It is disconcerting but undeniable fact that over the past number of years not a few Reformed believers have been migrating to evangelical worship services. You may know them as family members or friends. The haemorrhaging continues, especially in urban areas and mostly among the younger members. What is the attraction? Why are they leaving?
Although this is part of a larger cultural pattern as church loyalties weaken everywhere, our first duty when facing such questions is to examine ourselves and our worship services and fellowship to make sure that we are not causing as unnecessary offense to those who feel compelled to go away. Is the preaching clear enough? Is the full gospel proclaimed? Is the proclamation relevant for the needs of the day and the challenges members face in the world in which they live? Have those who are on the way out been given a cold shoulder and no longer feel welcome in the church they have always called home? Asking ourselves these types of questions is critically important. We must not too quickly come to the conclusion that all is well. A church must always be prepared to align itself ever closer to the clear demands of God’s Word, also when it concerns public worship and the functioning of the communion saints.
Having done that and making any necessary improvements, the question also arises whether we should accommodate to a more evangelical style of worship in order to keep especially the young people. In answering that question, it is of benefit to touch on some important aspects of worship and compare the classic Reformed understanding with a typical evangelical one. Let us begin with the fact that we meet God in worship.
In the presence of God who is holy
Sunday worship means coming unto the presence of God. As the Psalmist exhorted: “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for He is our God and we are the people of His pasture, the flock under His care”(Ps 95:6-7). As the psalmist indicated, worship involves humbling oneself before God: bowing and kneeling. God after all is our Maker, our Creator, and we are but creatures. Approaching God must therefore be done in awe and reverence. “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.” After all, he is God who “is in heaven and you are on earth” (Eccl 5:1, 2).
Not only is God our Creator who lives in heaven above, but He is also holy and we are by nature sinful. How God’s holiness was evident to Israel at Mount Sinai as God came close to His people but warned them not to touch the mountain lest they die. In order to be present before God, the people had to be consecrated and wash their clothes. God’s awesome holiness was such that after God himself spoke the words of the Ten Commandments to his people they trembled and said to Moses, “Let God not speak to us again” (Exodus 19-20). Isaiah also experienced something of the overwhelming sense of God’s holiness when he saw the Lord seated on a throne with angels crying “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty.” Isaiah cried out: “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips.” In response, an angel touched his mouth with a live coal and said: “Your guilt is taken away and you sin atoned for” (Isa 6:1-7). To come before holy God means one’s sins have to removed. “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart?” (Ps 24:3-4).
To come before holy God with clean hands and a pure heart involves an enormous cost.
The cost of coming into his presence
God’s Old Testament people knew what that meant. The cost was horrific. Sacrifices had to be brought day after day for the forgiveness of sins. Blood had to flow to atone for transgressions. Israel could only continue to come near to worship after blood had been spilled and the life of countless animals taken away so that they could live and not die in God’s presence. This reality made coming near to God a very solemn and sober experience.
If anything, approaching God is or should be an even more solemn experience today. God is still the holy One. When we come near to worship, we are not just drawing near to God at the cost of animal blood. We can only approach our Creator and Redeemer because of the bloody sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Every time we worship it is only possible because our Saviour cried in death agony: “It is finished!” (John 19:30). It was our sins that caused his anguish, suffering, and death. It was our miserable condition that caused the sacred blood to flow. The enormous price that has made our worship in God’s presence possible means we can never take this privilege lightly. We have no real idea of the cost of the hellish suffering and agony involved. So we need to be sober and reverent, coming into the presence of holy God humbly. “Let us be thankful and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28-29). As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “We must use the holy name of God only with fear and reverence” (Q/A 99).
This sober reality does not exclude the joy of salvation. The psalmist exhorts us: “Worship the LORD with gladness; come before Him with joyful songs!” (Ps 100:2). But this joy is the profound joy that knows something of the enormous cost of the LORD being our God and shepherd whose love and faithfulness endures forever (Ps 100:3-5). It is a cost which we owed but which Christ took to his own account.
