Formality of Worship

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Christian chuches deal significantly in worship styles. The dimensions most commonly discussed are differences between "high church" and "low church" worship styles, between "traditional" and "contemporary" worship styles, and between "liturgical" and "non-liturgical" worship styles. These dimensions overlap and are not independent of each other.

Part of the Evangelical Christian movement is as much a statement about worship style as it is a statement about theological content or social agendas. While Evangelical churches are often conservative in their social mores and theological stances, their worship style is often "low church", "contemporary", and "non-liturgical". (There are, of course, exceptions. One faction of the Christian Church/Churches of Christ family of churches forbids all instrumental music in church, for example, which is at odds with the "contemporary" worship style found in many Evangelical churches).

High church refers to a high level of formality, ritual, and tradition in how worship is conducted. If everyone is genuflecting, there is lots of kneeling, sitting and standing in unison, incense is being spread through the church with censors, the altar and clergy are covered with elaborate vestments color coded to a church calander, and a script for the church service known as a "liturgy" is sung rather than spoken, you can be pretty sure that you are in a "high church" setting. On the other hand, if the minister is wearing jeans, the communion bread is sitting on a card table still in its wonder bread wrapper, the communion wine is being poured out of the bottle it was purchased in with the price tag still on it, there is no script but the minister's memory, and members of the congregation are sitting or standing on their own as the spirit moves them, you can be pretty sure that you are in a "low church" setting.

Indeed, even if the pastor is wearing a business suit, the church is sparsely adorned, no one kneels, and liturgy is spoken, and church worship seems more like a solemn affair than a religious pagent, you are probably still in a "low church" environment.

A "contemporary" service will often have music in the rock, blues, folk or jazz genres, and the congregation will typically dress fairly casually. A "traditional" service will have music that dated to before jazz was invented and is often hundreds of years old and a little bland, presented to a formally dressed congregation in their Sunday best. Typically, gray hair is far more common at a traditional service than a contemporary service which tends to attract a younger crowd.

"Liturgical" churches include the Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church and the Orthodox Churches, as well as a few others. These churches conduct worship services according to a "script" called the liturgy which is repeated over and over with season variations and occassional updates and retranslations for centuries. Until the 1960s, the Catholic Church, moreover, conducted its liturgy in Latin (it now conducts services in the vernacular language which closely matches the liturgy in the Epsicopal and Lutheran churches). In high church settings, the liturgy is sung by a clergy member or a "cantor".

"Non-Liturgical" services have only the most bare bones script. Singing is usually confined to hymns, often listed by number in a church bulletin or on a wall chart. Lessons are read and a homily or sermon dominates the service. Prayers are offered, but often not according to any particular designated form. Statements of belief called "creeds" are often less important or non-existent in non-liturgical churches. The notion of church seasons like Advent, Pentecost, and Lent is often absent in non-liturgical churches. Communion and baptism may be preceded by clergy lead prayer, but it is often not an ancient traditional chant in the same way as in liturgical churches, often it is simpler and not pedantically concerned with covering every doctrinal fine point.

Even within liturgical churches there is a move to develop contemporary liturgies, such as the Chicago Folk Service (one of the first such moves in this direction within white Christian denominations, dating to the 1960s) and other more recent services, to keep members of liturgical churches involved in the church while honoring the traditions and key language of the liturgy.

A very nice discussion of these issues from the perspective of the Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Church, the most theologically conservative of the three major Lutheran denominations in the United States, which, unlike most Conservative Christian leaning churches, is a liturgical church, can be found here.

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