By David R. Bains, founder and editor of Magic City Religion

These days in worship services in many Protestant churches in Alabama you will find praise bands leading recently-composed songs, worshipers reading the text off of a projector screen and, maybe, singing along. There will also be a sermon leading to an invitation to quietly commit or recommit your live to Christ. This spring fourteen Samford University undergraduate students set out to explore this landscape more carefully. Studying congregations of their choosing, they found several congregations that fit this description as well as others that defied it. Some included weekly communion in this mix, others had organs and robed choirs, one addressed God as “Our Father/Mother in heaven, and another met in a home’s living room. This essay introduces these sites and provides links to the students’ essays.

Christian Worship students prepare to leave Hodges Chapel after a tour early in the semester.

The students were in my course on Christian Worship: History and Theology and built upon the sixteen essays students had written when the course was last offered in spring 2021. At that time, because of Covid-19, many churches had suspended in-person worship. Now, they all the churches we studied were back in person. But almost all of them still also livestreamed their services on the internet, frequently keeping a large archive up as well. This is a game-changer in the study of Christian worship. While students were required to visit the church they discussed at least once, the online videos allowed students who have commitments to lead worship on Sunday morning to easily observe multiple services at the church they were studying.

Variations in Southern Baptist Worship

In the Birmingham-Hoover Alabama Metro Area, the 2020 U.S. Religion Census reported 563 congregations affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), far more than any other group (The ARDA 2023). So it is not surprising that five of the fourteen churches students chose to examine were also Southern Baptist. Yet, it is characteristic of today’s Birmingham Baptist life, that only one of these, Shades Mountain Baptist Church, is a fully conventional Southern Baptist church that claiming its Baptist identity in its name and has been affiliated with the SBC. Three Baptist churches, Christ Fellowship Church, The Church at Brook Hills, and Double Oak Community Church have been affiliated throughout their history with the SBC, but from their beginnings (all within the past 35 years), they have sought to be a fresh expression of baptistic evangelicalism and have not emphasized their Baptist identity in their name or congregational life.

Screenshot of worship at Double Oak Community Church, Mt. Laurel, from Facebook page, April 2023.

The other Baptist church we examined is the oldest, Sardis Missionary Baptist Church, organized in 1884. But as an African American congregation, it was not welcomed in the SBC for roughly its first hundred years. Baptists churches can affiliate with multiple state and national conventions, and as its names suggests, historically Sardis’s strongest links have been with the Black-led Alabama State Missionary Baptist Convention.

As the students’ essays show, there are substantial commonalities across these Baptist churches, the normal Sunday service features congregational song, focuses on the sermon, and includes some sort of invitation to respond to the sermon. But Sardis and Christ Fellowship are outliers. Only at Sardis is there an organ, a traditional choir, and hymnals. None of these are present at the other four churches. As Clara Grace McAllister explains in her essay, Sardis incorporates these and many other practices typical of the Black church. Christ Fellowship Church’s distinctive is that it is the only one of these Baptist churches that observes the Lord’s supper at every Sunday service. In this and other ways, it demonstrates a desire to conform to the practices of early Christians and the desires of Protestant Reformers.

Weekly Communion

Christ Fellowship is one of three congregations studied that observes holy communion weekly. The way they do so, however, varies dramatically. At the Birmingham services of Auburn Community Church (ACC), a nondenominational evangelical church, weekly communion is presented as a time for individuals to “do business with God.” At Christ Fellowship, worshipers go to different tables to pick up the communion elements, and then receive together as the pastor leads them. At The Abbey, an Episcopal community, bread and wine are passed around in a circle. Each worshiper serves them to their neighbor. Instead of the disposable plastic containers of bread and juice used elsewhere, worshipers dip their bread into a common cup. The community this practice enacts is fundamental to worship at the Abbey.

Provisional Spaces

Because these three churches tend to localize the sacred in gatherings of community rather than in physical spaces, the places their worship gatherings occur varies greatly. Christ Fellowship meets in a former Winn Dixie grocery store it recently renovated. The Birmingham services of Auburn Communion Church take place in a rented event space to which not only the sermon, but also the worship music is transmitted digitally and experienced via video screens. The Abbey currently meets in the fellowship hall of a Black Baptist church. Its close community is facilitated by its small size: about a dozen people most weeks.

