A Plan For Reforming Worship

semper-reformandaLet’s say that a pastor decided that he wanted to reform the worship services of his congregation toward the earlier Reformed pattern of singing God’s Word without musical instruments. How would he go about it? Though we’re working with a concrete example, this is really a larger question: how does a session/consistory lead a congregation toward Reformation? Where does the leadership begin? How long does might it take? How can a session/consistory lead a congregation to Reformation without fracturing the congregation in the process?


Reformation is a spiritual business. It’s not just politics, i.e., the struggle for control, the struggle to get one’s own way. Sometimes when people write about making changes in church they forget prayer and go directly to strategizing. That is ironic because nothing is more spiritual than the act of worship. We need to begin by calling on our Triune God in the name of the Spirit, for the Holy Spirit to work in us and ahead of us.

All believers, those advocating reform, those opposed, and those indifferent, need to be sanctified, i.e., we all need to die to self and to be made alive to Christ. Prayer is one of the three means by which God makes believers more like Christ. We need to pray for grace, for wisdom, for humility, and perhaps most especially patience. We should also pray that God the Spirit would work in the hearts and minds of the congregation, that body would be teachable and would desire to gather each Lord’s Day to seek principally for God’s glory and the edification of the church. For some (perhaps for all of us to one degree or another) this means genuinely embracing the principle that God’s self-disclosure in Scripture is the sole authority for the practice of the church in public worship (sola Scriptura).

Reformation cannot simply be announced to a congregation and implemented in a day. This isn’t the 16th century. There are no magistrates who have the authority (cuius regioeius religio) to impose a confession (theology, piety, and practice) upon a congregation. Any attempt at “Reformation Without Tarrying For Any” (a Brownist tract) would certainly fragment a congregation and then there will be nothing left to reform. In any home renovation project there must be preparation. There is work to be done before there the actual reconstruction can begin. As a rule, in my experience, every remodeling project takes twice as long and costs twice as much as planned. So it is in the church. Prayer is the first step. The second (while prayer continues) is to begin building a solid consensus among elders and pastors (consistory/session) as to the Reformed principle of worship or the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW).

It’s important that reformation be about principle. So-called “worship wars” sometimes erupt because people sense that church leadership is simply swapping one set of preferences for another (e.g., “contemporary” v “traditional”). If it’s about preference and not principle then people have a right to be suspicious. In this regard it is important that the ministers, elders, and ultimately the congregation be convinced is that there is such a thing as “will worship” and that Scripture is opposed to it. In Colossians 2:23 Paul contrasts “will worship” (ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ) with the worship that God has instituted. “Will worship” is Paul’s way of describing practices (e.g., asceticism) that seem good to us but that are not commanded by God. Such practices are difficult to change precisely because they seem good to us and because we like them. Whether we like them, however, is immaterial. What matters is whether God likes them, whether he has commanded them. The leadership must be convinced that we are sinful, that our affections are corrupted, that our minds are darkened, and that our wills are bent and thus, just because a song or a practice is familiar, comforting, or even moving, it isn’t necessarily ordained by God. That’s hard thing to learn. This gets us back to prayer and to Scripture alone.

The leadership of a congregation must be convinced that what we confess in WCF 21

…the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture (WCF 21.1)

and Belgic Confession Art. 7

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large…

Belgic Art. 32

Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our consciences in any way

and Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 96

96. What does God require in the second Commandment?

That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word

are true and best interpreted according to their original intent and as understood by the Reformed Churches in the 16th and 17th centuries.

So, congregational Reformation begins with prayer and it proceeds to the consistory/session. Instruction concerning our principles and their application  must begin there.

It may be that members of the session/consistory aren’t familiar with the language of WCF 21 or Belgic articles 7 and 32 or Heidelberg Catechism 96. So, that remedial instruction must be done. Let’s proceed on the assumption that leadership adopts the original understanding of the RPW and decides to go forward. What then? The same sort of instruction by which the leadership became convinced of the RPW and its application must now be given to the congregation. This might be done in the adult instruction class or in home groups (or both).  It will take time but if God’s people come to understand the principle that we may only do in worship what God requires we may expect that they will be willing to follow the principle. Sometimes, when people resist the traditional understanding of the RPW, underlying that resistance is a competing principle (e.g., we may do whatever is not forbidden).

At the same time, as the congregation is being instructed, there are other steps that might be taken toward Reformation. These steps should be taken slowly, gradually. Some of them (e.g., 1 and 2) might be gradually implemented as the instruction is ongoing. The principle behind simultaneous instruction and gradual implementation is the medieval axiom, lex orandilex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing). Putting into practice, gradually, what is being taught illustrates practically what is being taught and reinforces it by changing what Peter Berger calls “plausibility structures.” If we’re actually modeling what is being taught, it ceases to be purely theoretical and foreign. Our theology is shaped by our worship.

