Worship, Public

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See also the 2022 article Worship

1959 Article


In contrast to the general Reformation doctrine that the church comes to expression when the Word is preached and the sacraments properly observed, the Anabaptists believed that the "true church is raised up" where "faith, spirit, and power" result in "repentance and change of life" and obedience to the truth. Hence the Anabaptists placed little emphasis in formal public worship or ceremonies, and rejected all liturgy. Persecution, which made meetings difficult and often dangerous, gave added support to this basic attitude. The Anabaptists did not come from a week of irreligious, worldly living and expect a beautiful building and attractive liturgy to draw them to God. They insisted that the Christian walks with God constantly in holy obedience and expected their daily life to come naturally to a climax in the fellowship of the gathered community of disciples, where a major concern was to seek the will of God from His Word and to help one another to higher levels of discipleship.

In such worship a common searching of life was involved, and discipline naturally resulted, often carried through as a supplement to the regular worship. The fact that several ministers served the group in Bible reading, admonition, and prayer, and that services were not held in large church buildings but in homes or barns, in forest retreats, or even caves, in addition to the understanding that every member was a responsible adult who had chosen to follow Christ and shared fully in the life of the brotherhood, added to the intense sense of participation by all. Hence, Anabaptist congregations were not "audiences" in attendance upon a worship service furnished by a clergyman in a building belonging to the state and used for nothing else, but a genuine brotherhood sharing in Bible study, prayer, and mutual admonition. The high authority of the Bible of course placed it in the very center of the service, and the reading and exposition of it, or admonition from it, was the most important element. In a sense life was more important than worship.

One of the results of this attitude was that Anabaptists steadfastly refused to attend the worship of the state church, even though as a consequence they were often punished and imprisoned. In fact, one of the ways that Anabaptists were detected was by nonattendance at the public preaching and communion services. The court records contain many cases of attempted compulsory attendance and penalties. Bullinger's Der Widertoufferen Ursprung (1560) contains as an appendix a reprint of an Anabaptist "booklet" giving the reasons why they did not attend "church."

There is no evidence of any Anabaptist meetinghouse built in the 16th century, except the one in Elbing-Ellerwald in West Prussia, built in 1590. However, before 1600 buildings such as warehouses were purchased in Holland and East Friesland and converted into meetinghouses (external remodeling to look like a church was forbidden). In Rotterdam such a building was in possession of the old Flemish at least by 1580. During the period of persecution the Anabaptists did not even have regular meeting places. A martyr of 1556 at Antwerp, Claes de Praet, testified that they met "there where Christ and His apostles held their meetings, in the woods, in the fields, on the seashore, and sometimes in homes." In larger towns such as Amsterdam meetings were held in private homes from the beginning. For the sake of safety, meeting places were constantly changed and messengers visited the members or sent notes to them to announce the place and the hour of the next meeting. This was true not only in the Netherlands and North Germany, but also in the South. A document of 1539 in the Strasbourg archives gives the exact wording of such a note which has been preserved: "Grace and peace from God the Father through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen. Beloved Jacob and dear Elsbeth, I am letting you know that on the coming Tuesday a meeting will be held at Schilken in the house where we were the last time. And don't come so late as the last time, and let the old man in Westhoffen also know. With this I commend you to God, peace be with you all who love God from the heart. Amen." Ruprecht Schwarz is named as one of the notifiers for the Strasbourg Anabaptists. His testimony (1539) describes the meeting places in or near Strasbourg as follows: "Says: They assembled in Schwabenloch and behind the Guten Leuten, also on the Illkirchen Nachtweid and in the Siegelsheimer Forest. Says, the Swiss Brethren and the Hofmannites were not united; the former were about 100, the latter not more than 5. They no longer attended the preaching [of the state church], because the preachers did not practice the ban, allowed good and bad go, that is abominable." In the Low Countries the man who notified the members of the time and place of meeting was called the "Weetdoener."

