Results tagged “liturgy” from Reformation21 Blog

The Quest for Biblical Worship (Part 2)

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Reformed churches not only have the regulative principle worship (RPW) to guide them regarding elements and forms, but they also, throughout their history, have had liturgies and directories. The liturgies were the more restrictive (e.g. Strasburg, Geneva, Amsterdam), the directories (Westminster Directory of Public Worship and the family of directories it spawned) less so, allowing more freedom, leaving more to the discretion of the minister. Yet a high degree of uniformity has always been the goal, even among Presbyterians.

The Directory and Directions

We might ask ourselves, what is the function of a directory if not to direct? What is the point of providing examples of prayer and descriptions of preaching and rubrics for communion and baptism if it is not for those examples and descriptions and rubrics to be followed? The aim of the original Directory was substantial uniformity, or "sameness," with the past, in the present and for the future. The Westminster divines explained in the "Preface" to the Directory that they were "persuaded" that "our first reformers... were they now alive... would join with us in this work." There is the connection with the past, with the first generation of Reformers whose work revived the worship of "the ancient church," as Calvin claimed. 

Moreover, they understood themselves to be answering "the expectation of other reformed churches" abroad for whom, along with "many of the godly at home," the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) "proved an offense." There is uniformity with present-day Reformed churches, domestic and foreign. 

Consequently, they argued, their work of "further reformation" was required, bringing the churches of England, Ireland and Scotland into conformity with "the reformed churches abroad." There is the goal of perpetuating their work into the future. Through the Directory they aimed to "give some public testimony of our endeavors for uniformity in divine worship" which they had promised in their Solemn League and Covenant, wherein they pledged to endeavor to bring about "the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion, confession of faith, form of church government, directory for worship and catechizing." 

No one, from Bucer to Calvin to the Westminster Assembly to the late 20th century considered liturgical uniformity unusual, indeed the opposite. All thought substantial uniformity was necessary to (1) promote unity; (2) to guard the church from the introduction of unbiblical (as determined by the RPW) and therefore unauthorized elements into the services of the church; and (3) ensure that the authorized elements receive the attention they are due. Medieval novelties were removed by the Reformers; future novelties were barred. Our fear of uniformity, our resistance to conformity to historic liturgical forms is unprecedented and unbiblical. Unbiblical? Let me explain.

Today

How much "sameness" is enough and how much is too much? The devil, quite literally, is in the details. The Apostles expect a high degree of uniformity between the churches and demand a high degree of conformity. The same Paul who gave directions to the chaotic Corinthians for "when you come together as a church," not just informally, casually, or ad hoc, but officially, "as a church" (1 Cor 11:18; cf 5:4; 11:32, 34; 14:26), also exhorts them, "We have no other practice, nor have the churches of God" (1 Cor 11:16; cf 1:2; 4:17; 14:33). He appeals to the uniform practice of the churches, and he expects aberrant churches to conform to that standard. The point of the historic Reformed orders of service is that of the Apostles: unity in worship and ministry. The radical sects might do whatever they perceived the Spirit was leading them to do, but Presbyterians have maintained standardized orders based on the elements and forms determined by the RPW. This meant substantial lectio continua reading of Scripture, expository preaching, the singing of psalms and (later) biblically sound hymns, a full diet of biblical prayer, and the simple administration of the sacraments. This also meant the elimination of all unauthorized elements, ceremonies, rituals, postures, and gestures that might disrupt the church's unity in worship or might distract attention, time, and energy from the ordinary and authorized means of grace.

The goal of Reformed worship from the beginning, as repeatedly stated in Martin Bucer's defense of the reforms implemented in Strasburg in 1524, Ground and Reason (Grund und Ursach), was to fill the biblical elements with biblical content: the word read, preached, sung, prayed, and seen (in the sacraments). Let this be enough. If we could agree on these few elements and forms, administered in simplicity, we'd still have issues to discuss. Yet such agreement would go a long way toward unifying the church at the hour of worship, promoting appropriate sameness without strangeness, that we might "together... with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 15:6).


*This is the second installment of Dr. Johnson's short series of posts on "The Quest for Biblical Worship." You can find the first post in this series here

The Quest for Biblical Worship (Part 1)

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Which is more likely today, liturgical sameness or liturgical strangeness? Which is more damaging to the integrity of Protestant denominations? Are we suffocating from liturgical uniformity--encountering the same old predictable things in the Reformed churches we attend? Or, are we unsettled by the unusual liturgical activity that we encounter in our sister churches and regional assemblies? Have we become bored with routine or shaken by what has become unrecognizable? Isn't there a biblical principle that regulates how we worship (i.e. the Regulative Principle of Worship - RPW) that is supposed to spare us both liturgical sameness and strangeness? Indeed, one would think so.

Regulative Principle of Worship

Given that the RPW limits the elements of worship to those God has set out in Scripture, we should expect a significant degree of liturgical uniformity. The six, basic elements (i.e. the reading and preaching Scripture, prayer, singing praises, administering the sacraments, and lawful oaths) should be found in all of our services. Other things (i.e. unauthorized rituals, ceremonies, programs, gestures and postures) should not. Those who agree with this observation must conclude that a significant degree of sameness should be expected.

