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Worshiping the Lamb or Entertaining the Sheep?

Evaluating Evangelical Practice By the Reformed Principles of Worship

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Whereas the Gospel is narrative, and places believers in a specific tradition of a chosen people, in revival or seeker worship the tradition becomes subservient to numerical growth. Whereas the tradition is about a people, a koinonia, the seeker services are about the individual.

As members trickled in for the later service, folks greeted each other with either short, happy hugs or long and comforting embraces.
A musician encouraged the members to join in the songs-accented by bongo drums and electric guitars-when the spirit filled them. A large screen projected the words, but many of the members knew the hymns by heart and instead closed their eyes in meditation. Young and old raised their hands and waved their palms upward, swaying and tapping their toes to the beat.
An energetic singer put a new spin on traditional hymns, singing 2,000-year-old teachings like they were Mariah Carey hits. The audience loved it.
Ushers race to the rescue of some members who have been overcome, and tissue boxes line the windowsills for those overwhelmed with emotion.
As he preaches, [the pastor's] voice fluctuates between that of a mellow DJ introducing romantic tunes and a loud coach scolding his players for not living up to their potential. (1)

This summary in a local newspaper of a worship service at a new and growing independent evangelical church in Connecticut reflects an increasingly common trend across many Protestant denominations, as well as in other newly formed independent community churches. In some churches-Willow Creek (suburban Chicago) being the prime example-this is the normative Sunday worship; in others, it is one of a spectrum of worship-styles. (2) The sanctuary becomes a stage, the minister becomes the talk-show host, and the congregation becomes an audience. Furthermore, such worship styles seem increasingly to attract larger numbers. For pastors and congregations with static or falling rolls, and/or with rising financial burdens, a change to this style of worship is alluring. The dream of box office takings can tempt those with meager offerings in the alms dish. Yet before any congregation or pastor embarks upon this panacea, serious questions need to be asked about the purpose of worship and the nature of these services.

Until this time, worship in the Christian tradition-be it Orthodox, Catholic, or Reformation-has been the business of the ecclesia, the qahal, the people of God. Indeed, in some of the earliest rites we possess, thanksgiving is made for "having been counted worthy to stand and minister before you." Packed into those few words is the whole concept and experience of justification, of grace, of standing as fellow heirs of Christ (rather than prostrate as servants), and of being "in Christ" and thus being a Royal Priesthood which can offer the sacrifice of praise in, with, and through Christ, in the Holy Spirit.

Yet the very foundation of the evangelical seeker services is that worship is entertainment directed toward an audience, and an audience that is unchurched. One exponent of this new style of worship, Timothy Wright, explains:

When nonchurched people or marginal members from another church visit a congregation, they bring an entirely different agenda. As consumers, their expectations differ dramatically from those of believers. When irreligious people visit a congregation, they come asking, "What's in it for me? How will this worship service make me feel? Will it help me meet my goals in life? Does it have anything relevant to say to me?"
Consumers come to worship with a unique set of values that is often at odds with the teachings of the church. By recognizing and responding to these values, however, congre-gations will more effectively reach new people. (3)
Amongst the values that Wright lists are innovation, instant gratification, short-term commitments, concern with the immediate present, intimacy, experience-orientation, and pragmatism. But his choice of "consumer" defines the make-up of the "audience." Worship here is based on the world of the marketplace and the entertainment media. This entails identifying consumer needs. "Instead of driving guests away with unintelligible services, outreach-oriented churches turn to alternative worship experiences by designing and implementing innovative services that cater to the needs of their guests." (4) This requires that "guests" are put at ease, and as far as possible religious language is excluded so that people may meet Jesus. Modern musical instruments, with a good sound system replace a cappella singing, or an organ with choir. An overhead projector replaces hymnal and prayer book. Microphones and a sophis-ticated sound system replace pulpit and lectern.

