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Fall 1993 · Vol. 22 No. 2 · pp. 13–24 

Conformation or Transformation: Toward Reclaiming Meaningful Distinctives in Evangelical Worship Practice

Linda Schwartz

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12.1-2 NRSV

The exhortation to first-century believers at Rome reads as a stinging indictment of contemporary Western Christianity with respect to current modes of Christian self-understanding and praxis. It is a prophetic warning, a call to disciplined action resulting from reasoned faith and a transformed worldview; Paul implores his readers to develop ways of being based on ways of thinking--all of life should model a conscious, radical response that challenges current societal and cultural norms. 1 This is not merely an address on lifestyle choices; Paul’s discourse is about WORSHIP. He puts forth the notion, hard as it may be for modern Christians to grasp, that true spiritual worship is a rigorous exercise demanding thought, discipline and action; and that {14} our worship is visible evidence of a life-changing transformation brought about by God in Christ, a transformation which distinguishes us from the cultural mainstream.

Living in community requires both grace and judgment in order to come to terms with diversity.

The original readers of this text were part of an emerging counterculture, an element on the social fringe, who were beginning to understand what it meant to be “living sacrifices” in both a spiritual and a literal sense. They, through baptism into Christ, had already experienced a radical transformation of the mind in relation to prevailing cultural attitudes and values. The apostle Paul was not concerned primarily with the grounding of their belief, but rather, with their ways of being a faith community--the outward visible acts or signs by which they would be identified. He maintained that appropriate, physical, symbolic presentation of selves to God as live offerings was to be with disciplined rigor, so that the transformed mind might be continually renewed and enabled to discern what was good, acceptable and pleasing to God. To distance the self from patterns and priorities of “this present age” and to devote all of life to behaviour signifying a reordered life was evidence, for Paul, of authentic spiritual worship. 2

The essential message and mission of the Church remains unchanged. The Church exists to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, and to be the Body of Christ in the world, through the power of the Holy Spirit. The affliction that plagues today’s Church and prevents fulfillment of this singular task is an ambivalence toward, or a profound lack of understanding of the role of worship, its meaning and signification in the life of the Christian community.


Within the free church tradition, and more specifically across the evangelical movement at present, there is evidence of a tremendous internal struggle over what it means to worship. Families, friendships, congregations and entire denominations have fractured over what is identified as an issue of worship style. Some prefer a more traditional, predictable environment, while others wish to be at the cutting edge of new programs and techniques. There are some who favour intellectual challenge over and against those who would make the claim that, if one does not indulge the senses in order to trigger an emotional response, one cannot fully enter into worship, or indeed cannot be a ‘super-Christian.’ 3

Many controversies exist over the nature of music used in worship. Some are adamant that the only resource used should be the hymnbook; others never seem to be satiated in their quest for new material or the ancillary technology with which to present it. In one service, chancel {15} choirs are in; in another, pre-recorded or computer-sequenced music provides ambiance. There are current debates raging over whether to have a praise band or a worship director lead the congregational singing; endless treatises argue over what types of musical idioms and language are appropriate for worship. 4

For some, visual imagery in worship—or the lack thereof—is troublesome. Indeed, the mere hint of ritual or sacrament is regarded with suspicion by some and craved by others. Written prayers or borrowed liturgies are welcomed in some circles; others find them empty and offensive. Sensitivity to issues of gender and inclusivity are fundamental for some individuals; others insist on entrenching patriarchal or exclusive nomenclature. Many are simply not aware that there are profound theological and personal issues at stake when new forms of language are embraced or rejected.

In many evangelical congregations, the entire character of worship is determined largely by one or two individuals with a specific personal agenda and a supporting power base. Occasionally a congregation will work together deliberately to discern what, for them, is an appropriate corporate mode of worship language. In these rare instances, the question of how to worship is usually part of a larger, ongoing discussion over how to be the Body of Christ in community.

