By David R. Bains, editor
April 18, 2021, revised May 7, 2021

I have taught an undergraduate course for twenty years on the history and theology of Christian worship. In the past, participant observation of congregations has been the heart of the course. Needless to say in spring 2021, precaution against Covid-19 significantly altered this practice. On the upside, the availability of on-demand video recordings of so many services created new opportunities. Never before in this history of Christianity have so many worship services been recorded and made accessible to the world. Students used these recordings to write about Birmingham’s worship life for Magic City Religion.

New and Historic Congregations

This year Birmingham will celebrate its 150 years since its founding, and three of the sixteen congregations students studied date from its first decade. Birmingham’s vibrant religious life is also constantly giving birth to new communities; four of the congregations studied were founded since I moved to Birmingham in 1999. These are not, primarily, churches of the suburban frontier. All of them have worshiping communities in neighborhoods established by the 1880s.

With the exception of St. George Melkite Greek Catholic Church, all of the congregations we have studied are Protestant. But among these there is considerable, and perhaps unexpected, variation.

Figure 1. Fr. Justin serves communion on Sunday, April 11, 2021 at St. George Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Screen short from video on church Facebook page.

Guides to Interpretation

In approaching these churches, we have been guided by the work of many scholars, perhaps foremost Lester Ruth and Ed Phillips. Through the good offices of Samford’s Center for Worship and the Arts, Ruth, a professor at Duke University Divinity School taught us via Zoom early in the semester. We also read his and Swee Hong Lim’s history of “contemporary worship” (2017) Students have made good use of his taxonomy of American Protestant worship in their studies, particularly his discussion of whether word, table, or music functions as the “primary sacramental principle of a congregation” (Ruth 2002).

Figure 2: The choir sings in worship at Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, March 21, 2021. Screen shot from video on church Facebook page..

Students have made even more extensive use of the taxonomy of six “character types” of worship provided in The Purpose, Pattern, and Character of Christian Worship by Emory University professor L. Edward Phillips (2020). Phillips identified the goal (or telos), pattern, and ethos of each of these six character types. While the “revival” or “praise and worship” character types figure most prominently among our sixteen congregations, some resonate more with “prayer meeting” or the didacticism of the Sunday school assembly. I’m particularly proud of the way some students applied Phillips’s concepts of goal (or telos) and spirit (or ethos) to services that did not neatly fit within his six character types.

Figure 3: Sunday worship service at Iron City Church, meeting in Southside Baptist Church, April 11, 2021. YouTube video. (The link abovewill begin with Pastor Kam Pugh greeting the congregation.)

Covid-19 has affected the worship of all these communities, as we were observing them in March and April 2021, they were responding in very different ways. Some, such as Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and Beloved Community Church were entirely online. Others, such as Dawson Memorial Baptist Church, had returned to almost normal worship by Easter Day. Our focus, however, is less on how the churches have adapted to Covid-19 than on communicating how the various congregations understand and practice Christian worship.

I will link the essays to the list below as they are published. Follow us here on Word Press, or on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook to be notified of the essays as they are published.

Figure 4: Student researchers on a visit to Hodges Chapel, Samford University, February 17, 2021. Photo: David R. Bains.

References

Lim, Swee-Hong, and Lester Ruth. 2017. Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship. Nashvile, TN: Abingdon Press.

Phillips, L. Edward. 2020. The Purpose, Pattern, and Character of Worship. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Ruth, Lester. 2002. “A Rose by Any Other Name: Attempts at Classifying North American Protestant Worship.” In The Conviction of Things Not Seen: Worship and Ministry in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Todd E. Johnson, 33-51. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.

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