As new as the technology might be, the rationale for such services is older, and can be traced back at least as far as the early nineteenth century with the revivalist preachers such as Charles Finney (Presbyterian) and Samuel Schmucker (Lutheran). Finney's concern with the unchurched was admirable, but in his writings he seems to suggest that the criterion is "whatever works." The test for worship was not, "Is it traditional?"-or, in the case of his own denominational affiliation, "Is it scriptural?" Instead the test was its effectiveness in making converts.

The revival worship which he encouraged and developed consisted of three parts: the preliminaries, which were heavy on music of an emotional type; the sermon; and the harvest of converts, all drawn from theater and drama paradigms. Finney wrote:

Now, what is the design of the actor in theatrical representation? It is so to throw himself into the spirit and meaning of the writer, as to adopt his sentiments, and make them his own: to feel them, throw them out upon the audience as a living reality. Now, what is the objection to all this in preaching? The actor suits the action to the word, and the word to the action. His looks, his hands, his attitudes, and everything, are designed to express the full meaning of the writer. Now, this should be the aim of the preacher. And if by "theatrical" be meant the strongest possible representation of the sentiments expressed, then the more theatrical the sermon is, the better. (5)

Take Finney and add contemporary musical instruments, microphones, overhead screens, and the television talk-show host style, and we have contemporary evangelical worship. It is concerned primarily with entertaining and converting the individual in the audience, and much less so with the presence of God, or a worship which is directed toward God. Indeed, using the marketplace and media paradigms, a church can do whatever it takes to attract the audience, and use whatever means are successful.

The Proper Object of Worship

But are success and popularity appropriate criteria? No doubt in Old Testament times sacral prostitution was successful and popular, but that did not make it theologically appropriate. Likewise, as historians such as Eamon Duffy have shown, the medieval western religious cult was alive, flourishing, and popular, but the Reformers did not think it theologically appropriate. Many of the "seeker services" center on an evangelism which not only makes few demands on the worshipers as worshipers, but also makes few demands of any sort. The god mentioned in passing is frequently the deus ex machina who will crown each individual with success, with no mention of cross, tears, blood, and death. The Sacraments are bypassed, as being too full of strange "religiosity," and thus the baptism of Jesus and the mandate given at the Last Supper become an unmentionable embarrassment. Whereas the Gospel is narrative, and places believers in a specific tradition of a chosen people, here the tradition becomes subservient to numerical growth. Whereas the tradition is about a people, a koinonia, the seeker services are about the individual. Though evangelism is important, nurture in communal worship is here sacrificed to a mission to affirm the human ego. The Sacraments from which the Church is born and nourished are dismissed. All this might just be tolerable if in such services the canon of Scripture was faithfully expounded. Sometimes it is. More often, however, preaching is topical and moralistic, and almost congratulates God that he did himself a favor by becoming human. Such services are often a modern version of the traders in the Temple-selling what people believe they need in order to make a quick profit.

Such a criticism should not be read as a condemnation of modern technology or modern methods of communication, or even experiments in contemporary worship. What is at stake here is the proper object of Christian worship. According to the Reformed theologian, J-J. Von Allmen, worship is not per se addressed to outsiders, and neither is it even specifically directed to the Church. Worship summons the Church together, making it visible, in order to glorify God. (6) And, as Calvin noted, "God, in vindicating his own right, first proclaims that he is a jealous God, and will be a stern avenger if he is confounded with any false god; and hereafter defines what due worship is...." (Institutes, 1.12.1). In his "The Necessity of Reforming the Church," he elaborates:

