It is my opinion that having some familiarity with various religious movements and worship services that differ significantly from one’s own is helpful in promoting inter-religious dialogue and understanding. To that end, I have visited several services of Christian and non-Christian sects, and have found the experiences very interesting. In this series, I offer a preview as to what to expect for the benefit of those who are considering doing likewise.
Protestantism is the name given to a range of what are more properly called Protestant denominations.Technically, all Protestant groups are offshoots of the Catholic Church. Many groups (such as Baptists or Pentecostals) were not part of the Protestant Reformation (and were, in fact, persecuted by the Reformers) and are therefore not truly Protestant. Confusion can be avoided if one keeps in mind that there was not single “Reformation” – it was rather a series of movements that took place between the 16th-17th Century, and most of the thousands of Protestant denominations that exist today can be traced to one of three major movements.
Luther started what is known as the Continental Reformation, and the term “Protestant” is generally reserved for groups stemming directly from this wave of the Reformation (e.g., Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed). Luther’s famous 95 Theses did not challenge the veneration of Mary, infant baptism (which, for Luther, was the object of “faith alone”), the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the episcopal hierarchy, Purgatory, etc. Luther’s main issue was with the abuse of Indulgence selling (something the Catholic CHurch itself squashed with its own reforms). Later Reformers such as Calvin and Zwingli disagreed with more points of Catholic doctrine (and each other), and the fissiparous “reforming” process continued until numerous Protestant factions emerged. Thus, the first generation Protestant groups might seem to differ on only a few (key) points from Roman Catholicism, while others will reflect greater departures from the Christian tradition.
Groups identifying with the Anglican Communion are not part of the Continental Reformation, but rather from a decision made by the king of England to separate from Rome in order to procure him an illicit divorce. Because the birth of the Anglican Church was not a direct result of Luther’s Continental Reformation it is often not classified as a Protestant denomination. Methodism came out of Anglicanism, so it is also sometimes excluded. Because the English Reformation was not nearly as theologically oriented as the Continental movements, more Catholic theology and traditional liturgical form was retained. In fact, there are Anglican (“Episcopal” in America) groups that practice an even more traditional form of worship than more modernist Catholic churches. This sometimes makes the two services barely distinguishable to those unfamiliar with their varying levels of theological disagreement.
Baptist theology began during the Reformation period, but outside of it – evolving out of a mixture of groups (e.g., Anabaptists or Puritans) within a movement known collectively as the Radical Reformation. Groups in this movement were considered heretical by Roman Catholic and Protestants alike (and were persecuted by both). It is from radical movements such as these that the teachings of adult-only baptism, free-form worship, memorial-only communion, lack of religious furnishings in churches, congregational leadership, gained popularity. Modern Baptists and Evangelicals / non-denominationals have generally adopted all of these distinctives, and therefore depart from confessional Protestantism nearly as much as they do from Catholicism.
It is difficult to summarize Protestant worship practices as they vary widely. Because they descend from Catholicism, Protestant groups often look much more traditional than the average Baptist / Evangelical service. Indeed, some high church Anglicans and Lutheran services have nearly the same appearance if not the same substance. Most Protestant services will be much more formal than the more popular Evangelical worship experience. Dress code will often be business casual at the least. Services will usually follow a prescribed set of stages in the worship service, which can be followed by some sort of guide / schedule / program / prayer book / etc. Sermons will often not be as long as those in the standard two-part singing/sermon Evangelical churches, but will usually be longer than the Catholic / Orthodox homily. Communion will often be central to the service, and is often offered to visitors so long as they identify as Christian. A plate will probably be passed around for monetary offerings, you may simply pass it on as members are rarely expected to contribute (alternatively, there may be visitor information cards you can fill out and place in the plate). Communion will sometimes be given to anyone, sometimes only church members. When the service is over everyone will be dismissed.
These are only the three main “branches” of Protestant churches. Within each are many denominations plus a range of conservative to liberal groups within each denomination. Knowing the history and determining factors of any subset group will require more study, as will the specifics of a given service.
For more on the differences between Protestant groups see these helpful links: