What is Reformed worship?

banner2Reformed minister and church planter with the United Reformed Church, North America, Rev. Danny Hyde, shares in an essay a question that he often gets from visitors to his church:

“Why is the worship in a Reformed church so different from the worship at almost every other church I have ever gone to?” I cannot tell you how many times visitors ask this question. I have found that what first strikes people about a Reformed church is not our doctrine, but our worship. It has an unfamiliar; even cold feeling at first for many.

We owe it to all serious inquirers to explain not only what we do in worship, but why intelligible worship is a biblical requirement. Children asked their parents when they celebrated the feast of the Passover some 3500 years ago: “What do you mean by this service?” (Exodus 12:26) While worshipping the Triune God is profoundly transcendent and mysterious, it must be understandable. This is also what the Apostle Paul taught in his first letter to the Corinthians, when he said that preaching in foreign languages, commonly called “tongues,” must be translated for the edification of those assembled.

This article begins a series intended to introduce you to the basics of Reformed worship so that you will understand and be equipped to explain why we as Reformed churches do what we do in worship. We will do this by looking at eight characteristics of Reformed worship: it is biblical, historical, covenantal, evangelical, liturgical, reverential, joyful, and eschatological.

After setting up his discussion of New Testament worship by speaking to the church as an organism of the Word; corporate worship as regulated by the Word; the Second Commandment and worship; the lessons from Cain and Abel, and Nadab and Abihu; he writes the following:

“But this is all Old Testament teaching,” you might be thinking. Yet Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Is the solemn requirement that the Church teach all things that Christ has commanded not at the same time a solemn prohibition against teaching anything that He has not commanded? If, in the worship of God, we observe all that Christ has commanded, ought we not also to scrupulously avoid anything and everything that He has not commanded?

Jesus said that the Pharisees worshipped God “in vain” (Mark 7:7). Why did God reject their worship?  Because, Jesus said, “You leave the commandment of God” preferring “the tradition of men” (Mark 7:78). They worshipped God in vain because they worshipped God as they wished, rather than as He required. In the same way, the apostle Paul warned the Colossians: “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind” (Col. 2:18). This was worship offered because they wished to offer it, rather than because God commanded it: “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23).

No doubt Jesus was rude by our standards when He said to the woman at the well, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Yet, He was only being truthful. “God is spirit,” He said, “and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).

True worship was impossible for the Samaritans as long as they worshipped God as they wished. They needed to worship God as He commanded in order to find acceptance with Him. “For the Father is seeking such people to worship Him,” said Jesus, who would be “the true worshipers [who would] worship the Father in spirit and truth (4:23). When we persist in worshipping God as we will, rather than as God wills, we are not “true worshippers.”

In Romans 1:21-25 the Apostle Paul condemns every false kind of worship invented by men. He also reveals the source of such false worship. Men become “vain in their imagination,” he says. They invent what they vainly imagine to be “good ways” to worship. They worship as they will, not as God commands. But when they do this, they really “worship and serve the creature more than the Creator,” says Paul, and for this reason “they are without excuse.” They are without excuse because there is no excuse for departing from the rule, which says “we must not worship God in any other way than He has commanded in His Word.”

Rev. Hyde then concludes by discussing the sufficiency of the Scriptures and the elements of worship.

Don’t let what is foreign hold you back from discovering a better way of worship.  Just as the Lord surprises us in revealing the gospel of justification by faith alone, so too he surprises sinners in the way he wants to be worshiped – by his Word and Spirit, and with reverence and joy!

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.