Each point of view, each perspective, carries with it some part of the totality of what worship signifies in the life of the believer and of the Christian community. Diversity in the worship setting can be a valuable asset; it prompts creativity from many voices, and keeps worship vital and energized. But diversity without focus is ultimately destructive; competing forces can tear a congregation apart, creating wounds and pain, and rendering the whole ineffectual.

What, then, lies at the heart of the controversy over current forms of worship practice across the evangelical movement? Contrary to the declaration of many who have experienced frustration and discord on all sides of the issue, the root cause is not simply one of contention over a particular worship style. 5 Nor can subsequent fallout resulting in congregational and denominational schisms be attributed ultimately to matters of power politics, manipulation, leadership style, or personal agendas. 6 Although these aberrant manifestations surface as tangible evidence of existing tensions and conflict in worship practice, they are merely symptomatic of a complex of larger fundamental problems that can be traced across the spectrum of evangelicalism.

To identify and understand the nature of these problems as they relate to worship, the field of inquiry must encompass not only the question of how we do church; it must also point to the motivational factors dealing {16} with the self-understanding or identity of a worshipping community. Such factors include: a sense of history and tradition; matters of confession, theology and polity; and the social enculturation and modes of discourse evident within the dominant group(s) that constitute a particular worship setting. Although each congregation functions as a unique organism, and self-understanding and praxis is variable from group to group (and within all groups over time), there are fundamental similarities based on an encoding of common values and experience embedded deeply within the collective conscious of the evangelical mindset. And it is this very common ground which yields insight into the nature of both a flowering of diversity and the oft-resulting tension that marks many evangelical worship communities at present.


For well over fifteen centuries, Christianity was the prevailing ideology in Western thought and society. In the Middle Ages, the Church in Rome became the central agent of political unification over a far-flung Western empire; doctrinal orthodoxy and standardized forms of worship structure and language were sought by liturgical councils and imposed on citizenry by state sanction. There was little tolerance for doctrinal or liturgical plurality; radical thinkers or breakaway movements of any significance were branded as heretical. 7 Even in the somewhat freer social and theological climate of the Reformation, religion was understood to serve political ends. In its renewed appeal to a vernacular, grassroots populace, the Protestant agenda played the role of handmaiden to burgeoning national movements struggling for autonomy from Rome, particularly in Germany, France and England. 8 During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, political and social reforms were instituted through revival movements in Great Britain and in America. The ideals of an evolving Christian tradition seemed somehow to adapt to a variety of agendas, and, firmly established at the centre of each, Christianity found itself inextricably bound up with the prevailing society and culture, becoming encoded as the dominant worldview by which all of Western society thought, lived and behaved.

A century later, particularly in Western culture, Christianity struggles alongside a plurality of other voices all clamoring for recognition. With the exception of an apparent surge of the evangelical right to the fringe of the American political stage, contemporary society has collectively abandoned even a nominal Christian worldview. This is due in large measure to a watershed shift in Western society from an age of Christendom to that of post-Christendom: {17}

The era [of Christendom] that began with the conversion of Constantine, and which lasted from the fourth century to the nineteenth, spanning the great divide of the Reformation, has met its death in our lifetime. . . . [R]eligious symbols no longer provide the basis of our culture. Science, economics and technology have become the new social paradigms. . . . Spiritual matters are now regarded generally as secondary to . . . material issues, and the credibility of religion itself is under doubt in many secular quarters. 9

What happened to bring about this dramatic societal shift, this decentering of Christian worldview from a position at the hub of the cultural mainstream to the outer rim of relevance and import?

Over the past two centuries, Western popular culture has evolved beyond the Christian myth and has embraced numerous other philosophical and social paradigms. The Enlightenment, the Modernist era, and current post-modern ideas have, in their turn, questioned the existence of God, denounced the alliance of Church and State, and prompted waves of political, social and economic theories that—contrary to the progress myth which these theories propagate—appear to center increasingly on agendas of self-gratification or issues of power. 10 Social ills have increased exponentially, and humanity continues a seemingly vain and restless search for meaning and signification.

