The Best of Times? The Worst of Times? Snapshots of worship styles

By some accounts, the worship situation in churches today has reached an all-time low— "the worst of times." Others disagree. They think that the church has broken out of encrusted habits and is yielding to the working of the Spirit. We are finally worshiping "as God wants us to"—"the best of times."

Who's right? Although there's no easy answer to that question, dipping into a few recent articles and books and mixing in a bit of commentary and history may help us evaluate our liturgical situation.

The November 1995 issue of the Calvin Theological Journal carried an article on worship by D. G. Hart, of Westminster Seminary. Hart is not enamored with contemporary worship. The following phrases are direct quotations from his description of contemporary (especially Praise & Worship) practices:

Hostility to tradition, intellectual standards, and good taste; mantra-like repetition; songs from the 1970s, the decade of disco, leisure suits, and long hair; inability to make distinctions between good and bad poetry and music; what the P&W crowd really wants is a very narrow range of musical and lyrical expression; liturgical skits which ape TV sitcoms, and the informal style of ministers which follows the antics of late-night TV talk shows; what stands out about P&W is the aura of teenage piety; one searches in vain through the praise songs, the liturgical dramas for an adequate expression of the historic truths of the faith; as long as people are lifting up and swaying their arms, tilting back their heads and closing their eyes, then the Spirit must be present and the worship genuine.

In addition, says Hart, people who espouse contemporary worship are particularly thin-skinned: "Arguments against P&W are usually taken personally, becoming an affront to the feelings of contemporary worshipers." They are also rather dense, since they "go glassy-eyed" when presented with the claims of traditional hymns. The collapse of Protestantism can be laid at their door as well: "Through P&W the church is becoming dumber at the same time that multiculturalism is dumbing-down the university."

One can only conclude that Mr. Hart was absent when his college freshman English class covered "hasty generalizations" and "ad hominem" arguments. Hart's article might have had some redeeming value if he had proffered a worthy alternative. But his conception of "Reformed worship" is an odd mixture that includes Moody and Sankey gospel songs, a C. S. Lewis dictum, the Book of Common Prayer (which was despised by English and Scottish Presbyterians), participation in the "conversation of the West," and, of course, Mr. Hart's "good taste."

The other extreme of the worship spectrum came to me in a personal note. A pastor reported that "in our congregation the rigid worship habits of the previous decades have been melted as the Spirit has breathed on us. Sixteenth-century droning has been replaced with Spirit-filled songs from our time and our hearts." In other words—the best of worship times have arrived. But I'm afraid that this congregation has lost all sense of rootage in the church: current songs are automatically valued over our musical heritage, and MacLiturgy has taken over.

And now a bit of church-musical history for perspective. A denomination probably not very well known, the Churches of Christ (Restoration Movement), is facing liturgical controversies and looking in its past to find perspective. In the 1800s the Churches of Christ were engaged in another worship controversy around this question: Should congregations continue to sing without accompaniment, or should they introduce organ accompaniment? (The same debate took place among various Reformed and Presbyterian groups—and continues till today). The more progressive folk argued for the latter. After all, what better way to appeal to those outside the church then by offering organ music? "One leading motive for the introduction of instrumental music was to make the worship attractive to visitors." The traditionalists were scandalized. How could one stoop to such worldly blandishments? One pastor wrote: "Am I told that it is expedient because 'it attracts the world?' I beg leave to state that the worship of the Lord's house was not ordained for the world. Is the church of the Lord Jesus Christ to be brought down to the standard of the world?"

Or again: "These 'bleating machines' have the tendency to formalize, secularize, and carnalize our worship" (Restoration Quarterly, 38, 4, pp. 193-203).

Sound familiar? Don't we hear the same arguments used today about the introduction of synthesizers and drums?

Various readers will draw different conclusions from this historical snapshot. At the least it suggests that one ought to exercise great care in distinguishing taste, custom, and prejudice from biblical principle.