Little direct description of Anabaptist worship is available. There can be little doubt, however, about its simplicity, and that it included basically, at least after the very earliest days, Scripture reading, prayer, preaching, and singing. An early discipline found in the Berne archives says: "The brethren and sisters should meet at least three or four times each week to study the teachings of Christ and His apostles and admonish each other in the Lord. When they meet they should read something they understand which God has laid on their heart. The others should be quiet and listen so that two or three are not speaking at the same time and hindering the others from hearing. The psalter should be read daily by all. . . . The food for meals during times of meeting should be furnished by the brethren at whose home the meeting is held. . . . The Lord's Supper should be observed as often as the brethren come together." Peter Riedemann's Confession (ca. 1540) describes a Hutterite worship service as follows: "When we come together, we do so with the desire to encourage and awaken our hearts in the grace of God, to walk in the Lord's sight with greater diligence and attention. Therefore, the people are first encouraged to mark diligently and to consider why we have met and come together, that they may prepare their hearts for prayer, so that they may come worthily before the Lord and pray for what concerns the church and all her members. After this we give thanks to God for all the good that He has given us through Christ, and for accepting us into His grace and revealing to us His truth. This is followed by an earnest prayer that He keep us faithful and devout therein to the end, and supply all our desires and needs, and open our hearts that we may use His Word with profit, hear, accept, and keep it. When this is done, one proceeds to proclaim the Lord's Word faithfully, according to the grace given by God, encouraging the heart to fear the Lord and to remain in His fear. When all this is completed the minister commends the church to God the Lord and lets them depart one from another, each to his place. When, however, we come together to keep the Lord's Memory or Supper the people are encouraged and taught for one, two, or three days and told vividly what the Lord's Supper is, what happens there and what one does thereby, and how one should prepare himself worthily to receive the same. Every day, however, has also its thanksgiving and prayer. When all this has taken place, and the Lord's Supper has been kept, a hymn of praise is sung to the Lord. Then the people are admonished to walk in accordance with what they have shown to be in their hearts, and then they are commended to the Lord and allowed to separate" (Riedemann's Confession, 129 f.).

Singing was certainly a part of Anabaptist worship, both in the North and the South, although at times it was suppressed because of danger. By the 1560s at least five distinct Anabaptist hymnals had been printed, besides earlier hymn leaflets and pamphlets. One hymnal was Swiss, one Lower Rhine, and three Dutch. The first part of the Ausbund is composed of hymns written in 1535 in Passau, "composed and sung" by imprisoned Swiss Brethren, as the title page says. Over 130 Anabaptist hymn writers are known. Songs were used in evangelism. Christian Neff says, "A flood of religious songs poured over the young brotherhood like a vivifying and refreshing stream." (See Music, Church; Hymnology; Tunes.)

This was in spite of the fact that Conrad Grebel, in line with Zwingli, opposed all music, including singing in worship. Riedemann's Confession contains an article "Concerning Singing" (123), which says among other things, "To sing spiritual songs is pleasing to God, if we sing in the right way, that is, attentively, in the fear of God and are inspired by the Spirit of Christ.... Among us we do not allow other than spiritual songs to be sung."

Anabaptist worship traditions were long perpetuated in the worship of their descendants, in many cases down to the present day, as will be seen in the following sections of this article. -- Harold S. Bender

Dutch Tradition and Practice

During the persecution period public worship of the Mennonites in the Netherlands was, of course, impossible; meetings then could be held only secretly. But by ca. 1575 church services were held publicly, though until 1795 a number of restrictions were made by the magistrates concerning Mennonite meetings; particularly in the 17th century these restrictions often were rather rigorous. Mennonite meetinghouses then were not permitted on main streets and were not allowed to look like churches; hence a number of hidden and barnlike meetinghouses. At Aardenburg, Leiden, and other towns the public services of the Mennonites were not permitted to begin until the Reformed services had finished. But gradually these restrictions were dropped. In the 17th and 18th centuries religious services at Amsterdam, Haarlem, Rotterdam, and other larger towns were usually held twice each Sunday, and during the winter months also on a weekday, usually on Wednesday. In the country there was mostly one meeting on Sunday morning and in small congregations sometimes only each fortnight. Afternoon or evening services were rather seldom by the 1950s.