Let us now see what is meant by the due worship of God [cultum Dei legitimum]. Its chief foundation is to acknowledge Him to be, as He is, the only source of all virtue, justice, holiness, wisdom, truth, power, goodness, mercy, life, and salvation; in accordance with this, to ascribe and render to Him the glory of all that is good, to seek all things in Him alone, and in every want to have recourse to Him alone. Hence arises prayer, hence praise and thanksgiving-these being attestations to the glory which we attribute to Him. This is that genuine sanctification of His name which he requires of us above all things. To this is united adoration, by which we manifest to Him the reverence due to his greatness and excellency, and to this ceremonies are subservient, as helps and instruments, in order that, in the performance of divine worship, the body may be exercised at the same time as the soul. Next after these comes self-abasement, when, renouncing the world and the flesh, we are transformed in the renewing of our mind, and living no longer to ourselves, submit to be ruled and actuated by Him. (7)
To put it bluntly, worship is about worshiping God and the Lamb (Rev. 5:6-14), and not about entertaining the sheep! Here, the Reformation principles of worship contrast strikingly with what seems to be the basis of modern evangelical worship.

Components of the Reformed Service

With reference to Acts 2:42, Calvin wrote: "Luke relates in the Acts that this was the practice of the apostolic church, when he says that believers 'continued in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers.' Thus, it became the unvarying rule that no meeting of the church should take place without the Word, prayers, partaking of the Supper, and almsgiving." (8) It is worth exploring these elements further.

First, the Word. Not only must worship be scriptural, but it must also center on the Word read and preached. In the case of Zurich, Basle, Bern, and Neuchatel, the main Sunday service was based upon the late medieval preaching service called Prone. In the Reformed tradition two types of Scripture reading coexisted: the lectio selecta, following a lectionary, and the lectio continua, where one book was selected and read through in course. The latter was the most common, and the advantage is that the whole message of a particular book is heard. It is not subjected to the preacher's own expurgated selection or the congregation's vested interests. Preaching was expository, and did not steer away from doctrinal concepts, and did not shy away from the passion, death, and atonement, or the nature of the Trinity.

But other elements in Reformed worship also show the importance of the Word. Often the Ten Commandments were recited or chanted (as at Strasbourg). Scripture not only spells out God's Law, but also calls us all-Christian and non-Christian-to repent. A formal confession and absolution are found in Zwingli's rite for Zurich, Calvin's rites, Poullain's rite, and the Dutch Reformed rite of Petrus Datheen. (9)

The Apostle's Creed (listed by Timothy Wright as religious language!) was chanted or recited regularly, proclaiming the orthodox doctrine of the faith. One might also note that Zwingli wanted Mary to be recognized as the theotokos (literally, God-bearer, but usually rendered as Mother of God). Although the Marian cult in terms of statues and intercessory prayer to Mary was abolished, Zwingli's Zurich Sunday Service kept the Ave Maria-presumably on the grounds that if Catholics said far too much about the Mother of God, it was poor theology to respond by saying nothing at all, and denying her ancient ecumenical title. (10)

The second important principle of Reformed worship is prayer to God, and particularly forms of prayer which are in line with ancient tradition. Thus Calvin entitled his liturgy: "The Form of Prayers and Church Songs, with the manner of administering the Sacraments, and Hallowing marriage: according to the custom of the ancient Church." It is true that the Reformers did not have access to the many liturgical texts from the pre-Nicene and early post-Nicene Church, and thus the claim seems today to be wide of the mark. But as H. O. Old has demonstrated, the Reformers worked with patristic texts and fully believed that from these they had an insight into the ancient forms of worship, and ordered their own forms accordingly. (11) The rites were not designed for an audience. They were forms of the Church for the Church.

Third, unlike seeker services, the Reformed ideal was that Sacraments should be part of regular worship. Baptism was supposed to be celebrated after the Sunday sermon in the presence of the Church. The Eucharist, ideally, was to be weekly, but Calvin had to settle for a quarterly rite imposed by the Genevan magistrates. Whereas Zwingli's Sunday morning service was derived from the non-sacramental service of Prone, Calvin, via Bucer at Strasbourg, compiled a rite which was based on the mass. When there was no communion, it was the fore-mass or liturgy of the Word which was celebrated. Though some Reformed churches have been reticent to say too much on the Eucharist, the mystical union taught by Calvin was rediscovered by John Nevin, and more recently presented by Brian Gerrish. (12)