However, the RPW, as traditionally understood allows the elements to be expressed in a variety of forms. For example, readings, sermons, prayers, and sung praises may be short in duration or long. That is a matter of form. Sermons may be topical or sequential. Readings may be Old Testament or New Testament or both, etc. As long as the form does not compromise the integrity of the element, there is considerable latitude. In addition, the RPW recognizes varying circumstances of worship such as seating, sound projection, use of printed texts, and lighting that are "ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence" as well as "the general rules of the Word"(WCF 1:6). This means that there is considerable, not absolute, but considerable latitude when it comes to these practical matters. A certain degree of diversity should be expected.

If one defines the RPW narrowly--insisting that the Scripture defines elements but hardly touches forms--the degree of uniformity one may anticipate decreases. When this occurs, individuals begin to suggest that just so long as a church reads Scripture (a verse or two), preaches (a religious theme), sings (devotional thoughts), prays (a bit), and administers the sacraments (occasionally), it complies with the RPW. A great deal of time is then invested in planning on inserting "special music," or a 20 minute song set, or among the more radical among us, a liturgical dance or liturgical drama (biblically defended, of course). This narrow understanding of the RPW leads inevitably to heightened diversity. Decreased sameness opens the door for increased strangeness. The gap between a "traditional" church and a "contemporary" church can grow very wide indeed at this point.

However, if one adopts Hughes Oliphant Old's simpler but broader definition of the RPW as worship that is "according to Scripture," ironically, the gap will narrow. Now we're not just settling for reading Scripture, any Scripture and preaching a sermon, any sermon, but we're turning to 1 Timothy 4:13a to learn how the early church read Scripture. "Give attention to the reading" (lit.), the Apostle Paul tells Timothy. Liturgical scholars all agree that the readings were a known entity (hence the definite article) and were lectio continua, as they were in the synagogue (see the Notre Dame study, The Early Liturgy, by Jungmann).

"Give attention ... to exhortation and teaching," the Apostle continues (1 Tim 4:13b). The natural reading of this direction to Timothy, buttressed by Acts 13:15, 27 and Luke 5:16-22, is to understand the sermon, the "exhortation and teaching" as arising out of the Scripture reading. A simpler but broader understanding of the RPW leads to a commitment both to lectio continua reading of the Scripture and lectio continua preaching, that is, sequential expository sermons. If all the churches "buy in," the gap narrows.

We might sing "according to Scripture" by noting that the Bible has its own hymn book, the Psalms, given to the church that God's praises might be sung. We might turn to Acts 4:24-26, buttressed by Eph 5:19, Col 3:16, and Jas 5:13, and note that the early church sang psalms. We might further sing hymns, but do so "according to Scripture," by allowing the psalms and canticles of the Bible to teach us what God-pleasing and God-honoring praise looks like, and conforming our own compositions to that pattern. Our hymns as a consequence would be God-centered, develop a theme over multiple stanzas, use minimal repetition, and express the full range of emotional experience. If all the churches get on board, the gap narrows.

We might pray "according to Scripture" by turning to the Apostle Paul's directions for public prayer in 1 Timothy 2:1, 2, note his varied prayer terminology, and conclude that all types of prayer are meant. We might turn to the great prayers of the Bible as well as the Book of Psalms, functioning now as the prayer book of the Bible, and discern six basic prayer genres as did our Reformed forefathers: praise, confession of sin, thanksgiving, intercession, illumination, and benediction. We might commit our congregation to a "full diet of biblical prayer" in its regular services. The gap narrows further.

The basic question is this: Are we truly committed to worshipping "according to Scripture?" Will Scripture both determine the elements and shape the forms of worship? Will Scripture determine not merely that we pray, preach, read, and sing, but what and how? Will we allow Scripture to shape our understanding of reverence, our concern for catholicity of form, and our commitment to the communion of all the saints, not merely to the preferences of our chosen demographic? If so, greater liturgical sameness will result and liturgical strangeness will be less common.


*This is the first post in a two part series by Dr. Johnson.

The Regulative Principle of "Liturgical Sameness?"

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In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)--the denomination in which I serve as a minister of the Gospel--quite a number of ministers lament the fact that you can attend five of our churches (all within the same city) only to have five very different worship experiences. Additionally, these same ministers lament what seems to be an utter lack of any kind of corporate worship identity within the denomination as a whole. It is indisputable that there is a lack of uniformity in worship practices within the denomination. In light of that truth, the questions that we should be asking are: "Why is there such diversity regarding worship practices in the PCA?" and "Should we view this diversity as a negative thing?"

Some have suggested that the basis for such divergence in worship practices is due, at least in large part, to a lack of understanding of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW)--a principle that is found in Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Others have suggested that it is due to the fact that the "Directory for the Worship of God" (a section of the PCA's Book of Church Order) is mostly, non-binding upon the church. Still others have intimated that it is due to what they perceive to be a descent into the dark valley of the Judges, where everyone merely does what is right in their own eyes.