As a small group gathering in a multi-purpose room, the Abbey functions with the spirit of a house church as does the other Anglican congregation examined, Restoration Anglican Church. It is a church-in-formation, less than a year old, and meeting in its pastor’s home. As McKenzie Hogue reports, its “pre-launch gatherings” on Sunday morning have the ethos that Emory University worship scholar, L. Edward Phillips associates with the prayer meeting or small group including egalitarian community, personal sharing, intimacy with God, and a focus on prayer.” (The prayer meeting is one of six models that Phillips identifies as common in American Protestant worship in The Purpose, Pattern, and Character of Worship, a text with which many student reports are in dialogue.)

Varied Traditions

Beyond the Baptist tradition and these two Anglican “house churches,” students also examined one Pentecostal, two Presbyterian, three Methodist churches. Worship at King’s Way Church is unscripted and spirit-led student researcher Abby Rossnagel reports. The extended times of worship vary week to week, speaking in tongues, laying on of hands, and Elvis Prestley’s “Can Help Falling in Love” all find a place. King’s Way is one of only two nondenominational churches examined here (the other is ACC). This is despite the fact that this is the second largest grouping of religious bodies in Metropolitan Birmingham (The ARDA 2023), but the difference between evangelical ACC and Pentecostal King’s Way shows the limited usefulness of this category when it comes to worship.

Laying on of hands at King’s Way Church from April 20, 2023 Facebook post.

King’s Way Screen ShotThe worship at Briarwood Presbyterian Church and Covenant Presbyterian Church contrasts greatly with King’s Way. Both belong to the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) , the conservative denomination first organized at Briarwood fifty years ago. Coming from backgrounds where contemporary evangelical worship is practiced, the student researchers noted with appreciation the structure and careful intent present at both of these churches. PCA’s adherence rate among the religiously affiliated in Birmingham is ten times the national average. Thinking with students about these two denominations, I was struck by the fact that these PCA congregations are major expressions of “traditional” worship within the evangelical world in the southeast.

Prayer at the Lord’s Table before Communion at Covenant Presbyterian Church, March 26, 2023, screenshot from Youtube

While similarities between these two Presbyterian churches are readily observed, the three Methodist churches offered three distinct expressions of worship with a shared ethos of hospitality and, in different ways, inclusion. Canterbury United Methodist Church holds three distinct worship services each Sunday morning in three distinct places. Avery Kennedy focused on the contemporary service noting the way it combined a focus on corporate action (such as described at the Anglican churches) with popular worship songs that focused strongly on the individual’s relationship with God. First United Methodist Church also has distinct worship offerings. Andrea Cournoyer examined the traditional service. While its building is the oldest of our fifteen churches (a 2,400-seat auditorium church erected in 1891), the expansive language its services use for God mark it as the most theologically progressive of these churches. While in their different styles worship at First Church and Canterbury was precisely planned and executed, at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, Will Clapp noted with great appreciation the way structure and improvisation worked together blending the fixed forms of the A.M.E. order of worship with improvision by the choir in song.

Communion at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, April 2, 2023. Screenshot from Facebook video.

Interestingly, all three of these Methodist congregations were founded in the nineteenth-century. Of the other eleven churches, only Sardis Missionary Baptist is as old. Students selected these fourteen churches after collectively surveying about sixty. Strikingly, six of the congregations they chose are less than twenty years old. It is tempting to link this rate of new church plants to the way in which present-day Protestant worship in America is often only tenuously connected to long-standing Christian liturgical tradition. But on the other hand, half of these young churches (The Abbey, Christ Fellowship, Restoration Anglican) explicitly seek to link themselves to tradition in their various ways in defiance of the focus on “contemporary”.

I hope these snapshots of worship in Birmingham prove interesting and useful. I’ve listed these from 2023 with those from 2021 below by denominational tradition. If you have any comments, I’d love to hear them! Please reach out through the comments, at or 205-726-2879.

Essays on Christian Worship in Birmingham from 2021 and 2023

Anglican and Episcopal

Eastern-rite Catholic


Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)


Nondenominational Evangelical




The ARDA. 2023 “Birmingham-Hoover, AL Metro Area – Metro Area Membership Report (2020).” The Association of Religion Data Archives.

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

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