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John Calvin and Our Identity as Reformed Worshipers

It’s been a good year to reflect on Reformed identity in the context of corporate worship. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation has provided ample opportunity to revisit the roots of our joint worship distinctives and practices. There is nothing more “reformed” than going back to the sources to reorient ourselves toward faithfulness in the present.  

As a worship director in a Christian Reformed Church, I’ve been particularly interested in revisiting John Calvin’s thoughts on worship and the development of the Genevan tradition. Karin Maag’s book Lifting Hearts to the Lord: Worship with John Calvin in Sixteenth-Century Geneva has been an accessible entrance into my own investigation of Reformed worship.

Calvin’s Forward to the Genevan Psalter

This week, reading Maag’s book, I came across John Calvin’s Forward to the Genevan Psalter (1545). It’s a fascinating document that still reverberates as a relevant introduction to the foundations of Reformed worship identity.

Calvin starts by framing his theology of worship within the context of church attendance and participation. He understands regular church attendance and community involvement as a  necessary component of Christian discipleship. It is a bedrock that some take for granted. In my own Northern California context, weekly church attendance is a radical idea. Our church has a small core group of weekly attenders, but most “regular” attenders of our church show up once or twice a month. An individualistic and “rootless” culture, compounded by little communal pressure to attend church, means that those who choose to come to church really want to be there. On the other hand, this results in stunted individual spiritual growth and difficult soil for growing a vibrant and stable community. This aspect of our ministry is a regular source of frustration.

In spite of this struggle, there has never been a Sunday when no one showed up. The people of God still gather for corporate worship. When they do, Calvin encourages us to take our cues from those who have gone before us, tracing the threads of form and content that every generation of believers has practiced together.

Participation, Practice, and Form

First off, Calvin is concerned that all those gathered are able to participate and are mutually edified. Everyone should be able to know and understand what is going on when we gather for worship. In addition, intelligible worship should be intentional and ordered. These two things contribute to the ability of every worshiper to participate and understand. For Calvin, this means maintaining a fidelity to historic worship forms and practices built around hearing and speaking the words of Scripture, preaching, and the sacraments. These regular practices are non-negotiable aspects of Calvin’s theology because he believes that they were ordained by God. He repeatedly points to the fact that his theology is predicated on the thoughts and practices of those who came before him, all the way back to the Apostles. In regards to the regular practice of the sacraments, he emphasizes consistent explanation and connection to the rest of our worship, lest they become meaningless or seem magical. Understanding encourages participation! These elements are gifts given to us by God, that we have received by His Spirit, through those who have come before us.

In the same vein, Calvin suggests that a formal liturgy of the prayers and sacraments should be published as a baseline for all local churches. This only strengthens the possibility for participation, highlights our dependance on a faith that is received and is a witness of unity to those outside our particular churches.

Songs and Psalms

Finally, Calvin turns his attention to the practice of prayer and song. He says that there are two kinds of public prayers: those with words and those with song. Both are foundational components of worship that have been with the church from the beginning. Music is particularly important because of it’s ability to affect the heart. It is a gift from God that recreates people. Since it has this power, worshipers must be careful not to abuse this gift. In other words, music is not a “neutral” medium. It is to be used within the context of the church to cultivate virtue and prayer.

Calvin suggests that there are different spheres in which we experience music. Songs sung in church should be set apart from those used to entertain people, because they are specifically directed towards God—in his presence. Church music should be different because of its function as worship and prayer. He points all the way back to Plato and Augustine in making his case for critical application of worship music. Songs should be, “. . . neither light nor frivolous, but have gravity and majesty, as St. Augustine says.” This does not mean that church music should merely be dull or utilitarian. Church songs should be infectious enough that men, women, and children find themselves singing them outside of church. The cultivation of joy, virtue, wisdom, and justice are the primary purpose of prayers with song. As such, both the melody and the words are important. The medium is as important as the message and they both have the power to affect the heart for better or worse.

