In general, evangelical worship in America has become radically informal, presumptuously innovative, and biblically impoverished. Much of this is largely due to the abandonment of God-centered, biblically regulated liturgy. The arrogance of modern evangelicalism has served to shelve a Protestant liturgical heritage which, for centuries, has faithfully led Christians to worship God biblically and to nourish their faith upon Christ through the ordinary means of Word and sacrament.
The eclipse of biblical worship and liturgy led John Calvin in 1544 to write and send a tract entitled “The Necessity of Reforming the Church” to Emperor Charles V, who was, at the time, presiding over an Imperial Diet at Spires, Germany. Calvin hoped to persuade the emperor of the need to bring reform to the unbiblical and innovative worship that plagued the Roman Catholic Church. It was the Word of God and not man-made substitutes that needed to be the foundation, guide, and substance of public worship. The French Reformer wrote:
"… there is a two-fold reason why the Lord, in condemning and prohibiting all fictitious worship, requires us to give obedience only to his own voice. First, it tends greatly to establish his authority that we do not follow our own pleasure, but depend entirely on his sovereignty; and, secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray. And then when once we have turned aside from the right path, there is no end to our wanderings, until we get buried under a multitude of superstitions. Justly, therefore, does the Lord, in order to assert his full right of dominion, strictly enjoin what he wishes us to do, and at once reject all human devices which are at variance with his command. Justly, too, does he, in express terms, define our limits, that we may not, by fabricating perverse modes of worship, provoke his anger against us."
Although Calvin penned these words over 450 years ago, they powerfully speak to our own age wherein the design and focus of public worship has turned into a quest to satisfy “our own pleasure” (felt needs) rather than submit to the voice of God in Scripture. “Perverse modes of worship” characterize not only the sixteenth century Mass, but also twenty-first century evangelical worship. Exciting, multi-member praise bands have replaced Scripture saturated prayer and the unified proclamation of historic creeds. Drama and therapeutic messages have undermined the authoritative reading and preaching of God’s Word. The best of theologically rich, soul stirring Psalmody and hymnody have been supplanted by shallow, “I”- centered praise choruses. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have been reduced to empty symbols which are quickly de-mystified (sacramentum = mystery) as not conveying grace and spiritual nourishment to the redeemed. To summarize, the means that God ordained and established for the salvation of His people (Word, sacraments, and prayer) have been, at best, minimized, and, at worst, lost to the imaginations and pleasures of our hearts. Indeed, it is the discarding of biblically regulated, reverential, God-centered, historic, Protestant liturgical worship which has, in part, created in the American church an unsophisticated version of medieval Rome, that is, where the real authority is man, not God.
When Christians think of liturgy they often think in terms of high Anglican worship or a Roman Mass. The truth, however, is that all Christian worship services have a liturgy or an order of worship. In some of the more spontaneous expressions of Christian worship the liturgy may be more difficult to decipher, but it’s there. Whether a church is traditional or contemporary, heavily structured or less so, every worship service follows some type of form.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines liturgy as “a prescribed form of public worship.” Notice that liturgy is defined as a prescribed form, signifying that something has authoritatively imposed its form. In the case of Christian liturgy, that “something” which must prescribe the form is the Word of God. Further, the Bible must prescribe not only the form of worship but also the substance of worship; because form without substance leads to formalism. Suffice it to say, if the form and substance of a worship service is not prescribed by God’s Word, it can hardly be called Christian worship.
A biblically regulated liturgy preserves and promotes God-exalting, Christ-centered, Spirit-filled worship. Of course, even with a well ordered liturgy it is possible for a person to merely go through the motions. But isn’t this true of any “style” or form of worship? Whether a church is confessing a creed or swaying to the music, both will possess congregants who will inevitably be insincere. Hence, the church’s prescribed order of worship must not be ruled by whatever we think will enliven hearts – something we ultimately cannot control. Rather, the inspired and authoritative Word of God must be the source and substance of our liturgy, thereby setting forth the means that God has promised to bless in the lives of His redeemed children.
Every Lord’s Day at Christ Church we follow a set liturgy that seldom if ever varies. We want our members to know that each week in public worship they will be called to worship through the reading of God’s Word, sing Psalms and theologically profound hymns, hear the reading of a substantial portion of God’s Word, confess their sin, hear an assurance of God’s pardon from Scripture, confess their faith in the words of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, engage in an ample amount of reverent prayer, give tithes and offerings, hear the Scripture proclaimed, taught, and applied through expository preaching, participate in the covenant renewing sacraments, and finally receive the glorious departing blessing of God through the biblical words of benediction.
It is through the ordained means of grace that our heavenly Father has promised to save and nourish His church. A good liturgy will protect, ensure, and promote those means of grace. If God has promised to bless the faithful giving and receiving of these ordinances (Word, sacrament, prayer) why wouldn’t we want to preserve an order of worship – a liturgy – that guarantees those means will be set forth?
- Pastor Jon