Whatever one may say, of this much we may agree: There is a lack of understanding of the RPW on the part of many who enter into this debate. The PCA's "Directory for Worship" functions merely as an advisory document; and, apart from chapters 56-58, the Directory has no "force of law" in the PCA. Regardless of that fact, I want to make the following observations about the the greater issues that lie behind the widespread divergence in worship practices in the PCA:

First, I have observed an almost universal lack of understanding as to what the Regulative Principle of Worship actually is. Therefore, there is a lack of understanding of what the RPW is not. In the first paragraph of chapter 21 of the WCF, the Divines explain that however much worship is owed to God by mankind, He must only be worshiped according to the way he has instituted in his Word. God may not be worshipped according to "the imaginations and devices of men or the suggestions of Satan." Worship, then, must be conformed to the instructions given in Scripture. As we proceed through the various paragraphs in chapter 21, we discover the various activities (i.e. the "elements" of worship) that are given in the Word: Prayer, the reading of Scripture, the preaching (and conscionable hearing) of the Word, the singing of psalms, and the sacraments as ordinary parts of worship, along with oaths, vows, fasting and thanksgiving upon special occasions.

Interestingly the WCF says nothing about an order, or "liturgy," for our worship services. It also says nothing about which instruments, if any, should be used to accompany the congregation in their singing. Therefore, it ought to strike us as awfully strange and "unconfessional" to argue that those churches that have a particular liturgy and uses traditional hymns accompanied by a piano are worshipping according to the RPW, whereas those churches that have an different liturgy and sing contemporary hymns accompanied by a guitar - even (dare I say it) an electric guitar - are not worshipping according to the RPW. To be sure, there is nothing in Scripture that gives us the positive warrant to use of a Les Paul plugged into a Marshall half stack turned up to eleven to assist the congregation in singing praise to God. But, to be fair, neither would the Apostle Paul know what a piano was if it ran him over as it rolled down the street. Yet either (at least theoretically) can be used to accompany congregational singing--provided they are circumstances of worship--since they do not run contrary to the RPW. The RPW tells us what elements are to be present during worship, but the RPW does not tell us how those elements may be circumstantially accompanied and performed. Neither, frankly, does Scripture. There is great freedom to plan and arrange worship, then, within the framework of the RPW. To argue otherwise is to go beyond what the RPW was designed to teach. Therefore to go beyond the basic principles of the RPW is to go beyond Scripture.

Second, I wonder if any of those who refer to the "Directory for the Public Worship of God" in this debate have actually read it. This applies both to those who point to its "unconstitutional" status as well as to those who raise irate opposition when someone suggests that it should become constitutional in our denomination. It is actually quite benign. I read nothing in it by way "regulative principles" that I do not find in the WCF. What it does contain is a wealth of helpful advice-much of which is couched as pious advice-for worship. It prescribes no specific liturgy. It demands no particular forms. No doubt those who state differences with the Westminster Standards on issues related to the Sabbath would have similar concerns with Chapter 48 - yet even those who find the Standards too restrictive on issues of recreation would find much helpful advice in that particular chapter for every other aspect of Sabbath keeping.

I mention the "Directory of the Public Worship of God", however, to remind those engaged in the worship wars that the Directory does not demand monolithic uniformity in our worship service. Neither the directory nor the confession give the kind of rule and guide that would create any kind of liturgical uniformity such that you would finally be able to attend five different PCA churches and not experience five different worship liturgies or five different expressions of congregational singing. As Derek Thomas has aptly explained in his 2010 Tabletalk article, "The Regulative Principle of Worship:"

[The RPW] "does not commit the church to a 'cookie-cutter,' liturgical sameness. Within an adherence to the principle there is enormous room for variation--in matters that Scripture has not specifically addressed (adiaphora). Thus, the regulative principle as such may not be invoked to determine whether contemporary or traditional songs are employed, whether three verses or three chapters of Scripture are read, whether one long prayer or several short prayers are made, or whether a single cup or individual cups with real wine or grape juice are utilized at the Lord's Supper. To all of these issues, the principle "all things should be done decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:40) must be applied."

Third, given that the PRW and the Directory do not, in themselves, provide a set liturgy for the organization of worship (and, therefore, for organizational uniformity within the denomination), upon what basis are local churches to decide how to organize their worship? Clearly, they are to be guided by the elements as they are laid out in Scripture. Clearly, the RPW provides a grid though which to understand both what elements are to be included and what potential elements are to be precluded. And, clearly, the constitutional sections of the "Directory for Public Worship" gives specific guidance to their respective elements. But what else is there to which we are to adhere?

If Scripture tells us what to do but does not always tell us how to do it; and, if the Westminster Standards advise us in these matters--but also refrain from telling us precisely how to do it; and, if the "Directory for Public Worship" expounds upon what we ought to do in worship--but even it refrains from telling us how to do it, then the only thing to which we may apply ourselves is God-given wisdom. To put it in different terms, the only thing left is for sessions to do what is wise in their own eyes. In fact, the elders of a particular church must do what is wise in their own eyes in this regard, because there is no other body that is genuinely responsible for making those particular decision! They can be--and often are--guided by a whole host of considerations: what the church has historically done in worship, what resources are available (hymnals, etc.), what gifts are present within the body, what are the preferences of the congregation, what insights and instruction may be gained by considering the practice of other churches-both current and historical, both Presbyterian and not. These are questions which local sessions must seek to answer. So long as the elements prescribed in Scripture are present and nothing is added by way of elements, a church does not sin merely because it chooses to organize its worship differently than some other PCA church. Again, Thomas notes:

"It is important to realize that the regulative principle as applied to public worship frees the church from acts of impropriety and idiocy -- we are not free, for example, to advertise that performing clowns will mime the Bible lesson at next week's Sunday service...If someone suggests dancing or drama is a valid aspect of public worship, the question must be asked -- where is the biblical justification for it? (To suggest that a preacher moving about in the pulpit or employing "dramatic" voices is "drama" in the sense above is to trivialize the debate.) The fact that both may be (to employ the colloquialism) "neat" is debatable and beside the point; there's no shred of biblical evidence, let alone mandate, for either. So it is superfluous to argue from the poetry of the Psalms or the example of David dancing before the ark (naked, to be sure) unless we are willing to abandon all the received rules of biblical interpretation. It is a salutary fact that no office of "choreographer" or "producer/director" existed in the temple. The fact that both dance and drama are valid Christian pursuits is also beside the point."

