Category Archives: Worship

Music Outside of the Church Liturgy

No, I’m not talking about whether Rock, Pop, Christian Pop, etc., are evil. I’m thinking about music written using Scripture passages for the libretto but was condemned as mere entertainment. Anything come to mind? Right! Handel’s Messiah. Today marks the anniversary of Handel’s death. And in a way, what is now considered Handel’s masterpiece died shortly after it was written.

It was denied success in London. Many believers were appalled because the “Messiah” was not music for a church service but a “Grand Musical Entertainment” (Jennens). They considered that these Bible passages should only be heard in a liturgical setting. The Bishop of London forbade any performance in an Anglican church.

This was when the regulative principle went too far, in my opinion. The issue for me is not the music (though I deplore those who try to jazz it up with a pop style.) I have had the privilege of participating in The Messiah’s performance several times. What bothers me most is that some people believed that the Scripture passages were debased if not heard in a liturgical setting. How could it be performed in a church when the Bishop of London forbade it?

Give the Bishop some credit, though, because he believed that the composition was inappropriate for liturgical worship. However, it could have been performed at another time than a worship service. (I realize that the Anglican Church thought the Sanctuary was a holy place reserved exclusively for liturgical worship.) Today, churches allow many things to be done in a “sanctuary” that are probably inappropriate. We have swung quite away from the old tradition when we suggest that the church is just a building and the Sanctuary just a meeting space. Such an attitude is reinforced by churches making an auditorium with a stage for a sanctuary.

Anyone I know who has entered a grand cathedral or one of the many large Roman Catholic churches has come away with a sense of God’s awesomeness. When you speak in one of these churches, you drop your voice to a whisper because it feels like God’s presence surrounds you. We don’t need a cathedral to make a holy space where God is worshipped. But churches usually are structures anyone can recognize as the place people go to worship the one God. Add to that the absence of the symbols of a church within the Sanctuary. When did we throw out great pipe organs? What about the pulpit that reminds us that the preaching of the Word is authorized by God himself?

Sorry. Back to Handel. The music to which the Scriptures are set wells up within the soul and lifts us up. The Scriptures chosen for this piece tell the gospel story of the life of Christ, our Savior, from the prophecies that promise a way prepared for God the Son to enter human life. He is presented in all of his humanity and all of his deity. So, even if the oratorio is “Grand Musical Entertainment,” it presents the Gospel of Christ to those who do not know or believe the story. For those of us who can hear Scriptures presented individually and as a whole in such a way that we can be opened to deeper understanding.

When I began in the pastoral ministry, I thought I had to do something unique and different for Christmas and Easter sermons. Now I am older, and I have become convinced that following the church calendar is not mere tradition. Instead, it is an annual re-living the Gospel. Christmas is to remember and experience what the shepherds saw, what Simeon and Anna experienced, what the magi traveled so far to see and worship. We need to hear this story every year. We need to remember the story of the resurrection of Christ. For that matter, it is good to hear of Christ’s baptism by John, his ascension to the throne of the universe, all of the gospel. I believe that Christmas is kind of empty if I can’t start the day with morning worship. When did we lose that awe of hearing the multitude of angels singing? When did Christmas become a private celebration for feasting and opening presents? Handel’s Messiah helps us restore the gospel, for, in it, we relive the life of Christ, which in whole, it is the foundation of our faith.

I looked back at my life, and I realized that when I was closest to my Lord, I attended Christmas Eve and Christmas morning worship. It was when I led Ascension Day services, poorly attended because it is always a mid-week celebration. When I was a participant every year within the gospel.

Life outside the Church has become all too important. We don’t want to miss a thing. We use day planners and “smart” phones to keep our day on track. What have we done? What is more important than Christ. Jesus is present with us in the Church and in the Church’s worship. Why is it so hard to go to church more than once a week (excluding non-worship activities)? I think that is why being with the elderly is important. Those old Christians can’t wait to enter the permanent presence of Christ.

So, hat’s off to you, Georg Friedrich Handel. May you enjoy the blessings of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for you gave the world one of the most magnificent works of art that keeps the gospel before us.

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To Regulate or Not to Regulate

All the earth worships you and sings praises to you; they sing praises to your name. Selah

Psalm 66:4, ESV

The last time I wrote, the question I asked related to whether worship services needed to be Liturgical or free flowing. At least part of the answer to that question has to do with how you define the terms “worship” and “liturgical.” There is another question that must be answered as well. It has to do with the Regulative Principle.

The regulative principle simply put says that worshipped must be ordered by the Scriptures and only by them. I don’t really know many Evangelical or even Reformed churches that apply the regulative principle to their worship. It they did, worship services would be much more reflective and probably with no rock ‘n roll.

Don’t get me wrong. I grew up in the sixties and seventies and I love rock ‘n roll music, at least much of it. However, the use of electric guitars, drums, and electronic keyboards make it more difficult for me to focus on God rather than my own personal likes. The other problem I have with much of the music used in church worship services today are the lyrics. The authors of these songs are generally bad poets and even worse theologians.

