“The worship wars.” The very term sends shivers down many a church member’s spine. Although the phrase was probably coined with tongue in cheek, “war” is too often an apt description for the grim struggle many congregations have been facing in the past few decades. At the heart of the confrontation lies a debate over the best styles of music for worship. “Contemporary Christian music” is pitted against the “old hymns of the faith.” Guitars and drums are placed in antithesis against organ and piano. The traditional camp groans about the saccharine-sweet lyrics of praise choruses, while the contemporary camp worries that the church is losing its youth with musty nineteenth-century traditions. For months or even years, council room discussions and congregational meetings attempt every possible solution. Often the church splits its worship into “traditional” and “contemporary” services or constructs “blended worship” in an attempt to combine the best of both styles. Either way, the worship wars usually leave feelings hurt, members estranged, and the church’s unity in tatters.
In conservative Reformed denominations like the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA), battles over worship music are generally few and far between. At least in the URC congregations I’m familiar with, organ and piano are still the primary instruments and the blue Psalter Hymnal is still the primary songbook. But we can’t escape the nagging thought that it might not always be this way. Organists are getting harder and harder to find. A new Psalter Hymnal with more than seven hundred songs, many of them unfamiliar, will be published within the next year or two. As our churches respond to new realities like these, difficult questions about the nature and structure of worship are sure to emerge. With this in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised if you still view the worship wars as a worrisome eventuality in your church.
However, I’d like to make the case that the worship wars don’t need to happen. A consistently Reformed approach to worship can maintain the church’s unity while bypassing the battlegrounds of traditional and contemporary styles. Of course, because I write as a layman, not a professionally trained church musician or even a theologian, my overview of Reformed worship will be just that—an overview. Still, a survey of the biblical principles behind corporate worship can be profitable for the church as a whole and our own spiritual health.
The Regulation of Worship
If you visit a few contemporary churches, you’ll quickly recognize that for many congregations just about anything can happen in worship. The justification for flag services, liturgical dance, and other modes of spontaneous worship usually runs along these lines: any worship is acceptable worship as long as the worshipers are sincere.
If sincerity is the primary objective of worship, you’ll hear “That music really led me into the presence of God”—or, on the contrary, “I just can’t worship with that style of music.” Thus, the church’s mission becomes to incorporate enough elements and styles into a service to make everyone in attendance feel like at least part of their worship was truly heartfelt.
This perspective is hard to combat, especially because it often stems from commendable desires to make worship individually applicable and authentic. To be sure, from cover to cover the Bible stresses that we must worship God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24, ESV). Yet we must acknowledge that the first and foremost criterion for worship is not whether the worshipers are sincere but whether worship is conducted according to God’s commands. When Nadab and Abihu offered strange fire before the Lord (Lev. 10), they may have been sincere, but they were sincerely wrong—and the penalty was death. Lest we think this restriction is limited to Old Testament ceremonial law, the author of the letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28–29).
By nature human hearts are, in John Calvin’s words, idol factories, constantly devising not only wrong things to worship but also wrong ways to worship. As such, they cannot serve as the ultimate arbiters of the worship service. We need a more objective standard—one which, thankfully, God has provided in His Word. Reformed churches, therefore, have historically excluded from their worship anything not explicitly or implicitly commanded in Scripture. This concept, known as the regulative principle of worship, is summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism this way: “that we in no way make any image of God nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his Word” (Lord’s Day 35, Q&A 96). In the same vein, the Belgic Confession condemns “all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatsoever” (Article 32; see also Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter XXI, Article 1).
When we attempt to build a pattern for worship regulated according to the Bible, we discover elements such as those listed later in the Catechism: learning from God’s Word, participating in the sacraments, praying to God publicly, and bringing offerings for the poor (Lord’s Day 38, Q&A 103). To this list we can add Paul’s command to the Ephesians and the Colossians to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16). But in order to determine how to organize and conduct these elements of worship, we need to dig deeper.
The Structure of Worship
Matt Redman’s perennially popular chorus “The Heart of Worship” expresses a desire to bring to Jesus “Something that’s of worth/That will bless Your heart.” But while contemporary Christian worship emphasizes our service to God, it tends to neglect its counterpart: that in corporate worship God also speaks to us through the ministry of the Word and sacraments.
Fundamentally, the worship service is a kind of holy dialogue, a meeting between God and His redeemed people. This dialogical nature of worship is particularly apparent in the elements of the Reformed liturgy: God speaks through the salutation, reading of the law, Scripture reading, preaching, and benediction, while the people respond through their psalms and hymns, prayers, and offerings.
