Theology drives worship

41H0WSGF75L._SY346_One of the best books I have read on the subject of Christian and Reformed worship is D.G. Hart and John R. Muether’s With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship.  One of the insights that I find most valuable about this volume is the connection it makes between our theology and our worship.  In a section early on called “Theology matters”, they write:

We begin from an explicitly Reformed perspective, because worship inevitably follows from theological conviction.  As the apostle Paul wrote to Titus, certain things are “fitting for sound doctrine,” matters such as temperateness, dignity, sensibleness, faith, love, and perseverance (Titus 2:1-2).  So too we believe that good theology must produce good worship, corporate acts of praise and devotion that fit the sound theology of the Reformed tradition.  On the other hand, defective theology yields inferior or inappropriate forms of worship.  The protestant Reformers understood this…

We suggest that when churches undergo dramatic changes in what is often called “worship style,” they may actually be changing their theology as well.  Form and content cannot be separated.  So in congregations where worship has changed, something significant may have happened also to their theology.  Is it possible to preach the whole counsel of God in an up-tempo service?  Can the hard truths of Calvinism be taught in a setting geared toward attracting outsiders?  Can pointing out our sinfulness ever be made appealing?  Churches that depart from older patterns of worship may very well abandon the theological coherence assumed by the Reformed creeds and confessions.  When this coherence is lost, something must replace it.  In our day the solution comes either through evangelistic zeal that makes soul-winning the sole criterion for evaluating the ministry of the church, or through therapeutic forms of positive reinforcement that orient worship more toward self-fulfillment than to self-denial.

The following is a short and helpful review of Hart and Muether’s book from here:

Why read a book on worship? The topic of worship should be of perennial concern to the church. It is our first and highest calling. and it comes from God himself. The authors. both OP ruling elders. emphasize that doctrine and worship go hand in hand. What we believe bears directly on how we worship; conversely, the form and content of our worship mirror what we believe.

But why read this book on worship? The authors contend that faithfulness to Reformed doctrine also means commitment to distinctively Reformed worship. They demonstrate how Reformed doctrines, such as the Creator-creature distinction, divine sovereignty, total depravity, a high view of the Sabbath, and a Reformed view of the church (and the world) all come to expression in Reformed worship.

They also address several issues that are being debated in many Reformed churches today. In this connection, they discuss the regulative principle, giving careful attention to the distinction between elements and circumstances. They unpack the dialogical character of worship, and they show how the covenantal dialogue between God and his people speaks to the question of who should lead in worship. And finally they address the issue of song in worship, showing that many of the observations that they have made concerning other aspects of worship also bear on how and what we sing in worship.

This book also addresses the consequences of abandoning the Reformed habits of worship. A disregard for these distinctives in worship should not be seen as an appropriate adaptation to today’s culture or as evidence of open-mindedness, but rather as “an indication that many in the Reformed camp no longer see the implications of their theology for their worship services.”

For all its wonderfully rich content, this is not a difficult book to read. It was specifically designed as material for adult Sunday school, and it is well suited to this task. With an introduction, eleven chapters, and a conclusion, it fits perfectly into a typical teaching quarter, and the chapters, about fifteen pages long, can easily be read and digested from week to week.


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.