Review: Last month I asked you to focus your attention on the act of worship. I suggested then that crucial to being Reformed in worship is the centrality of the Bible in the act of worship. That is, that the reading of the Bible, the preaching of the Bible, even the singing of Biblical words (in both Psalms and hymns), are hallmarks of the Reformation.
When I was a boy, I remember old Dominie Doezema (“dominie” is the Dutch term for minister, literally “the Lord’s man”) walking his “daily constitutional” through the close neighborhood streets of Roseland on the south side of Chicago. He had retired some years before, following a lengthy ministry in my home congregation. He was still honored and revered, and commanded a kind of respect that bordered on awe (certainly in my house!), despite his retired status. When, as a youngster typically unimpressed with the aged, I commented on his “funny black suit” one Saturday morning, my ears rang for half an hour following my Dad’s application of a “corrective.” “You don’t show disrespect to ‘the Lord’s man,’” he said. Dominie’s successor, though much younger, was accorded similar treatment. When such men ascended the steps into the pulpit on Sunday morning, you just knew that God was going to speak through them.
Men like them, representing the generations before mine, led the worship service from the opening Call to Worship to the closing Benediction. They announced the songs, they led the prayers, they read the Scripture and preached the sermon, administered the sacraments, announced the offering, and did everything else that was required to lead the people of God in worship. They were, after all, the Lord’s men: called, trained, experienced, and even more importantly, commissioned and ordained to conduct the public acts of worship.
How different today! I spoke recently to the chairperson of the worship committee in a Calvinist church in the south. She informed me that planning the Sunday morning worship service took many hours, involved well over a dozen people, and usually only involved the senior pastor on a limited basis. He was consulted early in the planning process, to determine what he was preaching that morning, and consulted late, to inform him where he was to fit into the carefully constructed liturgy. “And,” she said, “we let him know how much time he has!” While such wording may sound extreme to most of my readers, be assured that such carefully planned worship services (even including rehearsals and stop watches for time control) are increasingly popular these days. Some of that is due to the growing interest in the “seeker service” model popularized by Willow Creek Church outside of Chicago. Like it or not (and many in the pages of this journal have soundly critiqued such worship styles), this church has reached literally thousands of people who, by their own testimony, were unchurched, unsaved and uncommitted until brought to Willow Creek. This huge church (the last time I heard a number it was 15,000+ in membership!) makes no bones about declaring that, in our thoroughly post-Christian age, which is also the age in which television is the dominant medium, the church’s competition on Sunday morning is not with a neighboring church of a differing denominational affiliation. Rather, the church competes to get people in the doors at all, and once inside, competes with the slick professionalism of TV as it seeks to communicate the message of the gospel. Senior Pastor Bill Hybels (who grew up CRC in Kalamazoo) said, on a tape I heard, that he may not like having to deal with such realities, but he believes the church is forced into it because of the nature of the age we live in. Simply put, if the church doesn’t “do” worship well (i.e., professionally, with all that entails) it loses those people. Willow Creek, therefore, uses professional Singers, professional dramatists, professional musicians, rehearsals (including stop watches!), and ruthless after-service critique sessions all designed to do a better job next time!
My point is not to exalt the “dominie” model or critique the “seeker service” model, as many in the Reformed tradition seem to be doing lately. It is, instead, to force us together to ask a question: Is there to be a leader in a worship service at all? Is it appropriate for many people to be involved, or should just the minister give leadership? If so, who should they be, and on the basis of which criteria? Is it professionalism? Something else?
Alongside of the centrality of Scripture in worship, another of the hallmarks of Reformed worship is that the congregational worships as corporate (covenant) body. It prays together, sings together, confesses together. Such a principle has served us well as a healthy corrective to many potentially dangerous trends in worship today. In many churches, the praise team, contemporary instrumentation and soloists (none of which am I opposed to in principle) could lead to a return of the congregation to observer status, rather than active participants. People could easily slip into a TV watching mode, coming to church for spiritual entertainment. On the other hand, our tradition of clergy-led worship (the “dominie model”) could well fight against our own Reformed principle of corporate worship. By restricting worship leadership to ordained ministers, and by insisting they lead all the dimensions of worship, we could very well be returning the congregation to observer-status on a different plane. Rather than observing entertainment, the people of God are reduced to observing the “priesthood” at work, in a manner reminiscent of the old Catholic liturgies the Reformers soundly criticized.
Allow me to make a modest proposal: Put the elders to work in worship leadership! After all, to them is entrusted the servant leadership—the shepherding—of the flock; to them is entrusted the discipling of the individual believers; to them is entrusted the duty to teach; to them is entrusted the oversight of congregational life, including worship. Now, I am not suggesting that one of the worship resources we ought to make use of sits there every Sunday, responsible before God for the faith and life of the flock. We should use them. Doing so has the benefit of expanding the participation of the congregation in worship; it also has the benefit of identifying and giving greater visibility to the office of elder (an urgent need in many young and growing churches; less so in older ones). And, doing so, saves the vocal cords of the preacher, more and more of whom are packing many hours of preaching, teaching and discipling into each Sunday. No small point from where I sit!
Here are a few suggestions of ways local churches can make appropriate use of the elders in worship:
1. Have an elder lead the “call to worship” opening the service. He could welcome the congregation, read an appropriate Scriptural call to worship, and lead in a prayer of preparation. If able, an elder could well lead/announce the opening psalm or hymn for congregational singing.
2. Have an elder serve as principal reader in responsive litanies, including congregational confession of the Catechism (in CRCs, the Heidelberg Catechism is to be the basis for one sermon per Sunday; reading/confessing this summary of Biblical doctrine as a congregation is an appropriate act of worship). A corollary of this could well be the involvement of the elders in reading parts of the Baptism and/or Lord’s Supper forms. How appropriate that those entrusted with the oversight of the sacraments participate in administering those very sacraments!
3. Have an elder periodically lead the congregational pastoral prayer. I’ve found in my own ministry that the insight and sensitivity of the eldership provides a wonderful balance to my own oft-times limited understanding of the needs of the congregation and the Kingdom of God at large.
4. Have an elder draw the service to a close, just prior to the pronouncing of the benediction, by challenging or commissioning the congregation, based on the preached Word, to some specific charge for the week.
Dr. Sittema, editor of this department, is the pastor of the Bethel CRC in Dallas, TX.