I do listen to a lot of Christian rock and pop music and I am sometimes inspired by the music, even to the point of ignoring the poor lyrics. However, the music is designed to “bring people in” rather than to direct hearts upward. Please don’t tell me that music is only a preference and all music can be used rightly or wrongly. My opinion is that anything left in the hands of human desire are bound to lead away from Christ, not to him. Many years ago, my wife and I attended a worship service in a mid-west mega church. When we left the church (by the way, where no one noticed us or recognized we were the strangers their services were geared for), we looked at each other and both said, “When does worship start?”

Feed the flesh and you only get flesh back. Feed the Spirit and you are lifted up while you are bowing down.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Romans 8:5–8, ESV

The benefit of the regulative principle is significant. First, our worship should remind us that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of God.” Why should we strive to live biblically driven lives if we don’t even try to worship as God would desire. Second, it keep the focus on worship on God, not on any supposed benefit we would like to get from attending Sunday morning church. Pastors will be grateful for a flock that wants to ask questions of the sermon and not judge whether it kept them awake or not. And church members would not have to look for a new church because there are not enough special programs for every member of the family. Every one in the family should be together throughout the service from infant through teenager. The argument I often hear to challenge that is, “Children can’t follow the message like adults can,” and, “church is not exciting to make Christianity relevant to them, they get bored.”

Third, worship is something learned, not some ecstatic, impromptu response to what God has done for us. Another way of putting it, worship is not about the expression of our feelings. It is an act of obedience to the call of God to “Exalt the Lord our God; worship at his footstool! Holy is he!” (Psalm 99:5, ESV) I will not suggest that worship does not result in feelings, but it is much like love. To love is to serve; to be loved is to receive. There is no doubt that our obedience in worship often results in God’s blessings, that which St. Ignatius de Loyola called “consolation.”

In our instant scientifically prove it society, I do not doubt that the next question is, “So where does the Bible say how we are to worship?” Not to be flip in my answer, but where does it not say how we are to worship? Return with me to creation and the first humans. Did not God instruct Adam and Eve what to do with that which he created? And did he also tell them what not to do? To listen to the serpent over and above God’s instruction was really placing themselves above God. The worshipped the creation and not the creator, to cite Paul in Romans 1. We can even go to Adam and Eve’s children, Cain and Abel. They both labored hard at their work. The both brought the fruit of their labor as an offering to the Lord.

And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.

Genesis 4:4–5, ESV

No where are we made privy to any instructions God had given people about worshipping with gifts. He had to sometime and somewhere, because Abel’s offering was regarded and Cain’s was not. Without speculating why this was so, we can safely say that Abel worshipped God as God desired and Cain had not. Abraham was given specific direction how he was to worship God, and how his household was to worship, too. Moses and Aaron were instructed how to build the tabernacle and how to worship. Every time his instructions were not observed, disaster came upon the Israelites. You can even see such self determined worship in the book of Judges for repeatedly,

And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger. They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth.

Judges 2:11–13, ESV

The next objection I often hear is, “But we are not under law, but under grace.” This is both right and wrong. According to Matthew, Jesus came to “fulfill” the law. Right! But we cannot define and defend doctrine by a single verse. We can read the whole passage.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17–20, ESV

First, Jesus does not say that he came to end the Law or the Prophets. He speaks of fulfilling them. How are they fulfilled? By Christ’s obedience. However, that he obeyed every law by living a perfect human life, nowhere is it implied that the value of the Law is no more. Instead, he warns against anyone who would “relax” even the least of the Laws, they can expect the same from God. Finally, the lesson is not that the law is no more but that his disciples are called to have a righteousness that exceeds that of those who were the best legalists of his day, the scribes and the Pharisees.

I have not understood the argument that we are not under law but under grace. In the same way as we are today, the Jews of history could claim the same. Why? Because salvation has never been accomplished by obedience to the Law. Salvation has always been according to the grace of God. Some of the Old Testament Laws have been completed once and for all, such as the sacrifice of a lamb for the atonement of sins. To continue the bloody sacrifices is to deny the efficacy of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice.

Nevertheless, no one has ever been able to claim they were not required to follow God’s law. Even Jesus is reported to have said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19–20, ESV) We may not want to call Christ’s commands the Law of God, but since Jesus came to do his Father’s will, I think it is fair to say that the will of God is displayed in his Law.

Returning to the topic at hand, Bible believing Christians stake their lives on the Word of God. Except when it comes down to a conflict with their own will. I cannot dodge the indictment either. Yet, our lives are to be drawing closer to Christ every day. And closer to Christ does not mean to feel closer and more loved by him, we already have the whole love of God. Drawing closer must refer to greater obedience to him, to his commands. And God has given us plenty to study in order to apply all of his commands to life and worship.

