A Guest's Liturgical Observations

I am no liturgical expert. But I do care about liturgy and often feel its power to lift or depress, to focus or scatter attention. Especially, I feel its power to attach us to Jesus Christ.

Given the nature of my ministerial work, I am able to get out for a fair amount of guest preaching. Usually a consistory wants the newcomer to lead worship as well as preach, but sometimes others lead. In either case, a guest preacher both participates in and observes an already established pattern. Such experiences prompt the following observations.

If scheduled to preach in a church that really cares about the coherence of the liturgy, a guest may expect a call weeks before the service. A liturgist or music director asks pointed questions about the text, theme, and accent of a planned sermon. (Another important consideration, by the way, is the purpose of the sermon. Is it intended to warn? Encourage? Explain? Persuade?) On the other hand, I've noticed that the evening service in some churches has no planned liturgy whatever. The guest is invited to wing it.

Certain liturgies include opportunities for lay people to read Scripture. Many of these readers prepare. They read with the kind of intelligence and apt expression that lifts even an obscure reading into the land of the living. Then, again, some readers appear to be chosen alphabetically and to consider preparation impertinent.

Though in some cases liturgies have an unplanned look (there is a confession of sin but no assurance of pardon; the Apostles' Creed doesn't fit a dialogue pattern; etc.), many churches print a coherent, orderly liturgy that shows care and thought. Eor example, some liturgies place the recitation of the creed immediately after the sermon. God speaks through the sermon. Then we respond by saying, "I believe in God the Father almighty. …" I believe in the one who has just spoken.

Many liturgies exhibit both the particular and the general character of Christian worship. That is, a liturgy that schedules the reading of the law after the assurance of pardon, so that the law serves as a frame for the redeemed life, may reveal that we are particularly Reformed. But the same liturgy—by taking readings from the Common Lection-ary, by using the General Confession from the book of Common Prayer as a unison penitence, by choosing great traditional hymns of the universal church (e.g., "O Come, O Come, Immanuel"), or by using a trin-itarian invocation—may also fasten us to the catholic Christian church.

In recent years I have observed that an increasing number of Christians pray with their bodies as well as their minds—for instance, by turning hands up in a receptive gesture. But, sad to say, even most new Reformed and Presbyterian buildings make no provision for worshipers who wish to imitate our Lord by kneeling at prayer. If you tried to kneel at prayer in most of our sanctuaries (and remained facing the front), you would end up chinning yourself on the pew ahead and risk scandal by appearing to nuzzle the neck of some startled fellow worshiper. And no buildings I am aware of provide for immersion as a baptism option, despite the fact that immersion is more directly symbolic of the events of Christ (being buried and then resurrected) than sprinkling is.

We reveal our various temperaments and outside influences nowhere more than in our choice and style of music. Some liturgies include a printed choral introit, occasionally sung in procession. The Gloria Patri still commonly appears, usually coupled with the Apostles' Creed. (Wouldn't it serve wonderfully as a response to Scripture? Or as an opening or closing doxology?) In many of our churches one can hear great organ preludes, offertories, and postludes played by skillful musicians. Often these pieces are deliberately connected to hymns that are either printed or cited—the latter, for instance, by bulletin statement of the relevant hymnal number. An organist friend recently remarked to me that good hymn tunes, well arranged, serve especially well as preludes when they introduce the service's first hymn.

But in some churches one hears what seem to be organ concert pieces. I wonder about these. They are attached to no texts. What is it that makes these pieces liturgical? The fact that they are played in church? The fact that the organist is a Christian and is personally offering them to God? If music sans text can make statements, are these commonly enough understood by congregations?

I think not. But, then, perhaps "understanding" is too rational a word to describe how musical statements are received. In any case, liturgical experts suggest that preludes, offertories, and postludes serve to set appropriate moods. Here much depends, as always, on an organist's trained sense of the prevailing mood of particular organ music (and organ stops!) and of how well that mood fits the proclamation and worship it serves.