Concerning the order of service in early times and in the 17th century there is only scarce information. Simon Rues gave circumstantial information on Mennonite public worship in 1742 in his book Tegenwoordige Staet der Doopsgezinden (Amsterdam, 1745). At this time there was a considerable difference between the worship services of the Lamists and the Zonists on the one hand and the Fijne Mennonites on the other hand. The order of service among the Fijne was usually as follows: hymn by the congregation, opening address by the minister, prayer, sermon, another prayer, closing hymn by the congregation; the benediction by the preacher dates from the early 18th century; before this time the closing hymn ended the service. For the prayers, always silent, the congregation knelt. No offering was taken, not even at the exit. The minister read his sermon from manuscript while seated on a chair. He wore no special garb. The order used by the Lamists and Zonists was largely influenced by that of the Calvinists: invocation by the minister, singing of a Psalm, a long prayer by the minister, then mostly, but not always, Scripture reading, sermon, from the early 18th century interrupted by congregational singing, during which an offering was usually taken, prayer after the sermon, another Psalm, benediction, and offering at the exit. In some churches, as the Amsterdam Lamist Church, there was Scripture reading before the minister mounted the pulpit. The minister stood while praying and preaching. In the 17th and 18th centuries the minister wore a robe with bands and a steek (three-cornered hat). Baptism and communion services, of course, had a somewhat different order. Among the Dutch Mennonite congregations of Flemish or Frisian background the worshipers remained seated throughout the service; the pastor or the deacons distributed bread and wine. This practice was still observed in the 1950s. In the congregations of Waterlander descent the attendants gathered around one or more communion tables. (This practice, introduced by Hans de Ries, was borrowed from the Calvinists.)

In the 1950s the ordinary Sunday service, varying slightly from congregation to congregation, took place as follows: invocation, congregational singing, Scripture reading, prayer, hymn, sermon, organ, prayer (often the Lord's Prayer), hymn, and benediction. In most churches the offering was taken only at the exit. In 1948 a subcommittee of the Algemene Doopsgezinde Sociëteit compiled a Kanselboek (book for the pulpit), containing suggestions for the order of the regular services as well as for a number of special meetings, like baptism and communion services.

Organs, the first of which was adopted in a Mennonite church in 1762, were until ca. 1890 used only to accompany congregational singing, but after that time the organs, found in all Dutch Mennonite meetinghouses, had a special function in the worship service. Choir singing was practiced in only a few churches and never regularly; solo singing and the use of other instruments than organs were practically unknown. -- Nanne van der Zijpp

Prussian-Russian Tradition

Early Mennonite practices in Danzig, Prussia, Poland, and Russia were very similar to those of the early Dutch Mennonites. The meetings during the 16th-17th centuries took place mostly in private homes, barns, or sheds, partly because of pioneer conditions, but also because Mennonites were not permitted to worship in conspicuous public buildings. The Frisian Mennonite Church of Danzig was permitted to erect a meetinghouse in 1638, located in a garden and not distinguished from a residence. Most of the early buildings were in the name of some church member and not of the congregation. After the song leader had announced and led the hymn the sermon followed. The chairs for the ministers and deacons were located along the longer side of the wall on an elevation. There was no pulpit, but the central chair was a little higher. The minister presented his sermon while seated, and without notes. Gradually the practice of the minister delivering his sermon standing behind a pulpit, making use of outlines or notes, was introduced. Hans von Steen deeply deplored this innovation, fearing that "the beautiful simplicity of Menno's church was more and more disappearing."

Gradually the Prussian Mennonite churches adjusted themselves to their environment in their worship services by introducing some more elaborate elements of worship. The city churches, which had trained ministers, depended more or less on the taste of the individual minister, while the rural churches retained old practices for a longer period. A handbook for the minister and worship services was introduced quite early in some churches (see Ministers' Manuals). In some city churches communion tables were introduced and the ministers accepted the traditional clerical garb of the surrounding Lutheran Church during the worship service.

