Visiting Our Church 

Why is Our Worship So Serious?

© 2004, 2008 by Daniel R. Hyde. Originally published as “Why is Reformed Worship so Serious?” in The Journal of the Church Music National Conference (Winter 2004): 3–6.

Here in San Diego county we have a weekly magazine called
The San Diego Reader. It is a magazine primarily concerned with the cultural scene in the county. One aspect of the culture that gets some ink is religion. Until recently, Jewish reporter Mr. Abe Opincar went from house of worship to house of worship every week and would report on that congregation’s history, size, sermon, and worship in his column “Sheep and Goats.” At one point he reviewed a local Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and it’s new “Celebration Service,” which, according to its minister was “not about your personal taste. It’s about outreach. It’s about sharing the Gospel with someone else.” To this Mr. Opincar editorialized:

I wanted to seize Reverend Cansino by his chasuble and rattle him. I wanted to yell at him that PowerPoint displays have already numbed the minds of non-denominational evangelicals. I wanted to drag Reverend Cansino out to Shadow Mountain Community Church, Tim LaHaye’s old roost, to see how hellish and goofy a ‘screen-oriented’ service can be.

As a young, former evangelical myself, these comments resonated with me. In my experience as a Reformed pastor, there are two kinds of people that walk through our doors. There are the primarily baby-boomer evangelicals and there are primarily Gen-X and Net-Gen burned out evangelicals and unbelievers. It’s no surprise, then, that when the former are visitors (or as Michael Horton calls them, “tourists.”[1]) in our worship services they think we are strange and most never come back; whereas the latter group find us appealing, satisfying mentally and emotionally, precisely because our Lord’s Day liturgy is a 180° difference from what they are accustomed to.

As the only Reformed church in coastal North San Diego County, we revel in our being different than everything else out there, with our Word and Sacrament ministry, historic liturgy, and robe-wearing minister. From the beginning to the end of our worship, we assemble with a marked seriousness, a purpose, a reason why we do what we do. From entering into the presence of God with a time of silent prayer, to corporately confessing our sins and receiving absolution, to reciting the creeds and singing the Psalms, to hearing an Old and New Testament lesson, and culminating in coming forward to receive the bread and wine “from the hand of the minister” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 75), Reformed worship is different—seriously different.

A Meeting With God

The first thing we ourselves must understand in order to communicate to the “tourist” and unbeliever alike, is that worship is a meeting with the Triune God. It is no trivial matter for which we assemble. Worship in the Bible is a meeting between sinful people and a holy God, between servants and a King. As such to be in the presence of this all-holy King is to keep silence: “the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab. 2:20). To be in the presence of the one true God is to stand on “holy ground” (Ex. 3:5).

What is happening, in Biblical terms, is that we as the LORD’s “treasured possession among all peoples,” the “kingdom of priests,” the “holy nation,” assemble to “[encamp] before the mountain” (Ex. 19:5,6,2). We are meeting with the Creator of the universe and the Redeemer of a people. And in the terms of the New Testament we do not come to a physical mountain, but to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb. 12:22-24).

Worship is not a time for “hangin’ out with Jesus,” being a part of a great social event, having our numerous needs met as consumers. Instead, it is time in which the infinite, all-holy God of the universe condescends to us in grace and the power of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace.

We see this illumined for us in the terms the Bible itself uses. First, there is the general Hebrew term ‘abodah (“service”), which comes from the same root as ‘ebed (“slave, servant;” Ex. 3:12, 21:1-6, 23:25; Pss. 89:3, 20, 116:16). This is the more general or broad of the two words in the Hebrew Bible for worship which speaks to us as servants of the great King who come to offer Him the service He desires and deserves. In the New Testament we have the verb latreuo and its noun latria (“service, worship;” Acts 7:42, 24:14, 26:7; Rom. 1:9, 2:37, 9:4, 12:1, 15:16; Phil. 3:3; Heb. 8:5, 9:9, 10:2; Rev. 7:15, 22:3).

Most specific to “worship” are the Hebrew histahawa (“prostrate”) and the Greek proskunein (“to fall on the ground in adoration”). Whereas the Hebrew term ‘ebed is used for “serving” the LORD, histahawa is used of the cultus proper, the worship offered to the LORD in accordance with His Word (Gen. 24:52, 27:29, 49:23; 2 Chron. 7:3, 29:29); while proskunein is used to express the honor given to men, but in a peculiar manner, the honor given to God Himself (Matt. 4:9-10, 14:33; Mark 15:19; John 4:21-24; Acts 10:25).