My impression is that highbrow church music is increasingly being replaced these days with lowbrow options, and that the middlebrow is not holding its own very well. For example, hymnsings of popular choruses, usually led by a beaming and surprisingly athletic man in his fifties, have spread to morning services in formerly sedate churches. This development has struck some as an indecency— roughly akin to serving cocktails at 10 A.M. I preached several years ago in a church whose pianist adorned the organ rendition of "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" with foxy arpeggios. I confess to having been offended. Embellishing this great, stately hymn with frills seemed to trivialize it. Such treatment struck me as lacking in chastity and humility—-somewhat like improving a Rembrandt by penciling in a mustache.

One of my friends suggested that church music style ought to be printed in the Saturday newspaper ads according to a list similar to that used for in-flight tape tracks: classical, rock, country-western, easy listening, and smorgasbord. I think we might find (see Harry Boonstra's review of Robert Webber's Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, RW 3) that while a few churches have been trafficking with Canterbury music, many still draw inspiration from Geneva, and a growing number are on the road to Nashville or Waco.

What does one make of this? I think it's undeniable that liturgical practice and, perhaps especially, musical style reflect both local tradition and prevailing congregational culture—the latter constantly tugging at or reinforcing the former. Nowadays, as Donald Hustad remarked in a much-discussed article ("Let's Not Just Praise the Lord," Christianity Today, Nov. 6, 1987), a really crucial factor is the high degree to which Christian people are conditioned by TV worship— which is in turn conditioned by secular TV.

Why else the trend toward a nightclub format in which worship leaders prowl church platforms like ordained emcees, directing what appears to be less a coherent liturgy than a religious variety hour? Why church singers in pastel evening gowns with matching muffs for their microphones? Why church performers who swallow their hand-held mikes, muffs and all? Why singing Christmas trees? Why fewer majestic, traditional hymns and more razzle-dazzle choruses?

Possibly an answer is that people no longer clearly think of proclamation as God's way of deepening our knowledge of him and ourselves. And they no longer think clearly of worship as the faithful human attempt to expand God's reputation (i.e., to glorify him). They rather unconsciously think of both as entertainment, and they get this idea from TV.

Speaking at Calvin College in January, Hustad said that TV is corrupting us and that we've got to fight back. In fact, "we've got to walk over," as Steve Allen says, "and turn the damned thing off".

I believe I've never heard an apter or more theologically sensitive use of "damned." And I have been mightily sobered by the fact that Donald Hustad, who calls for a return of majesty, adoration, awe, and a sense of the final magnificence of God, is a Southern Baptist who was lecturing Calvinists at Calvin College on the need for dignity in worship. It's sobering to need reminding that preachers, litur-gists, and church musicians must be steadfast and unmovable in the work of the Lord, rather than in the work of Johnny Carson or Jimmy Swaggart.

Johnny Calvin (while we are just sharing diminutives) had a few principles for style and practice that recommend themselves at this stage of our liturgical history. Of course, Calvin cannot simply dictate to us on liturgy, but especially where his principles gained acceptance in the wider Reformed tradition, they deserve respect and maybe even favorable prejudice. Surely thoughtless abandonment of one's heritage is both ungracious and unwise. Perhaps it's fair to say, in short, that where classical Reformed liturgical tradition is concerned, we need both to adopt and to adapt.

One of Calvin's main and most widely accepted principles is that worship is oriented especially to the glory, or majesty, of God. (Calvin often appears to use these words synonymously.) Worship is thus an important way of pursuing our chief end—"to glorify God and to enjoy him forever," as the Westminster Shorter Catechism has it. In his treatment of the first commandment, Calvin accordingly warns against any worship that might "diminish or obscure the glory of [God's] divinity." True religion aspires instead "to contemplate, fear, and worship his majesty" (Institutes 2.8.16).