A related controversy took place closer to the church home of some of us. A recently published book, Albertus C. Van Raalte: Dutch Leader and American Patriot, recounts the hymn dispute that took place in the Dutch immigrant community in the nineteenth century. The immigrants had settled in western Michigan in 1847 and joined what is now called the Reformed Church in America (RCA). A number of issues soon clouded this union, but a principal one was the RCA's custom of singing hymns, whereas most of the immigrants sang only versified psalms. Songs of human composition should not, they said, be sung by Reformed Christians. Van Raalte's wife "was criticized for attending a concert of sacred music, because the music was not confined to the Psalms . . . , and hymn singing marked people and churches as wicked" (p. 97).

History is often filled with ironies, and so is this episode. Those who militated against hymn singing formed what later became the Christian Reformed Church. In 1934 this church published its first Psalter Hymnal, containing 140 hymns! With our hindsight it is tempting to pass snide judgment on nineteenth-century benighted souls for their narrow views of church music, or to fault them for their refusal to sing "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today." But the question of singing hymns with questionable theology was an honest and important one. The fault lay in the spirit in which the controversy was conducted, in the issuing of reckless charges of heresy and worldliness.

And now a snapshot of an American Presbyterian tradition: Some of us (especially those with a more conservative bent) at times long for the worship practices of previous generations. And of course there is much to admire in the historical church. But one ought to admire with some reserve. One contemporary from 1800 described Presbyterian singing as "serious severe screaming quite beyond the natural pitch of the voice, a wandering search after the [tune] by many who never caught it___The dogs seized the occasion to bark (for they always came to Kirk with the family), and the babies to cry." Another preacher had to warn a congregation: "Do not whisper, talk, gaze about. Do not practice that unseemly, rude, indecent Custom of Chewing or of spitting, which is very ridiculous and absurd in Public, especially in God's House" ("The Genuine Presbyterian Whine': Presbyterian Worship in the Eighteenth Century," American Presbyterians, Fall 1996, pp. 157-170).

Let me close with another contemporary voice. A fairly new journal on the Christian publishing scene, regeneration, devoted its Winter 1997 issue largely to worship. The editors tried hard to be inclusive, but the overall tilt is definitely toward the traditional and highbrow. The issue is well written and well worth reading. I'll quote one citation I resonate with: "The truth is that when I'm among the innovators, I'm often pressing for tradition—hymns, silence, a bit of mystery to counteract our media-fed busyness. Among the conservatives, though, I'm constantly restraining my impulse to cut loose. A good bass player and some reggae could do wonders for St. James's" (Andy Crouch, "A Humbling Experience: Contemporary Worship's Simple Aesthetic"). I wish I had said that.

What did I learn (again) from my recent readings? Worship controversies are alive and not doing well for some congregations.

But there's another side to these sometimes fractious discussions. Many congregations are, for the first time, asking searching questions about worship and worship customs. Whenever I am invited to lead a series of discussions about worship in an adult church school class ("we've got this problem about music"), I am struck by the fact that people are eager to study biblical worship, the history of worship, and the implications for their congregation.

Second, it seems obvious that the deliberations do not gain much from the intemperate extremes in the discussion. Such extremes and caricatures will confirm allies and arouse the cheering section but will not do much to advance understanding and congregational unity.

Finally, these are neither the best nor the worst of worship times. Throughout the history of the church we find a mixture of biblical worship patterns and strange liturgical concoctions. Let us, in our slice of God's time and in our corner of his kingdom, worship him as best we can—because, as always, great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.

 

Excerpt

FAREWELL TO HARRY BOONSTRA

With this issue we bid farewell to Harry Boonstra as associate editor of Reformed Worship, a role he has filled since we began more than ten years ago. In his farewell letter to the staff, he writes, "I have seldom enjoyed an association as much as I have had working with the RW staff. However, I hope to do more preaching and be involved in other writing projects." We'll miss Harry, especially his wit and good humor at our staff meetings. And we hope he might also find room to write for us on occasion.

Best wishes, Harry!

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.