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Reforming or Reverting?

The god of the innovative is hard to resist. While this issue of Reformed Worship encourages us all to pay attention to how multiple intelligences and multiple learning styles inform worship planning, we need to do so with thought and discernment. This article causes us to pause and to take the time to think about what we do in our worship. Nothing is value-neutral.
-JB

One Sunday I worshiped at a large Reformed megachurch in town. Even though there was no altar, and the preacher certainly did not speak Latin, it felt as if I had returned to a time before the Reformation.

Perhaps it is hard to understand how a service that incorporates jumbo-size screens, electric guitars, and a fog machine might be similar to a service in the fifteenth century. But some of the same impulses and philosophies that so concerned the Reformers were being incorporated into the megachurch service.

I especially noticed three things. In its attempt to make worship more accessible to the surrounding neighborhood, this congregation had reinstituted “feast days,” the sermon was no longer in the vernacular, and the laity were prevented access to the Scriptures.

This article is not meant to be a critique of contemporary worship. It is simply a request that we deeply consider the theological ramifications as we try to find new methodologies of worship. Many modern-day Reformed churches have become so infatuated with the cultural emphasis upon the individual that they have inadvertently reverted to some of the practices their ancestors wanted to reform.

Feast Days

One of the Reformation’s major accomplishments was to remove the worship of saints as a mechanism to God. Today, most of our churches no longer celebrate feast days for “the conversion of Saint Paul” or “Saint Isidore the Farmer.” Instead, we have “Scout Recognition Sunday,” “Bring a Friend to Church Sunday,” and “Youth Sunday.” By placing the emphasis upon individuals or segmented groups, we redirect our praise and worship from God to self. We highlight the individual achievements of our congregation, mistakenly believing that this will make God more relevant to our daily lives.

The theological principle at stake here is the centrality of Jesus Christ. We elevate certain populations in the pew, rather than elevating God. Each Sunday should be “the Lord’s Day,” with worship directed toward Christ and not ourselves.

Rather than reintroducing modern “feast days” that direct our praise toward individuals, we should be looking for ways to involve people in the existing worship service. Scouts should not be recognized in worship—they should participate in the public worship of the Lord. “Bring a Friend to Worship” should become a weekly objective, not just an annual event. “Youth Sunday” should not feature high school students reflecting upon their short life experience, but proclaiming the saving love of Jesus Christ. In a way, it is far simpler to separate, segregate, and recognize individuals than to merge, involve, and incorporate a variety of voices into corporate worship.

Preaching in the Vernacular

While I have never attended a mega-church whose sermon was in Latin, I do wonder if the modern church has returned to a performance-focused mentality within worship. The Reformers were concerned that when the congregation was not able to understand nor even see the essential elements of worship, worship created a gap between the clergy and laity. They wanted to draw worshipers into God’s presence not as spectators but as participants.

At the megachurch I was struck by the fact that the sermon was piped in. There seems to be a movement away from planting new churches and toward having satellite churches, where the parent church’s sermon is displayed on a giant screen, allowing for the personality-driven preaching to be rebroadcast throughout a certain viewing area. This mimics the canned homilies of the Reformation-era Roman Catholic Church, where one sermon was delivered throughout a region.

As I sat in the worship space watching a piped-in sermon, I had an eerie realization. If someone in this space were to have a heart attack, the preacher would keep on preaching, completely unaware of what was occurring in the life of the congregation. This disconnect further diminishes worship to a spectacle to be watched rather than a service to be participated in.

The problem with rebroadcasted sermons is that the vernacular—the local language—is lost. Understanding the gospel in our local context is important because it reinforces our understanding of Jesus Christ, who as God put on human flesh to participate in the local lives of individuals. God’s message is deeply personal and localized.

Scripture in the Hands of the Laity

As I sat down in the theater-style chair in the worship space, I noticed that there were no pew Bibles. By displaying the Scriptures on the screen, the church had returned to one of the practices the Reformers complained about. In this church it was not possible to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture because the worshipers had been discouraged from having Bibles in their hands.

Reformed churches need to continue their creative exploration of how to be culturally engaged while retaining the centrality of God in worship and the centrality of Scripture to our lives.

I remember one particular Sunday when I served as a pulpit supply preacher to a congregation of nine: my wife, myself, the choir, and two of the choir members’ husbands. The sermon was flat; I could feel it. Halfway through the message, I looked up and noticed that one of the husbands had picked up a Bible from the pew rack. “Oh great,” I thought, “I lost him.” Then, strangely, as I trudged through the final point, I thought, “Actually, I would much prefer him to go to the original story and read it himself.” He knew enough about the Bible that he could engage it critically and personally, with the direction of the Holy Spirit.

In our technological age of PowerPoint, Bible software, and Google, the church needs to be careful not to take away people’s access to the fullness of Scripture. Whether it’s printing a few select verses for a Bible study or generating the slides for a worship service, in doing so we further the biblical illiteracy of our congregations. Certainly it is far easier and cheaper to display a few short verses on a screen than purchase pew Bibles. But rather than minimizing people’s access to Scripture, the church should be placing the Scriptures before them and bringing those passages to life.

I strongly believe in the motto of the reformers to be “Reformed, always reforming,” but have come to understand it better to mean, “Reformed in our theology, always reforming in our methodology.” Reformed churches need to continue their creative exploration of how to be culturally engaged while retaining the centrality of God in worship and the centrality of Scripture in our lives. As Reformed churches consider their future in the twenty-first century, we need to be careful that our worship modes do not contradict our theological principles. Reverting to pre-Reformation worship can be avoided by providing access to the Bible for worshipers, proclaiming God’s Word in the local church (and in person), and seeking to focus our attention on God rather than on the individual. By doing so we invite the full congregation not to remain passive observers but to be participants in the worship of God.