After the earliest practice, in which the sermons and exhortations were delivered extempore, the written sermon was introduced by the ministers of Holland and Prussia. Large collections of written sermons have been preserved. In Russia the tradition of reading the sermons was continued. In many instances, but not always, these sermons were prepared and written by the minister delivering them. He would repeat the sermon, stating on the first page on what occasions the sermon had been delivered. Many sermons were handed down from generation to generation, as was still the case in the 1950s among the conservative Mennonites of Manitoba and Mexico. In Russia, through revivalistic influences, this practice was gradually given up. One of the pioneers in free preaching was Bernhard Harder, who began to preach heartwarming evangelistic sermons. In the 1950s among the Mennonites of Russian background in North and South America, with the exception of the very conservative groups, sermons were as a rule composed and delivered by the minister himself and delivered extempore—possibly with notes. Some ministers wrote their sermons out, but committed them to memory before delivering them.

In Russia the simple worship service of the early Dutch and Prussian tradition was perpetuated. But in the middle of the 19th century new and more spontaneous patterns of worship developed under the influence of the Pietists and Baptists, and were introduced first among the newly organized (1860) Mennonite Brethren. Some of the characteristics were the introduction of lighter hymns (Paul Gerhardt) and a prayer meeting before the preaching during the Sunday morning worship, preceded by Scripture reading and admonishing to prayer by one of the brethren of the congregation. The prayers were pronounced audibly by brothers and sisters in the congregation, young and old.

The worship service among the Mennonites who came from Prussia and Russia to America in 1874 ff. resembled that of the congregations from which they had come. Only gradually adjustments were made. This was first noticeable when the members of a congregation and the ministers came from various backgrounds in Russia and Prussia and adjustment to one pattern became necessary. Additional changes took place when the ministers received special training and changed from the German language to English. The worship practices of a congregation in a rural setting with a minister who had had no special training usually differed from those of a city church with a minister who had had theological training and especially if he had attended a non-Mennonite theological institution with liturgical leanings. Again a congregation with a minister who received his training in a Bible institute likely promoted spontaneous forms of worship. In general, however, the colleges and the conference seminaries as well as the handbooks produced for this purpose did promote uniformity along these lines. An innovation which was almost universal was the printing of worship bulletins which included the order of worship and the announcements for the week.

Hesitancy to collect money during the services for causes of the congregation or conference for a time hindered the introduction of this practice in some places, but it became an integral part of every worship service. This practice increased among Mennonites who came from Europe more recently, and was gradually accepted by even the more conservative groups.

In the early days singing was not necessarily an integral part of the congregational worship, but later became a very essential part. During the latter part of the 18th century, organs were introduced in Holland and Germany, but in Russia and America not until the early 20th century. In Russia and America also choirs were introduced during the beginning of the 20th century and became an integral part in many worship services, but not in Germany and Holland. The most conservative groups had neither organs nor choirs in the 1950s.

As a rule the worship order in General Conference Mennonite churches in the 1950s was as follows: Organ prelude, invocation, hymn, responsive reading or Scripture reading, prayer, choir, offering, hymn, sermon, hymn, benediction, organ postlude; or organ prelude, hymn, call to worship, invocation and Lord's Prayer, hymn, responsive reading, Scripture reading, prayer, offering, hymn, sermon, prayer and benediction, hymn, organ postlude.

As a rule, worship services formerly lasted up to two or three hours. By the 1950s a worship service hardly ever exceeded an hour, of which about half was devoted to the sermon and the other half to singing, Scripture reading, responsive reading, prayer, and offering. Formerly announcements were made from the pulpit in connection with the worship service. By the 1950s they were eliminated in those congregations that used church bulletins. Most of the churches had ushers, who greeted the worshiper at the door and helped him locate a seat, and passed the collection plates.

Seating of the sexes in worship services was formerly universally separate. The most common form earlier was to have the women seated in the central part of the meetinghouse, with the men seated around them on the outside on benches facing inward, although in Russia and America the more common practice was to have the men on the right and the women on the left side of a central aisle.

