Worship in a Blender: What remains distinctive about Reformed worship?

Just what is Reformed worship, anyway?

It is possible today to go to a church in the Reformed tradition and find worship influences from all sorts of directions— low and high church, charismatic and evangelical, liturgical and . . . well, of course, Reformed. Such variety raises the question in many minds of whether there is anything distinctive about Reformed worship.

The Trend Toward Convergence

A remarkable convergence is taking place (described well in Robert Webber's latest book, Signs of Wonder, Nashville: Ab-bott-Martyn Press, 1992). The charismatic tradition has brought a new spirit of freshness and freedom to worship. The evangelical tradition and the church-growth movement have spurred churches to consider their evangelistic role. The liturgical tradition has brought a new depth to our understanding of tlie communion with the saints in all times and places. The experimentation evident within virtually all denominations has blurred their distinctiveness.

I often think back to a conversation I had with a Roman Catholic priest about the profound changes in that church since Vatican II. It used to be, he said, that the priest stood with his back to the people, speaking in Latin, representing the people before God. Now he faces the people, speaks directly to them in their own language, and has a newly articulated responsibility: "the primary duty of priests is the proclamation of the gospel of God to all."

Emily R. Brink is editor of RW and music and liturgy editor for CRC Publications.

But there is more. The people also have a new role in worship. It is no longer the priest who "does" the worship while the people observe. Catholics are learning to sing. Different people read Scripture or lead the singing, and the assembly (their word for "congregation") can often hear scripturally sound preaching. In short, contemporary Roman Catholic worship has moved closer to a Reformed approach to worship.

In the more liturgical traditions—Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopalian—tlie structure and even tlie content of worship is largely prescribed. Churches in these traditions go "by the book." It is in performing the prescribed liturgy that the opportunity for diversity comes, based on the cultural and musical diversity within the particular parish.

In contrast, in churches within the Reformed tradition the order of worship is a matter of tradition, not prescription. Denominations and journals like Reformed Worship may provide liturgies, but churches can take them or leave them.

Ironically, worship in some traditional Reformed churches reminds me of pre-Vatican II Catholic churches. With one exception-—congregational singing—the people are passive participants as the minister takes the roles of priest and prophet, speaking both for the people and for God. The liturgy is virtually the same every Sunday.

Asking Different Questions

In denominations that don't have a prescribed order of worship, whatever cohesion is left is largely a matter of social homogeneity. Perhaps, then, the loss of homogeneity is not really such a loss. Perhaps the remarkable convergence that is taking place in all traditions will help the larger body of Christ concentrate on what makes the church Christian, rather than on what makes it Reformed, or Roman Catholic, or Pentecostal.

What is not so clear is whether we can afford the absence of an agreed-upon basic structure, pattern, and even some of the content for public worship. The freedom given churches in the Reformed tradition is both heady and frightening. The overwhelming desire in our time for a powerful "worship experience" has the potential to relegate both form and content to tlie strongest voices in particular congregations. Pietistic evangelical and charismatic influences are much more evident in Reformed congregations than those from the liturgical traditions.

On what basis should Reformed church leaders make liturgical decisions about what is appropriate in our worship? Worship practices from different traditions must be appropriated in a way that honors our theological heritage and yet addresses contemporary worship issues. But who decides? Is there a role left for denominations here? Or is each congregation on its own?

When the Second Vatican Council began, the first document published was on worship (Constitution on tlie Sacred Liturgy, 1963). Only after they addressed that important issue, did they tackle other issues, such as ecclesiology and church order. In contrast, Reformed scholars work largely on other issues, and the study of worship is still strangely peripheral in curricula of Reformed seminaries.

It is high time for Reformed scholars to bend their efforts more in the direction of worship. Exciting currents of worship are moving people in many different directions. If new pastors don't learn principles of worship at the seminary, how will they sort through the complex set of influences that most congregations wrestle with every Sunday?

Emily R. Brink (embrink@calvin.edu) is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.


Reformed Worship 31 © March 1994, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.