The Beauty of Simple Worship

Levi Bakerink
Monday, December 19th 2022

I still remember my first experience in a Pentecostal worship service. Growing up in a ‘frozen chosen’ Dutch Reformed church, it was quite the culture shock. I was a Calvinist in exile at a Pentecostal university (a long story). As the music started to grow loud, the lights grew dim, and voices were raised along with every hand in the room, I realized I was not in the small church sanctuary surround by Iowa corn fields anymore.

Over the years I have attended or been a member of churches with many different service styles. Modern arrangements of old hymns, contemporary Christian worship music, high church liturgy full of smells and bells, Pentecostal services with praise banners and shofars, megachurch productions with lights and screens and A/V teams (and yes, even fog machines at times); I’ve seen it all. Reflecting on all those experiences, I must say, I love simple worship.

By simple worship, I mean worship that is not extravagant. Worship that does not require a production team to pull off. A service that is so simple, if everyone showed up on Sunday and the power was completely out, it wouldn’t change our plans for that morning at all. Now, my aim is not to cast aspersions on any church tradition over the other, or to get into the weeds of the debate around worship. Rather, I hope to share a few reasons why, after many years of wandering through the American evangelical world, I find simple worship so wonderful.

That men and women owe worship to their Creator at all is evident from creation itself (e.g., Rom. 1:20; Ps. 19:1–4), and explicit in the commands from Scripture (e.g., Deut. 6:4–5; Pss. 86:8–10; 95:1–6). But how are we to worship God? That, of course, is the heart of the debate. The Westminster Standards are helpful on this point, “But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.”[1] In other words, God decides how God is worshiped.

This concept is commonly referred to as the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). God’s word determines and regulates our worship. It is true, in the old covenant, that worship was in many ways extravagant, filled with the cultic and ritual practices of Ancient Israel. But is our worship to resemble that today? I do not wish to get into the minutiae of these issues. There are many questions regarding the RPW that churches must use Christian wisdom and the light of nature to determine in their specific context. At the same time, I am persuaded that, regardless of context, when any church strives to worship God the way God has commanded in Scripture, that worship will end up being simple. Though I agree fully with the Westminster definition above, I appreciate (and now my Dutch roots are showing) Ursinus’ definition of the RPW in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. He writes that in worship “We sacredly and conscientiously keep ourselves within the bounds which God has prescribed, and that we do not add anything to that worship which has been divinely instituted, or corrupt it in any part, even the most unimportant.” When we strive to be reverent, conscientious, keeping within scriptural bounds, and not adding any of our own imaginations and devices, our worship will end up being simple. And that is a wonderful thing, because simple worship is both biblical and beautiful.

Simple Worship is Biblical

The key text in this discussion is Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4.[2] In the course of their conversation, the woman says to Jesus, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship” (John 4:19–20). She was right; the Jewish people did not regard worship done on “this mountain,” which is Mount Gerizim, as true worship. The Jerusalem temple was the only location where God could be properly worshiped.

Jesus’ response, however, revolutionized worship completely. He responds and tells the woman that “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:21, 23). In this statement, Jesus shifts the focus from an external location to the new, spiritual reality of the believer. The location (Samaria or Jerusalem) is inconsequential because the temple building no longer matters. God no longer dwells in a building made by human hands, but within the very bodies of believers raised from death to life and purchased with Christ’s own blood (1 Cor. 6:19–20). It is in this new “spiritual house” that believers “offer spiritual sacrifices” of their worship to God (1 Pet. 2:4–5). Pilgrimages to holy sites, praying while facing certain directions, and ritual sacrifices have no place in the new covenant. There are still external elements to our worship; we must worship in truth just as much as in spirit. But these externals have been radically simplified from what existed previously. The elements of worship we find in the New Testament church are ordinary: God’s word (read and preached), the sacraments, and prayer, with the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. These elements could be done just as easily in the large church gatherings in Jerusalem, as in the small house churches in Corinth. All that is needed is God’s word and some bread and wine.

We are to worship in spirit and in truth, and God’s word alone determines what that looks like. In spirit, we are to worship with reverence and awe, humbly yet boldly approaching the throne of grace through the blood of Christ alone. But this is not enough. Our worship can be sincere, yet sincerely wrong. We must also worship in truth, that is, worshiping only with the elements God has given us. Our sincerity must be guided by God’s word. If this is the case, it becomes evident that our worship, then, when regulated by God’s word, will inevitably be simple. Simple, not extravagant. Questions over the different forms and circumstances of worship, such as stage illumination, voice amplification, online streaming, locations, and buildings, are all wisdom decisions that churches and sessions must determine for their specific contexts. But they are not essential to worship. To make them essential elements of worship is to go backwards from Jesus’ teaching. Rather, worship that is in spirit and truth, worship that is simple, is worship that is biblical. In worship, God’s word is the source of all that we do. We read and preach God’s word. It is the basis and substance of our songs and prayers. We administer the sacraments in accordance with holy Scripture. All that is needed is God’s word. And when rightly understood, adherence to this biblical principle is not restrictive or cumbersome for the Christian; it is beautiful.