See also Architecture, Music, Church, Hymnology, Musical Instruments, Sermons, Ministers' Manuals, Singing, Choirs. -- Cornelius Krahn and Nanne van der Zijpp

Swiss-South German Tradition

The worship of the Mennonites of Switzerland and South Germany was marked by simplicity, sincerity, and directness. Regular meetings for worship, prayer, preaching, and admonition, led by an elder or minister, were held in forests (e.g., at Immelhausen in Baden, as late as 1654), in remote farmhouses or barns, or in rooms in homes (sometimes especially built for such purposes). Meetinghouses, at first forbidden by intolerant authorities, came late. The earliest were built in the Palatinate, e.g., Weierhof 1770, but most of them after 1800; Montbéliard 1832; in Alsace the first was Birkenhof 1845; in Switzerland, Basel-Binningen 1841; but most at the end of the 19th century, e.g., Langnau 1888. These meetinghouses were simple, unadorned, without tower or bell (except Ibersheim 1836), but usually with pulpits in the middle of one end which were sometimes somewhat elevated in imitation of the typical Protestant pulpit, but without organs (harmoniums were introduced later), men and women sitting separate.

In America simple meetinghouses were built from the beginning, probably in part modeled after the Quaker meetinghouse since the early immigrants had had no experience in Europe in building them. In some instances instead of a pulpit a table was placed in the middle of the long side, replaced later by a long pulpit, and in the first quarter of the 20th century by a small one-man type of pulpit. The pulpit still remained in the central location, symbolic of the central place of preaching in the worship. Special communion tables were not used up to the 1950s. All the ministers sat on a long bench behind the table or pulpit. Song leaders sat around a table placed in front of the pulpit, from which they led the singing, seated; after the table disappeared they sat usually on the first or second bench. Standing to lead the singing came in only in the 20th century. The Amish never adopted meetinghouses, and to this day meet in homes, which customarily have a large room built for worship purposes, backless benches being hauled by wagon from place to place.

In Europe and America in earlier times meetings were customarily held once every two weeks in the morning, although neighboring congregations usually alternated, making it possible to attend services every week. Most families "went visiting" neighbors and friends for Sunday dinner on the open Sunday. Some conservative congregations in the eastern North America maintained the custom of biweekly services until far into the 20th century.

The order of service and manner of worship in both Europe and America was always simple, sober, and nonliturgical, with emphasis on the sermon, which was usually admonitory, didactic, and practical. Singing was always included, usually one or two hymns at the beginning, one after the Scripture reading and prayer, and one after the sermon. One minister "made the opening," i.e., read a Scripture selection (in Amish congregations determined by a traditional list of pericopes for each Sunday, since 1916 available in printed form), followed by kneeling silent prayer (replaced by audible prayer at various dates, but still silent in the 1950s in traditional congregations of certain sections such as Franconia and Lancaster). The sermon, delivered extempore by a second minister, was usually quite long (reduced to 30-40 minutes by the 1950s), followed by kneeling prayer always closed by the Lord's Prayer. The latter was widely dropped, but still practiced in the 1950s in parts of Lancaster and Franconia. The benediction, formerly given seated without the preacher's hand raised, was preceded by a closing hymn. The announcements were formerly made only just before or after the benediction. The offering was placed in boxes at the exits, but by mid-20th century in America taken by passing collection plates through the congregation. Ushers were unknown, and still were not used in Europe in mid-20th century. Offerings were not taken regularly until modern times, earlier only for special needs. Ordinary expenses were met by assessments or payments to the deacon. The Sunday school brought with it offerings (at first for children "penny" offerings) for expenses, still customary, but church offerings were held at first once monthly for missions; by the 1950s the common practice was to take them every Sunday, in some places even on Sunday evenings. The custom of worshipers standing silently in prayer before sitting down in the pew, or of bowing the head in prayer in the pew, which became common in Europe, has not been adopted in America.

In the 1950s musical instruments were still banned (a few exceptions in Latin American churches) from all services of the Mennonite Church (MC) and all related and conservative groups. Even in the worship of the Swiss congregations in Ohio and Indiana who later joined the General Conference Mennonite Church, and in the descendant groups from the Amish such as the Evangelical Mennonites and the Central Conference, they were admitted only late in the 19th or early in the 20th century (see Musical Instruments). The Brethren in Christ did not permit them until 1955, when approving conference action was taken. Choirs were still unknown in the Mennonite Church (MC) and related conservative groups in the 1950s, the emphasis being strongly on congregational singing only. Lighter Gospel hymns were introduced through revivalistic influences about the turn of the 20th century in the American churches of Swiss-South German descent, as was the case also in Switzerland and France (not in South Germany, where the chorale type hymn was retained in the Mennonite hymnals), although worship remained sober and traditional. Only rarely in the regular worship did lay members participate by prayer or testimony, and "Amens" or similar ejaculations from the congregation during the sermon were unknown.

