Evangelical and Reformed Worship: What’s the Difference?

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As evangelical services continue to attract young and even older members from Reformed congregations in which they were raised, it is well to ask, but what are the key differences between evangelical and Reformed worship? This article considers some characteristics of Reformed worship and continues a discussion started in the September 11, 2015 issue of Clarion.

Covenantal worship

Biblical worship is best understood as a covenantal interaction between God and his people. A typical morning service, with possible variations, begins with the congregation presenting themselves before the Lord and confessing “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Ps 124:8). As Israel of old presented themselves before the Lord as covenant people (cf. Joshua 24:1) so we can do today. God then responds through his servant, the officiating minister or elder, with words such as: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:3). Through this greeting, God relates to us his desire that we experience his grace and peace as that which will be given in the proclamation of the gospel. The congregation can respond with “Amen” in word or song. The congregation’s response continues with the singing of an appropriate psalm or hymn after which God speaks through the preacher his Ten Words of the Covenant (Exodus 20:2-17). These expose our sins and show us the norms for a life of thankfulness to God. This reading is followed by an appropriate song. A prayer confessing sin and asking for forgiveness and renewal, as well as blessing on the worship follows. Next comes the reading of Scripture, where God again speaks and the congregation responds with song. Then comes the reading of the text and the ministry of the Word, the sermon. The congregation answers the proclaimed Word with a song after which a prayer of thanksgiving and for the needs of Christendom follow. An offertory of gratitude is taken, the congregation sings, and the service is closed with a final benediction. God sends his people away with his blessing. “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor 13:14). The congregation can respond with its “Amen”. And so there is a beautiful interplay between the Lord and his congregation during the worship service.

Because worship in church is covenantal and there are only two parties involved, God and his people, there is no justification for special sermons for children, or special choirs or soloists.[i] Furthermore, since a church service is about worshipping God, the emphasis and focal point is on the Word read and preached. Through the Word preached, God himself ministers to his people. After all, the Word preached is an important way for God to impart his grace to us. Through the proclamation of the gospel, the Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts (Rom 10:17; 1 Pet 1:23), instructs us in his ways, and encourages us for our daily living (2 Tim 4:2).

Evangelical worship

Although it is not always easy or appropriate to generalize, for there are always exceptions, one gets the impression that a typical evangelical liturgy is quite unlike such a covenantal interaction and reveals a different theology. While the stress in a Reformed worship service is on the vertical relationship with God who is worshipped and who ministers to us, evangelical worship often puts the stress on the horizontal dimension of worship. Critical to a successful evangelical service is a sense of warm personal fellowship with others as well as the feeling that you are involved and contributing something to the service. Of course in Reformed worship the horizontal dimension is not absent, but the emphasis is on the vertical. We meet God. He and his Word are the focus. In an evangelical service, the participation and emotions of a worshipper tend to be more front and centre. There is also much borrowing from current culture, for instance, in terms of lively music and drama. For example, the order of a seeker friendly worship service in the famous Willow Creek Community Church started with band music and a soloist. Then there was a congregational song and a dramatic skit followed by comments on the skit. Once again singers and a band got into action. Then a message was presented and the service ended with music.[ii]

One can see from this order of worship that the focus was on music and entertainment. Now one can have different ideas about what kind of music is most suited for the worship service. The point here is that the music should not so dominate that the church service becomes an entertainment hour with a short practical message. A church wishing to reach out is very much tempted to cater to the expectations of the unchurched or marginal members of another church. Such people can be expected to visit a worship service as consumers with expectations of the unchurched or marginal members of another church. Such people can be expected to visit a worship service as consumers with expectations that need to be met. They typically wonder, “What’s in it for me? Is it relevant to my feelings and needs? Will it enable me to achieve my goals in life?” We must never allow our thinking of what makes a church service “attractive” to be led into this consumerist mentality. Going to church on Sunday is all about worshipping holy God and receiving his blessing. It is not about making people feel good or meeting worldly expectations.

Since God is at the centre of worship, the pulpit and his Word read and proclaimed is of paramount importance. Small wonder that the reading of the covenant constitution, the Ten Commandments, forms an integral part of the morning worship service. Evangelical worship services typically do not have the reading of the law. Something very important is hereby omitted from the church service.

