Beyond Style Wars: Recovering the Substance of Worship
Michael S. Horton
Last Sunday, when the members of our young church gathered for two services, more than three hundred people attended. Seventy eager believers crowded into our new-members class.
Worship that day was what most of us would call formal: the congregation stood to receive God's blessing from the minister, sat for prayers (which included a public confession of sin and declaration of pardon), heard God's law and gospel proclaimed, and received Christ in the Lord's Supper. People sang from the Psalter and from a selection of great traditional hymns.
They also came in rows to the Lord's Table (we celebrate communion weekly). They saw their sinfulness in the mirror, met with Christ in Word and sacrament, and received assurance that they were God's justified children, robed in his righteousness and sent out in gratitude to love God and neighbor.
All these thingsfrom hymn singing to preaching to communionare what they expect every week when they come to church. They eagerly anticipate worshiping in a style that most of us would call strictly traditional.
Who are these people? Lifelong churchgoers who find comfort in a predictable and familiar order of worship? A group of elderly couples who look forward to little more than the gradual crumbling of their church as more modern, entertainment-oriented worship services draw off the younger generation?
Not at all. Racially diverse, our congregation reflects its community, the sprawling megalopolis of the Los Angeles area. Young surf rats with long hair and earrings sit next to an elderly Dutch couple, while a Hispanic family shares a pew with a single African-American woman and her children. Far from complaining about the ordered formality of our worship, these people say they come exactly because we worship the way we do.
Looking for the Father's Voice
In a fast-paced, consumeristic, and entertainment-saturated age, we have found that people yearn for something differenta strange Father's voice from another place, calling for them. They hear echoes of their own hearts in the cries of contemporary pop-rock music: "Give me something to believe in," or "I don't need no sentimental feeling but someone I can count on." They are weary of what one secular artist calls "novocaine for the soul."
They are weary of having their "felt needs" met. They have realized that their real needs are far more significantand that they've never really known what those needs are. They respond gratefully to God's law preached in its strict judgment of all of us, especially the self-righteous, and then to the gospel proclaimed as God's free grace in Christ alone. As my pastoral partner and I preach the old, Reformed redemptive-historical themes, such folks come to worship in an eagerness to see Christ in God's outworking of biblical history.
Beyond Contemporary and Traditional
What is interesting to note in all this is that our church sticks closely to the tried-and-true worship practices and standards of the Reformed tradition. Absent from our services are market-driven entertainment elements. We also avoid moralistic, political, therapeutic, and consumer-oriented preaching. Instead, we focus on God himself telling his story of redemption through the lips of the minister. We are evangelistic because we are convinced that this kind of worship is where the heart of evangelism lies.
In our practice, evangelism occurs precisely because we do not preach to the culture in general, but to the baptized. Those who come to our church not yet certain meet believers who can explain the gospel to them. They keep coming, and some of them arrive, by God's grace, at faith. Those who profess faith join the baptized community. This is how we evangelize.
In our worship, then, we are not seeker-oriented. We try to be God-oriented, expecting God to do the seeking. We expect God to find his own through a worship style in which, primarily, we do not testify to each other, but God testifies to us.
Thus, in the worship debates raging across the church, we have taken a stance. More than meeting the felt needs of the unchurched, we believe, the church must seek and present Word and sacrament in its own characteristic voice and meet the real needs of God's people.
I resist the labels "traditional worship" and "contemporary worship." Both terms imply that our worship debates are over no more than whether we will dig in our heels or catch up with the times. Our concern, rather, should be to center our services on Godon his speech and action in saving us.
Worship That Points Beyond
Many of our communicants were raised in churches that respected the Bible tremendously but were anticreedal, anti-institutional, antiliturgical, and suspicious of sharp doctrinal distinctives. These folks would once have regarded a church like ours as dead and traditional. Having lived through the charismatic Jesus Movement of the 1970s and the market-driven seeker movement of the 1980s and 1990s, many come to us with little doctrinal background.
They stayed with our church because it was strange; it pointed them to another world. They came to us not to have the secular world they inhabited baptized, but to be transformedeven shocked. After all, if they wanted contemporary entertainment, they could get it better from MTV. If they wanted therapeutic small groups, southern California is a narcissist's paradise. If they wanted market-driven worship, they could go to any number of megachurches in the area.
Of course, not everyone would welcome our return to the time-tried worship practices of the church. Many who were raised in the churches of established denominations experienced there anything but a sense of God's presenceand often they came to conclude that God is pretty dull and irrelevant.
That's because many conservative churches talk about God. Sometimes they even engage in doctrinal, lecture-like sermons about Christ, grace, God's holiness, and forgiveness. But they seem not to believe what our confessions teach us: that God's preached Word is a means of grace. Preaching is an event in which God himself speaks and acts. It is God giving his testimony, telling his storynot us telling ours. This emphasis seems lacking in many old-fashioned as well as contemporary services.
To tell the truth, the focus in most conservative and contemporary services is similar. Often, both focus on what we are doing as the congregation (praising, giving our gifts), rather than accenting what God is doing for us. Thus, both traditional and contemporary forms have more in common than either has with historic Reformed worship. Arguments over which songs to use, for instance, often fail to get to deeper issues, partly because our chief interest is in what we are doing instead of in God's activity in the service. Our answer has been to center our services on God.
