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For the past two years, I’ve taught Reformed Worship here in the Philippines. The results have given me some encouragement.
Several years ago, the leaders of a church in Metro Manila slowly adopted Reformed worship as a result of teaching them on this subject. In turn, their pastor taught it to another church north of Manila, and they too completely changed their worship service (and their doctrines too!). A few pastors and elders would eventually ask their churches, “If this is what the Scriptures say we should do in worship, why are we not doing it?”
A few seminary students have commented, “I always thought that as long as you’re sincerely worshiping God, anything you do in worship is acceptable.” One even expressed surprise after I demonstrated Reformed worship to the class, “I’ve been in this seminary for four years, but I’ve never seen worship like this!”
I keep talking about “Reformed” worship. What is Reformed worship? It’s none other than worship recovered by the 16th century Protestant Reformers such as Luther, Calvin and Bucer, after they realized that the medieval church had strayed far from Biblical worship. In reforming the church, they gutted out all human innovations that are not commanded in Scriptures, keeping only those which are prescribed in the Word of God. They also rediscovered and reimplemented how the early church worshiped.
That was a very concise summary of Reformed worship. It is a rich, but often misunderstood and caricatured heritage. Since I wrote “On the Necessity of Reforming the Church, Today!” in October 2007, I have always wanted to write a series on worship, but often struggled how best to present it. After reading much material about this controversial topic, I concluded that two excellent books best represent Reformed worship: What to Expect in Reformed Worship: A Visitor’s Guide by Danny Hyde and With Reverence and Awe by D. G. Hart and John Muether. I will proceed in the forthcoming series using much of the outline and material from Rev. Hyde’s book:
Introduction: “On the Necessity of Reforming the Church,” Today!
1. The Church and its Business
2. Worship Must be Biblical
3. Worship Must be Historical
4. Worship Must be Covenantal
5. Worship Must be Evangelical
6. Worship Must be Reverential… and Joyful
7. Worship Team or Mediator?
Conclusion: What Must We Do as a Church?
The Church and the World or The Church against the World?
Let’s start by defining what the church and its worship is all about. The New Testament uses the Greek word ekklesia for the assembly of the saints. Ekklesia literally means “called out,” and therefore the church is a people called or chosen out of this world to worship God. This is how the Septuagint (Old Testament Greek translation) frequently translates the Hebrew word qahal, which simply means an “assembly,” “congregation,” or “gathering together.” In the covenant renewal assembly on the plains of Moab before the Israelites entered Canaan, Moses reminded the Israelites of their first covenant assembly (qahal) at Mount Sinai (Deut 9:10; Deut 10:4; Deut 18:16).
This definition is evidenced by the fact that when God rescued Israel from Egypt and first gathered them at the foot of Mount Sinai to covenant with them, he reminded them of their exclusive status as a “treasured possession among all peoples,” and “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5, 6). When they entered Canaan, they were to be separate and distinct from the pagans around them, both in culture and in worship: “You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you” (Deut 6:14), and “you shall not intermarry with them” (Deut 7:3), because “you are a people holy to the Lord your God… out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deut 7:6).
Since the church has expanded from the Old Testament nation of Israel to Gentiles from all nations, the apostles continued God’s idea of a people separated unto himself. Peter ascribes Israel’s distinction as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession… God’s people [who] have received mercy” to the church (1 Pet 2:9-10). Paul urges believers to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship,” and to not “be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:1, 2). And John warns believers, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him (1 Jn 2:15).
In other words, what the Scriptures call “worldliness” is not smoking, drinking, dancing, etc. (although these may be part of it). Thinking and prioritizing like the world, with “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions,” is much more “worldly” than these. For example, many churches equate success and God’s blessing with the world’s standard: big buildings, big budgets, big programs. John says that when a Christian’s priorities and desires are the same as the world’s, he is “not from the Father but is from the world” (1 Jn 2:16).
But you might be wondering, How is this teaching related to the worship of God? The answer to this question is related to what the business of the church is all about.
Sinai and Zion: Seeker-Sensitive Worship?
Many evangelicals think that the church exists to evangelize, and because of this, the goal of public worship should be to attract the unchurched, and then to persuade them to pray the “sinner’s prayer.” This is a far cry from God’s purpose in public worship.
When we look at Israel’s public worship of God, did they ever tailor their worship ceremonies and environment to attract Canaanites around them by adopting Baal worship idols and ceremonies? By no means! In fact, when they had a “seeker-sensitive” worship of the golden calf (one of Israel’s “felt needs” in the wilderness), God almost annihilated all of them if not for Moses’ pleadings. God also warned them sternly not to look at the worship of pagans around them and copy them because their pagan worship is much more entertaining with their many attractive idols. God has a word for this lust: “whoring after their gods” (Deut 31:16; Judg 8:33).
“Whoring (NIV: “prostituting”) after the Baals” is exactly what most churches do today. They lust after the success of “purpose-driven life” churches. They envy the excitement of Pentecostal assemblies. They covet how movie and TV personalities entertain the world. They long for a pastor who would be like those “dynamic” speakers who are highly-skilled in delivering their stories, jokes, and PowerPoint presentations. And then they say, “Look how big those churches are! God must be blessing them. If we copy them, God will also bless us with big numbers.”
After all, isn’t this what God wants the church to do – attract unbelievers to its assemblies? Doesn’t God command the church to evangelize the world, “to proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”? (1 Pet 2:9) True, the church as a people God called out of this world is also called to preach the gospel to every creature. Jesus in his priestly prayer declared that believers “are not of the world,” but then prayed to the Father not “to take them out of the world” (Jn 17:14, 15). Christians are to be in the world, preaching the gospel and living godly lives while they wait for their Lord’s appearing. But even so, the church would profit greatly in paying closer attention to God’s warning to Israel before they entered Canaan,
Do not inquire about their [Canaanites’] gods, saying, “How did these nations serve their gods? – that I also may do the same.” You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods… (Deut 12:30-31)
Is church growth then the main purpose of the church’s assembly for worship? God forbid! That was not the purpose of Israel’s assemblies. And certainly not the purpose of Christian worship services. The early church gathered daily in the Temple where “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Would they have done these things to attract, entertain, and evangelize the Jews and Gentiles around them? Teaching, sharing material possessions, holy communion, and the prayers would have been extremely boring to the rest of the world!
There was tremendous church growth back then not because the early church had a happy-clappy, hip-swaying, laughter-filled assemblies, and pagans found and loved those kinds of assemblies. Such worship services must have been unthinkable to those early Christians. But those who were added to their number believed as a result of those things the early church did in Acts 2:42. Church growth was a fitting outcome of their Biblical worship assemblies, not of their entertainment.