A seeker-friendly service?
The secular world does not know of true reverence and awe for God. We live in a time of irreverence and lack of respect for what is holy. The current godless Western culture derides the sacred and has no patience with it. It even exults sin. That means that biblical worship is counter-cultural and out of place in our society. Those who do not know God and are flippant and casual about things divine would therefore feel totally out of place in divine worship.
Churches who want to reach the unregenerate (and don’t we all want to do that) therefore face an enormous temptation to try to bridge the cultural divide by making the worship services more attractive to those outside. They want to be a “seeker-friendly church” by importing into Sunday worship elements that may make outsiders feel more comfortable. The worship “culture” can change with such simple things as encouraging people to dress down on Sundays so those coming in from outside feel less embarrassment for not being in their Sunday best. The minister attempts to be a bit more casual and sound not quite so authoritative. The sermon becomes the message with lots of anecdotes. After all, people expect to be entertained. Furthermore, the message must be very simple to understand for people are not used to doing a lot of thinking. Quick sound bytes of catchy, down-to-earth advice go over best. It must especially be practical. Since people want to have variety and be amused, replace the organ and piano with a band and / or soloist or choir. After all, such an arrangement also allows more people to participate. After all, we live in a democratic culture where everyone is expected to take part.
The list of suggested changes goes on. You could also introduce a coffee hour before the service to encourage people to come or even allow them to take the coffee with them into the service. You get the idea. Make the church more friendly, more like those “successful” evangelical churches that attract so many people. But, in so trying to reach the outsider, the focus shifts from God and His holiness and the need for repentance and renewal to having a good time together, listening to a snappy, easily digestible message with lots of good concrete advice, interspersed with enjoying some of the best musical talent available in the congregation. The imagined needs of the unconverted becomes the focus, even to the point that a popular evangelical church in our area holds three identical services: late Saturday afternoon and two on Sunday morning. You can have the Sunday “off” if that’s more convenient and keep the Saturday more or less for yourself by attending worship on that day around supper time.
It goes without saying that we should welcome guests with open arms into our church services and pray that the gospel may reach their hearts and lead them to faith in Christ. But we need to keep in mind that the purpose of a church service is to worship God by coming into his holy presence with awe and reverence and according to the demands of his Word. By worshipping, the church members separate themselves from the world and show that ultimately their allegiance is not to the culture and likes of this world, but to the one true God. A church service underlines the line of antithesis and hostility that exists between the world of sin and the congregation of the Lord. Since the purpose of a church service is to worship God, its first function is not to attract outsiders and win converts. The fact of the matter is that a holy solemn assembly in awe before the living God is simply not appealing to the unbeliever.
It has been rightly said that “worship is a subversive and counter-cultural act of an alien people, who forsaking the world, listen to the voice of her master saying: “follow me”. True worship, then, will be odd and perhaps even weird to the watching world. This oddness is not lamentable but essential to the church’s faithfulness and witness. For if the gospel is foolishness, it is foolish only to those who do not believe. Furthermore, “the church must reject the claim that the worship is old-fashioned, irrelevant, and isolated from the ‘real world’. For believers, the church at worship is the real world. The gathering of the saints in the holy of holies is the eschatological foretaste of the new heavens and the new earth, the reality to which all history is headed.” (1)
To answer the question of the title of this article: no, we should never accommodate nor take the first steps to a more evangelical style for our worship service. Too much is at stake. Proper worship is about meeting God and is at the heart of who we are as His people in His presence. There is of course more to this topic, but that will have to wait for another time.
(1) D.G.Hart and John R Meuther, With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship (2002), 34
Dr Cornelis Van Dam is Professor emeritus of Old Testament at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary at Hamilton, Ontario. This article was published in Clarion, 11 September 2015, and is published here with the permission of Dr Van Dam.