By David R. Bains, editor

Published May 24, 2021

Early this spring, amidst Covid-19, Samford University students enrolled my course on the History and Theology of Christian Worship examined the worship of sixteen Birmingham congregations. To select these congregations, the class first surveyed the online offerings of over sixty congregations, then students choose the ones they wished to study.

Some students chose congregations from denominations with which they were not familiar these included congregations of the Disciples of Christ, Episcopal Church, Melkite Greek Catholic Church, and United Church of Christ. Most students, however, chose Baptist on non-denominational congregations. The students’ home churches were mainly in this category, and it is certainly the mainstream of Christian life in Birmingham, a Bible-belt metropolis. Students studied some of Birmingham’s largest churches such as Dawson Memorial Baptist, the Church at Brook Hills, and Church of the Highlands. They examined young urban congregations that are very popular with Samford students: Iron City Church and Redeemer Community Church. Samford freshman have come to call the latter “parking deck church,” since that is the venue the church secured to meet amid Covid-19 restrictions. Also included were three “mainline” Protestant congregations near campus: Trinity United Methodist, Vestavia Hills Baptist, and Mountain Brook Baptist and are three of Birmingham’s historic African American Baptist congregations: the world-famous Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Bethel Baptist Church of Collegeville, and Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church.

Collectively these essays reveal some of the finer gradations among evangelical church life in Alabama. (Note, few, if any of the congregations would self-describe as evangelical. As part of the local mainstream, they do not find this adjective, which first came to popularity in the north, to be useful.)

Frameworks

In making their observations, students employed two taxonomies for classifying North American Protestant worship. The first was proposed by Duke University worship professor, Lester Ruth in 2002. It employs several dimensions, the one most frequently mentioned by students is the “primary sacramental principle” of the service. Ruth defines sacramental as the “normal means by which a congregation assesses God’s presence in worship or believes that God is made present in worship” and explains that this is usually one or more of three options: music, the Word, and the Lord’s supper. Even though two congregations, Iron City and First Christian observed the Lord’s supper weekly, students did not find this aspect to be primary. Most students who referred to this framework found the Word to be predominant, though at some congregations, such as the Church of the Highlands, music was judged to be the primary means of encountering God.

A more recently taxonomy that students found to be useful is that offered by Emory University worship professor L. Edward Phillips. In his Purpose, Pattern, and Character of Worship, Phillips identifies six primary character types of Christian worship, most of which have both an older and a newer form:

  • Revivals / Seeker Services
  • Sunday School Assembly / Creative Worship
  • Worship that Emphasizes Aesthetics / Traditional Worhsip
  • Prayer Meetings / Small Groups
  • Pentecostal Worship / Praise & Worship
  • Ecumenical Liturgical Renewal / Word and Table

At first glance one might find the revival pattern to be predominant in most of the congregations students chose. And indeed Mary Thomas Queen found that to be one of the most notable things about the Church at Brooks Hills, as did Anna Dreher at Redeemer Community Church. But the didactic emphasis characteristic of the Sunday school tradition appeared to be the most notable element to Kaitlyn Morris at Iron City and to Kate Dyleski at First Christian.

Themes

In approaching many churches, student researchers employed Phillips’s method of seeking the telos, or goal, of the service, but did not limit their conclusions to his six categories. Micaiah Bolton identified “strengthening of faith” as primary at Dawson Memorial Baptist and Emma Buckles found “community growth and spiritual steadfastness” as the dominant focus at Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist.

At other churches it was the ethos, or character, or worship that seemed most important to researchers. Drew Laney was impressed by the intergenerational character of the teaching in the service at Mountain Brook Baptist and Jesse Henderson by the informality and strong sense of community at Sixteenth Street Baptist.

Moving Beyond “Traditional” and “Contemporary”

Twenty years ago, when I first offered this course, the division between “contemporary” and “traditional” worship loomed large. The “worship wars” were raging. It had been only nine-years since the pastor of the neighboring Vestavia Hills Baptist Church had left to start a new “seeker church.” These two congregations still exemplify a distinction in worship styles as is evident in Katie Allen’s essay on Vestavia Hills and Wheat Bailey’s essay on the once-new “seeker” congregation Mountaintop Church. But the force of the contemporary/traditional division seems to have softened.

This is demonstrated in several of our essays. Eden James examined the “band-led” service at the Cathedral Church of the Advent. It cleaves to the sixteenth-century language of the Book of Common Prayer, but employed a modern folk band for the music. At Dawson, Micaiah Bolton notes that separate “traditional” and “contemporary” services have been abandoned in favor of a service that employs both musical styles and requires worships to practice disciplines by laying down “their musical preferences for the benefit of their neighbor.” Looking at next door at Trinity United Methodist Church, Anne Marie Vines, makes the interesting argument that the same essential structure and ethos as the animates the congregation’s “contemporary” service as informs its “traditional” one. And while it is not the focus of the essays on them here, Redeemer Community Church and Iron City Church are both known for the way they, like the Advent, incorporate traditional hymn texts within their band-led music.

Two Years of Magic City Religion

Spring 2021, concludes two full years for Magic City Religion. Thus far ninety-three undergraduates have contributed fifty-nine essays on religious places, images, and services in Birmingham, Alabama, the “Magic City.” There are also over fifty sites annotations on the detailed map of religion in Avondale. Our essays explore most of the major world religions, from Buddhism to Sikhism, as well as many varieties of Christianity.

This year, Birmingham celebrates its 150th birthday. The city was founded on June 1, 1871, and chartered by the legislature on December 19 of that year. To honor this, students in will do a fifth semester of research in the fall. Students in my world religions class will work to complete our survey of the area’s Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, and Hindu congregations as well as our examinations of the city’s first congregations which, like the city, are approaching their sesquicentennial. Check back in November to see what they find!

Please share our work with others and let us know your reaction and what you would like to see! My email is drbains@samford.edu. Thank you for reading!

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