New prevailing ideologies hold subtle and ever-increasing influence over the contemporary Church. Old threads which previously tied faith to all of life have become unravelled and flung out to the edges of human experience. Having lost most of its special protection and privilege under the state, the church is no longer able to conquer other cultures and protect itself from indiginization, no longer able to view itself at the centre of the cosmos. 11 In the face of modern science and philosophy, the institutional Church finds itself on the verge of ruin—disempowered, weak and vulnerable. Paradoxically, this fragile state of affairs may be the only way by which the Church is able to re-examine its values and recover its singular task.

Popular culture has determined the way in which the Church as a whole is viewed historically. In light of today’s agenda of political correctness, where society permits a plurality of cultural codes and gives voice to marginalized groups, the institutionalized church represents for many within and outside its doors an icon embodying patriarchy, enslavement and abuse. This perception, together with the recognition that organized religion has been marginalized by contemporary society, has caused the Church to begin to adopt many new modes of discourse and ways of being. Nowhere is this tendency toward innovation more evident than in the divergent worship practices of communities that declare {18} themselves to be evangelical. It is this exercise of freedom in form and practice which defines and continues to shape the identity and character of evangelicalism. Paradoxically, that freedom may, in the final analysis, cause the evangelical church to abandon altogether what lies at the very heart of Christian worship.


Revivalism, a mainstream movement on the nineteenth-century American frontier, inspired and captivated a broad spectrum of society by its liberating and enthusiastic worship style. 12 As the movement matured, it spawned all sorts of social programs, including the temperance movement, literacy campaigns (Sunday Schools and colleges), world mission, women’s suffrage, the Y.M.C.A, and even Chautauqua theatre. 13 Indeed, much of what is now identified as American popular music (country, gospel, rock, some folk and jazz idioms) owes its origins to Revivalism. Mainline Protestant congregations, fanned by the flames of renewal, eventually returned to more standard forms of worship, retaining some of the spirit of revivalism in their hymnody. In some circles, however, the flame was not so easily extinguished. Thus began the breakaway schisms—holiness denominations (Wesleyan/Arminian), Pentecostals (charismatics), and conservative fundamentalists who together would constitute what is now known as the evangelical movement.

In its infancy, the evangelical movement’s response among the rural, poor and working-classes signalled an intentional empathy with the marginalized fringes of society—modelled, undoubtedly, on the example of Christ, who, though rich, became poor. It must be noted, however, that these initial sectarian groups were very much maligned by the mainline churches from which they had broken rank, and were therefore conscious of their own marginalization. Emphasising their uniqueness, worship gatherings featured spontaneity and enthusiasm, and focused on emotionalism through preaching and song. The sub-text was always about guilt and forgiveness, hell and heaven. 14

Evangelicalism eventually reached a threshold where enthusiasm succumbed to piety. In order to reinforce the simplicity and directness of its message, the movement engaged in sober—if not entirely critical—theological reflection, 15 and developed codes of character and jargon that are moralistic in the extreme. However, even with this new-found adolescent zeal, evangelical worship began to absorb rather than repel much of the evil it sought to overcome in society. By waging war against ‘worldliness’ while continuing to engage in worldly seductive techniques in order to ‘market’ its message, evangelicalism has risked constant slippage into {19} subtle realms of pleasure and pain, security and fear, desire and guilt. In the process of being seduced by its own modes of thought, action and discourse, the essence and signification of what it means to be a worshipping community has taken some serious detours from the Pauline vision.

Now adult, up-scale, and lukewarm (with no visible residue of exuberance or piety), the evangelical status quo can hardly distinguish itself from the not-so-subtle imagery portrayed by popular culture. The reason: Contemporary evangelicals have virtually no long-standing theological tradition, symbolic ritual or codes of disciplined behaviour which collectively set them apart as a transformed community. Their origins are grounded in revivalism, which is based on a narrow theology of guilt-conversion-deliverance, evidenced outwardly by cathartic individual experience and a collective ideology based on motives of comfort and success. The movement has always identified with and catered to a base-level of popular appeal; it has almost never engaged in rational discourse or the “renewing of the mind.” And, because freedom from formalism is valued, as is a collective emotional group response, these worshipping communities must always innovate measuring themselves continuously against the yardstick of current cultural trends to avoid redundancy.


