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How Shall We Then Worship?

Category Articles
Date October 1, 2002


The greatest threat to the unity of Reformed evangelicals may not be our doctrinal differences but the possibility that we may be approaching a situation in which some may not be willing or able to worship together

by William H. Smith

Several years ago two of my sons moved to city and were faced by a vexing choice. They attended a services at a Presbyterian congregation of a conservative evangelical denomination, and they visited a service at a congregation of the mainline liberal Presbyterian denomination. They experienced conflict about one matter – worship. The mainline congregation offered a service more in line with what they believed to be Biblical worship than did the conservative. They did, with my encouragement join the evangelical church, but their experience impressed upon me this: The greatest threat to the unity of Reformed evangelicals may not be our doctrinal differences but the possibility that we may be approaching a situation in which some may not be willing or able to worship together.

To understand what is going on we need to understand several influences at work that together have changed the face of worship in many places. One is the free church tradition. The free church tradition rejected the liturgical forms imposed by mostly the state churches such as the Anglican. The idea was that there needed to be freedom in worship, especially so that worship would be truly spiritual and not rote and routine. The free church tradition did not accept written prayers, so that the minister might pray from his spirit with the help of the Holy Spirit. I grew up in such an atmosphere (though we did use the Creed, Doxology, Gloria Patria, and Lord’s Prayer), and I was suspicious of any forms as having overtones of either Roman Catholicism or liberalism. The very word liturgy made me
nervous. One of the legacies of free worship, which is not necessarily
rooted in the tradition, is the current idea that worship should be informal. We must take care not to appear cool or rigid. People need to feel comfortable in a worship service. Structure, formality, and gravitas in services become the enemies of the sought after informality.

Another influence is revivalism. The Second Great Awakening brought new
tones and practices into the church’s worship. Such things as song leaders, mass choirs, testimonies, and giving an “invitation” came into Lord’s Day worship. One of the most far-reaching changes was the redirection of the focus in worship from God to man. No longer was worship a corporate act of
God’s people coming together to offer Him worship worthy of and acceptable to Him. Now the most important thing was the conversion of sinners and the revival (rededication) of believers. Along with this change of focus was a change in theology. No longer was there the belief that sinners were saved and Christians renewed by the sovereign Holy Spirit working through the ordinary means of grace (Word and sacrament). Now a person needed to cooperate with the Spirit and whatever means might encourage and enable him to do so were legitimate. Now a person might leave worship asking, “What did I get out of the service?” In the pure form of the current seeker service, which is a smoother descendant of revivalism, no claim is made that what is being done is worship. It is outreach. In many such services the aim is to make the transition from every day life to church as seamless as possible. Nothing threatening (like challenging truths) or weird (like
sacraments) may be included. Challenging truths, if allowed, are relegated to the classroom and sacraments and other things characteristic of “believer’s worship” are moved to a weeknight.

Yet another influence is cultural relevance. On one level, the church has no choice, nor would we have, but to worship in a way that people can or be enabled to understand. But some believe that the post-modern culture is so different that the historic language and forms of worship are now hopelessly irrelevant. It is said we live in a new world and that we must
adjust or die the death of irrelevance. No longer can it be thought that one culture is superior to another (or more Biblically influenced than another). Culture is culture and none has more value than another. Further, it is said that people no longer believe in timeless, universal, absolute truth. They believe in personal truth (“my truth” which may be totally different from “your truth” but that’s OK). They want spirituality but not doctrine, meaningful experiences but not transcendence. In post-modern worship we must above all be relational. We must not have the big, awesome (awful, in the original meaning of the word) God of historic Christianity, but a God who understands and cares and wants to help us (hence the prevalence of the “how to” talk). God must not condemn us (no confession of
sin) or tell us what to believe (no confession of faith) or challenge our minds (no theology), or ask anything of us (no duty or sacrifice). Hymns of weightier substance or finer musical form must be confined to the “traditional” service if used at all. Sermons must be shortened to allow for drama and multimedia presentations.

How shall we then worship? Let it be said so clearly that there can be no doubt that we want spiritual worship, that we want to see non-believers saved and believers edified, that we want there to be not only a vertical but also a horizontal dimension to our worship, that we want to be culturally sensitive, and that we want to speak language people can understand. But we decidedly unconvinced that the informal, people-centered, relevant worship “styles” have got it right. Indeed we believe they have it wrong. We believe that these “styles” do not do justice to the God of the Bible before whom we must come with reverent joy and joyful reverence (Ps. 100, Heb. 12:18-29) and in whose presence we must ask, “Lord, how would You have us worship?” We suspect that these “styles” dismiss too easily the insights and wisdom of our fathers (i.e. the historic church, but especially the Reformation church) who thought Biblically and carefully about worship and have left us a rich heritage of liturgy. We have no desire to be quaint, or old-fashioned, or cold, or stuffy, but we are confident that, in the end, that which most glorifies God is that which most blesses man. Our goal is God-glorifying, soul-satisfying worship. It is for this reason that you will see us walking closer to what might be perceived to be the “old paths” of worship. We will reject the label “traditional” and seek instead Biblical, historic Christian worship. “Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, and let us thus offer to God acceptable worship…” (Heb. 12:28).

William H. Smith
Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCA), Huntsville, AL.

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