When "Happy-Clappy" Isn't

The WHI guys have been doing a series on worship. This one is particularly good. This being the Sabbath it seems appropriate to post it.

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?

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  1. All I can say is, amen.

    I’m quite tempted to burn off all of December’s WHI episodes and pass out copies (like I did with their “Faith & the Gospel” episode from October), in hopes that it will get someone to at least think about what goes on on a Sunday morning.

    –an increasingly frustrated “lee n. field”

  2. Dr. Clark,

    Granted, much of evangelical worship is man-centered and legalistic in nature. I am grieved by the marketing techniques and business models that seem to dominate American Christianity. Nevertheless, I wonder if many of us in the Reformed world fail to gain a hearing among our evangelical brethren because we lack love in our attempts to explain what we believe Scripture teaches.

    One could imagine that the Corinthians would have used cheesy pictures on their Powerpoint slides during worship had they the technology, in addition to the Sunday morning chaos and the incest. Paul could have written angrily against them, pointing out all the ways their sin hindered the gospel. But he opens his first letter saying, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus” (1:4). His confidence wasn’t in their ability to conduct worship flawlessly (or even well), but in God’s steadfast love for his people: “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:9). While we may be called to be prophets in a time when many who wear Christ’s name dishonor it in consumer-driven worship, we should remain confident in God’s faithfulness and in the calling we have in Christ Jesus.

    This confidence should allow us to speak boldly, but boldly in love. Our evangelical brethren may not be worshiping in accord with Scripture, but we really must prayerfully search our hearts when we criticize them. Perhaps in so doing, God will grant us grace by his Spirit to speak the truth in love and give our brothers and sisters pause when it comes time to order the donkey for the living nativity next Christmas Eve. May we humbly seek God’s will and God’s glory in our hearts and in our worship.

  3. Hi Jeff,

    To be frank, I really dislike this argument. First, because I’ll never qualify and thus it amounts to saying: shut up. I don’t mean that you intended this, but that’s the effect.

    Second, my real complaint isn’t chiefly about contemporary evangelical worship — they have no idea what they’re doing relative to the Reformation. They’re being faithful to their revivalist traditions.

    Third, I am upset with “Reformed” folk who have cashed in their confession of the second commandment in order to become “appealing” to the culture and to evangelicals. To what end? We end up replicating the evangelicals badly and losing everything for which we stand.

    As to how to gain a hearing with evangelicals, we probably won’t get a serious hearing until they decide that they’ve had enough, that there must be another way to worship.

    Then there is the problem of what counts as “gracious.” If will be very difficult for us to convince revivalists that we are sufficiently pious to be able to criticize their practices.

    That said, I agree that we must be gracious — indeed we must be more than gracious. I’ve made that very case myself:



    and in the pages of the Nicotine Theological Journal.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Yes, you’re right: when the Reformed try to mimic evangelical worship it’s bad. It exchanges biblically founded worship for a copy of a copy of pop music that is usually pretty bad to begin with. It comes off as gimmicky and 98% of those in the outside culture see through it.

    I disagree, however, that the effect of the argument to speak in a loving manner amounts to “shut up.” Do revivalist roots trump evangelicalism’s roots in the Reformation? Most evangelicals would assent to the “solas” of the Reformation, but most fail to apply them consistently in their practice. Most simply fail to look at what the effect on God’s glory is when they use various techniques in worship in place of the right preaching of the Word and the sacraments. If our tradition has taken pains to remain faithful to what Scripture teaches about all aspects of church life, it is loving for us to speak the truth!

    Will we be heard? That depends on the manner in which we speak, our faith in the Spirit’s ability to work in the hearts of believers, and, ultimately, on God’s sovereign plan for his people. We shouldn’t neglect the care of our own churches in order to reach out in this manner, but if we can be “more than gracious” and speak the truth in love, we should.

    Thanks for what you wrote in the Nicotine Theological Journal. I’ve read it in the past and have found it helpful. Perhaps it was a bit off-topic to begin with, but my motivation in commenting here is: 1) I believe God’s Word is effective and that, when faced with what it says, those who are indwelt by the Spirit of God will be changed by it (albeit not always immediately); and 2) that those of us who have been blessed with an understanding of what the 2nd commandment says about worship should gratefully thank our holy and awe-striking God and share this truth with our brothers and sisters who may not apply this portion of the Word consistently. We need not be silent, but we do need to be humble and loving. Otherwise, they’ll stop their ears to us and feel justified in so doing.

