We have been spending time the past couple of months reflecting on common statements made pertaining to issues within the church that reveal a sense of confessional indifference. Here is another one.
THERE IS MORE THAN ONE WAY TO WORSHIP
Much time is spent discussing women in office and the entire homosexual question in the Christian Reformed Church. What is equally volatile—if not more so—is the issue of worship.
As many veteran ministers and church members in the CRC can attest, there was a day that a person could attend American Midwest CRC, then attend Ontario, Canada CRC and finish in British Columbia CRC and sense liturgical similarity and familiarity among the three.
But such is not the case anymore.
Now there is the seeker-sensitive service, the contemporary service, the children’s service, the candlelight service, the healing service and the concert of prayer service. There is the liturgical dance, the liturgical drama and the liturgical concert. There is the blue hymnal, the gray hymnal, the Hymns for the Family of God, praise songs, songs in the book and songs on the screen. There is organ music, keyboard music, rock music and recorded music. There are those who clap after special music, clap with the music they are singing, clap by direction of the worship leader. Along with clapping of hands are the raising of hands, the shaking of hands and the holding of hands. What used to take four hymns to fulfill now takes a worship committee. Pastors like myself are hearing from colleagues that “liturgy is the key” to keeping members and “seekers” interested in one’s church, and that preparing one’s liturgies and litanies are at least equal in importance to the preparing of one’s sermons.
It is obvious that we are not worshiping “one way” anymore. That recognition is one reason we hear people saying, “There’s more than one way to worship.”
But it is more than simply recognizing change that has moved people to make this statement. There have been evangelistic, temporal, pragmatic, domestic, emotional and ecumenical motivations tied up in this declaration.
• Out of an evangelistic motivation it is said that because we live in a post-Christian era, we must change liturgically. We cannot presume a non-Christian environment to understand our conventional worship practices, because that environment is so far removed
from Christendom historically, behaviorally and spiritually. We have to ask ourselves the question, “What is attractive to the unchurched?” and respond accordingly. Our services must restructure, moving from a focus on the faithful, to a focus on the faithless. If we want newcomers into our church, we cannot presume that they will understand everything that is going on, nor should we expect them to be attracted to ways that may be familiar to believers, but not unbelievers.
• Closely related to the evangelistic argument is the contemporary argument. Our worship has to keep up with the times. If people are listening to a rock-and-roll beat, we cannot expect them to appreciate a hymnodic tempo. What is more important after all, is not the music per se but the lyrical message that the music brings. We also have to remember that we live in visual age. We are dealing with television minds, and video consumers-people who are used to being entertained by the arts, and entertained in a multi-sound-bite manner. There is no time for ear-directed sermons that take longer than a ten minute sitcom scene.
• The pragmatic argument states that we have to do what it takes to bring the people in and to keep them in. If something does not attract the people, said one church leader I heard, then we have to try something else. If bringing in famous people will do it, let’s do it. If it means using unconventional means such as drama, dance, or concert, let’s do it. If it means going from pastor-worship leaders to congregational leaders, let’s do it. If it means restructuring the order of worship, let’s do it. Whatever it takes, we will do.
• The domestic argument is one pertaining to the family. It too has a sense of pragmatism involved. The children get little out of the conventional service, so let them have their own. Besides, they can be a distraction to others in the congregation, not to mention a distraction to those trying to take care of them.
• The emotional argument has elements of the other motivations involved but also has its own distinctive nature: “The services are dull. The services are boring. The services are too long. The services are repetitive. The services are not exciting enough. The services lack a spiritual dimension to them. We have to do something to liven them up. If we don’t, our young people will go elsewhere. We need to be more contemporary. We need more variety. We need to reflect a the joy of the Lord more in our services. We should be able to celebrate the salvation of the Lord, but it is very difficult to do given our present situation.”
• There is, furthermore, an ecumenical motivation to today’s liturgical dialect moving, interestingly, in both a “high-church” and “low-church” direction. One pastor states that there is much we can learn from the charismatics in worship, just like they can learn from the Reformed concerning theology. We can learn from them, they can learn from us. On the other hand, the greater emphasis on the lectionary and the liturgical calendar rather than the catechetical year reveals a broadening of the liturgical scope in a “high-church” direction in many modern-day Christian Reformed churches. Also one sees a church growth, seeker-sensitive, contemporary worship mentality that seems to know no partiality to denomination.