Today, most evangelicals do not have a clear sense of the purpose of worship. A plethora of vague notions about what constitutes the nature and essence of worship is evidenced across the spectrum of evangelicalism, despite many sincere endeavors to develop or orchestrate ‘meaningful worship experiences.’ Indeed, experience is a key word signalling much of the current confusion and controversy over how to worship.

Evangelicalism’s indulgence in the experiential has taken place at the expense of conscious development of a well-reasoned, symbolic and disciplined approach to worship. When worship practice begins to focus on immediate gratification of the individual experience, and caters to personal agendas at the expense of a corporate will and mode of expression, the whole Body of Christ becomes malnourished and incapable of doing its work in the world. Evangelical worship lacks significant theological or confessional motivation; there is a somewhat paradoxical rejection of both rational discourse and symbolic ritual, which downplays the role of mind and body in the worship act; there is little framework—implicit or explicit—on which to structure a disciplined and consistent faith expression; and there is no apparent sense of the responsibility implicit in worship to become the Body of Christ, for the sake of community nurture and for the equipping of the saints for ministry. {20}

Worship does not reflect, reinforce or identify the theological position of most evangelical denominations. 16 Rather, the tendency for many communities is to adopt a mode of seeker-sensitivity in worship. This consumer-oriented approach, operating under a somewhat pretentious notion of evangelism, simply reflects the seductive lure of popular culture, by marketing a potpourri of convenient and attractive worship programs and packages that are ‘guaranteed to suit your lifestyle.’ Prevailing messages of comfort, prosperity, pleasure and heaven are central to the prayers, songs, and preaching of seeker-sensitive worship. Its techniques are based on an ideology of immediacy over process and attainment over growth, luring both seeker and committed alike into believing that the Christian faith experience is ‘hip’—appealing, trendy, superior, and powerful in the material sense—and involves little personal risk or investment. This is an erroneous and dangerous tactic which is already creating a serious identity crisis among evangelicals, and, if unchecked, will inevitably undermine valued theological and confessional distinctives of evangelicalism.

One effect of seeker-sensitive worship is the pronounced inability on the part of many evangelical communities to articulate a clear position or engage in meaningful, constructive discourse on matters of confession or polity. 17 Continued emphasis on knowing God as ‘a buddy’—emphasised repeatedly in the texts of current gospel and Christian ‘pop’ music—has rendered as nonsense the idea that there is anything awesome or mysterious in the nature of the Divine. The New Testament call to identification in the Cross and to abundant—not easy—life based on kingdom values, is being silenced by worship practice which refuses to acknowledge the cost of discipleship.

Worship services approximate forms of entertainment that are designed to elicit only passive response rather than active engagement from participants. People have been lulled into checking their brains at the door, and discouraged from engaging in too much corporate expression of symbolic representation. This rejection of combined intellectual fortification and physical embodiment of belief—achieved through liturgy—prevents major facets of the human experience from entering into worship. 18 The general discomfort with liturgical ritual, embedded within the collective psyche of the evangelical community, is the very thing all humanity craves—to experience with the senses in order to appropriate with the mind. This is how humans begin to know: we are sensient beings, and by repressing innate, natural tendencies, we have learned to deny ourselves a major portion of spiritual gratification—we have not begun to touch God, to smell God, to taste God, or to see God. To learn to do so is to enter the revelation of the divine mystery. {21}

It is disturbing, therefore, that evangelicals place so much stock in the emotional experience or realm of feelings: this is the one area of human nature that evangelicalism has traditionally regarded as an appropriate response mechanism; and, for many, it has become an exclusive outlet, the single gauge by which the validity of faith is measured. In fact, ‘gut feeling’ or the realm of emotion also internalizes and projects erogenous emotions, as well as feelings of misery, aggressiveness, and guilt; and these often become confused with appropriate spiritual behaviour. 20 When human feeling or emotion is compartmentalized from cerebral or sentient experience, the worshipper is no longer able to engage in a balanced or fully human response to worship.