    Or maybe I’m just young and naive. The Lord knows!

  5. Jeff,

    Of course I agree that the Word is effective, but it isn’t magic. Everyone reads the Bible in a context and with a series of assumptions. We read the OT as normative. We understand that the moral law is still binding. Many evangelicals, those who are revivalists, don’t.

    I don’t know whether broad evangelicalism still believes the solas. The academic elite don’t. Do you listen to the White Horse Inn? Shane’s been interviewing evangelicals at conferences for years, asking them about the solas and the surveys/interviews aren’t promising.

    Here’s the crux. Please define “loving manner.” What’s the antonym here?

    Can you give examples of each so I know what you want and expect?

  6. Dr. Clark,

    You have many more years of experience dealing with our evangelical brethren than I do. Yes, I listen to the White Horse Inn, and yes, there are a lot of evangelicals, pastors and laymen alike, who lack a clear understanding of the theology of the Reformation. Doubtless a lot of bad theology came out of revivalism, especially in the 19th century, and the American church is still hurt by it today. And, as you rightly point out, many in the evangelical elite do not believe the solas (although notable exceptions go to bright lights like D.A. Carson, whose presence gives me hope that all is not yet lost. On the other hand, the fact that it’s hard to come up with other names does not bode well).

    Don’t worry, “loving manner” doesn’t mean white, suburban, middle class “niceness.” Maybe it has something to do with being patient with those who know only evangelicalism. I grew up in broad evangelicalism and received little/no theological instruction the whole time. Legalism, yes. Sub-cultural insulation, yes. Good, meaty teaching, no. Most don’t, as evidenced by Shane’s interviews. But while I couldn’t tell a sola from a hole in the wall, I knew, by God’s grace, I was saved by faith in Christ alone (it spent a summer reading Galatians over and over again to get this). I believed the Bible, and when a kind, patient PCA minister showed me what Scripture teaches, especially in Romans, my full embrace of the doctrines of grace followed soon after.

    Now that I find myself in Reformed Christianity, it is surprisingly easy to look down on those evangelicals who didn’t have the benefit of a patient Presbyterian. I need to grow in humility and graciousness. I appreciate your willingness to talk this out with me. It has been a helpful chance to reflect on my own heart when speaking to my evangelical brothers and sisters (by whom I’m surrounded!). My reaction to your post is really more revealing of my own heart than anything else. My tendency is to treat with contempt other Christians whom I consider to be less knowledgeable about the things of God. Forgive me if I put this on you.

    Blessings in Him,

  7. Jeff,

    I agree with you. As Carl said and as I’ve said many times, it wasn’t a confessional Reformed person who pointed me to Jesus. It was a Baptist layman. OTOH, it was Baptist laymen who gave me to think that if I didn’t have a quiet time daily that I was committing a mortal sin and who, more or less, re-baptized elements of medieval moralism and mysticism and called it “evangelical.”

    I have a lot of affection for those evangelicals who first taught me the faith. They were very gracious with me and they did me a lot of good. They also did me a lot of harm and I’m still trying to overcome some of the negative effects of my fundamentalist past. It’s a constant negotiation.

    There’s no excuse for Reformed people being actual jerks. I’m with you, but there’s no excuse for Reformed folk being less than Reformed either. When the White Horse guys convince someone of historic Reformed Christianity and when that someone goes looking for a Reformed church let us hope that they find one.

    FWIW, most of the converts to confessional Reformed theology, once past the cage phase, in my experience, have been pretty gracious. Yes, I’ve been a jerk and I’ve seen my share, but they usually get over it.

    We really need those evangelical Nicodemites to come out a be separate and we need them to join confessional Reformed churches. At the same time, we can’t rely on them. We have to reach the lost if our churches are really going to fulfill their mission. I think there are a fair number of lost in the Calvary Chapel congregations (where, according to our people) the gospel is rarely preached, so perhaps reaching the folks in the “evangelical” churches, esp. the mega-churches is a form of evangelism. Can we doubt that the folks in Joel Osteen’s congregation need to hear the gospel? Those folks are, according to Belgic Art 29, unchurched! Then we need to reach those who are in no congregation whatever. In some ways, it’s less complicated reaching them. They, unlike the evangelicals and the mega-churchers, tend to expect church to be about God rather than about entertainment.

