Worship: Evangelical or Reformed?

5385001498Pastor and President of Westminster Seminary, CA, Robert Godfrey, once wrote:

One area in which the differences between evangelical and Reformed can be examined is the matter of worship. At first glance, we may see more similarities than differences. The orders of worship in Reformed and evangelical churches can be almost identical. Certainly, both kinds of churches sing songs, read Scripture, pray, preach, and administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But do these similarities reflect only formal agreement, or do they represent a common understanding of the meaning and function of these liturgical acts in worship?

If we look closely, I believe that we will see the substantive differences between evangelicals and Reformed on worship. That difference is clear on two central issues: first, the understanding of the presence of God in the service; and second, the understanding of the ministerial office in worship…

When it comes to the evangelical and the presence of God in worship, he observes later in this essay:

The effect of this sense of evangelical worship is that the stress is on the horizontal dimension of worship. The sense of warm, personal fellowship, and participation among believers at worship is crucial. Anything that increases a sense of involvement, especially on the level of emotions, is likely to be approved. The service must be inspiring and reviving, and then God will observe and be pleased.

And after considering the Reformed perspective, he notes in contrast:

The effect of this understanding of Reformed worship is that the stress is on the vertical dimension of worship. The horizontal dimension is not absent, but the focus is not on warm feelings and sharing. Rather, it is on the community as a unit meeting their God. Our primary fellowship with one another is in the unified activities of speaking to God in song and prayer and of listening together as God speaks to us. The vertical orientation of our worship service insures that God is the focus of our worship. The first importance of any act of worship is not its value for the inspiration of the people, but its faithfulness to God’s revelation of his will for worship. We must meet with God only in ways that please him. The awe and joy that is ours in coming into the presence of the living God to hear him speak is what shapes and energizes our worship service.

On the Reformed view of the ministerial office, he writes:

The Reformed view of ministerial office is quite different. The minister is called by God through the congregation to lead worship by the authority of his office. He is examined and set apart to represent the congregation before God and to represent God before the congregation. In the great dialogue of worship, he speaks the Word of God to the people and he speaks the words of the people to God, except in those instances when the congregation as a whole raises its voice in unison to God. We who are Reformed do not embrace this arrangement because we are antidemocratic or because we believe that the minister is the only gifted member of the congregation. We follow this pattern because we believe that it is biblical and the divinely appointed pattern of worship.

The effect of this view of office is to reinforce the sense of meeting with God in a reverent and official way. It also insures that those who lead public worship have been called and authorized for that work by God. The Reformed are rightly suspicious of untrained and unauthorized members of the congregation giving longer or shorter messages to the congregation. In worship we gather to hear God, not the opinions of members. The vertical dimension of worship remains central.

In conclusion he writes:

The contrast that I have drawn between evangelical and Reformed worship no doubt ought to be nuanced in many ways. I have certainly tried to make my points by painting with a very broad brush. Yet the basic analysis, I believe, is correct.

One great difficulty that we Reformed folk have in thinking about worship is that our worship in many places has unwittingly been accommodated to evangelical ways. If we are to appreciate our Reformed heritage in worship and, equally importantly, if we are to communicate its importance, character, and power to others, we must understand the distinctive character of our worship.

Our purpose in making this contrast so pointed is not to demean evangelicals. They are indeed our brethren and our friends. But we do have real differences with them. If Reformed worship is not to become as extinct as the dinosaurs, we as Reformed people must come to a clear understanding of it and an eager commitment to it. In order to do that, we must see not just formal similarities, but more importantly the profound theological differences that distinguish evangelical worship from Reformed worship.

Now, Godfrey wrote this in the North American context about a decade ago.   Are his words applicable in SA; in Cape Town?  I think so.  There is little doubt in my mind that we are always a few steps behind the latest worship innovations coming out of the land of mega-churches and celebrity pastors.  And like in the States, the Reformed tradition in SA will have to choose between hitching to the evangelical band-wagon or sticking to its confessional convictions.

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