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Liturgical Worship

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.

Psalm 29:2, ESV

I believe that the primary activity of the Christian and the Church is to worship God. I think there is sufficient biblical support to this idea and the Westminster Shorter Catechism states it in the answer to the very first question.

What is the chief end of man?
Man’ s chief end is to glorify God, (1 Cor. 10:31, Rom. 11:36) and to enjoy him for ever. (Ps. 73:25–28)

Here is what A. A. Hodge wrote about these words “IN QUESTION FIRST affirms that by nature man is a religious being, created with the ultimate design of promoting the glory of God, and so constituted as to find his highest and permanent blessedness in his communion and service. The first of the great corner-stones upon which the theology of our Catechism rests is, consequently, the religious nature and endowments of man and the validity of his moral and spiritual intuitions. [1]

Is there any Christian in the world that does not believe we are to worship God often and regularly? Probably not. Yet, the issue of worship has been an issue of debate in every church I have served. What’s all the fuss about? Why do people choose a church or leave a church because they don’t like the worship?

It appears to me that the greatest tension over worship during my lifetime revolves around the words “traditional” and “contemporary.” Labels can be constructive helps to understanding. Or they can become the focus rather than lead to the truth. What do these two words mean? It depends upon who you ask. There are general characteristics attached to these words which have nothing to do with the words themselves.

LiturgicalFree and Spirit led
Robes; vestments; suits and dressesnone of the traditional – wear whatever you want
has a SanctuaryDoes not have a Sanctuary and often has a stage
Candles and possibly Incense are usedFire hazards – very limited use
Large Pipe Organ provides musical directionsemi Rock Band plays the music
May have someone direct the singing, but no director is more commonLed by a Worship Leader or Praise Team
Feels FormalFeels Casual
Sings old hymns that are barely comprehendedSinge contemporary Pop Songs
Long Sermons that take work to listen toLong talks that elicit an emotional response
Kid unfriendlyKid friendly
Worship is objectiveWorship is subjective

You may agree or disagree with these things, and you may have others to list. However, these two styles of worship have divided the people of God. Any division of the unity of God’s people is not supposed to be in the Christian playbook. So there have been attempts to bring the two sides together. Some of them include giving the word “liturgy” a different meaning suggesting that both traditional and contemporary worship has liturgy. I’m not sure they really know what liturgy is because so many Christians in America have never attended a church that uses liturgy. Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, older Reformed, and Presbyterian are examples that use liturgy.

Liturgy cannot be simplified by saying it is just a church service’s order. If that is the case, it is true that every church, no matter how formal or informal, would have a liturgy. But Liturgy refers not only to the order but to the way everything in a service is done. For example, a few years back, I attended another church, and it was communion Sunday. They had four stations around the room containing bread, juice, and a candle. During the welcoming time, the pastor told everyone that they are free to go take communion anytime they felt like it. This, to me, is the opposite of Liturgy.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.

1 Corinthians 11:23–27, ESV

Growing up, every church my parents took me to at least quoted part of the 1 Corinthians passage. Additionally, communion was distributed to everyone so that the eating and drinking were done together. That practice came closer to Liturgy because it had Biblical instruction with the participants following the commands to eat and drink. The participant was also reminded that the Lord’s Supper was not just something that we do in church once a month. It is something we have been commanded to follow as a part of worship, and it’s purpose is to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

When I was a minister in the Christian Reformed Church, the week before the Lord’s Supper, we took the time to read a form explaining why the supper, who is called to the supper, and how each person should prepare themselves for the supper. Some churches read the form(s) on the day of the Lord’s Supper just before serving it. This is Liturgy. Whether you agree with the form or how the service is performed, there are a couple of things to note. First, serving and receiving the Lord’s Supper is an act of obedience to the Lord by mandate of the Scriptures. Obedience is something one does for a superior, so it is an act of humility. Second, to not take the supper or to not follow Christ’s instructions are acts of rebellion. Rebellion is disobedience, and those who disobey are claiming authority over Christ.

To say that a Church is Liturgical is to identify it as a place where God’s people gather to worship the Lord according to his precepts. Churches that use a Book of Common Worship are churches that take seriously that God has ordered worship and that worship has little to do with human emotional reactions. Instead, worship is an act of cheerful submission and obedience to God. I like the reference to the Lord’s Supper as the Eucharist. The title means to give thanks for grace. For me, that concept is what the supper is all about, and it is what Christianity is all about.

There is more to say, which I will in coming blogs. We need to understand more about the Eucharist and its place in worship. And we need to understand what worship really is. Much of what goes on in many churches on Sunday mornings is not worship, but doing things to please man and, to a large degree, ignore God.

[1] Archibald Alexander Hodge, J. Aspinwall Hodge, The System of Theology Contained in the Westminster Shorter Catechism: Opened and Explained., (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1888), 8.

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