    In any case, we agree that graciousness and patience and humility and the rest of the virtues are the order of the day in dealing with folk who come to us from where ever they do.

  8. Dear Dr. Clark,

    I have an answer to your question, “If Calvin showed up in one of our services would he take us for a Reformed congregation or a bunch of Anabaptists?”

    Calvin certainly wouldn’t mistake any PCA Church in Richmond, Virginia for a reformed congregation.

    It’s not as though my husband and I have attended broad evangelical churches and unrealistically expected them to be reformed. On the contrary, we’ve attended PCA Churches and found them to be basically Southern Baptist in practice.

    Moving beyond the happy clappy attitude and theologically corrupt music, we’ve endured SERMONS that begin with the lyrics from a Toby Keith song (sung to us from the pulpit) to show us how narcissistic we are and then were treated to pastorally revised lyrics to show us how to be humble.

    You wrote a great blog entry quite some time ago titled French Bakery or Winchells? in which you made the statement, “How disappointing it must be when the pilgrim finally finds one of our congregations only to discover that we’re doing a poor imitation of whatever.” Yes, it’s disappointing beyond words. We never thought we were asking for too much for a reformed church to be reformed. Unfortunately, we were.

    Thankfully we have resources like Professors from Westminster Seminary, WHI, Modern Reformation Magazine, sermons and academy classes from west coast reformed churches. Regarding your other blog entries regarding church plants, we desperately need one here in Richmond.

    Thank you for all you do..

  9. Well, if it’s helpful for Dr. Clark to admit that he isn’t a super nice guy by today’s standards, perhaps it would be helpful for my generation to admit we’re sissies. I agree that Dr. Clark probably won’t gain a hearing in the evangelical world when it comes to worship. But maybe most of that is because us evangelicals put a greater value on the esthetic (how it looks) than the ontic (how it is).
    Let me give an example. When I read the Reformed arguments for the exclusive singing of inspired texts in worship, my reaction is, “c’mon. My wife is a great violinist. She loves playing in church. She wants to play in church. I can’t tell her that’s wrong.” So even though I find those arguments to be quite convincing, my knee-jerk emotional reaction is at least one factor in dismissing them. Why? Because I’m a sissy.
    Now, I’m not saying anyone else who commented here is a sissy. I’m just saying I think that’s a huge reason why most evangelicals won’t listen. The Reformed position on the RPW is just too harsh, too brazen, too unadulterated with pleasantries.

  10. Or, of course, we could take a lesson from the 16th and 17th-century Reformed churches and abandon the vestiges of the Mosaic (Old) Covenant we’ve hauled into our services.

    Why do we need instruments at all? I’ve sung with covenanters who didn’t need them. I sang a week ago with a small church plant in the LA metro who doesn’t use them and they did fine.

    We think we need instruments because the way an addict thinks he needs cocaine. When he quits and sobers up, he realizes that he didn’t need it at all, that in fact, the world is much more beautiful without it.

    What have we learned since Calvin that gives us the right to introduce instruments into the public worship?

  11. I guess I was assuming that a strict RPW position would exclude instruments. Hence my knee-jerk reaction showing that I’m a sissy.

  12. My wife is an accomplished cellist and my children are also both skilled symphonic musicians. Adopting the RPW has been a personal challenge for them.

    What if, however, they were skilled artisans and wanted to employ their skills in making golden calves called “Beth” (el) and “Dan” for use in worship?

    Would their love for and skill in that craft warrant using them thus? I hope we would all agree: “NO!”

    Why then, do we take a different approach when it comes to instruments?

  13. You make a good point. Thanks for the personal note as well. It often looks like you and other Reformed folk who came out of evangelicalism never had personal struggles with some of these things. I suppose that personal remarks like that shouldn’t really strengthen your arguments, but they seem to. Perhaps the fact that they do just enforces my original point about me and my generation.

    What could I and others read that develops the idea of instruments being a vestige of the OC? I’m really interested in a redemptive historical argument for a strict stance on the RPW.

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