relevant ("is now").  Future-looking, kingdom-oriented ("...and ever shall be: World without end").  I would love to see more local worship leaders and songwriters incorporate this short song into their worship.  Maybe it's time some of them set this gem to new music that fits their local cultural and church context.  We have done that, ourselves.  We've sung it as a stand-alone song, and we've incorporated it into our new setting of the ancient song, "O Splendor of God's Glory Bright" on our album, Without Our Aid.  

(If you want to see a great compendium of ancient future worship music, check out Cardiphonia's post for a lot of helpful resources.)



Jean-Jacques von Allmen, Worship: Its Theology and Practice (New York: Oxford, 1965), 97.
Ibid., 97-98.

An Interview with the Maker of the Modern Worship Hymns Album, Love Divine

As most of you know, a major focal point of this blog is the intersection of ancient and modern in worship, with a particular eye toward dialogue between mainstream modern worship and historic hymnody.  Several months back, I highlighted a preview of the album, Love Divine, which, as a compilation project of mainstream modern worship leaders singing re-tuned texts of Charles Wesley, is a significant achievement toward the end of the coming together of these two worlds.

Click to read more ...


Incorporating Chant into Worship (Even Modern Worship): A Primer

These days, it’s hip to do “old stuff” in worship.  The late Robert Webber prophesied that this would happen; there is indeed a resurgence of interest in incorporating elements of historic and ancient Christian worship into our modern-day expression.  This is part of why the rehymn movement is gaining popularity.  While this is encouraging, we do not want to run the risk of doing old things simply because they’re cool.  We want to do them for much more important, lasting reasons.  We incorporate tradition into modern worship precisely that we might express ourselves not only as the modern church but as the historic church.  Part of being the “one holy, catholic church” involves worshiping like we truly are catholic (i.e. universal).  This universality includes not only space—incorporating elements of worship from our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world—but time.  Christians in Ghana truly are my brothers and sisters.  But the same can be said for fourth-century Christians in Mesopotamia.

Click to read more ...


Great New (Old) Worship Songs for Advent and Christmas

(Updated December 2011)

For this Christmas season, or if you’re thinking ahead to the next, here are some modern worship style Christmas songs.  They’re great historic hymns that we’ve set to new music which carry Advent/Christmas themes.  They aren’t “updated” standard Christmas carols.  They’re old hymns that modern worship has all but forgotten.  But they’re worth reviving, and here they are: 


All Ye Gentile Lands Awake

lyrics | mp3 | chord chart | lead sheet | video tutorial | about

A mid-tempo, indie-style song, with themes of light and confession.  For liturgo-philes, it’s technically a song for Epiphany, but works very well for Christmas.


Angels From the Realms of Glory

lyrics | mp3 | chord chart | lead sheet | video tutorial | about

An up-tempo, drum-heavy number that works well as an opening song.  It’s refrain invites people to “Come and worship.”


Hark the Glad Sound

lyrics | mp3 | chord chart | lead sheet | video tutorial | about

A driving 4/4 song that works great with dotted-eighth delayed electrics and powerful drums.  Its chorus encourages us to shove the idols off the thrones of our hearts so that Jesus can come and reign.


Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending

lyrics | mp3 | chord chart | lead sheet | video tutorial | about

A foreboding, mid-tempo, Coldplay-style Advent hymn that speaks about Christ coming in power, glory, and judgment.  This song isn’t for sissies.  It’s a fan-favorite from our first album, The Glad Sound.


O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright

lyrics | mp3 | chord chart | lead sheet | video tutorial | about

A mid-tempo song that builds from soft to loud, filled with themes of light and God’s glory.  One of the oldest Christian hymns we still have (4th century!).


Psalm 76 (God is Known Among His People)

lyrics | mp3 | chord chart | lead sheet | video tutorial | about

An upbeat, funky, even gospel-style number that rejoices in the power of God, trampling over His enemies.  The bridge walks through Isaiah’s titles for Christ (“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”).


The Word of Life (In a Byre Near Bethlehem)

lyrics | mp3 | chord chart | about

An Irish pub-style number that walks through the story of Christ’s life, from birth to resurrection.  It’s got an earthy chorus and a singable melody that everyone loves.  Everyone.


There is Room

lyrics | mp3 | chord chart | lead sheet | video tutorial | about

A slow, graceful piano-led ballad that, in recounting the story of Jesus coming to earth, asks Jesus to come to our hearts.  Very melodic, and perfect for an offering.