One of the great struggles that confessional Reformed churches have always faced is to hold on to our principle of worship (see HC 96, WCF 21), i.e. that we do only that which is commanded in worship and we only ask, “What must we do?” In the 16th- and 17th-centuries we were under pressure from those who remained in the Roman churches, but who said privately that they were “with us” (we called them “Nicodemites”) not to be so strident about our understanding of the RPW. We were under pressure by converts to include some of the old mass –the Reformed were not radicals after all–so that people would feel at home. On the other side we were pressed by the Lutherans and Anglicans to confess that we are free to do in worship whatever is not forbidden. Even in our own churches it was a constant struggle to communicate to and convince our own people of the RPW. The folk liked their musical instruments in church and they resented that the ministers wanted to take them away. They like their familiar hymns and they resented the ministers for trying to take them away.
In the 18th-century enthusiats of the the so-called First Great Awakening pressed us to move beyond “dead orthodoxy” to a more “lively” service (sometimes including moaning and outbursts, which were taken by the revivalists as evidence of a new work of the Spirit).
In the 19th century, the so-called “Second Great Awakening” created the expectation in the minds of millions that real religion was revivalist religion, that the service and sermon should come to a great rousing climax followed by an altar call, that there should be hymns designed to move the congregation emotionally. We didn’t fit this pattern either, though, along the way through the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries we cut plenty of deals with the prevailing church culture so that by the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, we were virtually indistinguishable in most ways from the churches around us.
All this is to say that the pressure confessional Reformed churches experience today to conform to the prevailing “happy-clappy” evangelical worship ethos is not new. We’ve always been the odd man out when it comes to worship. Except in a few places and for a few short times, most people have expected the wrong things when it comes to worship and today is no exception.
Today, the boomers (and some of their children and grandchildren) want to be “uplifted” in worship. They want the pastor to be their therapist and to make them feel better. Remember, this was the first generation in American history to have its very own therapist (Dr Spock). Each decade has brought a new national therapist, Phil Donahue, Dr Laura, and Dr Phil.
As the WHI guys rightly point out, the great sin of the “happy-clappy” model for worship is not just the routine violation of the 2nd commandment but in its utter disregard for the humanity of those present, and even worse, for turning the whole service into the law. “Be happy!” is law, not gospel.
The guys quite rightly point us to the psalms where we find “the blue note” in Christian worship and devotion. True, some parts of our tradition have focused almost exclusively on the “blue note,” on depravity, corruption, and bad news. The contemporary churches have probably reacted to that artificiality, but they’ve done by creating another artifice: eternal, sunny optimism. Of course that cheeriness is overly eschatological (which fits the evangelical ethos). Reformed theology lives in the semi-eschatological. Yes, there’s joy. Yes, we participate in the heavenly worship, yes the Lord lifts us up to heaven, but we come to church broken, lost, and hopeless.
As Reformed people, the reason we feel a tension with the prevailing worship style of the megachurches and the wannabes is because we still have a conscience. We know that the powerpoint praise, puppets and playdoh services we’re conducting aren’t right. We know they aren’t right but we don’t know what else to do. We feel the pressure of the American religious marketplace. “If we don’t give them what they want, they won’t come back.” Well, as Boice used to say, “What you use to bring them in, you will have to use to keep them.” If you don’t, it’s called bait and switch. It’s a form of fraud. We can’t use revivalist, non-Reformed worship to attract folks to our congregations on the premise that, “once they are here, then we can teach them Reformed theology.” Oh yeah, what are you going to tell them when you get to the Reformed understanding of the 2nd commandment? How are you going to hide your hypocrisy?
What do we do? Let’s start over. We don’t have to start from scratch, however. We have resources from which to draw. Let’s start with the baseline of the basic Reformed principles summarized for us, e.g. in the Westminster Directory for Public Worship. There we don’t have a liturgy exactly, but we do have a series of principles and rubrics to guide our services. The most fundamental principle is that we do only that which is commanded by God’s Word. The next (dialogical) principle is that God speaks and the people respond. There is a sort of dialogue in worship where God’s people respond to his law and to his gospel with his Word. That’s why the earlier Reformed churches usually (with a couple of exceptions) sang only canonical songs (Psalms and sometimes other portions of Scripture). If you want a pattern, why not Calvin’s 1539 service?
The point is not that we have to go backwards to be Reformed, we don’t, but we can learn from our past. Do we really understand the nature of worship and the principles upon which our services were based? We assume that because we’re “modern” that we’re “enlightened” and that we know better than our benighted forefathers, but do we really? If Calvin showed up in one of our services would he take us for a Reformed congregation or a bunch of Anabaptists?