The fact that one church might choose to organize its worship differently than another is not, in itself, evidence that the RPW has been broken or neglected. The RPW does not promote the idea that unless a principle institutes uniformity then it has failed as a principle. There are those who argue that unless there is in fact some degree of liturgical sameness (along a completely undefined axis) within the PCA, the Regulative Principle of Worship is fit merely for the trash heap of failed ecclesiastical experiments. However, nowhere in the Westminster Standards or in the Directory of the Public Worship of God are we told that uniformity in worship practice and liturgy is something that is to be desired. Nowhere are we told that such a notion is, in fact, biblical.

I have certainly not visited each and every congregation in the PCA (nor do I have any plan to do so), but I have yet to visit a church in our denomination that does not conform--at least, broadly speaking--to the Regulative Principle of Worship. A church that includes only those elements in its Lord's Day worship services that are prescribed by Scripture follows the RPW whether it realizes it or not, whether it agrees with the principle or not. This is not to say I agree with every decision made by every church in the PCA with which I am familiar. But a biblically derived principle that makes room for decisions based upon wisdom cannot be deemed a failure simply because some of the churches in a given denomination are guided by the principle make unwise decisions--and certainly not because different churches make different decisions. To deem the RPW a failure because of a lack of "liturgical sameness" is to say much more about one's own preferences for worship than it is to say anything about what the Scriptures say about worship.

The Ecclesiastical Pendulum Swing

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I was baptized in the Reformed Episcopal church, spent time in Reformed Presbyterian Churches (mainly PCA and OPC) as a boy, was extremely rebellious and dechurched for over a decade, came to Christ in repentance and faith in my 20's and now pastor a moderately liturgical Reformed Presbyterian (PCA) church. I am Reformed because of biblical convictions about soteriology and committed to Presbyterianism out of biblical convictions about ecclesiology. My own experience has fueled my interest as I have seen others make dramatic shifts in their ecclesiastical affiliation over the years. The tensions that have recently arisen on account of the debate surrounding the use of the Liturgical Calendar have me once again revisiting this subject. Why do so many, who were brought up in broad evangelicalism move to Anglicanism, Episcopalianism, Anglo-Catholicism, Roman Catholicism and other High Church Liturgical fellowships? While I certainly do not believe that I have all the answers, I do believe that there are numerous reasons that help explain the swing from one end of the ecclesiastical spectrum to the other. 

In 1985, Robert Webber sought to answer this question from his own experience in his massively influential work Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail. Webber, who grew up the son of a Baptist minister and who became a graduate of Bob Jones University and the Reformed Episcopal Seminary, swung from broad evangelicalism into Reformed Presbyterianism and finally into Episcopalianism. The pendulum swung as far as possible (without taking him to Rome!)--from one end of the ecclesiastical spectrum to the other. Webber's end goal in writing Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail was to aid those bogged down with the same disenfranchisement he had experienced in evangelicalism. Webber was massively successful at doing so during his tenure at Wheaton. 

The first explanation that Webber gives for his transition seems to have to do with a reaction to what I call "retreatism." Retreatism is the product of revivalism baptized in the communalism of the 1960s. It is the evangelical short term trip to L'Abri. If you grew up in an evangelical--or even mainline--church in the '80s, '90s or 2000s you have, no doubt, experienced retreatism. Spiritual leaders full of charisma inject a spiritual steroid into the minds of God's people over a weekend away. This shot, of course, wears off and spiritual life again becomes mundane. Spiritual dryness kicks in once the panacea of retreatism wears off. As one of my best friends likes to say, "After the campfire goes out, you lose your camp fling, you lose your camp high and you lose your camp salvation." 

High Church ecclesiology and liturgical practices present themselves as being the sure-fire remedies to retreatism. In High Church ecclesiology, ritual replaces retreat and sacramentalism replace spiritual steroid shots. For those tired of the "never enough" evangelical hamster wheel, it seems like the perfect corrective. However, in making a full swing to High Church liturgy, experiential Calvinism is almost always lost.

This loss of experiential Calvinism has nothing to do with retreatism. Rather, many move from broad evangelicalism into Reformed churches for a time because they believe that they have found a more robust historical leg on which to stand. After all, the Reformed Church holds the foremost place in Protestant, ecclesiastical history. Confessionally Reformed churches tend to satisfy those seeking historico-ecclesiastical objectivity...at least, for a time. One of the things that those who make the full ecclesiastical pendulum swing tend to have in common is that, at the end of the swing, they end up downplaying biblical and doctrinal objectivity in favor of ecumenicalism or traditional and sacramental objectivity. Interestingly, this was one key component of Webber's own self-avowed transition. He wrote:

"One tragic aspect of the spirituality of right doctrine is that it tends to create a uniformity of interpretation that stifles growth...In the Anglican tradition I have found freedom of curiosity and openness. I regularly speak in Episcopalian churches where, during the discussion, a number of viewpoints will be expressed openly and forcefully. I've found a give and take on the local parish level that is healthy and dynamic."

