Getting Serious about Worship

"Uncle Glen"

Dear James,

I was amused to learn from your mom about your roommate's efforts to find a church. She was telling me that last Sunday he returned to your congregation after a period of exile. Your explanation was that Will likes contemporary Christian music, but wants good preaching more. So he plans to join you for services and put up with your congregation's hymns and psalms in order to hear serious exposition of Scripture. That is an admirable decision. I wish all of your college peers were capable of such discernment.

But it does raise an interesting question about the relationship between congregational singing and preaching, or between form and content.

Your roommate's experience reminds me of a television program I was watching around the time of your birth about the new kind of Protestantism that was one front in the so-called "worship wars." One of the news stories focused on a Vineyard congregation, I believe in California, that had adopted the contemporary form of worship. This involved much more than singing songs influenced by lite rock tempos and melodies. It included entertainment. Specifically, one of the pastors actually began the service with a David Letterman-styled "top ten list." This was the top ten things not to do in worship—this, mind you, taking place in a worship service. The number one item was something about not picking one's nose. Aside from the lack of humor in the list, as indicated by the supposedly funniest number, it was in poor taste. Of course, putting a comedy routine in worship is bad enough, but bathroom humor?

Still, this wasn't the most memorable part. Also in the story was a segment with the pastoral staff during the week while planning the next week's service. The meeting was casual and filled with lots of antics, some of it surely mugging for the cameras. But the tone was so entirely frivolous that when the pastors tried to talk about Jesus and the gospel, they could not keep a straight face. They actually had a mild laughing fit. They recognized that proclaiming Christ and his work is serious business and tried to sober up. And yet, the momentum of the meeting and the style of worship they cultivated was so laid back and geared toward amusement that it was impossible for these pastors to assume a serious demeanor.

Of course, I do not want to imply that all congregations using contemporary music have this problem. I know that our hymnal has some clunker tunes that either are hard to sing or do not seem to match the text. At the same time, some of the balladlike melodies of contemporary music can be conducive to the truths we sing in congregational song. Plus, song is an element of worship; comedy is not. So there are plenty of reasons not to lump all contemporary worship together into one pigeonhole of error.

Even so, I do believe Will's experience is revealing. Often, the best preaching—the sermons that are the most scriptural—occurs in services that are restrained, sober, and orderly. Yes, good preaching can be found in other contexts. But I know that in my travels the congregations that still rely on hymnals, and sing psalms and hymns, are the ones where members invariably expect the service to be conducted in a certain way, with several readings from the Bible, lots of prayers, and the minister spending ample time in the sermon text.

The relationship between serious form and serious content in Presbyterian worship should not be surprising, even if it is hard for your friends like Will to be persuaded of it. Coming into God's presence, hearing him speak, listening for his instruction in Scripture, addressing him in a fitting manner—all of these parts of worship are matters that should make any human being sober. When you think about it, entering the presence of the Lord is an intimidating prospect—hardly something we would want to do casually.

It also makes sense to keep worship serious if we remember that we have six other days during the week for a variety of activities, from lighthearted to intense. Too often, I think, many of the people who want contemporary songs simply want to sing on Sunday what they listen to the rest of the week. That is understandable. We like familiarity. But if the Lord's Day needs to be set apart from other kinds of weekday activity, so too the worship that occurs on Sundays should be different from the ordinary activities that occur on other days of the week. We don't need the Daily Show in worship any more than we need Masterpiece Theatre.

For now, I'm glad Will is joining you for church. At the least, it means you won't be driving two cars on Sunday. It is better yet that you're both learning about the sense of propriety that is crucial to Reformed worship.


Glen Roberts

"Glen Roberts" is a pseudonym shared by two prominent ruling elders in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2008.

New Horizons: October 2008

Herman Bavinck

Also in this issue

Herman Bavinck: His Life and Theology

The Legacy of Herman Bavinck

The Witness of Scripture to Itself

Helps for Worship #33: What to Do after Worship

The Breadth of Grace and Infant Baptism

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