by David Gambrell
At one end of the pew someone is whispering, “That communion liturgy felt so Catholic.” At the other, someone is murmuring, “This praise song sounds so Pentecostal.” “Is that how Presbyterians pray?” “Is this how Presbyterians sing?”
Surely you’ve overheard such comments. Perhaps you’ve said similar things yourself. In my time with the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship I’ve heard many variations on the theme: “That’s too Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal . . . .” I’ve responded to countless calls and emails from pastors, elders, and members who were concerned that some new (or ancient) prayer or practice reminded them a bit too much of that church across the street.
Over the past eight years, I’ve developed a different concern. It seems to me that we’re better at saying what Presbyterian/Reformed worship is not than we are at saying what it is. I worry that, by being so focused on distinguishing ourselves from other Christian traditions, we’ll define our way into oblivion, whittling ourselves down to nothing.
What is Reformed worship, then? As we commemorate the 498th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, let’s consider a few positive statements we might make about worship in the Reformed tradition. For the purposes of this article, I’ll spare you the 95 theses and just give you my top eight.
I make these observations not to trumpet the triumphs of our team. Rather, I hope to highlight some of the gifts of our tradition for which we may appropriately give thanks — and humbly offer to the glory of God in the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” (Nicene Creed).
Unless otherwise indicated, parenthetical references are to the Directory for Worship of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), found in the denomination’s Book of Order.
1. Reformed worship is ecumenical.
Let’s begin with the matter at hand. One of the great strengths of our tradition is that we are so well positioned and equipped to share in the wisdom and worship of the whole church. There are at least three reasons for this. First, we assert that the theology and practice of worship must be based on the Bible — the book we share with all Christians. This principle is sometimes used as a wedge, parsing out what is or is not “biblical worship,” but we might also think of it as a bridge: a resource for finding common ground. Second, we take seriously the gift and calling of baptism. Baptism broadens our horizons: Through this sacrament we are welcomed into the universal church as the body of Christ and at the same time charged to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the triune name of God. Third, we have a Directory for Worship and a Book of Common Worship that are both faithful to the Reformed theological perspective and committed to ecumenical conversation. These documents teach and model a constructive tension between form and freedom, allowing us to explore and embrace a variety of liturgical patterns and cultural expressions in worship. (Preface, W-2.3000, W-3.1000)
2. Reformed worship is Word-centered.
It’s all about Jesus. When we gather for worship, we gather around the presence of the crucified and risen Christ, in whom all things hold together. Jesus is the Word of God — present at the dawning of creation, made flesh to dwell among us, coming again in glory to reign. This same Word is revealed to us in the witness of Scripture and made known to us in the breaking of the bread. Because of our emphasis on Jesus as the Word of God, Presbyterians take preaching seriously — along with personal study of Scripture, rigorous theological education for leaders and deep Christian formation for all. Appropriately, given this emphasis, Presbyterians have sometimes described the order of worship in the Service for the Lord’s Day as a set of actions around the Word — gathering, proclaiming, responding, sealing, bearing and following. In this way we proclaim that Jesus — the living Word of God — is at the center of our faith, life and worship. (W-1.1000, W-2.2000, W-3.3000)
3. Reformed worship is Spirit-filled.
Yes, you heard that right. Reformed theologians have long asserted that nothing in Christian life or liturgy bears good fruit except by the work of the Holy Spirit. Our theological ancestor John Calvin taught that the Holy Spirit is responsible for the gift of faith and the interpretation of Scripture (Calvin, “Institutes,” 3.1.1–4) and for the working of God’s grace through Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Calvin, “Institutes,” 4.14.7– 13). For this reason, Presbyterians call upon the power of the Spirit at three key moments in worship: the prayer for illumination before the reading and proclamation of the Word, the thanksgiving over the water at baptism and the Great Thanksgiving at the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, we believe that Christ is truly present when we share communion — present by the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit. While Presbyterians have not always understood or appreciated this profound part of our theological inheritance, we are beginning to see a renewal of interest in the work of the Spirit in our common life and worship. (W-3.1000, W-2.2000, W-2.3000, W-2.4000, W-3.3000)
4. Reformed worship is communal.
Worship begins with the gathering of the people of God as the body of Christ — to sing thanks and praise, to confess our sin, to seek the grace of God on which our lives depend. Historically, Reformed Christians have insisted that we do these things together — as one people, with one voice, in one place. This is not because we are disinterested in personal piety or individual expressions of faith. Rather, it has to do with the high value we place on the church as a community of “faith, hope, love, and witness” (Book of Order, F-1.0301), called to share the gifts of the Spirit and be the body of Christ in the world. Given this accent on worship as the “work of the people” (the meaning of the word “liturgy”), participation in worship is best understood as a communal action — the whole body of Christ together in prayer. Whatever we might be singing, saying or doing at any given moment in a service of worship, we are called to pray without ceasing — listening for God’s call, Christ’s voice and the Spirit’s testimony to the church. (W-2.1000, W-2.6000, W-3.3300)