In America (not in Europe) the custom of bringing even very small children along to the morning worship was widespread. Sunday school, which usually preceded the preaching service (in Europe parallel to the preaching service), provided special classes for small children, but their presence in the second service often interfered with a reverential atmosphere. Many modern meetinghouses provided special separate rooms in the rear or in balconies for mothers with small children, with glass partitions from the main room. Church bulletins, mimeographed or printed, giving the order of service and announcements for the week, have come into use in the Mennonite Church (MC) since about 1940, but were still not found in the more conservative groups.

Sunday evening services in America were not introduced until late in the 19th century or even later in the Mennonite Church (MC) (not at all in the Amish congregations). This forced the introduction of lights into the meetinghouses, which at times was the cause of much controversy. The evening service was introduced in part to provide "Young People's Meetings," in part to make evening services possible during the week of evangelistic meetings. -- Harold S. Bender

1990 Update

North America

The words "variety" and "diversity" best characterize public worship among North American Mennonites in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Few recurring patterns of worship can be detected in the churches across the continent, except, perhaps among the Amish and Hutterites. There are a host of reasons why such a variety of patterns exist. Some of these reasons stem from forces within Mennonite groups and others from outside.

Particularly in the late 1960s a cynicism about the purpose and nature of Christian worship seemed to erode earlier worship understandings and practices. Several Mennonite scholars began researching and writing on worship as a form of covenant renewal between God and the community of faith. They followed the biblical notion of covenant through the testaments and developed a coherent theology of worship. These writings helped to clarify the purpose of worship among Mennonites and to articulate how God was present in the midst of the worshiping community. The covenant renewal pattern has reoriented Mennonite worship theology and has given rise to various forms of covenant renewal services. As more early Anabaptist writings have been translated into English, the worship theology and practice of various Anabaptist groups are coming to light. Various liturgical forms and understandings of the church ordinances have informed current practices. However, a careful articulation of Anabaptist worship theology has not yet been elaborated.

Hymn singing, prayer, and preaching are the primary elements of nearly all Mennonite worship services. All other worship activities are of secondary importance.

The Mennonite hymnal of 1968 brought together the hymnody traditions of the General Conference Mennonites and the Mennonite Church (MC). While preferences for certain hymn types and styles persist for worship in each group, the hymnal made all of the dominant styles available to both of these major groups (hymnology). This merger has brought some musical standardization facilitating more intergroup worship. The Gesangbuch der Mennoniten of 1965 was published in Canada and used in worship among some of the Russian Mennonites there. The Mennonite Brethren Worship hymnal of 1971 shares many standard hymns with the Mennonite hymnal, but also contains many 19th century American gospel hymns. Other nontraditional music sources are being used in most Mennonite groups, including 20th-century evangelical gospel songs, Scripture songs, folk songs (often displayed on overhead projectors in the meeting room), Gelineau psalmody, and music from various monastic communities. These songs and hymns may require various forms of instrumental accompaniment, though pianos, organs, and guitars are most often used. This diversity creates an array of new styles and different theologies in the course of a worship service.

Among the Mennonite Church (MC) congregations four-part unaccompanied singing still dominates, though many congregations use pianos, or organs, or both, on occasion. The Amish continue to sing in an ornamented a capella style. Their hymns, taken from the Ausbund, are sung quite slowly. Among the General Conference Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren, accompanied hymn singing is preferred. More church choirs have been organized in recent years to provide additional music for the worship service or to support congregational singing.