Again, Webber noted:

"My pilgrimage into the liturgical church was related to my concern for rediscovering mystery...a conviction to the supernatural calls me to seek what is beyond the literal, to penetrate more deeply into the mystery of life...A sacramental view of life is not much different from a supernatural view of life. It affirms the mystery of the universe and allows that everything in life is, in one way or another, related to the mystery of the Creator and Redeemer."

Two ironies arise when reading the writings of many proponents of High Church liturgy. First, they become every bit as objectively dogmatic as the Reformed dogmatists from which they seek to distance themselves. This is usually the case with regard to their sacramentalism rather than with regard to their soteriology. Employing formulaic dogma in order to commend the "mystery" of their sacramental theology such proponents of High Church liturgy slip just as much "uniformity of interpretation" under the door of those they are seeking to win as that which they reject from the quarters of the Reformed church. 

Second, adherence to the Liturgical Calendar is analogous to retreatism--only it is a High Church retreatism. In observing the Liturgical Calendar, proponents create annual Liturgical retreats--(while convincing themselves that they are simply adhering to traditional anti-experiential worship). In High Church retreatism, proponents get excited about the prospect Ash Wednesday and Lent the way broad evangelicals get excited about the Passion One Day Conference and Walk to Emmaus. Many proponents of High Church liturgy believe that Ash Wednesday and Lent will provide them with a special experience of God. In this way, the anti-experientialist are just as experiential as the experientialists from whom they have sought to separate themselves. Those who move to High Church ecclesiology and liturgy are often simply seeking a new experience--an experience that is offered to them in the liturgy. The experience that the High Church offers is one that is more mystical and less biblically restrictive. Once the experience of High Church liturgy wears off, those who have made the shift tend to abandon experientialism altogether and finally swim the Tiber. In Rome, everything is done by the church ex opere operato and no self-examination or experiential effort is needed to benefit. 

For others, the move from broad evangelicalism to High Church Anglicanism and Episcopalianism is based on the desire to separate themselves from the constraints of "their grandpas theology." Interestingly, this seems to have also been true for some who made the switch from Arminianism to New Calvinism over the past decade. I have known several young men who enthusiastically embraced Calvinistic doctrine for a time only to abandon it for more ecumenical doctrine. At their own admittance, these young, restless men were first attracted to Calvinism on account of the resurgence of interest that occurred a decade ago. It was, for them, something new and exciting rather than something built on biblical convictions. Once that excitement wore off, the current trendiness of High Church liturgy swooped in and picked them up. As Webber himself noted, in High Church liturgical fellowships biblical objectivity falls by the wayside in favor of historico-ecclesiastical objectivity. This makes the High Church a perfect place for those shifting their doctrinal convictions based on historical experience rather than biblical criterion. 

As the practice of Lent began to sneak its way into the fabric of Calvinistic and mainline churches years ago, the question of traditional objectivity began to surface once again. Ash Wednesday now holds a place that it never held before in Calvinistic churches. Many are rightly concerned that we are on a slippery slope (which is not always a logical fallacy) toward a mass embrace of Anglo-Catholicism. More and more young Calvinists are attracted to High Church liturgy. Anglicanism, which was from its inception a moderate movement tends not to bode well with the strong experimentalism of biblical Calvinism. Only time will tell which will ultimately get the upper hand. Those who say that we do not have to pick and chose will be among the first to abandon one for the other. History has proven this to be the case. 

The frightening fact is that when we look at history rather than to Scripture for ecclesiastical objectivity, Roman Catholicism will almost certainly be an attractive force on the pull of the pendulum. While Rome boasts historical priority to other forms of ecclesiology and doctrine, Rome does not hold chronological priority to biblical ecclesiology and soteriology. The dire need of our day is not the quest for an historico-ecclesiastical objectivity, but biblical objectivity, fidelity and spirituality. As we seek these things, we will find ourselves drawn most to the Reformed church--with its attempt to most fully root doctrine, worship and practice in the Scriptures. This does not mean that there will cease to be diversity of opinion about ecclesiastical affiliation. There will always be differences on the precise form of biblical ecclesiology. 

My advice to those who find themselves on the pendulum swing from broad evangelicalism as well as to those moving toward Anglo-Catholicism: Find a church that is faithful to expositional, Christ-centered preaching of Scripture, regular Lord's Day observation of the means of grace (i.e. word, sacraments, prayer), the practice of church discipline and the loving fellowship of the saints. Exchange the quest for both spiritual and liturgical retreatism for biblical, Gospel-driven experimentalism and worship. Value historic liturgical practices, but never do so at the expense of biblical revelation. Be content to embrace "your grandpas theology" wherever it coincides with biblical truth. Toe the biblical and ecclesiastical line. 