The most specific word is the Greek verb leitourgein and its corresponding noun, leitourgia. This term is used generally in the ancient world for any “service to the community or state; yet it is the specific word used for the official liturgical acts of worship in the Septuagint (LXX) and New Testament (Ex. 28:35, 43; 1 Sam. 2:11, 18, 3:1; Luke 1:23; Acts 13:2; 2 Cor. 9:12; Phil. 2:30; Heb. 9:21, 10:11).

As the worshiping community, we come to serve the Lord by bowing and kneeling (Ps. 95:6). And it is in that posture that we are to “lift up” our eyes “to the LORD our God till he has mercy upon us” (Ps. 123:1-2); we are to “lift up” our hands “to the holy place” (Ps. 134:2). These postures are the outward way we show our inward attitude of utter dependence upon the LORD in worship. We bow down knowing that we deserve nothing; we lift our eyes because it is from heaven that we seek “grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16); we lift our hands because we embrace the LORD and His promises by faith alone.

We see this especially in the book of Hebrews, where we are to “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16). This confidence is not arrogance. It is a confidence in which we, with our weaknesses, temptations, and sins (Heb. 4:15), come boldly because “we have a great high priest” (Heb. 4:14). Our boldness is in Christ. Our boldness is that because Christ “was heard because of his reverence” (Heb. 5:7) we too will be heard by the Father. Our boldness is that because Christ “offered himself without blemish to God” (Heb. 9:15) we can now worship. Hebrews therefore says that our attitude is boldness in Christ, not flippancy. As well, our worship is to be done with an attitude of reverence. Our attitude is not to be flippant or the all-too-often “come as you are” casualness of modern worship. Instead, our attitude is to be one of “reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29). What Hebrews says about the attitude of our worship is this: recognize that worship is a sacred meeting between you and the Living God.

God’s True Therapy

Because we are meeting with God, we are receiving His service to us in worship. Thus, as I tell my parishioners and visitors alike, our liturgy is supposed to cause some sense of awkwardness in us! If it doesn’t then we need to be worried. We are still sinners and in worship we approach the great King. For example, we open our service in silence, which is meant to cause in both believers and unbelievers a sense of reverence before God so that we’ll seek forgiveness and grace in Jesus Christ.

What many of us know has happened is that as goes the culture so goes the church. Our culture’s infatuation with therapy, yet wrapped in the entertaining garb of Dr. Phil, has caused too many churches to be an informal, upbeat, therapy session. This merging of the culture and the church has caused too many Christians to believe that worship in the Old Testament was formal and reverent, while worship in the New Testament is spontaneous and exuberant. This is far from the truth.

Both Testaments say that we enter the presence of the God who is thrice holy (e.g., Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8). Therefore our worship needs to reflect that truth, while being at odds with the laid back, therapeutic, affirming culture and churches around us. As a meeting with God, He is serving us through the means of grace, the preaching of the Holy Gospel and administration of the Holy Sacraments (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 65). He is meeting our truest and deepest felt needs. He is giving us the spiritual therapy we need: freedom of conscience, forgiveness, assurance, absolution.

A Break From the “Buzz”

So we come to meet with God, who will meet our deepest of needs. This is a totally different outlook on worship, as you may know. Another reason Reformed worship is so serious and different is because it is a break from the norm. Worship is meant to be a time that is set aside from our worldly labors, cares, and toils. As we assemble, we do so in a mood that gathers our thoughts and sets them aside for the worship event: “casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:7). We come to publicly set aside our anxieties, our worries, and our stresses to give ourselves wholly to God, laying our lives down “as living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1).

We watch TV all week, we listen to the sound byte news all week, we are bombarded with the visual media all week, we are taught to be consumers all week. We need worship to be different. We need it to restore to us a sense of sanity, a sense of what the world and my life is really about. We hear “the buzz” all around us, enticing us, calling us, distracting us. Worship is meant to break that tyranny, not feed it. Listen to how the ancient document, the Apostolic Constitutions, describe the worship of the church:

In like manner, let the deacon oversee the people, that nobody may whisper, nor slumber, nor laugh, nor nod; for all ought in the church to stand wisely, and soberly, and attentively, having their attention fixed upon the word of the Lord…As to the deacons, after the prayer is over, let some of them attend upon the oblation of the Eucharist, ministering to the Lord’s body with fear. Let others of them watch the multitude, and keep them silent…After this let the deacon pray for the whole Church, for the whole world, and the several parts of it, and the fruits of it; for the priests and the rulers, for the high priest and the king, and the peace of the universe. After this let the high priest pray for peace upon the people, and bless them, as Moses commanded the priests to bless the people, in these words: “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: the Lord make His face to shine upon thee, and give thee peace.” Let the bishop pray for the people, and say: “Save Thy people, O Lord, and bless Thine inheritance, which Thou hast obtained with the precious blood of Thy Christ, and hast called a royal priesthood, and an holy nation.” After this let the sacrifice follow, the people standing, and praying silently; and when the oblation has been made, let every rank by itself partake of the Lord’s body and precious blood in order, and approach with reverence and holy fear, as to the body of their king (2.7.57).

That’s the worship we need. That’s the break our hearts long for so desperately.

The Transcendence of Worship

And in longing for this rest from our labors we recognize that good liturgy is different because its very essence is that of transcendent. I read a survey recently by George Barna, the church growth guru, on the topic of worship. He reported that there is no correlation in most evangelical worshipers’ minds between enjoying worship and experiencing the presence of God. His reason for saying this? Nearly 66% of regular church attendees say that they have never experienced God’s presence at a church service, while 48% of regular church attendees report that they have not experienced God’s presence in the past year. Of course, not knowing what these people meant by “God’s presence” or “experience” or “worship” makes this a little meaningless. Yet it is a window into what churches are doing and the piety of Christians.

I truly believe that we as historic Protestants need to capture the attention and affections of our culture by presenting a worship in which people participate in something larger than themselves in this narcissistic culture. True worship, although in time, at a place, and with people, is not bound to any time, place, or people. Instead, it is the historical outworking of the pattern of heavenly worship. This is why in all historic liturgies we find the sursum corda (Latin, “Lift up your hearts”). We lift up our hearts to the Lord because He dwells in heaven, in eternity; therefore we must worship Him there by going there in our worship. It is while our enemies, the world, the flesh, and the devil, surround us during the week, that we cry out, “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul” (Ps. 25:1). It is when we are downcast by the ways of the world that we come to worship to say, “Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul” (Ps. 86:4). It is when it seems that there is no purpose in this life and that we have no direction that we attend public worship and say, “Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul” (Ps. 143:8). It is when we sin and stray like lost sheep that we pray with the corporate assembly, “Let us lift our hearts and hands to God in heaven” (Lam. 4:41).

Too many of the visitors (whether truly seekers or merely tourists) in our churches have been captured or captivated by “new measures,” that is, innovations in worship (drama, dance, individual expressions of piety such as “special music,” multi-media, etc.). These things are “strange fire” and have never been done in worship until very recently and only in our American culture.

But since biblical religion is theocentric and not anthropocentric, worship is about what God wills for Himself in terms of our glorifying Him with “the glory due his Name” (Ps. 29:2). It is not what we will for God’s reputation (which inevitably ends up being to our own glory), what the Reformers called “will-worship” (Col. 2:22).

And because worship concerns the very heart of Christianity and of our piety, we must be driven to Scripture alone, and not to the culture in matters of worship. But unfortunately, going to culture first has been the wisdom of American Evangelicalism. This is why worship is only as important to evangelicals as much as it makes one feel. “Why do you like your church,” we ask? “Because the worship makes me feel so good,” we are told. As one author puts it

For the modern evangelical, worship is defined exclusively in terms of the individual’s experience. Worship, then, is not about adoring God but about being nourished with religious feelings, so much so that the worshiper has become the object of worship.[2]

But there must be more than this to the Lord’s house on the Lord’s Day, right? The apostolic Church emphasized worship as an act of obedience, but we see it as an experience. John on Patmos, worshiping all by himself, but the curtain is pulled back and he sees the significance of his worship: he’s joining myriads of heavenly hosts and saints at the throne of the Almighty (cf. Rev. 4-5). Our subjective feelings, whether over the mood of worship or the aesthetic quality of worshiping in a cathedral do not give worship its value. Worship, like faith, is only measured by its object. When our hearts delight in worshiping God, when we focus on His glory, on what He wants, then we will be pleased and be blessed by worship.

So because we are meeting with God, to receive His ministry to us, to break the tyrannical pattern of the world, and to join in the eschatological chorus, let us do so with “reverence and godly fear, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28–29).

[1] Michael Horton, “Seekers or Tourists.” Modern Reformation 10:4 (July/August 2001) as found here.

[2] Monte E. Wilson, “Church-O-Rama or Corporate Worship,” in The Compromised Church: The Present Evangelical Crisis, ed. John Armstrong (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998), 67.

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