How Uniform Should Our Worship Be

Time was—and that within the memory of many of us—when it was possible to walk into any congregation of your own particular denomination and, without having seen the name on the church's sign or in the bulletin, to identify it unmistakably as a church of your own fellowship. The hymnbook was a dead giveaway. So was the order and the style of worship. After worshiping for twenty years in Christian Reformed congregations, my wife, raised a Southern Presbyterian, walked into Nassau St. Church in Princeton and said, "Ah. This smells like a church." She meant a Presbyterian church.

Time was when such uniformity was a reality. No longer—at least not in my own denomination. Walk into three of our churches on successive Sundays and you'll discover three very different worship styles. The first will have a choir processing, the congregation reading litanies, and the preacher in a robe. The second will have the traditional sermon-centered, clergy-dominated liturgy—no frills—and the preacher in a dark business suit. The third will have hands in the air in praise, a free-wheeling service with people popping up all over, and the preacher in an open-necked shirt.

This is a truth with which we all live. There is now a variety of styles and liturgies in all our churches. Good or bad, approved or disapproved, to be encouraged or discouraged, it's a fact of life.

That diversity of worship styles and orders raises some important questions. Should there be more denominational control? Should there be minimal uniformity? If so, of what kind? And how imposed?

Some of these questions are explicitly posed in Stanley Hall's article, "A Directory for Worship" (p. 42). After describing the range of approaches, he concentrates on a tradition foreign to my own experience and perhaps to some of you. I found the directory concept very interesting.

My own denomination has steadfastly refused to adopt a standard order of worship (most lately in 1967) while insisting on rigorously followed sacramental forms. But this year our synod took the extraordinary step of giving churches the freedom to "adapt" those forms freely in ways that would better serve each congregation. We seem to be a long way from any "directory."

Others of these questions are implicit in the articles by Daniel Meeter ("The Heart of Holy Communion," p. 34) and by Harry Boonstra ("Old-Fashioned Innovations," p. 37). These point us to biblical and historical sources for common patterns and differences, especially in our Lord's Supper celebrations. They encourage us to recognize what should be standard and what is adaptable in these liturgies.

These last two articles express well our understanding of Reformed Worship's role in this issue. "New for new's sake" is not our motto. Rather we try to explore alternatives within the biblical and historically Reformed understanding of true worship. Richness, not diversity, is our aim.

I think we're past the times of enforced uniformity. The church air has a "congregational" whiff. Few churches would pay much attention to new directions—even those mandated by the highest church bodies.

On the other hand, some common patterns seem valuable. We should work together at developing a shared understanding, a common mind, a biblically and historically rooted perception of Reformed worship. Any effective directory expresses, rather than enforces, such an understanding.

If Reformed Worship can aid the development of such a common mind regarding what it means to worship in a Reformed style, we will be very satisfied.

The late Harvey Smit was executive director of Reformed Worship and editor-in-chief of CRC Publications. (05-2024)


Reformed Worship 22 © December 1991, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.