5. Reformed worship is evangelical.
Worship continues with the proclamation of the gospel —sharing the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ and bearing witness to the power of God at work in our lives and in our world. This is one of two focal points in Reformed worship, corresponding to the first of Calvin’s marks (or notes) of the church: “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard … there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists” (Calvin, “Institutes,” 4.1.9; see also Book of Order, F-1.0303 and Book of Confessions, 3.18, 5.134). Notice that, in the careful formulation of this phrase, there is a call and response — preaching and hearing, planting seeds and bearing fruit. The life of Christ’s church depends on the faithful preaching and reception of the gospel. Thus the proclamation of the Word remains incomplete without some kind of invitation to discipleship: an opportunity to turn, to testify, to be transformed. Hearing becomes preaching again, as we are called to go forth to share good news with others, proclaiming the gospel in word and deed. (W-2.2000, W-3.3400, W-3.5500, W-7.2000)
6. Reformed worship is sacramental.
Worship continues with the celebration of the sacraments — where the gift of God’s grace is enacted, experienced and embodied in the life of the church so that all may taste and see the goodness of God. This is the second focal point of Reformed worship, corresponding to Calvin’s second mark of the church: “Wherever we see … the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution … a church of God exists” (Calvin, “Institutes,” 4.1.9; see also Book of Order, F-1.0303 and Book of Confessions, 3.18, 5.135). As with the role of the Holy Spirit in worship, Presbyterians are beginning to appreciate the meaning and mystery of the sacraments in fresh, new ways. Congregations are rediscovering the baptismal font — a sign of new life and hope, cleansing and pardon, belonging and believing, welcome and rebirth. They are remembering the primary purpose of the “family table”— a place for regular nourishment in Christ, renewal in the life of the Spirit, remembering God’s promises and giving thanks for God’s grace. Accordingly, Presbyterians are finding more opportunities to reaffirm the covenant of Baptism in worship, and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as an integral part of the Service for the Lord’s Day. (W-2.3000, W-2.4000, W-3.3600)
7. Reformed worship is missional.
Worship ends with the sending of the church to share Christ’s mission in the world — but, of course, worship doesn’t really end there. We understand all of Christian life to be worship and service for the glory of God. Worship spills over and flows outward — from the sanctuary into the streets — as our service of God continues in the world. The final chapters of our Directory for Worship make this clear. We worship and serve God through our everyday activities including personal devotion, the study of Scripture, disciplines of prayer, our vocation in the world and our habits at home. We worship and serve God through our ministry within the congregation including Christian education, spiritual nurture and pastoral care. We worship and serve God through our mission in the world including the work of proclamation and evangelism, acts of compassion, movements for justice and peace and good stewardship of God’s creation. All of this is consistent with what the Westminster Catechism teaches us about the meaning and purpose of human life: to glorify and enjoy God forever (Book of Confessions, 7.001, 7.111). (W- 3.3700, W-5.0000, W-6.0000, W-7.0000).
8. Reformed worship is always being reformed.
Say it with me: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei. Being Reformed means we believe that the church is called to a process of ongoing and continual reform according to the Word of God and by the power of the Holy Spirit (Book of Order, F-2.02). The same is true of worship in the Reformed tradition. Each time we come to worship — to encounter the living God, to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ, to feel the movement of the Holy Spirit — we are called to repent and be made new. This is true of individuals and of the church as a whole. Therefore we return, again and again, to the place where we begin — the words of Scripture, the witness of the Confessions and the wisdom of the universal church — always listening for the leading of the Spirit, discerning the mind of Christ together and seeking to be faithful in giving glory to God. (Preface, W-3.1000, W-7.6000)
One day, by the grace of God, we may find ourselves surrounded by “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” — Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal and even Presbyterian — “standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9). On that day, may God give us the grace to sing with all the saints, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen” (Revelation 7:12).
What would you add to this list? How would you describe the strengths and gifts of worship in the Reformed tradition? For more ideas and insight on this topic, I encourage readers to explore the proposed revision to the PC(USA) Directory for Worship (pcusa.org/dfw), as well as the 2010 World Communion of Reformed Churches document “Worshiping the Triune God.”
DAVID GAMBRELL is associate for worship in the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship, editor of Call to Worship (pcusa.org/calltoworship) and co-editor (with Kimberly Bracken Long) of a forthcoming revision to the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.