Material History of American Religion Project

The Weakness of Common Worship in American Protestantism

American Protestantism, and American religion in general, has long struggled with the relationship between innovation and tradition. A certain rebelliousness rooted in the American Revolution led Protestants to scorn the "dead hand of tradition" and find new forms of theology, polity, and practice relevant to their time. Gospel music, the revival tent, the itinerant evangelist, and other such innovations are good examples. But these same Protestants often revert to more traditional models. Sometimes this traditionalism reflects a change in aesthetics, and sometimes it reflects a change in status, an attempt to become like more established churches. Behind this shift is a sense that the innovations of frontier evangelicalism just don't "feel like church."

In this essay Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) a stalwart critic of American Protestant life, calls for worship that feels more like church. Niebuhr notes the liturgical reform that was sweeping much of European Christianity in the years after World War II, and seeks such reform for the American church. He finds the worship traditions of American Protestantism theologically and aesthetically inadequate, infected as they are by frontier evangelicalism and individualism. The solution is a more traditional liturgical style, yet one relevant to the concerns of the age. This search for a relevant traditionalism reflects Niebuhr's neo-orthodoxy. Within a decade after this Christianity and Crisis essay, the liturgical reform movement reached American shores and significantly changed the worship practices of much of mainline Protestantism. Niebuhr, we hope, would have been pleased.

As its name implies, the Material History of American Religion Project concentrates its attention more on concrete religious practices and less on liturgy and theology. Yet Niebuhr's discussion of the need for liturgical reform illustrates the complex relationship between practice and theology. His analysis of church architecture, his call for churches to look like churches, connects with our interest in church buildings as shaping and being shaped by theology and liturgy.


In almost every Christian movement of the world, concerned with the revitalization of the life of the church, liturgical reform, or at least liturgical concern, is one of its aspects. This is true everywhere except in America, where the concern should be greatest because the need is so urgent. Sometimes liturgical reform movements are interested in reclaiming some forgotten treasure of worship in the life of the church. Sometimes they seek to make the prayers of the church more relevant to the peculiar problems of our age; and sometimes, as in the more liturgical churches, they seek to relate the worship of the church more closely to its sacramental life.

In America there is no such movement. Perhaps this proves that it is possible for a church to lose a traditional treasure of grace so completely that it is not even conscious of a loss. The non-liturgical churches of America have felt inadequacy in their worship service at only one point. They have sensed a certain aesthetic inadequacy and have sought to overcome this by vested choirs, sung responses to prayers, and rearrangement of the chancel to make the altar or communion table, rather than the pulpit, the focus of attention for the congregation. Sometimes silent prayers with soft organ music is added. The "free prayers," or the pastoral prayers of the minister, are not as formless as they once were. They do not as frequently begin with the phrase "We thank Thee Our Father that thou hast permitted us to come together this morning." But they very frequently supplant the old banality and crude sentimentality and immediacy with a new sentimentality and purple poetry.

Since we rightly pride ourselves in America upon intimate ecumenical relations which permit churches to borrow each other's treasures of grace, it is somewhat surprising that this mutual exchange has taken place so little in the field of common worship. Here nothing has happened but the appropriation of d some of the "trappings" of liturgical worship.

The deficiencies in a large number of non-liturgical churches could be briefly enumerated as follows:

1. The pastoral prayer is both too long and too formless. The free worship gives too much freedom to the minister to speak to God without reference to the spiritual needs of the congregation. Instead of a long prayer, a series of short prayers, each devoted to a particular concern of the spiritual life is more likely to carry the congregation with it. A bidding which announces the subject of the prayer is also very helpful. A rambling prayer in which various concerns are expressed without logical coherence is a kind of "'performance'" but not an act of "common worship."

2. Without the discipline of traditional and historic prayers there is a tendency to neglect some of the necessary and perennial themes of prayer. praise and thanksgiving, confession, dedication, intercession, etc. Sometimes when these various themes are in the prayer they are scattered about to such a degree that the thanksgiving fails to deal adequately with "all the blessings of this life" and the confession a not a significant expression of contrition for the worshipper's involvement in the evils of the world.

3. The language of the prayers of common worship is either too common, too sentimental or too extravagant. The effort to make worship more 'beautiful" has in recent decades tended to substitute rather extravagant poetic phrases for the original banality and commonness. What is still lacking is chastity. Chastity of phrase does not preclude poetic rhythm. The fact is that prayers should have something of the quality of good poetry; for worship must avail itself of the highest arts in the realm of speech as well as in music and in the graphic arts. The prayers should, furthermore, contain both Biblical material and Biblical phraseology. If this is done to excess the relevance of the Biblical faith to contemporary experience may be obscured. If it is not done at all the contemporary experience is not transfigured by the Biblical insight.

4. The use of Biblical ideas in prayer is necessary not merely to purify the expressions but to correct the thought. Most free prayers at funerals, for instance, tend to become heretical in their sentimentality; for they usually assure the eternal bliss of the dear departed on the basis of his good works on earth. A closer relation to Biblical truth would inevitably result in an expression of the Biblical faith that all of us, even the best, are in the final instance dependent upon God's mercy and forgiveness.

The lack of influence from either the Bible or the great traditions of common prayer tend to betray the prayer to a consideration of the immediate situation to the exclusion of the total human situation. Thus, for instance, when pastors gather together in their monthly meeting to hear a visiting speaker, the prayers frequently consist of elaborate thanksgiving for the talents of the visiting speaker, and equally elaborate prayers for the inspiration of his message and expressions of the hope that his message may bear fruit in the hearts of his listeners. As one who is frequently made the subject of such prayers I must confess to an embarrassment not because I do not greatly need the inspiration which is the object of the intercession, but because a puny individual is made the center of concern. Obviously in such a situation the center of attention should be the "whole estate of Christ's church," thanksgiving for its unity, contrition for its divisions, and a meaningful relation of the church, as a community of grace to the whole range of problems in the communities of the world.

