HOW SHALL WE THEN WORSHIP?
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
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
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
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.