Calvin argues that the the Psalms are primary when addressing God in prayer and worship, “. . . when we have looked thoroughly everywhere and searched high and low, we shall find no better songs nor more appropriate to the purpose than the Psalms of David . . . when we sing them, we are certain that God puts the words in our mouths . . .” ("Epistle to the Reader," in The Form of Church Prayers) The Genevan Psalter was predicated on the historic conviction that men, women, and children should be taught to sing and meditate on the Psalms to learn the Christian’s primary language for prayer.

Preaching, Prayer, and the Sacraments

It is well worth restating that Calvin’s convictions have always been at the core of Reformed identity. Calvin and his contemporaries point to the necessity of these practices because of their congruence with the church through the ages (Acts 2:42). For the Reformers these fundamental aspects of corporate worship are rooted in the larger context of historic four-fold forms of worship. This makes it possible to order, emphasize, and preserve these elements as our guideposts.

I’m not sure that many contemporary Reformed churches could be accused of a lack of preaching, but I do think that corporate prayer rooted in the Psalms, and the practice of the sacraments have fallen on hard times. In spite of the wonderful work of the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship and resources like The Worship Sourcebook and Psalms for All Seasons, Reformed worshipers struggle to find an identity that is adequately rooted in the past enough to be sustainable in the future. There are many churches concerned with retaining a Reformed catholic identity, but I wonder if this is more the exception than the rule. Like Calvin in his day, we have a responsibility to engage with our past at the risk of losing faithfulness in our present.  

Without these definitions (compelled by our larger ecclesial bodies), we are in danger of building myopic traditions that in practice have only meager connections to the historic Christian faith. Are many within our Reformed circles losing their corporate worship identity? Our increasingly fragmented churches risk losing a united witness in a fragmented society.

My dip this year into the pool of Reformed waters has been refreshing. I hope you have been enticed to dive in yourself! The waters are deep and there are treasures waiting to be re-discovered and brought up to the shores of our own time.

Here are a few practical question and ideas for further meditation and action.

Questions for Reflection

  • When was the last time a Psalm (said or sung) was part of corporate worship at your church?
  • Are you or your children able to quote, or meaningfully recount, the content of any other Psalm besides Psalm 23?
  • Does your church have a baptismal font?
  • If so, where is it placed? Is it prominent? How often is it used?
  • How often is baptism referred to by your worship leaders?
  • How often is your congregation fed at the Lord’s Table?
  • Does your pastor explain what is happening at the Table?
  • Do worshipers understand how the sacraments are connected to regular weekly worship and the practice of their faith?
  • Do your congregants understand how baptism and the Lord’s Table connects them to Christ and other Christians around the world?  
  • How often does your congregation intentionally and formally pray?
  • Does your congregation make use of any formal liturgies or prayers that connect your worshipers to congregations and saints outside of themselves, around the world, and throughout time?

Small Steps Toward Reformed Worship Identity

  • Make it a goal as a worship leader to incorporate one psalm in your service every week. The guidance of the Revised Common Lectionary makes this particularly easy.
  • If you aren't interested in following the lectionary, take a look at the Worship Sourcebook (2nd Ed.) and Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship.
  • Explore various ways to sing the Psalms. Psalm singing is one of the most beautiful things that the Reformed tradition has to offer the wider church! Check out a list of eclectic Psalms playlists here: https://open.spotify.com/user/pmajorins
  • Find at least one well-known historic prayer and commit to using it at an appropriate place in your service.
  • Learn about the basic 5-book structure of the Psalms.
  • Start praying the Lord’s Prayer together in corporate worship settings.
  • Work on clearly articulating why the Reformed tradition places such a high emphasis on practicing the sacraments.
  • Work with your pastor to draft a brief explanatory transition connecting the sermon to the significance of the Lord’s Table the next time your church takes Communion.
  • Track the balance of time devoted to prayer (spoken and sung), preaching, and the sacraments during your weekly services. Are they balanced?
  • Besides your pastor, choose at least 3 other people to take part in leading worship every Sunday.
  • Track how much Scripture (besides the sermon text) your congregation is exposed to on a weekly basis.

Additional Resources from Reformed Worship