The word "liturgy" continues to be a trendy--yet often indeterminate--buzzword among young(er-ish) Christians. This is especially so with regard to those who have recently made the shift away from broad evangelicalism and toward historic worship practices of Christendom. Alongside this phenomenon lies the ever present willingness of many professedly Protestant churches to embrace, either in part or whole, the liturgical calendar for the structuring of their worship services. One can see the apparent appeal. After all, many have suggested that the Liturgical Calendar offers a recognition of the organic unity of Scripture centered on the redemptive-historical nature of Christ's saving work and participated in through the corporate worship of God's people. But is this actually the case? Does the Liturgical Calendar enhance or undermine the redemptive historical nature of Christ's saving work? 

Not surprisingly, many Anglicans--at one and the same time--acknowledge the lack of biblical support for a liturgical calendar while insisting upon a pragmatic adaptation of it. For instance, N.T. Wright suggests:

"There is nothing ultimately obligatory for a Christian about the keeping of holy days or seasons. Paul warns the Galatians against adopting the Jewish liturgical calendar (Gal. 4:10)...However, many churches have found that by following the liturgical year in the traditional way they have a solid framework within which to live the Gospels, the Scripture and the Christian life. The Bible offers itself to us as a great story, a sprawling and complex narrative, inviting us to come in and make it our own. The Gospels, the very heart of Scripture, likewise tell a story not merely to give us information about Jesus but in order to provide a narrative that we can inhabit, a story we must make our own. This is one way we can become the people God calls us to be."1

While adherents of the liturgical calendar frequently insist that it aids our experience of the redemptive historical nature of Christ's work, the opposite actually proves to be the case. When we subject ourselves to a temporal recapitulation of Jesus' life and labors--from incarnation to baptism to wilderness testing to death to resurrection to ascension and to Pentecost--we end up undermining the full, rich implications of the once-for-all nature of that saving work. We run the risk of bifurcating the work of Christ. 

In doing so, we can also illegitimately make the Gospel something that we do rather than something done by Christ for us and received by faith alone. Strict adherence to the Liturgical Calendar puts us in danger of forfeiting the privilege that we have to live the Christian life in light of the full realization of what we already definitively possess in union with Christ--rather than seek to fulfill or appropriate it by our own experience.  When one intimates that we have to recapitulate the events of redemptive history in order to live the Christian life, he or she functionally denies those aspects of the Messianic ministry that are foundational to the "already" of our experience as believers. As Roland Barnes notes: 

"The Liturgical Calendar can be spiritually stunting insofar as it asks believers to suspend their living in the light of the finished work of Christ as they march along from incarnation to resurrection and ascension throughout the calendar. The Reformed observance of the weekly sabbath and the regular practice of expository, Christocentric preaching emphasizes that we are now living in the full realization of the finished work of Christ. Each Lord's Day we celebrate the fact that 'He is Risen!' We live each Lord's Day in the light of the triumph of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus."2

To prove this point, I'll share a story. A number of years ago, I was rebuked by a strict proponent of the Liturgical Calendar for preaching a passage of Scripture on the birth narrative on the first Sunday of Advent. His response to hearing that I had done so was, "Not yet!" That example serves to illustrate the hinderance that the Liturgical Calendar can have to our living the life of faith in light of the full realization of what we already have in our union with Christ. When we say, "not yet" to the fulfillment of all things in the finished work o f Jesus, we are in danger of laying aside our privilege of entering in on the application of the benefits of that once-for-all accomplished work.

A consideration of Reformed and Protestant thought on the Liturgical Calendar will also be of use to us as we consider whether we should adhere to it or not. However widespread adherence to the Liturgical Calendar may be in our day in Protestant and Reformed churches, it is far from the majority view of the continental Reformers, English Puritans and Post-Reformation scholastics. The Reformers' aversion to the observation of a liturgical calendar was built on their supposition that the Lord's Day was biblically sanctioned while "holy days" were rooted in the self-righteous Roman Catholic penitential system. In his monumental work, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures (vol. 5), Hughes Oliphant Old explained:

"Discontinuing the penitential seasons of preparation for Christmas and Easter was one of the first reforms of Reformed Protestantism. This may seem radical to some, but it is at the heart of the Reformed approach to worship. The whole history of these seasons of fasting had been marked by a legalistic asceticism which is far removed from Christian piety as taught in the New Testament. While specifically Reformed churches have been characterized by their avoidance of Lent and Advent, few Protestants find the kind of asceticism implied by these observances consistent with the teaching of Jesus. Most Protestants have found the old observances of Lent and Advent terribly reminiscent of the piety of the Pharisees which Jesus so explicitly condemned. The objection to Lent and Advent is that they overemphasize the penitential dimension of Christian devotion."3

"So, is it wrong for Protestants to focus in a special way on specific elements of Christ's saving saving work during seasons like Christmas and Easter?" This is, no doubt, a question brewing in the minds of any reading this post. At New Covenant, we loosely celebrate Advent with a month long sermon series on the incarnation and the second coming. At Easter, I preach a sermon from a particular passage about the resurrection of Christ. The reason is simple: The birth and resurrection of Jesus are crucial elements of His redeeming work. In that sense it is always spiritually beneficial to give them a focused place in our preaching. Barnes again notes:

