Recently I have been considering this idea of a “distinctive.” Seemingly, in all facets of life, we have distinctives. For example, you have aspects of your family that distinguish you from other families. Likewise, everyone has gifts that distinguish them, and some particular practices and doctrines make denominations dissimilar. When considering this last example, not only does the practice of and the driving principles behind Reformed Worship differentiate between denominations, but sadly, it is not a distinctive that all our congregations in the Presbyterian Church in America share. However, to make the case that our church must hold this distinction across our denomination, let’s first consider how gathered worship makes Christianity distinct from the world.
Distinct from the Sin-Filled World
The Reformed world has an eschatology that declares that the church will continue to look more and more different than the world. This eschatological view suggests that the Bride of Christ will progressively be more distinct in this sin-ruined creation that She currently inhabits. Now, I believe that the church will continue to grow as it becomes more and more distinct, but even if you do not, the overwhelming consensus is that the distinctives of God’s people will be increasingly more evident.
These eschatological thoughts consume me when I think about the distinctives of the early Christians in the Roman Empire. The countercultural, revolutionary actions of the Early Church are often overlooked by many Bible readers and preachers today. In the Acts narrative, the stories like Peter’s Pentecost sermon, where thousands are convicted of their sins and seek the salvation of the Lord, are beloved. Yet, there’s very little attention to the declaration of faithfulness unto God that the early Christians made by their ordinary actions. Believers need to consider these “ordinary” actions. For example, gathering for Lord’s Day worship was, and still is, countercultural.
Consider this, as Christians who believe in the authority of the Word of God and seek to obey its commands, we gather for the public worship of God. We are making a public declaration that we strive to live by God’s standards. If we regularly gather with the saints on the Lord’s Day, we are publicly demonstrating our obedience to the commands of God – to worship Him and find our rest in Him. It is a public display that our lives and days are not our own, but they belong to our Lord.
Does not that distinguish us from this postmodern, individualistic world surrounding us? It did for the early Christians in the Roman empire, and it does so today.
Distinct from the Evangelical World
Often, when considering the broad worship practices of the evangelical world and the lasting beauty of reformed worship, I begin humming John Newton’s well-known hymn, Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, as it sings:
Savior, if of Zion’s city
I, through grace, a member am,
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in thy name:
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s children know. [i]
Many evangelicals desire a worship style full of “pomp and show.” Usually, evangelicals defend this desire with the practice of contextualization; teaching that our worship must look like the world around us so that we may better reach the lost and make the skeptic feel more comfortable attending our services. Yet, if we consider the worldling’s pleasure, as John Newton writes, it is ever fading and constantly fleeting. Therefore, what might gain the attention of one seeker will not gain the attention of the next. Likewise, what might attract this generation will not attract the former or subsequent generations. Now, we have a doctrinal issue. God does not change, nor does His Word; therefore, our worship should not be ebbing and flowing with the world around us! Thus, the never-changing Word of God must regulate our worship.
When the evangelical world allows the seeker to instruct their worship practices, there is an intentional move away from God-centered worship. Now, their worship has become man-centered in an attempt to be man-pleasing. Only when the solid rock of the scriptures regulates and orders our worship will we find the “solid joys and lasting treasure” that Zion’s children ought to know.
These quickly fading worship practices and styles have spread throughout our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. What seems to happen to congregations that divert from biblically regulated worship practices is two-fold: 1) a lack of reverence and 2) an emphasis on emotionalism.
The lack of reverence, even within our denomination, has led to a rise in entertainment and performances. As a result, there are many churches that, at least through their practice, adopt a more casual approach to worship. One well-known scholar writes, “an informal service with a friendly, welcoming atmosphere and contemporary styles in language and music.”[ii] This logic leads to a very subjective understanding of worship. Worship becomes a matter of taste or a battle of semantics. But as DG Hart and John Muether write,
“God desires reverent worship, which reflects the seriousness inherent in a religion that required the death of His only begotten Son…”[iii]
The emphasis on emotionalism doesn’t forbid emotion. Indeed, we should be filled with emotion when we come into the presence of the Almighty in worship. However, we must exercise discipline over our feelings. As Presbyterians, our worship style should be steeped in our historical faith and practices. Therefore, there should not be room for choir or song-leader-dominated singing. There should be no wild body movements like jumping up and down or excessive clapping. Multiple people should not offer disorderly prayers at a single time. The list could go on.
Again, worship is an “experience,” but that does not give the freedom for our experiential response to be emotionally driven. Our emotions must be controlled and reverent as we come before the Sovereign. Controlling our emotions does not mean we must be uptight and dull; even our Puritan fathers and brothers called Sunday a “celebration.” However, it does mean that we must worship in the way God desires.
The Distinctives of Reformed Worship
So, what does Reformed Worship look like on the Lord’s Day? Well, it’s simple. The proper worship of the Lord, especially as understood in the Reformed faith, is beautifully simple. Many writers often summarize their answer by saying that Reformed Worship consists of the community of believers singing, praying, confessing, hearing, and seeing the Word.
Reformed worship doesn’t need the thrills of culturally accommodating performances, nor does it require the ceremonies and relics of High Church denominations. These practices often obscure the Gospel. However, in the simplicity of Reformed Worship, the Gospel is central to every element of our liturgy.
As our congregations sing hymns of the faith, both new and old, we must ensure they are filled with the scriptures. As we include psalms being sung within our worship services, we are committing ourselves to teaching our people the Bible’s songbook. Additionally, just like our singing, our praying ought to be driven by the very words of God. If our God has promised to fulfill the promises of his Word for us, we should pray big, promised-driven prayers. As we plea the promises of God back to him, he will surely hear and answer.
Our congregations should also be confessing the Word, which shows itself in many forms throughout Reformed Worship practices. Historic confessions and creeds, confessions of sin, and assurances of pardon should occupy our worship services. All of these must reflect the light of the scriptures, just as the moon reflects the sun’s light.
The climax of our worship services is the reading and preaching of the Word. Hearing the Word read and preached is hearing our Heavenly Father speak, and we must never forget that He speaks with authority as the Spirit applies that word to our hearts. Through it all, God is sanctifying the believer, enabling them to put to death sin in their life and pursue Christlikeness.
Finally, through the sacraments, we see the Word before us. As our congregations partake in the Lord’s Supper and watch children of the covenant baptized, we are spiritually nourished and strengthened for their pilgrimage to the eternal Promised Land. As signs and seals of God’s covenant, we are guaranteed that God will complete the saving work that he started in us.
As we commit ourselves to being distinct from the world around us and even the ebbs and flows of modern worship practices, we come together with like-minded brothers and sisters to form a vibrant community, one in which the glory of God is the central focus! When that is the case, we will understand that gathered worship is no ordinary thing, but it’s an extraordinary foretaste of the grandeurs waiting for us in Glory!
So, believers, would you commit to the vibrant, gathered worship of the Lord? Will you commit to being a part of the gathered people of the Lord on the Lord’s Day that has a heart that longs to exalt the name of our Lord? Will you joyfully receive all the spiritual blessings your heavenly Father gives you in Christ?
[i] Trinity Hymnal, #345. (Italics mine). This hymn often comes to mind while discussing reformed worship due to my admiration for Dr. Terry Johnson as one of the leading voices of our modern-day in the field of worship. He references this hymn in his book, Reformed Worship, as he discusses the simplicity and reverence that should be guiding and filling our worship services.
[ii] John Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1996), 84.
[iii] D.G. Hart and John Muether, With Reverence and Awe (Philipsburg, NJ: 2002), 121.