Truly there are many things—even more than we have mentioned—that motivate a person to say, “There is more than one way to worship.” And certainly there are some legitimate concerns expressed in these motivations. For example, people should know why they are doing what they are doing in worship; otherwise, we are simply worshiping in ignorance. Moreover, one should not quibble over whether righteous and enthusiastic worship only takes place when we sing from a book or sing from a screen. Furthermore, Christian worship should be joyous, for Christ is Lord and Savior.
But what seems to be lacking in much of the motivation is a true wrestling with what we have said confessionally concerning worship. When a person says there is more than one way to worship, there are certainly some pertinent questions to ask in reply: “If there is more than one way to worship, how does one define confessionally what those ways are? Do the confessions speak about worship? How does our Reformed view of the covenant affect the way we approach worship? When does worship take place from a Reformed, confessional point of view? What makes our worship Reformed from a confessional point of view? What is happening in worship from a Reformed point of view? What elements do we include in Reformed worship? Can we speak of a distinctively Reformed way of worship?” CRC Publications puts out a magazine called Reformed Worship. And while there are portions of the magazine that are helpful, it could easily be called, Charismatic Worship, or Mainline Worship, or Ecumenical Worship, or Evangelical Worship, or Contemporary Worship, depending on which contribution you happen to be reviewing.
The problem appears to be that we are quick in the CRC to state our liturgical freedom, but slow to speak confessionally as to the basis of that freedom. We often seem to be asking the wrong questions. We are asking the questions, “Is it attractive? Do I like it? Does it work? Will others like it? Is it visual? Does it move me? Is it fun? Is it contemporary? How can we do this differently? Is it ‘what everyone else is doing (a somewhat ironic statement)’?” The questions we don’t hear are: “Is it right?” Is this whatGod wants? Is this what we confess as a church to be legitimate? Is God pleased? How does this express a distinctively Reformed way of doing things? How does this witness to the world of the distinctive approach that Reformed people take with regard to the worship of their God? How is our covenantal view of life and reality affected by our liturgical practice? What really are the elements that comprise Reformed worship?
Our Reformed standards do address the question of worship, either implicitly or explicitly. There are a number of principles derived from these standards:
• Official worship (that is, worship called by the office-bearers of the church) is an assembling of God’s people (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day (LD 38). It is, therefore, not first of all an evangelistic endeavor.
• God’s people include young and old alike (LD 27, A. 74). To take children from official worship is to take them from the assembly to which they are called.
• God calls us to emphasize the audible in proclamation (LD 25, Q. 65; LD 35), for it is not in seeing that one believes but in hearing (Rom. 10:14–17), which is in line with the age in which we live: a)where we live by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7; John 20:29), and b) in the age of fulfillment through Jesus Christ, not in the Old Testament shadows where the visual was so necessary to typify the coming Messiah (Heb. 1:1ff.). This is not to say that the visual is ignored, but only that the visual should be reserved for the sacraments the Lord has instituted, and that even there, as with anything visual, the proclamation of the gospel must ultimately explain their Significance.
• God is present with His people in official worship. The church of Christ is a body where Christ dwells with her by means of His Spirit (LD 18, 20). Surely He will be with her when she is called to assemble by those authorized by Christ. Such presence must cause both joy in our hearts as well as reverent fear and should be made evident in the way we approach Him.
• God calls us to worship, not by our own creative means, but in accordance with His word (LD 35). God decides how He is to be worshiped; we don’t decide for Him according to our tastes, whether as believers or unbelievers.
• Worship should be simple in nature (LD 35) in order to keep anything from coming between the communion that the Lord establishes with His people through the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.
• The means of grace that the Lord provides are found in the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments (LD 25, Q. 65, Belgic Confession 29, Canons of Dort, V, 14). Making substitutes for these means, no matter what the motivation, is to ignore the means the Lord has provided for the encouragement and challenge of God’s people.
• Worship is, by its very nature, God-directed (LD 34, Q. 94; LD 38; LD 47). God’s people seek blessing to be sure, but this only comes from a gracious God who deserves all our praise, all our attention and all our love. Such a selfless, God-focused attitude must be ours as we come to worship, and if such is occurring in our worship services, we should be thankful.
• Worship should be holy, since our God is holy and His people are declared holy (LD 21; BC 27). Therefore what should be done in holy worship must be done in righteousness, and it should be done in a distinctive fashion that reflects, not the world’s tastes, but the God who calls His people to reflect His holiness. If our worship services look more like Broadway or Hollywood, we must question how it is that our worship is displaying our distinctive Christian calling.
As we grapple with the issue of worship, may God help us to do so more and more in confessional way. If we do, our principal differences liturgically will be minimized, not multiplied.
Rev. Vermeer is pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Sheldon, IA.