The Right and Wrong Kind of Ancient Future Worship

Zac HicksConvergence of Old and New in Worship, History of Worship and Church Music, Worship Style, Worship Theology & Thought2 Comments

As Holy Week rolls around every year, our worship senses are heightened toward tradition.  Evangelical churches who once adopted a more “low church” model for worship are returning to the value of worship expressions which typically have characterized “high church” environments–Holy Week noon-day services, celebrations of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Saturday vigils, etc.  Ancient future worship–blending old forms with creatively new expressions–is something many churches are now seeking, perhaps in reaction to the hyper-now-ness and contemporaneity of the of worship models being held up in the 1980s and 1990s.

But there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it.  Fifty years ago, theologian Jean-Jacques von Allmen parsed ancient future worship quite well:

When we perform Christian worship, we are part of the Church of all places and all times, and this community binds us.  To respect liturgical tradition implies…a feeling of gratitude for what God has taught the Church in the past, for the way in which He has inspired and guided it. That is why there exist in Christian worship and its unfolding certain classical forms which have…such a theological and anthropological plenitude, are of such monumental liturgical importance, that the Church never exhausts their vitality, never wears them out, in spite of constant use. They are transmitted and occur from cult [another word for “worship”] to cult, not so much out of filial piety or lack of imagination, but because to abandon them would not be a liberation but a loss.  For [most] Protestants this is something far more difficult to understand than it is for Anglicans, Roman Catholics or, especially, Greek Orthodox.1

So, on the one hand, a proper appropriation of “ancient” in ancient future worship is to seek out those lasting traditions and expressions that have “a theological and anthropological plenitude”–a potency that seems so fitting that it’s hard to imagine improving upon them.  Such potent traditions include the call to worship, confession, and the benediction, to name a few.  (Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Worship is a great resource to sniff out potent traditions.  See my review and summary.) 

Von Allmen goes on:

If a fine doxology of Christian antiquity is golden, it is a gold coin rather than a gold chain.  That is to say, that respect for the traditions of worship does not fetter liturgical expression, but on the contrary, enables us to repeat today in a new way what the Fathers said when they assembled to celebrate the mystery of Christian salvation. It is not a question of saying or doing something different; it is a question of not being bound to what is obsolete. Although it is legitimate to have in one’s worship some ancient items (just as one has an antique armchair among one’s furniture) the cult is not a museum, and if it facilitates access to another world, it is not to a world that has gone by for ever, but to a world that is to come.2

This is a golden nugget of advice for rightly dividing ancient future worship.  Bad ancient future worship has the feeling of a kind of “worship museum,” where we’re all gathered around to stare at some beautiful old liturgical artifacts.  Engaging in that kind of ancient future worship has folks coming away saying, “Wow, that was very thought-provoking,” or, “Wow, I learned a lot about [x] in that service!”  It’s always wonderful to provoke thoughts and to educate people about church history, but that simply isn’t the goal of Christian worship.  The goal is to encounter the living God with the people of God.  So, utilizing “ancient artifacts” in worship is only as good as they accomplish those ends.  

Von Allmen gives us another helpful tool to find whether or not our incorporation of the ancient has been effective.  Ironically, good ancient elements will end up propelling us forward, not backward.  A good element of worship will point us to the coming kingdom just as much as it pointed back to a previous era of worship.  The Lord’s Supper is the pinnacle example of this reality.  If, in our Communion, as we remember Christ’s death, we are not propelled forward to long for that future Feast with our Risen King, then we’ve lost something.  Every good element of worship has an echo of this quality.  By the way, this is why “ancient future” is a better term than ancient modern, because “modern” only implies the present, which is something on which our culture is way too fixated, anyway.  

The “Gloria Patri” is an example of an ancient element that is loaded with futuristic inertia.  In it, we sing:

Glory be to the Father,
And to the Son,
And to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning,
Is now, and ever shall be:
World without end. 

Look at it.  Trinitarian.  Historic (“as it was in the beginning”).  Relevant (“is now”).  Future-looking, kingdom-oriented (“…and ever shall be: World without end”).  I would love to see more local worship leaders and songwriters incorporate this short song into their worship.  Maybe it’s time some of them set this gem to new music that fits their local cultural and church context.  We have done that, ourselves.  We’ve sung it as a stand-alone song, and we’ve incorporated it into our new setting of the ancient song, “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright” on our album, Without Our Aid.  

(If you want to see a great compendium of ancient future worship music, check out Cardiphonia’s post for a lot of helpful resources.)



Jean-Jacques von Allmen, Worship: Its Theology and Practice (New York: Oxford, 1965), 97.
Ibid., 97-98.

2 Comments on “The Right and Wrong Kind of Ancient Future Worship”

  1. wow. Von Allmen showing up in a blog post. Dr. Old would be so impressed! This is a very helpful post zac. thanks for the thoughts and the link love.

  2. Great post! As a planner for Lutheran Worship, I keep Chapell's book close by when planing services because it really is a great resource, along with the Worship Sourcebook and some Robert Webber stuff. However, our services generally already retain the majority of a traditional mass, so we might seem like somewhat of a "museum" at times. I think it is important for the congregation to understand what is happening in worship, but I'm not entirely absolute about it. I think there is also some value in having certain things beyond our understanding in the service as it leaves room for us to grow in knowledge and can also serve to cultivates a sense of mystery. I once visited a Presbyterian worship service where the minister stopped to explain the purpose and function of every single liturgical feature. It practically killed the service.

    I do believe Matt Papa may have been trying to incorporate a paraphrase of the Gloria Patri in the bridge of the song "You Are Good" from his first record.

    Honestly, I've found that the vast majority of traditional settings of the Gloria Patri do not lend themselves very well to contemporary contexts. A better way I've found to implement a sung trinitarian doxology is to steal the last stanza from another hymn of the same meter. Many traditional hymns end with a generic praise to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that can be easily sung with other hymns. This is especially appropriate at the end of a metrical Psalm, as it imports an understanding of Christ to the Old Testament poetry.

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