Various styles of public prayer have been in evidence in recent decades. The pastoral prayer remains a popular style. The pastor or worship leader prays on behalf of the community, offering statements of thanksgiving, confession, petition, and intercession. These prayers may be composed extemporaneously and may become quite lengthy. Often the pastoral prayer is the only prayer found in the service. It is generally used in large congregations and in more formal worship settings. Another style of prayer, feasible for small congregations, is spontaneous, voluntary prayers by individual members on behalf of the community. The pastor or worship leader may begin or end the period of prayer with short summary prayers. This style may reflect, in part, the influence of the charismatic movement of the 1970s. Silent prayer is growing in prominence in many churches, in part as the result of increased contact with Quaker and contemplative spiritualities, but also reflecting earlier Anabaptist and Mennonite practice. Long periods of silence are observed in which one may pray aloud if so moved, but generally no one prays audibly. In all of these cases, a period of sharing "joys and concerns" or general announcements may precede the time of prayer. Among Mennonites, a reluctance to pray shorter prayers more often throughout the service persists as does the reluctance to repeat prayers from service to service. Generally speaking, the Lord's Prayer is not said as a regular part of Sunday worship in most congregations.

Preaching remains the central element of Mennonite worship, requiring most of the time allotted for worship. The sermon is usually the orienting point of the service, influencing the selection of hymns, prayer themes, Scripture readings, etc. In some places the sermon has been renamed "teaching," and the lecture style has been borrowed as a model for delivery. Ethical issues and lifestyle concerns have provided the primary themes. Sermons using biblical themes or having proclamation intentions have been less frequent. In recent years preaching has seemed to be at a low ebb in many congregations. Generally, preaching has tended to appeal primarily to the minds of the worshipers and has not stirred their hearts. A renewal of preaching is currently underway which must integrate the skills of biblical exegesis and public speaking with the needs of Mennonites in the contemporary world.

With regard to other Mennonite worship practices the following general observations may be made. (1) German is the language of worship in a very small number of Mennonite congregations, predominantly in Canada. Amish, Hutterite, and Old Order Mennonite services are carried out in German in the United States and Canada. (2) In North America Mennonite worship services are being carried on in Spanish, Chinese dialects, Vietnamese dialects, Creole, various North American Indian dialects, and other ethnic languages. (3) The influence of Afro-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Indian cultures can be seen in these Mennonite worship settings, particularly in hymns and musical styles.

(4) While most congregations continue to meet in church buildings or meetinghouses, small groups, primarily in urban areas, are meeting in homes, schools, or storefronts. The worship space used by these groups influences the activities of worship chosen and their level of formality and informality.

(5) In most congregations the Bible is not read extensively during worship. Usually short portions of Scripture are read which provide a base for the sermon. In some congregations a predetermined cycle of readings (lectionary) is followed, often prescribing two or three passages for each Sunday. This practice ensures that larger portions of Scripture are read in the course of a season or year.

(6) Diverse patterns of worship leadership can be found, expressing the theology of the priesthood of all believers. The primary patterns are: (a) a pastor leads the service except the singing; a song leader leads music; (b) a "worship leader" leads all of the activities except singing and preaching, a song leader leads music, a pastor preaches; (c) a "worship leader" leads some of the activities, a song leader leads music, a pastor preaches, congregational members read Scripture, pray, give announcements, tell a children's story, etc. In most cases worship leaders and song leaders may be men or women. However preaching is done predominantly by men; in a few congregations women may occupy the pulpit.

(7) Overall, the confession of sin and the acknowledgement of grace are elements of worship which have not been emphasized in recent Mennonite worship. In some congregations preparation sermons and services prior to infrequent communion services serve this purpose. Righteous living and morality, however, are highly stressed in worship.

(8) Most Mennonite congregations lack a sound theology for the activity of collecting a monetary offering. It is assumed that an offering should be taken, but this activity is not linked in any coherent way with other worship activities. It is not viewed generally as an expression of personal commitment or thanksgiving.

(9) In many Mennonite congregations children and youth present a problem in worship. Developmental studies have shown that the highly verbal style of Mennonite worship cannot usually meet the cognitive, emotional, or spiritual needs of children and youth. As a partial remedy to this problem children's sermons or stories have sometimes been included in the structure of worship.