There needs to be some sort of framework or set of guidelines by which a worshipping community conducts responsible and meaningful acts of praise that engage the whole being—mind, soul, body and spirit. If there is no discipline in worship, no acts of corporate will to covenant with God and each other in structured, consistent, balanced ways, then there will be no hope of common theological or confessional interpretation, and no growth without factionalism.

A worshipping community must sense that it exists at the complete and utter mercy of the Creator, and must recognize the significance and purpose of its being gathered together. The members must acknowledge their unworthiness in light of God’s grace, and recognize the awesome privilege and responsibility that is theirs, having been redeemed by God’s love through the sacrifice of Christ. They must respond to the call to be the Church, the embodiment of Christ, by prayer and the enablement of the Holy Spirit. Together they must be renewed, unified, strengthened and empowered to carry the transforming message of the Cross to the world. It is imperative that all of this happen in the act of worship.

And worship is an act; it is the physical offering of all we are and all we have to the One who created us as instruments of praise and service. Worship involves a “renewing of the mind”—a continual process of transformation, based on a common theological understanding, and worked out in community. Worship is a rigorous exercise involving confession, affirmation of faith, prayer, and praise. This is where the Body of Christ is RE-membered—formed and strengthened again and again for its task—through the sacraments He instituted. This is where the gospel is proclaimed and affirmed, and where its challenge is met with obedient response. {22

Worship is not a spectator sport; the whole people of God must engage in the drama, which continues to unfold through time, and whose final act will be the restoration of all Creation to God in Christ. It is in the recognition of being a part of this great story that worship takes on real significance for the believer. Christian worship, regardless of form or tradition, must embody the essence and spirit of the Pauline text in living and meaningful ways not to do so in this age is to yield to cultural absorption.

One hopes that the Church—God’s people—may opt to enter more fully into the mystery and the reality of worship. In the presentation of ourselves as live offerings, we submit to a continual process of transformation in the Body. This is the work—the liturgy—of worship; this is our spiritual worship. By developing careful theological, creedal and confessional language and symbolic acts that identify us in worship, by engaging more deeply with the Scriptures, by singing new songs which express our purpose and task, and by acknowledging and affirming the priesthood of all believers, we will truly begin to discern “what is good, and acceptable, and perfect.”