The Ten Words of the Covenant

The central significance of the Ten Commandments for God’s people is evident from the way Scripture speaks of them. They are called “the words of the covenant” (Exod 34:28) and even simply identified as “his (God’s) covenant” (Deut 4:13). These are the only laws which God declared directly to the people from Mount Sinai, personally inscribed on tablets of stone, and commanded that they be kept in the ark (Exod 20:1-17; 31:18; Deut 10:5). They form the basis of all the Old Testament legislation and “supersede whatever has been made obsolete in the Mosaic laws with the coming of Christ”.[iii] It is therefore fitting that they be read in church. With the opening words: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” the congregation meets the One who also saved them and claimed them for himself through the great Exodus and deliverance which Christ, our Passover lamb, has accomplished on the cross (Luke 9:31; 1 Cor 5:7). At the same time the Ten Commandments expose the sin and shortcomings of the congregation as the mirror of the law is held in front of them and they humbly confess and acknowledge their guilt and thank the Lord for Christ’s blood, the blood of the covenant that atones and takes away sins (Matt 26:28). And so the reading of the law emphasizes the congregation’s identity as a people saved by God’s grace, their inability to keep the law perfectly, and their need for the forgiveness of all their sins.

Because of the special place of the Ten Commandments as the words of the covenant, they should be read every Lord’s Day and not be replaced by New Testament passages. Even though we live in New Testament times, it is inappropriate to read to the congregation “arbitrary paraphrases instead of the text of the Ten Commandments. In the Ten Commandments we are dealing with a covenant that God Himself has written. Out of respect for Him, it is appropriate to refrain from our own variations and insights. Do not trap the Lord in our reason, but respectfully proclaim what He still says to His people!”[iv] Indeed, it is important for each generation anew to be reminded week by week of those awesome words from the Sinai. They remind us of God’s deliverance and make us aware of our guilt before God and the need to seek his forgiveness. The law also provides a roadmap to live a life of gratitude before him.

A consequence of evangelical services not reading the law

Our godless secular society does not want to hear of sin and repentance. Accordingly, seeker-friendly evangelical churches tend to avoid topics like sin that can turn off nominal or non-Christians. One who has researched the issue noted that sin is rarely discussed and very few penitential songs are sung in evangelical worship. “Mindful that seekers come to church in American no-fault culture in which tolerance is a big virtue and intolerance a big vice, worship finders in evangelical churches often want nothing in the service that sounds judgmental.” For that reason “lots of evangelical churches these days are unrelievedly cheerful.”[v] Such services of course clash with life’s reality in which all worshippers experience sin and its consequences on a daily basis. But more importantly, omitting or downplaying the issue of sin is an affront to holy God.

Sin is a huge issue for God. He is a jealous God who punishes sinners (Exod 20:5; 34:14). Sin must be atoned and paid for. Since we are not able to handle that or satisfy God’s just wrath, God sent his Son in a love for this world that we can never fully appreciate or comprehend. But God’s redeeming love is something for which we must always be humbly grateful and in reverent awe before his just majesty. Sin can never be taken lightly or ignored. Downplaying sin can give a dangerous unwarranted self-confidence in the presence of God who is holy, holy, holy. The knowledge of sin is a central reality in our relationship to God and therefore also in our worship service. And so the demands of biblical worship stand in sharp contrast to the expectations and desires of an unbelieving world. Biblical worship is deeply counter-cultural.

Here too it is good to remember that worship is all about God and what he wants. God “alone is the one whom we are to please in our worship. Worship, then, is not chiefly about evangelism, nor is it a concert, lecture, or counselling session. All of these activities may be legitimate and worthwhile for Christians. But none of them constitutes public worship.”[vi]

Evangelical and Reformed worship are indeed quite different.

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Dr Cornelis Van Dam is Professor emeritus of Old Testament at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Ontario. It is published here with his kind permission and appeared in Clarion, December 4, 2015.

[i] See on this point, DG Hart and John R Muether, With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship (2002) 101.

[ii] Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, “North America” in G. Wainwright and KB Westerfield, eds. The Oxford History of Christian Worship (2009) 629. This service took place on June 10, 1995. A similar liturgy can be found in Kevin DeYoung. “Is the New Evangelical Liturgy Really and Improvement?” (August 1, 2013) on the Gospel Coalition website: http://wwwthegospelcoalition.org/.

[iii] AN Hendriks, “The Ten Commandments in Our Church Service” Diakonia 21 (2007) 33.

[iv] Hendriks, “The Ten Commandments,” 34-35.

[v] Cornelius Plantinga as quoted in Napp Nazworth, “Evangelical Worship is Too Cheerful, Neglects Sin, Theologian Says” Christian Post March 28, 2014. Online: http://www.christianpost.com/news/evangelical worship is too cheerful neglects sin theologian says 116945/

[vi] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, 133.