"We can celebrate the incarnation during the Christmas Season (Advent), but we do so only in light of the fact that the incarnated Son is now our Risen Lord. We do not enter into worship during the months between Christmas and Easter waiting for a resurrected Savior. We come each Lord's Day to celebrate His resurrection and triumph over sin, death, and hell. At worse the calendar holds believers back from the celebration of the resurrection until Easter, or at best it subdues their celebration. The weekly celebration of the resurrection reminds us that the babe that was born in Bethlehem is our triumphant Lord, that He suffered so that we would be spared judgment for our sins, that the veil of the Temple was rent in two and that we enter in to the very Holy of Holies each Lord's Day as we gather for worship."4

Wherever one falls on the spectrum of adherence to elements of the Liturgical Calendar, we must learn to live our Christian lives constantly in light of the once-for-all atoning death and resurrection of Jesus. We must always live and worship in dependence on the One who ascended to the right hand of the Father and is our great High Priest ever living to make intercession for us. We must live our Christian life in union with the One who cried out "It is finished," even as we anticipate His return. All of our worship practices must coincide with those truths and must be derived squarely from the prescriptive elements of Scripture and the example of the Apostles. To that end, it will be an enormous benefit for us to submerse ourselves in the Scriptures and in the rich repository of Reformed, Puritan and Post-Reformation writings on worship. 


1. N.T. Wright For All the Saints? (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2003) p. 24

2. An excerpt from Roland Barnes' article, "The Practice of Lent in the Reformed Tradition" in The Confessional Presbyterian (vol. 10) 2014. 

3. Hughes Oliphant Old The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, vol. 5, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) pp. 60-61.

4. Ibid.
Crown and Joy Presbyterian Church, in Richmond, VA, celebrated its ninth Sunday on December 21, 2014. Time seems to be moving quite quickly. Before you know it, if the Lord wills, we will have finished our series through the book of Exodus. We average about 50 persons in attendance each Sunday. That includes people from various ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds. It is quite a blessing to see what the Lord is doing in our church.

Since the first service, our liturgy has remained the same. We have several scripture readings, a confession of sin while kneeling, preaching of the word, administration of the Lord's Supper weekly while sitting around a table and partaking of a common meal, benediction, etc. You can view our liturgy here (sample_liturgy.pdf).  We hope to add the sursum corda next year. Interestingly, our liturgy is not entirely different from the most recent all black Baptist church I visited. Consider also the latest partnership between some Pentecostal and Anglican churches. What is my point? As I shared in parts 1 and 2, the liturgy is not what is keeping minorities away from Presbyterian and reformed churches.

In part 3, I began to introduce music into the equation. Is a certain genre of music keeping minorities away from our churches? Is it the way its sung? Here are some of my thoughts regarding those questions.
I wonder if what may be keeping minorities away from our churches is less about the genre of music that is sung and more about the way in which we sing it. In many of our churches, especially if they consider themselves, "old school," generally we know what to expect musically--hymns and psalms utilizing traditional tunes with very few instruments. As an aside, we sing hymns from the Trinity Hymnal at Crown and Joy. There is nothing wrong with these musical preferences, but what I have noticed more recently among churches that are increasing in ethnic and cultural diversity is that they are singing many of the traditional hymns using more modern tunes. Minor chords, more upbeat tempos, and choruses are utilized. These churches have attempted to contextualize the music, particularly as it relates to the tunes, while maintaining the rich and biblical lyrics associated with traditional hymns.

Depending on the church's context, this seems to help. Minorities, especially if they have a church background (see part 1), may feel more comfortable during the singing aspect of the Lord's Day service because the tune is more fitting to their previous church experience. (Here is one example). Unfortunately, in my opinion, not all churches are willing to do this. They are unwilling to alter this segment of their church service to help minorities feel more comfortable in an already foreign situation (i.e., reformed and predominantly white). 

I think if we consider our local congregations more as missionary establishments it may help us. In other words, it seems that missionaries, when thinking soberly, note their cultural context. They pay attention to the dialect, cultural practices, musical tastes, food, clothing, living arrangements, etc. This helps them minister to the locals in that community. If we adopted that mindset versus catering almost primarily to those already in our churches, or even those with similar preferences whom we foresee joining us, we might be more willing to change certain aspects of our music. As I write this, I also confess that I believe the church is for Christians, yet it is also a place for non-Christians to attend and be saved. What might those elect saints, who have yet to embrace Christ by faith, be listening to musically? Will taking that into consideration as well as implementing it, within reason and biblical standards, help them feel more comfortable in our midst? Regarding those who have a church background, will taking into consideration what those saints are listening to musically, who may later become reformed, help them feel more comfortable when they visit us? One African-American comes to mind, one who has been in a Presbyterian church for over 10 years and has a Pentecostal background. This person does not like the music at that particular Presbyterian congregation. What can we do for someone like that?

What about churches that are unwilling to adapt? If one's church will not change the tunes associated with many traditional hymns, are they hopeless? If they reside in diverse contexts and are unwilling to change their current musical practices, should they toss in the towel, so-to-speak, regarding diversity? Or what about those churches that are willing to change their music for the sake of ministry contextualization but do not feel equipped to do so? I hope to address those questions in other posts. 
"Let's face it. It's music that keeps minorities out of our church," said a PCA layman during the question and answer section of my Sunday school class. I have heard many comments like this. Perhaps you have also. Is it true?

