How Ordinary Worship Is both Reverent and Relevant

In the 21st century evangelical landscape, there are two opposing errors concerning worship that grow out of the same root problem. One error is the attempt to be hyper-relevant. Those who succumb to this temptation seek a worship “experience” tailored to the fads of the day. They will be greeted by a charismatic speaker in casual dress who will inspire them with a non-threatening talk that is chockfull of personal anecdotes (and virtually devoid of any mention of sin, faith, or repentance). Following this, the lights will dim, as emotive music blankets the room with lyrics that speak more of a person’s experience of God than of God himself. This, as Charles Spurgeon once said, is simply “amusing goats,” which inevitably distracts from the church’s feeding of Christ’s sheep (John 21:17).

Standing opposite of this is the equally erroneous attempt to be hyper-reverent. Ordinarily, those who flock to these churches are fleeing the vapidity of “relevant” churches and looking for something more. They yearn for something serious, historic, even counter-cultural. When they walk through the doors, they are immediately taken by the sounds and smells, the ornate clerical vestments, and the (perceived) antiquity of the many rites, ceremonies, and feast days observed by the church.

On the surface, these two approaches to worship look very different, yet the reason for gravitating to either is usually the same. Fundamentally, what the searcher is longing for is something extraordinary, an escape from the suffocating ordinariness of their everyday lives. Only once they find that missing piece will they be able to experience the vital and vibrant Christianity that has evaded them thus far.

Relevant Reverence

Those who visit my own church might suspect that we lean to the side of hyper-reverence. After all, we sing out of the Red Trinity Hymnal, recite creeds, and I have even been known to quote a Puritan or two. But I often explain that our intention is to occupy the perfect middle. Why? Because true reverence is perennially relevant.

That which is new, exciting, and different today will become old, stale, and commonplace within a decade (if that long). Cold, hollow ritualism will produce cold, hollow Christians at best. Spurgeon said that a baby is content to play with a rattle for a time, but when the pangs of hunger seize its belly nothing less than its mother’s milk will satisfy. The same is true of Christian worship. Instead of offering our preferred rattle in Lord’s Day worship, the church must serve a substantial meal that will truly satisfy the spiritual hunger of those gathered. And this meal must be nothing less than Christ-centered worship that is grounded in the truths of Scripture from start to finish.

Once again, consider this point from Spurgeon:

“The mission of amusement produces no converts. The need of the hour for today's ministry is believing scholarship joined with earnest spirituality, the one springing from the other as fruit from the root. The need is biblical doctrine, so understood and felt, that it sets men on fire.”

No amount of presentation can make up for a lack of content in worship. At best, contemporary worship and stilted liturgy offer a mere flicker of religious experience compared to that slow, steady burn of men and women who have been set aflame by biblical doctrine.

Fallen man’s greatest need is to be reconciled to the thrice holy God whom he has offended. By nature, we are all children of wrath, hostile in mind, dead in our trespasses and sins. For this reason, the Gospel never ceases to be relevant because it was, is, and will continue to be the only way to meet this universal need. What could be more relevant than that? What’s more, when this need for salvation is met, the natural response is true, heartfelt, and reverent worship. Only once the church preaches on that which is truly relevant to sinful man can true reverence be realized.

True Reverence Reaches the Lost

“But,” some will ask, “won’t this kind of worship stifle our evangelistic appeal? Won’t it make the unbeliever feel uncomfortable?” Indeed, it will make them uncomfortable. How could it not? We are citizens of one kingdom and they of another. The antithesis between light and darkness ought to be unmistakably clear in our acts of worship. But just because the unbeliever is made uncomfortable doesn’t mean that our worship ceases to have evangelistic effect. As Terry Johnson has argued:

“Such serious, soul-searching proclamation is not, by the way, terribly seeker friendly. Instead the visitor is ‘convicted,’ he is ‘called to account,’ and ‘the secrets of his heart are disclosed.’ That this might make him uncomfortable does not seem to cause concern. Indeed, that is the intention. The result is conversion, leading to strong acts of devotion, whether literal or figurative. He will ‘fall on his face and worship God,’ presumably joining with the others in worshipping god. The point is, that it is clear even to the unbeliever who visits the Christian assembly that the people are dealing with God, and God is dealing with them. Dr. Clowney calls this ‘doxological evangelism,’ and we are thrilled to see this concept articulated.” [1]

The otherworldliness of biblical worship inspires a sense of conviction, awe, and curiosity in the unbeliever in a way that man-made gimmicks and ceremonies never could. Doxological worship in an age of levity and informality will, by way of contrast, stand out more prominently and prove to be more evangelistically effective in the long run than anything produced by man.

Delve into Doxological Worship

In short, what the church needs is to have faith that worship, as God has given it to us, is reverent enough and relevant enough to make lasting change in our world and in our own lives. Rather than going and digging newer, shallower wells to satisfy our spiritual thirsts, perhaps what we need to do is delve deeper in that deep well of refreshing biblical worship that God has dug for us already.

Our Lord, in His incredible kindness, has given us a means of spiritual satisfaction that doesn’t require us to go to wild extremes. The fact that His grace is held forth, Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day, in simple means is not something to scoff at, but to celebrate. Praise God for the accessibility of His grace in ordinary, reverent, and relevant worship!

Stephen Spinnenweber is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, Florida.

Related Links

"The Death of the Evening Service" by Mark Jones

"Clarkson on the Profitability of Public Worship" by Jacob Tanner

"The Blessing of Sunday Evening Worship" by Mary Beth McGreevy

On Reforming Worship, ed. by David Hall & Jonathan Master

What Happens When We Worship? by Jonathan Landry Cruse


[1] Terry L. Johnson, The Pastor’s Public Ministry (Greenville, SC: Reformed Academic Press, 2001), 14,15.