Reformed Worship – A Primer

It’s easy to get a fight started within most churches these days. Mention that the hymn books in the pews ought to be replaced. Or suggest that the elders revise the liturgy. Or raise a question over the celebration of Christmas. In other words, say “worship” and you have declared a fighting word. Reformed Christians, staunchly united on the God they confess, able to articulate the “sol as” of the Reformation and the five points of Calvinism, are increasingly divided over how they ought to worship their God.

If you listen carefully to the current debates, you will encounter rhetoric that is strange for Reformed Christians. Here are some comments we have heard, none of which is very unusual:

• “I like a church that is casual, where I know I can go and relax during worship.”

• “I don’t always enjoy my church’s worship, but that’s OK. I know it’ll be different next week.”

• “I’m tired of the barrenness of worship — I’m looking for something with more pageantry.”

• “Worship is ultimately a matter of taste, and there’s no accounting for taste.”

• “If there is one thing you can say about our worship, it’s not boring!”

These popular sentiments all remind us that there is terrible confusion about the nature, purpose and practice of worship. This confusion extends to the Reformed community, and it underscores for us the urgency to recover a Biblical view of worship.

“Worship Wars” is how some have labeled the battles among congregational worship committees that are replacing organs with guitars, hymnals with overheads, pulpits with stages. How ought we to evaluate these worship innovations in our churches? What do we expect from worship? How do we judge good worship from bad worship? Is there such a thing as bad worship? How would we recognize it?

And how did we get to this place? After all, Reformed Christians are agreed on our chief end, to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. So how can we differ so much on right worship? We believe the reason is that our calling to glorify God is too often colored by other assumptions. For example, many believe that the sincerity or the intensity of the worship experience are the chief barometers of good worship. Because we think we are more natural when we are spontaneous and liberated from restraint, we are tempted to conclude that informal, casual worship frees the emotions and that formal, restrained worship represses our emotions — so we can’t enjoy God if we can’t relax. The problem with this thinking arises when we consider how easily our emotions can fool us. We can all too easily fake sincerity and intensity; so by themselves, they serve as no standard.

Another common assumption has to do with evangelism. Evangelism is an important calling of the church, and we ought to yearn to see new converts. So let’s remove the barriers that keep unchurched Harry and Harriet away, and let’s make worship more user-friendly. But ought the public gathering of God’s people in the presence of God to be an opportunity to cater to the whims and desires of the unbeliever? Where does the Bible encourage us to design worship for outsiders? These and other assumptions are derailing us from the task of glorifying God in worship. We need to return to basics on worship. That is what our series intends to do. Using Scripture and our Reformed confessions, we ill create a road map designed to guide our thinking.




We will reason, unapologetically, from a Reformed perspective, because worship follows from theological conviction. Good theology will yield good worship and defective theology will produce defective worship. The Protestant Reformers understood this. The confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were all aimed at reforming the worship of the church. And so, for example, the Westminster Divines did not stop with a Confession and Catechisms, but went on to draft the Directory for the Public Worship of God.

If we are self-consciously Reformed in our worship, our worship will embody our confessional commitments in particular ways. And we will likely worship differently from non-Reformed Christians. For example, Calvinists will give liturgical expression to the Creator-creature distinction (a doctrine not unique to Calvinism, yet one given fuller attention in Calvinism than in other traditions). The vast gulf that separates God from all of His creation means that God alone is infinite and independent, and we are finite and dependent. This will restrain the notions of individualism, self-confidence, and assertiveness that our culture promotes. Instead, humility and self-loathing will characterize our comportment.

Calvinists also prize the doctrine of divine sovereignty, that God is Lord over all things. He may do with His creation as He pleases. His “rights” are limited only by His own character, His wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. The implication for worship is obvious. Worship is pleasing to God when it acknowledges His absolute rights over His creations and when believers display His sovereignty in their actions and attitudes in worship.

Another doctrine is total depravity. The mind, the will, the affections-all are corrupted by sin. Nothing that we can do, by ourselves, can please God. This means that in worship we are not capable of devising God-honoring worship. To the contrary, as Calvin noted, the human mind is a factory of idols. So Calvinists are particularly committed to the principle that true worship must conform to the Bible, to what God has revealed as being acceptable to Him.

Soundness in doctrine goes hand-in-hand with the regulation of worship. Historically, Reformed worship has always flowed from Reformed theology. Simply put, you can’t have one without the other.

We recognize that there are those in the Reformed camp who are troubled by the connection we are drawing between Reformed theology and Reformed worship. It is not uncommon to hear some express the desire to see theology quarantined to the sermon. “As long as the sermon is theologically accurate,” the argument goes, “whatever you do in worship is okay.” But those who think that way ought to ponder fully its consequences. Would they apply this reasoning in order to restrict the Lordship of Christ in other areas of life? Why do we seem more concerned these days about theologically-informed economics or politics or education than about theologically coherent worship? And if our theology is not shaping our worship practice, then what good is our theology after all? Why do we bother to profess what we refuse to practice?

This connection between Biblically-based theology and worship is so vital that we would challenge the claim that it is possible to change the one (worship practice) without altering the other (theological conviction). When churches undergo dramatic changes in what is often called “worship style,” can it really be said that their theology has remained the same? It is far more likely that something significant has happened also to the theology of those churches. The whole counsel of God is not preached. The hard doctrines of Calvinism are softened. Confession of sin is not regularly occurring. And in the place of theological coherence, worship strives for evangelistic effectiveness or therapeutic affirmation.


We would also add a word here about language. Language both shapes and reflects the ways in which we behave. Throughout our study we will examine the ways in which Christians tend to talk when they reflect on worship.