1. Gradually substitute songs from God’s Word for non-canonical hymns. There are 150 Psalms. Most congregations probably don’t sing 150 different songs in a year. There’s a psalm (or other Scripture passage) for everything. A few in the congregation might notice that the congregation hasn’t sung a favorite song for a while but perhaps a portion of God’s Word will become a new favorite or the favorite of the next generation. If there are those who really a grieved by the loss of favorite non-canonical songs from the service, then perhaps someone might host a private gathering where non-canonical songs might be sung? This substitution might take a few months or a couple of years but it is certainly possible. We should expect the congregation to come to delight in singing God’s Word in response to his Word read, preached, and administered in the sacraments.

2. Helping a congregation move from dependence upon instrumental music to a cappella singing is probably the greatest challenge to this program.  People have become habituated to musical instruments in public worship. Many may like the sound of familiar instruments in worship.  To help people adjust to the change, it should be done gradually, patiently.

Another of the challenges is that fewer people know how to read music today. In our culture we don’t sing corporately, outside of church, as frequently as we once did. Thus, it will be important to find people in the congregation who can read music, who are capable singers, and to train them to lead singing in the congregation. This may take a little time and even some practice. If there aren’t any who already read music then perhaps a few in the congregation would be willing to learn? This leading can be done from within the congregation (they need not be in front). How this part of the project proceeds will depend on whether the congregation is to sing parts or in unison. The latter is simpler and attractive for that reason.

3. Each Lord’s Day, in one of the songs, sing one verse a cappella. This is relatively common practice. From there it is a matter of expanding. Over time, one verse becomes two and two verses become three. Perhaps after six months the congregation may be singing an entire song a cappella. If a congregation can sing one song a cappella then why not two? If two, then why not three? Think of musical instruments as training wheels. We all struggled to get past training wheels and ride on our own but sometimes (as in my case) it just happens. One evening, after some failed attempts to ride without wheels. I was sitting on the front porch with my parents and some others. As the sun was setting I decided to join the other kids who were riding bicycles across the street. Quite without thinking I hopped on my little red bike (sans training wheels) and rode off. When I returned, Mom asked me: “Do you know what you did?” She explained that I had just learned to ride without training wheels and I hadn’t even noticed. I was so caught up in the joy of playing with the other children I hadn’t even noticed their absence. I could do it but I didn’t know I could do it until I did it and I never asked for the training wheels ever again. I didn’t need them.

There are some reasons to think this plan (or one like it) might actually work. With God all things are possible (Matt 19:26). When I lead chapel we sing a familiar Psalm (e.g., 23 or 100) a cappella and it typically goes well. I don’t think that our students are particularly gifted musically and we’re usually a fairly small group. It can be done. Once people get to used to listening to the sound of the voices of the congregation singing God’s Word they may find that they actually prefer it to following an instrument.

There it is: a rough draft for reforming worship. On the assumption that the historic practice was correct and something to be recovered today, what do you think? How would you modify this plan or what would you put in its place?

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  1. Reverend Malcolm Watts, the noted Reformed Baptist minister, did the very thing you speak of above. He initiated a two-year trial programme for moving his congregation toward unaccompanied singing of the Psalms only. First, the congregation tried singing one Psalm per service. After a time, they sang two Psalms. In time, they sang them a capella. By the end of two years, the congregation unanimously had come to prefer singing Psalms a capella. They voted unanimously to proceed to worship with the Psalms sung without musical instruments.

  2. Chuck, I’d start with an accurate English version and once you feel like you’ve got all 150 Psalms of David down, then move to another version. I’d recommend Hebrew, Latin, or French, but it’ll vary from person to person. J/k.

    More seriously, Dr. Clark might point out that C&C only have “psalms,” so you’d need another resource to “sing [other parts of] God’s Word.” Scottish Metrical remains one of the better versifications, imo. Each has it’s own merit and disadvantage(s). I’m not sure of any “Scripture-only” resources. Dr. Clark, are there any to your knowledge outside of select hymnal songs, fragments, psalms, etc? I’ve never considered it.

  3. The Anglo-Genevan Psalter of the CanRC contains, along with all 150 Psalms, quite a few versifications of non-Psalm Scripture like the Magnificat, Song of Moses, etc. which are quite good even if some of the Genevan settings take getting used to. Of course you do have to wade through a few non-inspired hymns to get to them, which might be unacceptable for more sensitive souls like my good friend Mr. Ross here.

  4. On singing in unison: I like that idea. I believe I read that Calvin supported singing in unison? When I listen to mp3’s of Psalm-singing, I find it annoying that the women’s voices are leading out and the men are heard only as a rather muffled background harmony. I know it’s not about keeping from being annoyed. 🙂 I’d like to hear more about the value of singing in unison.

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