To your disappointment, I am only going to focus on the liturgical aspect of worship in this post. I am somewhat aware of the many worship war debates and how the emphasis is often music; I will return to that. For now, let us briefly consider liturgy and what that may be doing to provide (dis)interest to minorities in your community.

First, allow me to clarify some things, specifically in terms of what I mean by "liturgy" and "minority." I confess that every church has a liturgy, even those congregations that believe the Spirit should not be contained within a set structure every Sunday. Most often, at least in my experience, those churches still have a certain order, or flow, of worship that is fairly concrete. Liturgy, then, is the pattern or arrangement of one's Sunday service. In the context of this post, however, when I refer to liturgy I specifically mean that pattern or arrangement of the elements of worship that is often employed in Presbyterian and Reformed churches (i.e., what some wrongly title, "covenant renewal ceremony"; see also DPW, section II).  

As I use the term "minority," I am being extremely limiting as well. I am specifically thinking of middle class, African-Americans with some church experience. The ecclesiastical affiliation subsumes under three categories: Pentecostal/Charismatic, Baptist, and Non-Denominational. The reason for such constriction is because these are the classifications with which I have most familiarity. 

One final point. As I write this, I am assuming there are African-Americans in your community and/or the community in which the church building is located. From a previous post, which highlighted ethnic diversity and the lack thereof in many of our reformed churches, one gentleman asked, "How do you know that these monochromatic churches don't already "reflect the communities in which they are"?" In many cases, they might; regardless, I am writing from the perspective that your community is ethnically diverse, particularly as it relates to African-Americans. If the community in which you live and in which the church is located is primarily one ethnic group, we should expect the church to reflect that demographic. However, with the changing trends in many parts of the USA, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find communities that are primarily one ethnic group.

Is liturgy keeping African-Americans out of our church?

It may and it may not. One ought not to assume that African-Americans are allergic to liturgy. Unfortunately, I have had many conversations with people who have suggested that, in order to attract African-Americans to one's congregation, there should be as little liturgy as possible. "African-Americans need to be free to express themselves," I was told, "and if you are liturgical, they will feel inhibited." Interestingly enough, my dear Anglo brothers were the ones making the aforementioned comments. How ironic?

In many traditional predominantly African-American Baptist churches, they have liturgy. In fact, I recently visited a church that was extremely dialogical and liturgical in their approach. They confessed their faith, had numerous scripture readings, call-and-response segments, and a host of other things that we would find in a Presbyterian and Reformed church. As an aside, though this is outside the boundaries of the three ecclesiastical categories previously mentioned, also consider looking at the liturgy at some African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches. They, too, are accustomed to utilizing liturgy that is present in our reformed churches.

It is not merely traditional black Baptist churches that employ liturgy but also a recent wave of Pentecostal churches. "Bishop Gregory Bowers is pastor of Penuel Missionary Baptist Church and also leads the Jubilee network of churches," which has partnered with the ACNA with the expressed intent to see God's church unified and employ common liturgy. 

While I have many testimonies of African-Americans enjoying, and even becoming fond of, liturgy, there are times when it is not quite grasped or liked. In my experience there are two main reasons why liturgy is not received well. First, there is a lack of understanding and familiarity with liturgy. Second, there is a dullness to the liturgy or more particularly, the liturgist. Allow me to explain the former by personal experience.

When I was first introduced to Reformed and Presbyterian churches, I knew very little about them other than the ministers preached the doctrines of grace. Singing from a hymnal, liturgy, and weekly Lord's Supper were foreign. Simply because I was unaware of such practices, however, did not make me skeptical nor hostile toward the practice. I believe I was eager to learn.

The first church my family visited was a bit off-putting, though. While the liturgy was, generally, outlined in the bulletin, the congregation said and did things that were not listed in the bulletin. For example, there were certain songs that were sang throughout the service that were not in the bulletin (e.g., the doxology). When people either stood up or sat down, that was not outlined in the bulletin either. For a newcomer, it seemed like there was a hidden code that I needed to know in order to properly fit in. That was a turn-off. Since I was already ignorant to many liturgical practices, the unfamiliarity with that particular church's liturgy did not help in my understanding and enjoyment of it.

The second issue (i.e., there is a dullness to the liturgy) is also off-putting to some African-Americans. If they are accustomed to Baptist, Pentecostal/Charismatic (and yes, I recognize there are differences), or Non-Denominational churches, there is normally a liveliness to the minister's leading of the service. He does not normally stand behind the pulpit with his elbows locked, hands latched unto the pulpit as he slightly leans toward the congregation telling us what is next in the liturgy with a monotone voice. The dullness, therefore, does not come from the liturgy itself but from the liturgist. African-Americans, in many cases, are formed by enthusiasm that comes from the pulpit. It is obvious the minister believes, or at least we hope, what he teaches. When that is not present, the liturgy can seem unappealing. 

Liturgy does not, therefore, ultimately keep African-Americans away from Reformed and Presbyterian churches. While there are some African-Americans who will not enjoy liturgy no matter how enthusiastic the minister is nor how much education is provided regarding the flow of service, in many cases, African-Americans do not mind liturgy. Although, again, this is anecdotal, I believe our church plant is a testimony to this truth (View image). God is drawing a people together, who will worship on the Lord's Day, using many of the liturgical elements found in the DPW.