Many of our people know their way around so-called contemporary forms of entertainment and worship much better than do those who have just recently determined to enlist these forms in Reformed worship. They therefore hardly fit the stereotypical image of the fuddy-duddy who resists worship change in principle. For them, in fact, the singing of praise songs is old news, and the singing of the Psalter is fresh and bracing. Like someone who is used to fast food but then sits down at an elegant feast, those who are drenched in popular mass culture often, at the very least, find rich communities of faith more interesting.
This may help explain why young evangelicals are flocking to Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy. What these liturgical churches share with the charismatic movement is a sense of God's presence. In Reformed churches, we believe that this presence is located in Word and sacrament. If we fail to provide people an opportunity to meet God there, we have failed in our most fundamental task.
Losing by Seeking Too Hard
The paradox of seeker orientation seems to be that while its watchword is evangelism, its effect has quite generally been the opposite. Instead of reaching the lost, we're losing the reached. Having been taught themselves, our members would be the first to admonish us if our elders decided to exchange catechesis for Christian versions of MTV and Disneyland. If we transformed our Sunday-evening catechetical preaching into entertainment, we would have a mutiny on our hands.
What does evangelism mean, after all? It means that we have been called out of darkness into God's marvelous light by the Good News. It means that instead of imitating the world, we are God's new society being shaped by a different story. Time after time, I have heard our members say that being exposed to this grand message in teaching, preaching, liturgy, and sacrament is like "being saved all over again." This is no second blessing. It is evangelism in the truest sense: being surprised by our sinfulness and God's relentless grace again and again.
It's strange these days to hear mainline liberals, at the end of the line in their accommodation to culture, offering public repentance while at the same time warning that evangelicals are now following their folly. For instance, in his book Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), Duke University's William Willimon writes, "The modern church has been willing to use everyone's language but its own. In conservative contexts, gospel speech is traded for dogmatic assertion and moralism, for self-help psychologies and narcotic mantras"just as mainline churches have replaced Christianity's content and mission with their own cultural captivity.
Ironically, the solution seems to be that to engage in evangelism is first to renounce the world. Isn't this what repentance, one aspect of evangelism, entails? Yet contemporary evangelism often seems to depend on the world. How can we, in the very act of evangelism, tell non-Christians to turn from their worldly ways and embrace the cross if by our actions the church itself seems unwilling to do the same?
A felt-needs approach to worship assumes that the world understands its problem, its truest, deepest needs. All we need to do is somehow show that Jesus is the answer. But unless people come to see themselves as helpless sinners who are under God's just wrath, how will they see Christ's death and resurrection as the answer? Evangelism begins when we have shown non-Christians that their felt needs are at best symptoms of the real problem they haven't yet faced.
At its heart, the way we worship is shaped by what we really believe. Worship is the ritual reenactment of our theology. If in our worship people are not confronted with God's judgment and grace, any seeming success in evangelism is actually failure, and we have only made genuine evangelism more difficult.
We All Need Evangelizing
The churches in which many of our congregation's members were raised saw evangelism chiefly as getting people to step across the line, to make a decision, to surrender all by rededicating their lives. As they have found a home in the Reformed family, they've been refreshed by the marvelous biblical truth that evangelism is not just for unbelievers, but for believers also.
The process of being evangelized is never ending, because we are always simultaneously justified and sinful, believers who yet struggle with doubt. Does God really accept me? Is my faith strong enough? Is my heart pure enough? These are questions that the most mature Christian asks every week. So why shouldn't we answer them every week with God's own speech and action?
The experience that many of our members so earnestly sought in charismatic and seeker-driven groups, they now tell us, they have finally found. And it's not because we have the best band in town or because we have the best youth events. It is not because we offer opportunities to look within, attend Jesus rallies, belong to a small group, experience emotional hype, or make a more determined commitment to surrender all. It is because we are drawn away from ourselves in public worship to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.
We operate in the conviction that people become Christians by Word and sacrament, not by our humanly devised techniques. As Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof reminds us, "Nothing the church does in this world is a means of grace except for the ministry of Word and sacrament." By genuinely evangelizing the churched, we will see the unchurched return to the fold, where they can count on finding what they can't hear, sing, pray, and receive anywhere else.
Beyond Traditional and Contemporary
It should be clear by now that I don't advocate substituting yet one more pragmatically justified form of worship for another. At our church, we are convinced that although there must certainly be freedom with respect to the circumstances of worship, we can no longer design worship according to our own specifications.
God is the object of worship and the one who promises to meet us there, either on our terms (in judgment) or on his (in blessing). I hope we would be committed to this understanding even if the wonderful blessings we've experienced were to be withheld.
But happily God does bless his Word. It is to that alone that we attribute any measure of growth and success in our small part of the vineyard. Evangelism that is made subservient to a church (not vice versa) that itself is subservient to the Word will receive God's blessing.
We have actually seen this happen at our church. I have also seen it happen at numerous churches across the country, churches in which faithful shepherds have loved the lost enough to regard them as lost and not as seekers. The good newsthe best news of allis that God is the seeker, and that he is seeking the lost.
God came to this far country to make out of a fragmented collection of self-obsessed individuals a bride for his Son. It is neither by ignoring God's presence nor by conjuring his presence on our own terms that we will recover genuine church life. "Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks" (John 4:23).
Mr. Horton was formerly co-pastor of Christ Reformed Church (CRC) in Anaheim, Calif. He serves currently on the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary in California. His latest book, In the Face of God (Word), explores contemporary seeker-spirituality. An earlier form of this article appeared in The Banner, June 9, 1997. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 1999.