Glory in Scripture and theology combines two excellences: it means luminousness or splendor; it also means recognized weightiness or worthiness. God is one whose excellence is brilliant and blinding; God is one who is inexpressibly stable, massive, important. God cannot be moved. At least God cannot be moved around. He has much too low a center of gravity. Glory is therefore the splendor of God's worth.

For Calvin and the Reformed tradition this overwhelming feature of God entails appropriate human response. Our approach to God may never be casual or presumptuous. In the words of the Christian Reformed Liturgical Committee (196B Report), "Sinners neither stroll nor storm into the holy mountain." In posture, tone of voice, choice of language and music, we must show unmistakable signs of deference, of wholesale respect. We ought to bring the best that has been thought, said, or composed. We ought to fear God's majesty, Calvin says.

In a culture that wants to level and democratize, God-fearing people will have to fight the tendency to democratize God. Chummy—especially semi-erotic—song lyrics, casual tones of voice in prayer, frivolous references to God or Christ, and the entertainment criterion for liturgy—these things coarsen us and rob us of awe. More important, they rob someone else. After all, we have what Calvin stated almost with a catch of the breath: we have negotium cum Deo. We are dealing with God!

Could this principle be reflected in our corporate calls to worship? Could we postpone the "Hi! I'm Pastor Gus, and I'd just like to just welcome…." or the casual "Good Morning!" approaches and rather choose something that contemplates, fears, and worships God's majesty? Could God instead of Gus call us to worship?

Calvin said it memorably: worship needs a proper decorum. "Decorum for us will be something so fitted to the reverence of the sacred mysteries that it may… indicate to believers with how great modesty, piety, and reverence they ought to treat sacred things" (Institutes 4.10.29).

I do not deny that God is "the Holy One who has come to us in redemptive intimacy" (1968 Re-port). I do not deny that God is a covenant partner whom we may dare to approach boldly. But God's intimacy is perfectly condescending, and God's partnership unequal, and our boldness properly a trembling one. In any case, perhaps now is too late in the day to be accenting God's nearness and friendliness. That accent, given current tendencies to democratize worship, is a firehose brought to fight a flood.

One other Calvinist principle. In the section of the Institutes quoted just above, Calvin claims that worship and proclamation ought to be as free as possible of confusion, barbarity, and turbulence. Sermons, prayers, songs, and ceremonies ought instead to reflect proper modesty and simplicity. Calvin says he has in mind the good habit of kneeling at prayer, the dignified administration of sacraments, and even such things as quiet and silence to accompany proclamation. John Leith comments, "Calvin's worship is not so much austere as it is economical. All unnecessary motions, actions, or words are eliminated" (An Introduction to the Reformed Tradition, p. 167).

Here, I believe, is another Reformed principle whose time for recovery has come. Calvinists on the Canterbury Trail have in recent years busied us with so many responses, dialogues, litanies, ceremonies for candle lightings, and so on, that one feels the need not only for an order of worship but also for a guide to the order of worship. Printed congregational responses can edify and engage us. But sometimes less is better. Worshipers who are tensing to come in on dialogic downbeats and who are struggling to collate and control all the papers in their laps are distracted people. Distracted people do not worship well.

Headed in the other direction, Calvinists on the Trail to Waco or Nashville sometimes fill every liturgical silence with talk— or, worse, with tremulous organ background to talk. Why can't old, weighty liturgical acts, such as confession and declaration, simply be done? Why must they be talked about? Why accompanied? Is a constant stream of platform patter really necessary, or is it only another imitation of the ceaseless sound and fury of TV? How about a few eloquent silences in worship?

These reflections and suggestions are humbly meant. In liturgical matters each of us gets only one vote. But surely we ought at least to be asking ourselves hard liturgical questions. Why do we do this or that? Where did it come from? Do we do it only because people like it or for some weightier reason? How catholic is our liturgy? How Reformed? Especially, in these latter days, how does our liturgy reflect a simple, dignified reverence for the majesty of God?

Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., is president of Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.