The Beauty of Reformed Worship
Several weeks ago, I was driving east on I-80 to preach at a church in a nearby state when my rear driver-side wheel flew off completely—rim and all. I immediately heard and felt a loud thump and, in my rear-view mirror, saw a spray of sparks shooting out from the back of my car. I managed to guide the car off to the side of the road and try to calm down. By God’s grace, there was a truck stop nearby and I was able to get some help.
The next morning, still shaken by the events of the previous night, I attended the service and took my seat as it began and proceeded along.
It was during the pastoral intercessory prayer—during the midst of prayer—that the following words were prayed: “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul” (Ps. 94:19). Almost immediately, the car cares—“How damaged is my car?” “What will be the costs?” “How will I even get to the shop?”—fled away as scriptural truth took tangible hold of my soul. In that moment, my captivity to a cares of this world was exchanged for a vision of the Lord’s intention to care for his children. An aggravating providence became gospel confidence.
What was so surprising about that moment was just how unsurprising it was. Psalm 94 was the next Psalm in the consecutive, weekly reading and praying through of the Psalms. It was one reading of three Scripture readings from both the Old and New Testaments. And Psalm reading/praying was a regular feature in a well-defined worship service. In fact, one of the elders said regarding the service, “Yup, we’re just plain vanilla Presbyterians.”
And it was beautiful.
Simple and Ordinary
Much of the beauty of Reformed worship is in its simplicity and ordinariness. It is simple (not simplistic) and ordinary because it aims to do simply what God has commanded and ordained—nothing more, nothing less. It values divine receptivity (what God says) over human creativity (what man conceives). John Calvin rightly and repeatedly warned believers against “vain imaginations” and how they must always give way to biblical revelation, especially in worship.
There is comfort in knowing that every element in the worship service is something explicitly warranted by Scripture; that pastor and elder can open the Bible and point to specific passages and make Scripture-based arguments when asked specific questions about the “why” of worship. It alleviates the pressure to pastorally innovate in a quest to keep sheep engaged and interested.
If this kind of worship is simple, it is simple in an E = mc 2 or “And God said…” (Gen. 1:3) kind of way—transparently clear and economical as statements, but housing an inexhaustible storehouse of meaning and impact beneath the deceptively simple surface. In worship, we are called to do simple things, having this assurance: when we attend to what God directly commands, we should expect our Father in heaven—by the Spirit through our vital union with Jesus Christ (who makes our worship acceptable)—to work in ways that nurture and sustain us for our good and his glory. When that elder read and prayed Psalm 94, simply doing what the church does week in and week out, the Word spoke in a simple but powerful way to the condition of my soul. This is Reformed worship—simultaneously simple, profound, and beautiful.
Put plainly, the straightforward and ordinary means we should emphasize in worship are the Word, sacraments, and prayer (cf. Westminster Shorter Catechism, 88).
Special attention is to be given to the Word when the saints gather for worship. We are to read and teach it (1 Tim. 4:13). And when attended with diligence and preparation and received with faith, the Word builds up and makes salvation effectual and real in the lives of believers. This is true whether the preacher is endowed with abundant grace and a gift for preaching or is quite unremarkable. When rightly preached and heard, the Word—by God’s Spirit—leaps the gap and builds us up in our most holy faith.
The church is in the business of gathering its members and their children by putting water on them in the name of the triune God. When a person is baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, they are “signed, sealed, delivered” to the institutional church. Baptism is the divinely mandated way of marking out those who belong to the Lord as he calls forth disciples from every nation (Matt. 28:19).
Likewise with the Lord’s Supper. By Christ’s appointment, we are made “partakers of his body and blood” when we eat and drink in faith. Simple elements like bread and wine are taken up and become a foundational way we receive spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.
Simple, ordinary things like water, bread, and wine are used to change the world.
Prayer is to occupy a key part of our corporate life together as a worshipping people. Prayers of adoration (“Our Father who is in heaven…”), confession (“Forgive us our debts…”), thanksgiving and supplications (cf. 1 Tim. 2:1) are an inextricable part of what it means to be the church at prayer. Under guidance of the Spirit, Paul urges prayer on the part of the gathered church: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands” (1 Tim. 2:8). And to paraphrase one author on prayer, the church that doesn’t emphasize corporate prayer is quietly confident that time, money, and the ability of its members are all it needs to succeed. The spiritual logic of prayer is this: it is the inevitable activity of a people who know they are gathered before their King. Therefore, large petitions and prayers they will bring.
There are other means and ways (e.g., singing, speaking edifying words one to another, etc.) by which grace is given for our edification and growth.
A Word on Culture and the Ordinary Means
Some complain that ordinary means worship (focused on God’s Word, sacraments, and prayer) ignores culture. That is not the case. Ordinary-means worship attends to matters that are logically prior to considerations of culture. The focus of worship is the commanded elements before it is the cultural circumstances which arise when we carry out the ordained means. The movement is from biblical revelation to cultural implementation; not culture, then Scripture. Culture is what happens when we commence to obey Christ’s command to preach, teach, baptize, feed on bread and wine, and pray. Culture becomes the externalized form of our obedience together.
Of course, a rich diversity of cultural expression around a unity in practice will emerge. The call for ordinary-means worship is not a call to contradict the cultural sensibilities of the congregation. When we faithfully sing to the Lord, that may occur with guitars, organs, pianos, or even a cappella to name a few cultural possibilities. Concentrating on the ordinary means leads to a rich, faithful cultural expression. Far from being diminished or disregarded, culture is enriched by ordinary Reformed worship.
That’s a beautiful thing.