If Calvin himself was not creative in liturgy (he was too willing to borrow from Bucer and Farel), another Reformed figure, Richard Baxter, was more so. In his Savoy Liturgy or Reformed Liturgy of 1661, the Eucharist is described as three actions of consecration, commemoration, and com-munication. He actually sees these actions as being appropriations of the three persons of the Trinity, and the prayer could be prayed as a unity, or as three, each one addressed to the appropriate person of the Trinity. Thus, consecration is the concern of the Father who gave his Son to reconcile the world to himself; the commemoration is chiefly concerned with the Son, who gave his life as a sacrifice; and communion through the elements is the work of the Spirit. For the fraction and libation, Baxter gave the following words: "The Body of Christ was broken for us, and offered once for all to sanctify us: behold the sacrificed Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world." "We were redeemed with the precious blood of Christ as of a Lamb without blemish and without spot." This is, of course, religious language-but such is at the heart of the Gospel!

Finally, almsgiving. Of course no church can live without some income; maintaining plant and ministers costs money. But Calvin and the Reformers had in mind a specific concern for the poor here, as part of the love of neighbor. This manifests itself in intercession for the world, as in Zwingli's preaching service, and, in Bucer and Calvin's liturgies, in what is called the "Long Prayer." In the rite compiled for Basle by Oecolampadius in 1523, the congregation was dismissed thus: "You are commended to have love among yourselves, and especially toward the poor. The peace of Christ be with you. Amen."

Rightly understood, the intercessions and alms were an expression of koinonia. The Church becomes the Church when the object of its worship is God, and thereby through its fellowship, it has outreach in prayer and work to the world, leading to evangelism.

The liturgical rites of the Reformers are not cited here as the correct forms for the Church today. We cannot go back to the past, for that can be a form of idolatry of a golden age. But we do well to heed the basic principles which their rites expressed. There is nothing inherently wrong with modern instruments in church music, or modern technology. But these tools should not become primarily entertainment for an audience. Music and its words, like all our worship, should be directed toward God, and the content of our worship should be about what God has done in Christ. Leaders of modern evangelical worship should be commended for their concern with the outsider, but to make worship the vehicle of evangelism to an audience is to misunderstand the nature of Christian worship, and ultimately, to misunderstand God. Pastors and congregations do well to take a careful look at Revelation 5:6-14, which is the true paradigm for authentic worship of God and the Lamb.



1 [ Back ] New Haven Register, Sunday April 11, 1999, B1 and B5.
2 [ Back ] For this distinction see Lester Ruth, "Lex Agendi, Lex Orandi: Toward an Understanding of Seeker Services as a New Kind of Liturgy," Worship 70 (1996), 386-405.
3 [ Back ] Timothy Wright, A Community of Joy: How to Create Contemporary Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 18-19.
4 [ Back ] Ibid., 54.
5 [ Back ] Charles Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (New York: Fleming Revell, [1868]), 247.
6 [ Back ] J-J. von Allmen, Worship: Its Theology and Practice (New York: Oxford, 1965), 77. The opening words of the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Assembly: "Q. What is the chief and highest end of man? A. Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy Him forever."
7 [ Back ] ET in Tracts Relating to the Reformation (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1844), 1:126-27.
8 [ Back ] Institutes (1536 edition), 4.17.44.
9 [ Back ] Some Genevan officials worked to prevent Calvin from including a clear absolution after the confession of sin.
10 [ Back ] This remains a good reason for not using "Mother" for Jesus and God as some more unecumenically aware feminist groups are demanding.
11 [ Back ] H. O. Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 1975).
12 [ Back ] See John William Nevin, The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinist Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1846); Brian Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993).


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Issue: "Assemble My People: The Worship Event" Nov./Dec. 1999 Vol. 8 No. 6 Page number(s): 12-17

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