Much of the confusion, uncertainty, and conflict over worship today is generated by the collision of two powerful forces—forces that have developed gradually in the American church over the past 50 years and that are now engaged in a struggle over the soul of the church’s worship. I call these forces the “Hippolytus force” and the “Willow Creek force.”

The Hippolytus Force
The worship earthquake that occurred in the Roman Catholic world following Vatican II set off massive aftershocks among Protestants, challenging them to a fundamental rethinking of their own worship as well. This rediscovery of the common Christian heritage in worship was accomplished in part through a recovery of the prayers and rites of the ancient church, such as eucharistic prayers modeled after a prayer found in the writings of Bishop Hippolytus, a third-century theologian and church leader in Rome. Perhaps the earliest complete eucharistic prayer we possess, Hippolytus’ prayer symbolizes Christian worship when the church was still one, the pattern of prayer all Christians hold in common, prayer from a time before the schisms and bitter fights that were to follow.

The official worship books of many denominations are shaped by this movement (hence my name, the “Hippolytus force”), and a good number of clergy today have been trained in this form of worship and have come to love and respect it. In the Book of Revelation, there is a picture of the heavenly hosts at worship, singing in one voice, “Holy, holy, holy.” The Hippolytus force represents the hope that all Christians everywhere may be joined in that song.

The Willow Creek Force
Ironically, just as the flood tides from Vatican II were rising and the ecumenical movement was reaching a high-water mark, another cultural tidal surge was passing over the American churches. Even as the Hippolytus force was reinvigorating the worship in many old, established churches, the culture seemed to be busily, vigorously, and thoroughly rejecting both them and their worship. Many once-flourishing congregations grew smaller, older, and discouraged about the future.

As a response to this crisis, a few visionary church leaders began to theorize that people were leaving these churches not because they were tired of spirituality but because they were tired of the typical churchy kind of spirituality, tired of the boring, remote, and highly institutionalized forms in which the established churches always seemed to package the search for God. These people are termed “seekers”: religious free agents, people untethered from conventional church loyalties, human beings hungrily searching in their own ways for spiritual experiences in very personal, immediate, often unconventional, and practical ways.

What was needed, these visionaries maintained, was not a Band-Aid placed over the wound of rejection but major surgery on the life of the church—an entirely new kind of church with an entirely new way of connecting with people and a thoroughly refashioned way of worshiping. If the church is to survive and to be faithful to its evangelistic mission, then worship will have to be designed with these seekers in view. A handful of churches led the way toward developing “seeker-oriented” worship, none more publicly, famously, or symbolically than the Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, a northwest suburb of Chicago. Willow Creek is the flagship/mentor church of the seeker worship phenomenon (thus our designation of “the Willow Creek force”). Willow Creek’s seeker-oriented style of worship turned out to have great appeal to people inside the church as well as outside, particularly young people, who responded favorably to the exciting visuals, swift pacing, and upbeat music.

The Forces Cross Swords
So the Hippolytus force and the Willow Creek force were both at work in the life of the church, both with noble and well-grounded intentions, and they were bound to cross swords. And they have. Indeed, shock troops for the two sides have begun to hurl some nasty insults across the trenches. Some of the Hippolytus advocates tend to see the Willow Creek folk as having sold their birthright for a mess of porridge. The grenade-throwers on the other side charge the Hippolytus folk with antiquarianism, boring punch-the-time-clock pacing in worship, and a stubborn and selfish insistence on bells, smells, and chancel-prancing while a spiritually hungry world quietly starves to death. Actually, most congregations today do not find themselves firmly in either camp. Most churches are somewhere in the mixed and muddled middle, trying to sort out what their conflicts over worship mean. In other words, both Hippolytus and Willow Creek forces are at work simultaneously in most congregations, and the permutations that result are seemingly infinite.

I am convinced that both the Hippolytus and Willow Creek forces, for all they have to teach us, are finally not up to the challenge of the day. In their pure forms, they both miss the mark. The Willow Creek approach (meaning the whole movement toward seeker-friendly, contemporary worship) puts too much distance between itself and the Christ-centered, historically informed, theologically shaped worship that constitutes the great tradition of Christian prayer and praise that is obedient to the gospel. It turns out in the end to be a pretty shallow pool in which to learn how to swim with maturity as a Christian.

For all the protestations that seeker-friendly worship is simply an evangelistic prelude to “real” worship, its participants do not often view it this way. Seeker-friendly services happen on Sunday and they feature religious songs and a preacher doing something like preaching: It walks like a duck and it talks like a duck, so it must be church. Indeed, the seeker-type churches have lately faced up to the fact that getting people to make the transfer from seeker worship to “believer worship” has been more difficult than originally thought.1

More telling, however, is the fact that much seeker-style worship constantly betrays its roots not in the gospel story but in the television-shaped consciousness of our time. A service of worship is a ritual, and all significant rituals spring from powerful life-changing origins. Indeed, part of the function of rituals is to allow the participants to experience vicariously that original force and to tap some of its energy anew.

