Watching a big-screen TV

The Lord has not commanded the use of audio-visual displays to ‘elevate’ worship

I received a piece of spam mail late last week offering to “elevate” the worship service at my church. I can think of a number of verbs that might pique the interest of a Reformed church: purify, reform, sanctify, solemnize are some that come to mind but elevate is not one of them. The advertiser, to whet my appetite for elevating, avers that “an increasing number of churches are adding audio-video displays to enhance the worship experience with great results”. In the next sentence I half expected him to say, “For example, congregations at Bethel and Dan have also added golden calves to their service and the people are very pleased.”

To refresh your memory about 1 Kings 12, King Jereboam said:

If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan (1 Kings 12:27–29; ESV).

The issue here is what the Lord wanted versus what Jereboam wanted. The question is this: on what principle do congregations do what they do in public worship? According to the email, the goal of a public worship service is to create a certain quality of religious experience in the congregation. This has been the principle of evangelical worship since the early nineteenth century. This is not the biblical principle of worship as the Reformed churches understand Scripture.

Here is what the Reformed say about what the Lord wants from his people in public worship:

96. What does God require in the Second Commandment?

That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word (Heidelberg Catechism).

And inasmuch as the Roman Church, forsaking the use and customs of the primitive Church, has introduced new commandments and a new form of worship of God, we esteem it but reasonable to prefer the commandments of God, who is himself truth, to the commandments of men, who by their nature are inclined to deceit and vanity (French Confession, preface).

Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God (Belgic Confession, art. 32)

…the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture (WCF 21.1)

So, our principle of worship is that we do in worship only what the Lord has commanded. The Lord has not commanded the use of videos to “elevate” worship. Therefore we may not do it.

Further, the Reformed churches make a distinction between the elements of worship and the circumstances. Indeed, those among the Reformed who would like to incorporate video into their services and thereby “elevate” them appeal to this very distinction to justify the use of videos.

To those who appeal to the distinction to justify the use of video in public worship, I reply that this abuses the distinction by redefining the terms. When we talk about  “circumstances” and “the light of nature” (e.g., Westminster Confession, 1.6), we are talking about those things that are necessary or unavoidable relative to public worship. The list of things required by nature is quite short, e.g., a shared time, place and language. In order to hold a public worship service, we must meet in one place, at the same time, using the same language (1 Cor 14:9–12). Videos are not necessary for public worship. Electricity is not even necessary. The church met for public worship for 1900 years without electricity.

[…] The Lord has already established two visual aids for public worship: Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. There is a sense, however, in which the entire service is already an audio-visual experience. It is a wonderful sensory experience to hear God’s people singing his Word (and that without the aid of instruments). We are meant to be affected by the sight of baptismal waters being applied by the minister to believers and to their children. We are meant to hold, smell and taste the bread and wine of Holy Communion. In fact, in traditional Reformed worship, the congregation was invited forward to the table to receive the elements of the Lord’s Supper directly from the hand of the minister. Read the full article by R. Scott Clark.