(10) Communion is observed with varying degrees of frequency in Mennonite congregations. Some groups observe the celebration twice a year; other groups have a quarterly observance. In a few congregations, communion is celebrated more than four times a year. Feetwashing may be practiced in conjunction with communion in some congregations, but most groups no longer observe this service.

(11) Worship in many congregations is coordinated by a worship committee leading to a more democratic approach to worship and reflecting a desire to meet the needs of the majority of the members.

Overall, a wide variety of worship patterns exist among contemporary Mennonites and Brethren in Christ. A distrust of ritual or highly patterned worship has persisted in the last decades, coinciding with the cynicism in society over the role and efficacy of ritual and symbolic activity in human life. This has led to extreme individualism in society and in worship. Many worshipers rejected those traditional religious expressions which they personally cannot believe or do not understand. At various times attention to the transcendence of God has been minimized while the presence of the Spirit in the community's fellowship has been central. At these times, worship has had a "horizontal" orientation and has lacked a sense of "vertical" focus. There has been some attempt to restore some earlier forms of Anabaptist and Mennonite worship particularly with regard to communion. The recovery of some early Anabaptist prayers has provided a renewed sense of Anabaptist worship spirituality. As the self-identity of North American Mennonites changes, more coherent and stable worship patterns will need to emerge if the essentials of Anabaptist and Mennonite faith and practice are to persist.

(1) Since the early 1960s there has been more dialogue among all Christian traditions, particularly with regard to baptism, communion, and ministry. This discussion has reshaped some questions which affect worship practices, e.g. the question of how Christ is present in the Lord's Supper according to biblical and theological traditions. The Roman Catholic liturgical renewal of the 19th and early 20th century, which was encouraged by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), has made worship resources and other theologies of worship more accessible to Mennonites. Some of these have been incorporated in Mennonite practice.

(2) During the era of the United States' war in Vietnam, the American public's cynicism with regard to government, authority, and public life resulted in the erosion of faith in the power of symbols and rituals to join people in activities expressing common beliefs. This suspicion of ritual, which was also fostered by 18th-, 19th-, and early 20th-century philosophers, has always been present in the Mennonite tradition to a greater or lesser degree. The period of the 1960s heightened the cynicism of many Mennonite young adults and intellectuals and was particularly evident in the individualism expressed in public worship.

(3) The charismatic movement of the 1970s  reclaimed the power of the Holy Spirit in religious experience and brought believers together from various denominations. New forms of singing, spontaneous and patterned prayers, and ecstatic utterances found their way into the worship services of all denominations. The influences of this movement are still felt among Mennonites.

(4) The civil rights and women's movements of the 1960s and 1970s brought with them the awareness that language shapes the way people perceive themselves and their world. As a result the language of hymns and biblical texts came under attack. Attempts to be inclusive of all members of the Christian community have required the elimination of racist references as well as the elimination of "man" when referring to humanity. The most embattled issue remains whether references to God can be only masculine or whether feminine images of and references to God are biblically and theologically acceptable.

(5) The impact of television evangelists of the 1970s and 1980s, with their slick and highly choreographed "services," is felt in many congregations. These shows present, for many, a model of what worship could be. The language of the evangelists, their musical texts and styles, and their formulas of prayer and confession are being taken over into congregational worship. The preaching styles of these evangelists are influencing the expectations of Mennonite preaching.

(6) North American culture may be most accurately described as a salad bowl, not a melting pot. Ethnic and personal distinctives are flaunted and encouraged by the society. As Mennonites carry out the evangelistic task, they are integrating patterns of expression which have not been characteristically Mennonite. The worship context is the most likely place where these complementary and conflicting modes of expression are integrated or refined. -- Rebecca Slough


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Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Nanne van der Zijpp
Cornelius Krahn
Rebecca Slough
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S., Nanne van der Zijpp, Cornelius Krahn and Rebecca Slough. "Worship, Public." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 17 Aug 2022. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Worship,_Public&oldid=173827.

APA style

Bender, Harold S., Nanne van der Zijpp, Cornelius Krahn and Rebecca Slough. (1989). Worship, Public. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 17 August 2022, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Worship,_Public&oldid=173827.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 984-988; v. 5, pp. 945-947. All rights reserved.

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