A classically shaped Christian worship service is formed by the biblical story; it is in essence a recapitulation of the sacred narrative of God’s interactions with human beings. To go through the order of worship is symbolically to walk through the whole narrative of faith. The service is a metaphor constantly pointing to its referent.

When the chancel is a stage, however, and the music is performed by musicians gripping hand-held mikes, and the interspersing of talk and music and skit moves with the rapid and seamless pacing of “Saturday Night Live,” then the referent here is unmistakable, too. This is not a retelling of the biblical narrative; it’s the recapitulation of prime time. Even if the music is stimulating, the prayers uplifting, the messages inspiring, and the experience heartwarming, the underlying structure of the service is still basically telling the wrong story, the story that will not finally take one to Christian depth but only to “see you next week, same time, same station.”

On the other hand, the Hippolytus approach, unlike the Willow Creek approach, has often not taken sufficient account of the fact that we are in a new and challenging cultural environment and that worship must always be ready to adapt. The advocates of the Hippolytus force are fully aware that Christian worship is a private event. It is not a picnic softball game or a holiday parade performed for and by all comers; it is t
he ritual of the community of faith, of those who belong to Christ. As such, it demands a special vocabulary, a practiced set of skills, and growing knowledge of the biblical story and the meaning of worship itself.

What the Hippolytus people sometimes fail to recognize fully, however, is that although Christian worship is a private event, it is done in a public place. The doors and windows of the church are figuratively always open, and there is no authentic Christian worship without a genuine welcome and hospitality to the stranger. Out there in American society are millions of people who are spiritually hungry, people who have either never looked to the church as a resource or who have tried it and found it wanting. Some people have never heard what the church has to say. Others have heard it, but their memories have grown dim. If the “stranger” in our day includes the hungry spiritual seekers out there in the world who cannot find their way into our worship because the doors are locked or the language is too cryptic or the hospitality too stingy or the family rituals impossible to learn, then Christ, too, will have a difficult time getting in.

Moreover, the Hippolytus style of worship, as actually practiced in local churches, is, frankly, often quite boring. It can plod along its once majestic path from gathering to blessing without much spirit, verve, or life. Sadly, the Sunday worship of many a traditional church has become something of a Chevy Bel Air: it starts every time and gets you safely from here to there, but the heart never races and the spine rarely tingles. “Wasn’t church a lot easier when God didn’t show up?” asks one of the new seeker church ministers, throwing an elbow at the traditional churches. “Then you knew what time you’d get home for Sunday dinner.”2

A “Third Way” In Worship
My intuition is that some congregations have managed to avoid the hardened battle lines and have, by plan or providence or both, discovered a “third way” in worship between Hippolytus and Willow Creek. Many congregations have managed to remain firmly within the trajectory of historic Christian worship (the main contribution of the Hippolytus force) and yet have fashioned worship that is genuinely responsive to the present cultural environment and is accessible, attractive, and hospitable to religious seekers outside the church (the main goal of the Willow Creek force).

I am not talking about what is often called “blended” worship, however, which tends to convey the idea of a mix-and-match approach—a dash of contemporary thrown in with a measure of traditional. Too many congregations, in my view, have adopted this compromise—we’ll do a traditional hymn, then we’ll do a praise song. We’ll have the classic structure, but we’ll spice it up with skits. A little of this and a little of that, and everyone will be happy.

What I am referring to, rather, are congregations that have created a new thing in the earth—a service of worship completely attuned to the American cultural moment but also fully congruent with the great worship tradition of the Christian church; a service that attracts young people and seekers and the curious and those who are hungry for a spiritual encounter, but that does so by beckoning people to the deep and refreshing pool of the gospel of Jesus Christ as it has been understood historically in the church.

Slowly but surely, I have located congregations that are managing to carve out this other path. In visiting these remarkable congregations, worshiping with them, and speaking to their leadership, a coherent picture has emerged. Although these churches are large and small, urban and suburban, Protestant and Catholic, white and ethnic minority, they share certain characteristics and virtues [see sidebar]. Varied as they are, they hold some features in common, which seemingly are transportable to other congregations seeking to renew their worship. To be sure, not every congregation possesses every single virtue, but each congregation embodies most of them. I call these congregations “vital and faithful churches”—“vital” because they are active and growing and drawing crowds of people to their worship, “faithful” because they manage to remain true to the great worship heritage of the church as they do so.

These churches are not perfect. They have the same petty quarrels, the same staff problems, the same low Sundays that every church has. But they have found themselves in a good place in regard to worship, a place that can serve as a beacon to the rest of us, guiding us toward worship that attracts people in our society to an encounter with God in Christ.

This article was adapted from Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship. Copyright © 2001 by The Alban Institute, Inc. To order, call 1-800-486-1318, ext. 244.

1. Sally Morgenthaler, Worship Evangelism: Inviting Unbelievers into the Presence of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), pp. 44-45.
2. A preacher at the Vineyard Church “Catch the Fire Service,” as quoted in Jackson W. Carroll, Mainline to the Future: Congregations for the 21st Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), p. 54.