The dialogical nature of worship also reflects covenantal theology. While a particular Sunday morning service will certainly affect some believers differently than others, worship is not the time when God meets with fifty or a hundred individual Christians. It is the time when He meets with His single assembled people, gathered in “from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Ps. 107:3). There are only two parties in this conversation.
Incidentally, that Matt Redman lyric raises a second question: What “worth” do we bring into worship? In Psalm 50, God reminds His people that He needs nothing, least of all their offerings and sacrifices:
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” (vv. 12–15)
We sinners have no right to stand in the presence of a righteous and holy God, much less to expect that our feeble attempts at worship will somehow please Him. And yet we are invited to do so, to approach the throne of grace “with confidence,” because of our Mediator and High Priest Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:16). We gather for corporate worship only because God has made His covenant of grace with us. In the words of one essay on the Reformed liturgy, “Sinners neither stroll nor storm into the Holy Mountain; they come tremblingly, by royal invitation.”1 To be sure, our worship should be filled with joy and praise, but only as a consequence of God’s work of reconciliation in our hearts.
A dialogical and covenantal view of worship acts as a rigorous filter for what goes on in a church service. It prioritizes elements such as congregational singing as means for God’s people to respond to Him and edify each other. It also raises questions about music that is designed for solo performance rather than congregational singing, including genres like Christian rock and worship elements like instrumental special music. The dialogical nature of worship mandates that we strive to avoid distracting from or interfering with the holy conversation taking place.
The Specifics of Worship
As simple as the regulative principle of worship and the dialogical nature of worship may sound, how they apply in the context of worship wars may still seem fuzzy. How do we determine what kind of songs to sing or what musical styles to use? While these principles may not provide a direct answer to such specific questions, they do provide the underpinning necessary for a consistently biblical model of worship.
What songs should we sing in worship? The URCNA’s official position on this question is rather broad: “The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches,” but “hymns which faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of the Scripture” may also be sung if approved by the consistory.2 While the debate over whether extrabiblical hymns belong in worship will probably continue until Christ’s return, there can be no question that the Psalms belong in worship (see Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; James 5:13). Moreover, as part of the inspired Word of God, the Psalter clearly deserves the “principal place” in our congregational singing. As Reformed theologians like David Murray and Michael LeFebvre have argued extensively, the Psalms were written with Christ at their center and thus are supremely fitting for the worship of God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments.3 With regard to the dialogical nature of worship, psalm singing again proves its merit. After all, what better way to participate in this holy conversation than by singing the words God has given us back to Him? Whether or not other songs are used in worship, then, Reformed church music should be thoroughly immersed in the words and influence of the Psalms.
What about the styles and instruments of our worship music? While passages like Psalm 150 mention a wide range of instruments in the context of worship, there is one instrument far more important than any of them: the voice of the congregation. As beautiful as instrumental music may be, it cannot communicate words like the human voice does. Paul’s comments to the Corinthians seem to reinforce the need for our music to be intelligible, not just beautiful: “I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (1 Cor. 14:15). Whatever instruments are used in worship, then, must serve to support and encourage congregational singing, not overpower it. Along the same lines, current secular styles of music, which tend to rely heavily on vocal and instrumental solos, are particularly unsuited for strong congregational singing. While I don’t think an amplified rock band belongs in worship, however, I want to point out that poor accompaniment on organ and piano can be just as much of a hindrance to the voice of the congregation. The primary question here is not which musical styles are acceptable but which will best support God’s people as they “come into his presence with singing” (Ps. 100:2).
Is Reformed worship traditional or contemporary? I hope this all-too-brief summary has revealed the false dichotomy behind this question. Worship according to God’s commands, “in spirit and truth,” should be both traditional, rooted in the historic practice of God’s people, and contemporary, just as applicable in the present day as ever. May God bless our efforts to worship Him acceptably and sincerely, as we look forward to “singing a new song before the throne” with the rest of God’s people in eternity (Rev. 14:3)!
1. Report of the Liturgical Committee of the Christian Reformed Church to Synod 1968, in Psalter Hymnal Supplement (Grand Rapids: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1974), back matter p. 91.
2. Church Order of the United Reformed Churches in North America (2012 edition), Article 39.
3. See David Murray, Jesus on Every Page: Ten Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013); Michael LeFebvre, Singing the Songs of Jesus: Revisiting the Psalms (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2010); also Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm Singing for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Joel Beeke and Anthony Selvaggio (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).
Michael Kearney a member of the West Sayville URC on Long Island, NY, studies communication and music at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA. He welcomes your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org