Beyond Frontier Worship

Despite the many changes and developments in Adventist worship practices over the past century and a half, a basic structure — though often unacknowledged — has persisted. Styles of preaching, prayer and congregational song have evolved. But even the most committed innovators have rarely questioned the tradition’s basic pattern. Adventist worship practice — along with other traditions born on the North American frontier — was cultivated in the tent meetings of traveling evangelists. This Frontier worship (terminology first used by worship historian James F. White and now commonly used among those who study Christian worship) is structured in three parts:

1. A singing evangelist leads congregational song that prepares those gathered to receive the spoken Word.

 2. A preacher delivers a message intended to convince hearers to agree with some specific point of doctrine. 

3. The service concludes with an appeal, often an altar call, in which listeners are invited to come forward or otherwise affirm their agreement with what was preached. 

This pattern of preparatory practices (usually involving congregational song), preaching, and an appeal still shapes most Adventist worship and the theological assumptions it embodies. 

But a Frontier worship pattern, while perhaps effective for public evangelism, reflects an inadequate paradigm for weekly worship celebrations. Over the long and varied history of Christian worship, a more complete common pattern is evident. This “four-fold pattern” — as it is often called — includes the essential elements of Frontier worship but is also more expansive in important ways:

1. Gathering: Just because people are sitting in the same room doesn’t mean they’ve meaningfully gathered as one body. Worship begins with divine initiative, God’s welcome to all people, and is reflected in our welcome to one another. It’s important to make this act of inclusion explicit. Adventist worship practice often assumes that those present on Sabbath morning know why they are there and feel welcome and wanted. That’s not a safe assumption. Try beginning worship with a prayer acknowledging God’s presence and a call to worship that specifically invites participants to respond to God’s gracious hospitality. Also plan a specific way worshippers can greet one another. This greeting doesn’t have to involve everyone leaving their seats. But remember actions will likely matter more than words. Singing together, for example, is as much an act of embodied unity as it is a way of learning theology or a mode of prayer. How can you intentionally gather this Sabbath?

2. Word: Whether read, sung or preached, the Word is a primary means of divine revelation. Preaching in Frontier worship traditions is usually intended primarily to make some compelling argument. But while preaching can serve an apologetic or didactic function, it’s also a worship practice that affords an encounter with God. Recognizing that the Word is not simply a matter of communication but communion, think of ways to enliven the Word through active participation. For example, read Scripture aloud together. While this practice requires strong lead readers to be effective, it’s one important way to differentiate a liturgy from a lecture. How can you truly encounter the Living Word this Sabbath?

3. Table or Response: Worship practice rooted in public evangelism tends to focus on individual response, but it’s wise to consider how worshipers might respond together one body — as the Body of Christ. The Lord’s Supper is perhaps the most powerful corporate response available — an opportunity to embody the Gospel by re-membering around the table. But since most Adventist churches only celebrate communion quarterly, think of other ways participants might respond to the Word. For example, while public evangelism generally prioritizes singing before the spoken message — preparatory song — in worship you might also emphasize singing after the sermon — responsive song. Once participants have heard the Word proclaimed, they’re able to more knowingly, fully respond in song. In my congregation, we’re experimenting with singing more following the sermon than before it. That may be too significant a change for your church, but how else can you intentionally respond to the Gospel together this Sabbath? 

4. Sending: In Adventist worship and the broader Frontier worship tradition, worship usually ends with an invitation to come — come forward, come to some conclusion, come to some decision. But Christian worship has traditionally, and importantly, ended not with an invitation to come but to go. The conclusion of a worship celebration is not a point of arrival but departure. Perhaps the best time to announce community events — assuming they’re missionally responsive to the Gospel — is as an act of sending. If we have encountered a God of radical grace and love, it’s only natural that we be sent out to love and serve our neighbors. There’s no more appropriate way to dismiss worship participants than with an invitation to volunteer for an upcoming service initiative in the community. And in order to send out worshippers in a way that truly embodies the Gospel, it’s essential that the celebration ultimately culminate, as Christian worship historically has, with a benediction — a blessing. This blessing represents not our words to God but God’s Word to us. Scripture records many such blessings. They can also be found in the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal and other worship resources. And they reflect an essential claim of the Gospel, which should shape our worship practice: life is a gift from God that we cannot create or transform on our own. Christian worship, therefore, is not a responsibility that leaves us burdened but a gracious act of God that enables us to respond in joy with love for God and our neighbors.