Consider, for example, the use of the term “worship experience” that threatens to eclipse the older expression, “worship service,” in our common vocabulary. What difference does it make what word we see? We would suggest that the difference is enormous. Service is the work and duty of a servant to and for a superior, and good service is that which pleases the superior. The word “experience” redirects the goal of worship, from God-centeredness to man-centeredness. We become the audience, and our criteria for success shift — good worship is exciting, exhilarating, and even entertaining, and bad worship is joyless, monotonous, and above all, boring, the word to end all debate.

Should worship be a “celebration”? That word has a venerable history in worship, as when churches “celebrate” the Lord’s Supper. But what happens when the word is cheapened, when celebration suggests the high-fiving, champagne-spraying swagger of World Series champions or the exuberant and disorderly partying on New Year’s Eve at Times Square? Of course there are other kinds of celebration, such as the dignity and gravity of the coronation of a king or the simple solemnity of a rural church wedding. We must be mindful of these differences and not sanction by our language certain forms of celebration that are inappropriate for the church gathered for worship.

And does it matter that the sermon is now frequently called a message? A message sounds softer, less threatening and more accessible. It may have the effect of turning the speaker into one of us, a regular guy, whose effectiveness is measured by how well he relates to his audience by his use of humor and engaging illustrations. This image seems far removed from the voice of God delivered from His servant, a steward of the mysteries of God, who must handle the Word of truth with the utmost of care.

Language is important, and we want to reflect carefully on the words we use in worship. Ecclesiastes 5:1–2 tell us to watch our tongue with respect to worship, lest throughout worship we offer the “sacrifice of fools.”


At this point, a reader may be tempted to think, good theology and precise language are well and good, but let’s cut to the chase — what about humor and skits? What’s wrong with praise choruses? How about guitars and overheads? Our series will frustrate such a reader, because we will not answer the practical questions immediately. One can think discerningly through these contested issues of contemporary practice only after reflecting on more preliminary matters. First who is it that worships? We will begin by looking at the church as the community gathered for worship. We believe that a proper ecclesiology is a necessary beginning for right worship. It is no coincidence that contemporary confusion about worship of God is occurring at a time when there is so much misunderstanding about the church of Christ.

Another important question is when to worship. Here we will look at how the doctrine of the Sabbath informs our worship practice. What does it mean to set the day apart? We cannot expect to please the Lord in worship if we refuse to sanctify the Lord’s day.

Then we will turn to a series of how questions. What is the “regulative principle” and how does it guide us in worship? What is the “dialogical principle” and how does it shape our liturgy? What is the proper attitude for worship — how do you worship with reverence and joy? What is the place of the means of grace in worship? What are the elements of worship and how do they differ from circumstances?

Next we will look at music. This is often where the worship wars begin. But we want to cover it later, after these other matters, in order to put music matters in proper perspective. We believe that much of the controversy will be both clarified and diffused in this way. Finally, we will apply all of this to suggest ways in which Reformed Christians may exercise discernment, spotting the good from the bad, the true from the false, biblical worship from blasphemy.

Throughout, we will survey the Scriptures along with our Reformed confessions. We will try to capture the fear of the Psalmist as he despaired over the holiness required to ascend to God in worship (Ps. 24:1–6), in order that we might locate our worship confidence only in Christ (Heb. 4:16). We will seek to “rejoice with trembling” (Ps. 2:11), seeing reverence and joy not as opposites that we schizophrenically toggle to and from during worship, but rather as mutually reinforcing, as in the death and resurrection of Christ Himself. And we will reject the impulse of many to divide the Old Covenant from the New. Contrary to much popular thinking, God has not lowered His worship standards for New Covenant saints. There is nothing He despises more, in the New Testament no less than the Old, than false worship. The fire that consumed Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1–7) still consumes false worshipers today (Heb. 12:22–29).


This study is designed as a primer and it will not be exhaustive. Even less do we claim that it will prove popular. Sociologists note that we are living in post-confessional and anti-intellectual times. American Christians are less discernably Methodist or Baptist or even Catholic in the ways in which they live the Christian life, including the way in which they worship.

Without denominational loyalty or creedal constraints, so-called “new paradigm” churches are reinventing worship by developing popular and consumer-oriented “styles.” These innovations are casting aside the piety of the past in the interest of being exciting, dynamic and relevant. This means that distinctively Reformed worship will be unpopular. This we should expect, if our worship is informed by our theology and not propelled by the market.

Of course, North American Calvinists should be accustomed to losing popularity contests. Ironically, however, there is a sense in which what we are proposing is profoundly seeker-sensitive. We don’t mean this in the way that the term is usually employed, to please the browsers who might step into our sanctuaries on Sunday morning. Rather we seek to please the one whom Scripture, not church-growth consultants, describes as the worship-seeker. In His discourse on worship with the Samitaran woman, Jesus says that those who worship God in spirit and truth are “the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:23). We conclude with a reminder of the importance of our task. The worship of God is the most fundamental aspect of the Christian life.

We were created to be God’s servants, and our worship on the Lord’s Day should be conducted to give Him the glory and honor which belong to Him alone as our creator, redeemer and sustainer. Without a proper understanding and practice of worship, we run the risk of failing at our most basic calling as the people of God. So we grant that our study might prompt some fights among Reformed Christians. But some things are worth fighting over.

D.G. Hart is librarian and associate professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, and is an elder at Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania. John R. Muether is library director at Reformed Theological Seminary and an elder at Lake Sherwood Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Orlando, FL. They are co-authors of Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1995).