The church history class I teach most often at our university is a so-called “survey” course — one in which we try to absorb elements of all 2,000 years of Christian history in ONE SEMESTER. As you can guess, we’re always having to treat things at less depth than I would prefer, in the interest of getting the “big picture.”
When we get to modern American Christianity, it can sometimes be hard to see how church life in our day is connected with events from previous centuries. However, it’s important to know — and a class focused on the history of Christianity in the U.S. would teach you — that many modern American denominations come directly out of the events of the Reformation. There are, of course, Lutheran churches in America, as well as Episcopal and Methodist churches that are descendants of the Anglican Reformation in England. But there are also churches descended from the Anabaptist movement (like the Amish and Mennonites) and several denominations that descend from the teaching of John Calvin (e.g., the Baptists and Presbyterians).
But something else that is true is that many denominations in America are based on a mixing of various Reformation traditions. Think, for example, of the Churches of Christ, which (despite their claims to “non-denominationalism”) have their organizational roots in both Baptist and Presbyterian churches. A more common example lies in the doctrine (that is, the theological teachings) in various churches. When preachers focus on justification by grace, they are influenced by Luther. When they focus on the sovereignty of God, they are influenced by Calvin. When they strongly lean on the separation of church and state, they are influenced by the Anabaptists. And you can hear all of these things in one and the same church, despite the variety of influences!
For many of us, though, doctrine can be rather dry, and it often doesn’t affect us directly. But the ways that we worship do affect us directly. They are important to us, and they are important vehicles for our relationship with God. And many of these ways of worship also go back to Reformation practices or principles. Here are just a few examples:
- We worship, pray, and hear Scripture read in the vernacular, a practice that arises from all the Reformation traditions.
- We can sometimes emphasize the Eucharist (Communion) very strongly, and this emphasis sometimes goes back to Catholic or Anglican influences.
- We very often lean heavily on a sermon in our worship, and this tradition arose in the Reformation world with people like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. That’s especially true with preachers who are able to make the word relevant to contemporary life – as is so often the case in many of our “megachurches.” Luther might not love some aspects of modern church life, but he would love the connection of “sound doctrine” with everyday life.
- Finally, we use music a lot in our worship, and most of the ways are reflections of Reformation ideas. When we have beautiful music performed by talented (maybe even professional) musicians, we participate in an impulse that was prominent the Catholic church after the Reformation. When we emphasize congregational singing, we follow the same impulse for church participation that animated Luther. That’s especially true when we put Christian words to familiar songs. When we sing psalms set to music, we follow Calvin’s ideas. When we sing simple, heartfelt songs, we follow Zwingli and the Anabaptists. Note that a modern worship often has all of these: simple, meditative song, psalms and hymns set to music, rousing congregational pieces, and maybe even a “special” performed by a choir or ensemble. We are truly a mix.
So what does this mean for us? As was the case with universities, I find myself in a spirit of gratitude with regard to the Reformation influence on our modern worship. I love music, and I love worship, and I am so grateful that Christians have found so many tools with which to worship God in the varied history of our faith.
Image credits: http://www.stjohnadulted.org/Gonzalz1.jpg, https://bicyclefreaksforchrist.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/chris-tomlin.jpg, and http://www.nwhills.org/ministries/worship-music/worship-band.html