“I prefer this type of worship…” How many of us have expressed this thought at one time or another? Few ideals are more entrenched within the American psyche than, “I have the right to my opinion,” or similarly, “Well, that’s your preference; I disagree.” To a certain degree, other countries (particularly in Western Europe) share the same mentality, but the brazen entitlement to autonomy (e.g. “I have the right to…”) is uniquely ingrained in Americans. This cultural way of thinking affects us as Christians far, far more than we realize. And nowhere is this right to choose more prevalent than in worship preference.

As an quick qualifier, “cultural Christianity” itself is not uniquely American. Many forms of cultural Christianity have existed, and still exist, throughout history in many countries.

For those us of us in the church today, the prevalent battleground of the cultural Christian wars has been the “worship wars” (traditional vs. contemporary; formal / high church vs. informal / low church; etc.). Next to the gospel itself, nothing is more central to Christianity than worship, so it is no surprise that worship is a constant battleground. Understanding the history of “worship wars” is important today because so often we think disagreement over worship is a modern issue. It is not…

Worship wars are nothing new. They have been part of the church since the beginning (note some of the conflicts in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and Galatians), continued after the fall of the Roman Empire (e.g. Pope Gregory the Great’s liturgical changes ca. 6th century A.D.), and played a key role in the Church’s Great Schism (A.D. 1054). The par excellence of “worship wars” occurred during and shortly after the Reformation (ca. A.D. 1517~1600), when the “traditional worship” of the Roman Catholic Church was pitted against the “contemporary” worship of the Reformers (admittedly, I use those terms quite loosely in this context). By no means were the years after the Reformation (A.D. 1650~1850) entirely free from worship wars, but compared to the upheaval of the Reformation, the new Protestant denominations enjoyed relatively stability in worship styles as they settled into their new doctrinal traditions (Yes, “new traditions” is meant to be paradoxical.) What differentiates these Old-World worship wars from those in America is the context in which they occurred.

Apart from a few disagreements over the First Great Awakening (ca. 1730’s~1740’s) and the presence a few outlying factions of Christianity (Quakers, Shakers, etc.), the American Colonial Era was free from worship wars. This was less due to the opportunity for “religious freedom” in America and more due to the fact that the American Colonies remained tethered to Old World traditions. The cultural and political ideals of the United States simply did not exist yet. Therefore, individual preference (“I have a right to…”) played almost no role in shaping American worship. Churches (i.e. denominations) had distinctives, but as already noted, those distinctives were products of denominational tradition, rooted in theological reflection.

However, that cultural context changed with the first generation (or two) after the Revolutionary War. When political and cultural traditions of the Old World were abandoned, the Bill of Rights became the guiding political and cultural principle for all Americans. From a religious perspective, this was not altogether a bad thing. Evangelistic efforts faced no obstacles from an established state church, and people were freer than ever to live out their biblical convictions. On the flip side, though, people were likewise freer than ever to reject religious tradition, to accommodate religious felt needs, and to innovate theologically. Out of this strange combination of positives and negatives emerged the Second Great Awakening.

Without expanding too much on what I have already written on the SGA (click here), suffice it to so say that the SGA was the first major conflict of the worship wars in America. (For helpful insight into the SGA, I highly recommend Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism.) The progressives (using their New Measures) desired to be relevant in a changing culture, while the conservatives (relying upon theological tradition) desired to be resolute in a changing culture. To be fair, true believers certainly existed on both sides, and many (most?) on both sides sincerely thought they were being faithful to God’s word in what they were doing. Despite their numerous differences, the two sides were seeking to answer one question – “How much biblical freedom / liberty do we have on matters of worship?”

By no means was the question a new one in Church History. What made the situation unique in American Church History was not the question itself, but the context in which it was answered. The American Church found itself quite literally in the “Home of the Free.” The new political and cultural tradition of America was not some freedom within established boundaries (like the Old World), but the unbounded freedom of a pioneering spirit. On the positive side, this change of context catalyzed the greatest era of Christian missions in history. On the negative side, it catalyzed a further splintering of Christendom. On the whole, it set the tone for all future generations of the American Church. Just as freedom to change had replaced respect for tradition in other spheres, so it did in American churches.

The battle between “traditional” and “contemporary” worship, which began with the SGA, continued into the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, until two new threats emerged: modernism (including Darwinian evolution) and theological liberalism (denial of Christ’s divinity, the Virgin Birth, the inerrancy of Scripture, etc.). The issues of the SGA, though intensely theological in nature, were viewed by the average churchgoer as dealing more with style than with substance. Conversely, the new threats (modernism and theological liberalism) were viewed as dealing more with theological substance than worship style. If things were not already confusing enough, some of both groups born out of the SGA, both “progressives” and “conservatives,” set aside their former differences and joined forces as Fundamentalists to oppose modernism and liberalism. Likewise, some of both groups joined forces in supporting modernism and liberalism. (And I will not even begin to address the Social Gospel and Prohibition, which only further confused things!)

The broader American culture had changed as well. By the end of World War I in 1918, the United States had matured as a country. Westward expansion had ended; transcontinental travel was available and affordable; and instantaneous communication by telephone was possible. As American culture “came into its own” so did American evangelical Christianity.

The practical effect of all these changes, both inside and outside the church, was, strangely enough, a “flattening” of worship styles. Many (most?) of the SGA’s “New Measures” were now old and widely incorporated into worship, and its hymns were being published in hymnals. Men such as D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and (later) Billy Graham (all of whom followed in the traditions of the SGA) gained national notoriety through newspapers, radio, and (later) television. They were the first American “celebrity pastors.” This new brand of American Christianity gained widespread acceptance and brought much unity.

This was not true across the board, but for the most part, just as America “came into its own” in the early 20th century, so too did American evangelicalism. This maturation was the beginning of what most people today refer to as “traditional” worship. For those who have grown up in the Deep South, this is why Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches (and hymnals!) looked so similar for so many years.

I had not planned to set forth another historical lecture, but…well…here we are. The moral of the story is this: “Traditional” worship is not as “traditional” as most think. What is considered “traditional” worship today would have been considered “contemporary” worship by earlier generations. As Christians who are today engaged in cultural Christian / worship wars, it is crucial for us to understand American Christianity’s propensity for change. Practically speaking, as America changes, so do its churches as they responded to or against certain events.

This ceaseless cycle of reacting to political, cultural, and religious change has conditioned American Christians to be reactive with their opinions and preferences, rather than to be proactive in clarifying their true convictions. Consequently, we tend to react with opinions and preferences, rather than returning to Scripture to see what God actually commands (and forbids). And, as Americans, don’t we have the right to do so???

The complications and nuances of American Church History are far more expansive than I can cover in a few posts. Please remember that I am giving a broad overview of how the “culture” of American Christianity shifts in each era. Next week, I will explore the roots of what most today refer to as “contemporary” worship.

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