5. The free worship tends to be too personal in every respect. It centers too frequently in the personality of the leader of worship. Personalities are exchanged in the introduction of the preacher which are sometimes humorous, sometimes banal and almost always quite unnecessary. The forms and traditions of the liturgical churches tend to hide the personal idiosyncrasies of the preacher and to guard against the temptations of exhibitionism. These temptations are much more considerable than is usually recognized.

6. The reading of the Scripture in Protestant worship leaves much to be desired. First of all, churches have almost completely dispensed with the reading of two lessons, taken either from the Epistles on the one hand and the Gospels on the other, or from the Old Testament on the one hand and the New Testament on the other. In consequence the modern congregation, whose intimacy with Scripture is precarious in any event, is not instructed in Biblical thought; and the Old Testament becomes an almost completely unknown book. In the reading of the Scripture there is moreover a curious formality in contrast to the informality of the rest of the service. No word of explanation of a Biblical phrase or paragraph is ever offered during the reading though such a brief word would frequently make what seems irrelevant relevant to the experience and the understanding of the congregation.

7. The participation of the congregation in the worship service is too minimal. When non-liturgical churches introduce responses to prayers, they usually limit them to sung responses by the choir but not by the congregation. There are non-liturgical churches who have books of common worship; but frequently they are not used. Some churches do not possess them. Without such forms it is very difficult to secure adequate participation of the congregation in the service. One of the most important problems confronting us in this whole realm is to help the congregation become a worshipping body, knit together as a community by its worship so that it will not be an audience, for which a kind of preacher-choir performance is being staged.

8. Choir music in the non-liturgical churches and in some liturgical ones is still affected by the sentimentality which began to corrupt religious music in the latter part of the last century. The soprano solo is still too frequently the main offering. Even the most modest church should have a choir; and the choir would do better to sing one of the great chorales than to present some insipid modern concoction. The paid quartet is usually no more integrated into the whole economy of worship than is the soprano with her solo. It is fortunate that choirs have increasingly achieved robes. A great deal of distraction has thus been avoided. But this remains a rather external advantage if the music of the choir is not more genuinely a part of the worship service than is usually the case.

All these detailed criticisms of banalities, sentimentalities and lack of beauty, decorum and religious breadth and depth in public worship, deal only with symptoms. Something more fundamental than a deterioration of aesthetic standards is responsible for the condition of public worship. The proof that this is so lies in the fact that a mere lifting of standards aesthetically still leaves much to be desired. The fact is that American Protestantism is founded upon sectarian protests against preoccupation with theology, liturgy and polity in the more orthodox churches. These protests had their validity in their day; for it is manifest again and again in the life of the church, that the various disciplines of the church which are properly means of grace may also become corrupters of grace. Liturgical worship may possess "devotions every grace except the heart." Theology may destroy the vitality of faith. Preoccupation with the polity and organization of the church may express pride ratter than the spirit of fellowship. The protest against all these disciplines was supported by the authority of the Pauline word "the letter killeth but the spirit maketh alive." The letter does indeed destroy spirit if it means a preoccupation with minutiae of forms. But spirit without discipline, form and tradition is also vain. The trouble with American Protestantism is that its protest against the various forms and disciplines led to their destruction. It may be possible to have a brief period of religious spontaneity in which the absence of such disciplines does not matter. The evangelism of the American frontier may have been such a period. But this spontaneity does not last forever. When it is gone a church without adequate conduits of traditional liturgy and theological learning and tradition is without the waters of life.

In a sense the formless exuberance of American church architecture in most of the churches built between 1870 and 1930 is a perfect expression of the formlessness inside the church. Neither Gothic architecture nor the chaste New England meeting house are the only possible architecturally-poetic frames to outwardly symbolize the spiritual of the church. A vital Christianity will express in new architectural forms or in novel adaptations of old forms to the new realities of a technical society. But American church architecture in the period mentioned revealed no discipline of any kind. It was merely the expression of free imagination and the fruit of some architects' conviction that a church should not look like a grain elevator. Therefore it was distinguished from the latter by as many turrets, arches and other curious gingerbread elements as the architect could dream up.

It is neither necessary nor possible for the "free churches" to return to the traditional forms of the liturgical churches. There can well be more freedom and spontaneity than these forms allow. But the more vital liturgical churches have actually achieved a considerable freedom beyond their traditional forms, in the use of prayers, for instance, which are not in the prayer book, but which extend the spirit of the prayer book to contemporary occasions. It is necessary, however, that the free prayer become thoroughly informed by the whole Biblical faith and by the spirit and the form of the traditional disciplines. That such an end is possible is proved by the type of worship which we find in the Church of Scotland for instance. For there the pastoral prayers have achieved a Biblical form and comprehensible which our prayers lack; and the spirit of the service has a stateliness and dignity which we have not achieved.

It is rather surprising how little this matter of worship has been made an object of concern in the ecumenical church. This is a field in which churches of various traditions ought humbly to seek to learn of one another no less than in the field of religious thought, in which ecumenical exchange and mutuality is an established reality.

Reinhold Niebuhr, "The Weakness of Common Worship in American Protestantism," Christianity and Crisis 9:9 (28 May 1951), 68-70.

Return to the documents page

Return to the project home page