  1. James L. Mays, ed., Harper’s Bible Commentary, Society of Biblical Literature (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), 1160-61. Paul’s appeal for a reasoned response in worship comes out of his grounding in Greek thought, and Stoicism in particular.
  2. Ibid., Paul clearly outlines and develops an historical and pastoral theology and Christology in Chapters 1-11. Chapter 12 initiates Paul’s discourse on application. It is written with specific reference to the issue pagan temple worship; here Paul uses the metaphor of ‘sacrifice’ in describing the spiritual worship of a transformed believer.
  3. The expression is becoming coined among groups such as the Vineyard Movement.
  4. For a recent example of diatribes on evangelical worship style and praxis, see Debra Fieguth, “Sing Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs,” Christian Week, 7 February 1993, 10, and other feature articles in the same issue. This is not a new or unique debate; to read accounts of the early Church Fathers on the use of music in worship, check out Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History, (New York: Norton, 1950), Part I.
  5. Ibid. The practitioners and authorities Fieguth quotes represent opposite ends of the spectrum; and both sides would have us believe that the controversy is rooted in opposing preferences for particular musical styles.
  6. Ibid., 12-13. Mind and emotional manipulation through the repetitive singing of simple music and text; and the reference to worship as “entertainment,” where the worship leaders develop a “star mentality,” are some of the criticisms leveled at contemporary worship practice.
  7. John McManners, ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 211-212, recounts several twelfth-century examples of papal reaction against so-called heretical attacks on the Church by rebel clergy. It is {23} important to note, however, that the Church, in response to such attacks, was constantly undergoing internal reform in order to retain a politically dominant position.
  8. Social history, the study of the effect of historical events on the cultural, economic and political climate, has yielded a great deal of insight into Reformation society. General references include: Karl Holl, The Cultural Significance of’ the Reformation, trans. by Karl and Barbara Hertz, (New York: Meridian Books, 1959); Richard Gawthrop and Gerald Strauss, “Protestantism and Literacy in Early Modern Germany,” in Past and Present, 104, 1984; and Gerald Strauss, Luther’s House of Learning: Indoctrination of the Young in the German Reformation, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1978).
  9. Michael Ingham, Rites for a New Age: Understanding the Book of Alternative Services, (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1986), 28. The premise for Ingham’s argument is that, because the mainstream Church no longer occupies a dominant position at the centre of society, it must develop new strategies for survival. One of those strategies is a reclamation of Christian liturgical text and practice that predates the institutionalized Church. Other excellent sources which address the phenomenon and agenda of postmodernism and the paradigmatic shift in societal attitudes include: Steven Connor, Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989); and Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1986).
  10. It is evident in the modern world that, across the spectrum of political and economic theory from socialist Marxism to conservative democracy to national socialism and dictatorial rule, the ideology—regardless of the intention to benefit the common good—tends to fuel and preserve specific personal power agendas.
  11. Ingham, 28-40, describes the shift of Christianity from the centre to the fringe of cultural and political structures in the West.
  12. Excellent accounts of revivalism and the camp-meeting movement which began in Logan County, Kentucky in 1800 can be found in James I. Warren, O For A Thousand Tongues: The History, Nature, and Influence of Music in the Methodist Tradition, (Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, a division of Zondervan, 1988), 90-114; Donald Hustad, Jubilate! Church Music in the Evangelical Tradition, (Carol Stream, Hope, 1981), 147_54; and other older sources such as Gilbert Chase’s America’s Music. Another excellent social history, Phyllis Airhart, Serving the Present Age: Revivalism, Progressivism, and the Methodist Tradition in Canada, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992), traces the effects of revivalism in Canada.
  13. Warren, 153-66, describes the influence of gospel hymnody in shaping various social programs and forms of entertainment.
  14. . . . who, “though he was rich, for our sake became poor.”
  15. Warren, 121-131. Using Sandra Sizer’s methodology for analyzing gospel hymns, Warren cites examples of evangelical hymnody and determines the prevalent theme through text (often metaphoric) and form.
  16. The advent of the Bible school movement (Moody Bible Institute was among the first, established in 1888) parallels the development of pietism in American evangelicalism.
  17. This state of affairs stands in sharp contrast to the intention of Paul in the Romans text, where very carefully worked theological statements are followed by admonition about how to live them. {24}
  18. The movement of evangelical worship practice toward a more popular, culturally-encoded worship and away from the engagement and affirmation of a specific theological position, inhibits meaningful discourse on how to live out the gospel with respect to social issues such as poverty and hunger, sexuality, and inclusivity.
  19. Ingham’s chapter on spirituality, 104-36, stresses the need for engaging the whole being in the worship act.
  20. Timothy Trivett, “The Doctrine of Perfection in Nineteenth-Century America and the Holiness Schism in American Methodism” (Masters Thesis, University of Manitoba, 1987), passim. Trivett’s central argument is the nature and effect of revivalism and the holiness movement on the Methodist Church; he deals in some depth with the sorts of psychological and behavioural aberrations—resulting from excessive emotionalism—that led to schism.
Linda Schwartz is Assistant Professor of Music Theory and Composition at Concord College in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She is also minister of music at St. Mary Magdelene Anglican Church.

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