Simple Worship is Beautiful

When the biblical simplicity of worship is highly regarded, the beauty of worship is most clearly seen. This beauty in simple worship is seen first of all in that simple worship makes it all about God. God’s instruction, not human invention, regulates and governs our worship. When done properly, God is exalted to the highest place. Christ alone is head of his church, and the end of all corporate worship is his glory. When this happens, God alone is shown forth in his beauty. The psalmist makes this point when he says, “it is good to sing praises to our God, for he is beautiful” (Ps. 147:1, cf. Ps. 135:3). Every element of worship, and every form that those elements take, should be exercised and ordered with a singular focus on his glory.

A second, and closely related, reason simple worship is beautiful is because it is freeing. The church cannot impose upon the Christian any element or practice of worship that God has not specifically required to be rendered unto him. It frees the Christian so that he does not have to spend time and energy devising new and better ways of worshiping God. We don’t need the best, industry-leading light and sound equipment. We don’t need the newest hit songs. In God’s word, we already have everything that we need to worship him. We simply need to trust that God will work through the worship that he ordains. Iain Wright beautifully illustrates this point in a devotional on the story of Abraham’s lack of faith in God’s promise that led him to bear Ishmael through Hagar. He writes,

We may be strong in faith to believe that God will in the end accomplish all that he purposes, but weak in faith to trust with regard to the means God will use. For example, why is there an emphasis in some evangelical circles on drama in place of the sermon? Might it not come from the fact that evangelical believers have lost confidence in the power of the pulpit? The preaching of the word of God has not been anointed with the outpouring of the Spirit as in previous generations, so like Sarah we give God a helping hand: ‘What we need are better techniques. Let’s use the latest video technology for presenting the gospel. Let’s give people something to look at!’ But faith comes by hearing, or so the Bible says (Rom. 10:17). It is the ‘foolishness of preaching’ that God uses to convert sinful people (1 Cor. 1:21). Perhaps preaching is simply meant to be foolish, so that all might know that the conversion of a sinner was accomplished by the power of [the] Spirit of the living God, and not because the preacher used all the latest presentational techniques to manipulate his audience.[3]

This sinful impulse to seek to somehow improve upon the standard, simple, foolish preaching of the word can be found with respect to every element of worship. But while we are endlessly seeking after better methods of worship, God is seeking better worshipers. Those who worship in spirit and in truth. In keeping our worship simple, it guards us against the pride that our efforts, innovations, and novelties contribute anything whatsoever to the growth of Jesus’ church, which is the work of God alone (1 Cor. 3:6; cf. Mark 4:26–29).

Further, it frees the Christian from worry or despair in thinking that God will not accept his worship. There is no subjective wondering when worship is tied to the simple, biblical principles in Scripture. When we make worship more about us, however, we can start to fall into some unhelpful ways of thinking. For example, “I wanted to raise my hands, but I felt awkward, so I kept them down. Is God upset with me?” “I didn’t feel as stirred as I normally do when we sing this song, is something wrong?” Praise bands and worship leaders will likewise fret over chord transitions and production timing, making sure the lighting dims at the right moment in the song to create the right mood. It is a freeing thought to realize that worship is all about God, and as we worship him the way he has directed us, none of those concerns materialize.

Another way simple worship is beautiful is because it is familial. Young and old, all can participate together. It is difficult, if not impossible, to hear oneself sing at a rock concert, let alone anyone else around you. When done a capella, or with simple accompaniment, the congregation can hear one another sing and be unified in their worship. When psalms and hymns are sung, it connects the older generation back to the younger. And when children are encouraged to stay in the service, it creates a beautiful, multi-generational choir of the saints. Perhaps my favorite example of this choir is when children join in to sing the doxology. It is evident when parents in our churches are teaching the songs of God’s people to their children. In doing so, they help to create the most beautiful sound in the world: all the sons and daughters of God, from two to ninety-two, singing together. A picture of heaven.

Worship, then, is most beautiful when done with biblical simplicity. In simple worship, the church most clearly conveys her dependence upon Christ alone. Extravagance can be found all throughout the world, but Christ alone is the jewel in the Christian’s eye. When worship is done simply, the Christian can better pray along with David, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4). May we seek after the Lord’s beauty, most of all in our worship on the Lord’s Day, as we worship him in spirit and truth, with biblical simplicity.

Levi Bakerink (MDiv, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) serves as the pastor of Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Joplin, MO. He and his wife Jessica enjoy playing pickle-ball together and watching (mostly Levi) the St. Louis Cardinals.

[1] Westminster Confession of Faith, 21:1.

[2] I am grateful for Terry Johnson’s book Reformed Worship (Evangelical Press, 2014) for helping to shape my thoughts on this important text.

[3] Iain Wright, God is Always Better than We Can Imagine, Banner of Truth, 39.

Monday, December 19th 2022

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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