The traditional hallmarks of Baptist worship have been the centrality of preaching, fervent singing, and extemporaneous prayer. Worship renewal in the Southern Baptist Convention is moving in divergent directions. Those influenced by the more formal British tradition seek renewal along the lines of the ecumenical consensus. Those more influenced by the revivalist tradition draw on the praise-and-worship style and the church growth movement.
Because of its congregational polity and the wide diversity in the social status of its membership, Southern Baptist worship today takes place in a wide variety of styles. As one Baptist pastor put it, “Some burn incense, others bay at the moon.”
However most Baptist churches contain architectural clues that mark common characteristics in worship. The central pulpit predominates; Baptist worship has been characterized by the centrality of preaching. A prominent baptistry built into the wall behind the pulpit just above where the altar stands in many other communions is used in Baptists’ most distinctive worship rite—believer’s baptism by immersion. The placement of the Communion Table is in front of and below the pulpit. A prominent choir loft behind the pulpit and in front of the baptistry is a sign of the importance of music. The pews have no kneeling benches indicating that worship is more horizontal (with other believers) than vertical (a private worship of God). A scarcity, if not absence, of symbol in reaction against the heavy use of symbolism by Catholics and Anglicans is evidence that the ear is the most important organ in Baptist worship (the sanctuary is an auditorium).
Baptist worship began in the Puritan movement in England during the seventeenth century that sought to reform the Anglican Book of Common Prayer according to the “pure” Word of God. The earliest Baptist worship was held in homes and consisted of prayers, singing, and multiple sermons (by minister and lay people). There was no worship book. Worship was free, led by the Spirit. As Baptist worship developed its own standard form, these distinctives were maintained: the use of spontaneous and extemporaneous prayer (as opposed to set prayers), the centrality of preaching (as opposed to short homilies), and fervent hymn singing.
The Charleston and Shady Creek influences are the key influences shaping Southern Baptist worship. The Charleston tradition, closely tied to Baptists’ British roots, had a set order of worship. The preachers, usually highly educated, sought to combine learning and piety. Services combined orderliness and stateliness with evangelical warmth. The primary thrust of worship was vertical—toward God.
The Sandy Creek tradition began in the revival fires of the eighteenth-century American frontier. Informality, fiery preaching, spontaneous amens and shouts, gospel music, extemporaneous prayers, and personal testimonies marked revivalistic worship. It was more emotional than intellectual. Its thrust was more horizontal—toward a communal experience—than vertical. Its focus was more subjective than objective, stressing the faith and feeling of the worshiper more than God’s nature and activity. The main goal of worship was the conversion and transformation of the worshiper.
Southern Baptist worship today bears the influence of both traditions. Charleston influence can be seen in the set order of worship, formality and dignity, hymns focusing on God, and sermons characterized by learning and piety, head and heart. Sandy Creek influence manifests itself in gospel hymns and songs focusing on the spiritual state of the worshiper, extemporaneous prayers, folksy informality, and fiery evangelistic sermons that leave ample room, even if carefully prepared, for spontaneous improvisation prompted by the Holy Spirit.
A typical (if there is such a thing) Southern Baptist worship service in the mid/late twentieth century would look like this:
The last ten years have seen two major developments in Southern Baptist worship. The first movement, found mostly in Charleston-tradition churches, has begun to draw upon the worship tradition of the larger ecumenical church. The congregations in this movement celebrate the major seasons of the Christian year (Advent, Lent, Easter, Pentecost). They make considerable use of symbols and other visual enhancements in worship such as banner art and sacred dance, celebrate Communion more often, and often include two Scripture readings. While the sermon is still central in these congregations, other features of worship take on an inherent importance rather than being simply “preliminaries” ancillary to the sermon.
The second movement is found mostly in conservative churches of the Sandy Creek tradition. It has been influenced by televised religion, the praise-and-worship movement, and the church growth movement. Worship is comprised of the song service, which includes the singing of many choruses and gospel songs as well as solo performances, and the preaching service, which includes the sermon and the invitation. Overhead projectors and other visual media are used to project song texts and sermon outlines. Hymn books are little used; set liturgy is nonexistent. The worship is performance and entertainment oriented, the solo and sermon being the main attractions. This movement seeks to make worship “user-friendly”—accessible and enjoyable to anyone who comes regardless of religious background. Denominational distinctiveness is minimized.
Both movements are considered “renewal” movements by their practitioners. Both are a response to a changing American religious culture where denominational lines are being blurred by social mobility. Both are trying to breathe new life into Baptist forms, some of which are becoming as ritualized as the Anglican worship that Baptists first sought to reform.
The ecumenically influenced movement responds by becoming ecumenical or multi-denominational. It also entails a recovery of the historic roots of Christian worship in the New Testament and early church period. Its weakness is a tendency toward aestheticism and theological obscurantism.
The praise and evangelism movement responds by becoming post-, non-, or anti-denominational. It is fueled by intense desire to reach the unchurched and those disaffected by mainstream religion. Its adherents try to eliminate the “strangeness” of liturgy that becomes a barrier to the visitor and seeker. Its weaknesses are a proneness to reduce worship to entertainment and accommodate worship to the whims of American consumer culture. Worship then becomes a blend of Christianity, patriotism, self-help psychology, and self-help and feel-good religion.
Possibilities for furthering worship renewal in Southern Baptist congregations include the following: