The traditional Sunday worship services as we have always known them are becoming the object of much criticism. The church is accused of being irrelevant and outdated. Demands are made for more involvement in the worship service – more congregational participation. These accusations are not only made by critics of the church, such as atheists or cult members, but by leaders in Christian communities and young people.
Many changes have been made in the church to make it more relevant. A Methodist minister notes:
“Jesus isn’t dead, but alive and well, stirring things up on the streets and in the church aisles.”1
The magazine Christianity Today gives this picture:
“Nowhere has there been a greater stir in the sixties than in the church aisles, where the new-time religion focusses on a liturgy that is essentially experimental and experiential. Spontaneity, improvisation, and local participation characterize it.
“Nuns and priests lock arms and swing to rock masses and Corita Kent pop posters and balloons float gaily, gaily in not a few Protestant sanctuaries.
“During the sixties the Latin mass was translated into an English service, and the Consultation on Church Union liturgy was pressed as a possible standard for ecumenical worship. Occasionally hamburgers and cokes were substituted for the traditional Communion elements – in the name of authentic meaning and community, of course.”2
These demands for changes in liturgy need to be looked at. Is our church irrelevant? Let us start with the question – What is liturgy? Liturgy is a word for the forms and practices that are associated with our public worship of God, such as prayers, singing, reading of the Bible, the Law, and the Apostles’ Creed, the sermon, and so on.
In our churches the liturgy is the same, but the order of worship varies. For example, some of our churches sing while the offering is taken; in others the organ plays during the offering and the people sing afterwards. Some congregations sit while singing, others stand.
We are not perfect – we should have an open mind to accept changes which might better our worship services. But changes should not be introduced only for variety or imitation.
The purpose of our worship services is the praise and worship of God as we read in Psalm 34:3, “O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together.”
Second to that is the edification of the people and the upbuilding of their faith. All liturgy must be based on these principles. The Bible sets forth standards, the Church follows these. The Church also bases its liturgy on her Church Order and the Confessions. There will by slightly different practices in different churches and communities.
The very radical changes which I mentioned in the beginning and ones, such as, dancing, films, jazz, and folk music, have no place in our worship services. But the following changes are worthwhile to discuss:
First (and this has been discussed time and again) is the question of hymns. Could we have hymn singing in our churches? There are good arguments on both sides. Those against the singing of hymns argue that this would be a sign that the church is degenerating. Many hymns contain errors often hidden. According to history when a church begins to sing hymns, the Psalms are pushed into the background. If we start with a few, others will be added. This is one way of adding false doctrines.
Those who are in favor of hymn-singing argue this way: The Synod could adopt hymns that could be sung and rule out those hymns that are contrary to our beliefs. Hymns would probably dominate our singing at first as anything new holds special attention. The hymns could not push out the psalms which we have known and sung for so long. Hymns would expand our field of singing.
And on the arguments go. I would like to see a few select hymns added to our psalter.
The sermon is another area where change is demanded. One writer states this:
“The day of the sermon is past…sermons simply do not communicate to the new generation…the sermonic mode of address is irrelevant to our age…films, plays, novels, paintings, music can all be used to make a point and in many cases the pint can be made more vividly than by way of discourse. Worship in churches of Reformed tradition is not very vital to many students, young people, and even older people: in fact some are bored, antagonistic, embittered, and embarrassed by it. The proclamation of the gospel…can with equal or greater power be conveyed by choral reading, poetry, drama, dance, film, dialog, or whatever form of communication is available.”3
For those who feel this way, no change in liturgy is going to make the worship service or sermon more interesting to them. The very heart of the service is the worship of God through the preaching of the Word. In 1 Cor. 1:21 we read, “…it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.”
In the Heidelberg Catechism answer 98 says, “We must not be wiser than God who will not have His people taught by dumb images but by the living preaching of His Word.”
Without the preached Word, the church will die. Films, music, and dancing can never replace the sermon. If the worship service needs improvement, improvement must begin with the preaching.
Another suggestion is a pre-service singspiration. Instead of having the organ play, the congregation could be led in the singing of a few songs. This sets up the mood for the worship service. It could start about 15 minutes before the service. This would make better use of the time than whispering to one’s neighbor. The singspiration could be just at night and not necessarily every week.
Some people want more congregational participation in the service, such as, Congregational recitation of the Apostles’ Creed. Many favor this because it is an audible confession of faith. They can think about what they say. But if the Apostles’ Creed is recited week after week, will it become just a habit, with no meaning? This is the probable outcome.
A few other changes are: silent prayer by the whole congregation at the start of the service instead of each member individually praying as he comes in. Also, prayer after the collection thanking God for His blessings and praying that the money be used right in His name.
These are just a few suggestions for change. Whether or not most of them are worthwhile is the question. But we must remember to test whether they are Biblical or not. They must not take away from the central purpose of the worship service – the worship of God through the preaching – and the upbuilding of the faith of the congregation. Biblical guidelines are in I Cor. 14:26, 33, and 40: “…when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints. Let all things be done decently and in order.”
In conclusion I would like to state this quote (Torch and Trumpet – Jan. 1970):4 “Not the hymnody, the choir, the liturgy, the organ, but the preaching is the ornament of the church. A rose does not need to be painted, nor a lily powdered. So also the gospel needs no embellishment or ornamentation of liturgy because…it is in itself beautiful enough.”
1. Christianity Today, January 2, 1970, page 38.
2. Christianity Today, January 2, 1970, page 38
3. The Banner, Dec. 19, 1969, page 4.
4. Torch and Trumpet, Jan. 1970, Vol. 20 No. 1, pp. 13, 14.
Originally Published in:
Vol. 30 No. 4 June July 1970