Charles Finney Does Not Live Here

Did you stop and get to know those people in the churches? Did you ask them about their burdens? Is it possible there were things much bigger that you were overlooking because of a superficial need for an emotional buzz during worship? [Machenwarrior]

This is a really important consideration for our friends from the broader evangelical world as they come into contact with confessional Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) worship. There is a high likelihood that those emerging from the broad evangelical traditions are addicted to a regular, even programmed release of dopamine and/or norepinephrine. It is not your fault. You are part of a tradition that dates to the mid-19th century. That tradition (represented and perfected by Charles Finney) discovered ways of manipulating people in public worship in order to move them from point A (the pew) to point B (the anxious bench).

Today many ostensibly evangelical congregations—recent surveys show that it is not at all clear any longer how evangelical, i.e., gospel-centered, they really are—have updated Finney’s methods but they do essentially the same thing: manipulate your emotions with chord progressions. This is a very deliberate strategy worked out in the days before the Sunday morning service. This is not a conspiracy theory. This is regular practice and in the places where it is done it is not considered sneaky or immoral.

Such services intentionally take the worshipper on an emotional roller coaster. The effect of this approach to worship is like the effect of certain drugs. Those who have spent 10 or 20 years getting a shot of dopamine or norepinephrine every Sunday morning and leaving worship feeling great, on a high, are ill prepared for what they may find in a confessional Presbyterian and/or Reformed (hereafter P&R) congregation.

The P&R congregation is not wedded to Finney. It is not programmed to stimulate a release of brain chemicals. It is not programmed to manipulate emotions nor to send worshippers out on an emotional high. It is organized on an entirely different principle. One’s first visit to such a worship service may be a shock to the system. Not only is there no praise band—those are not standard in every service—there may be no familiar praise choruses. The message may give little “practical advice” on how to have a happy life or a successful marriage or how to raise your kids well etc. It really depends upon the passage being preached that Lord’s Day. At its best the sermon in a P&R congregation should be utterly faithful to the passage before the congregation. The message should be a carefully considered exposition of Scripture.

The congregation may recite the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. The minister may read the law and make a confession of sin on behalf of the congregation. He might pronounce forgiveness upon those who believe and even judgment on those who do not. It might get a little uncomfortable. There are likely to be pastoral prayers that are longer than those with which you are familiar. The reading of Scripture may be an entire chapter of Scripture and the sermon is likely to be at least 30 minutes. It may go into some detail as to the setting of the passage. Some of the songs may be Psalms—it is quite possible that you have never sung a Psalm before. The service may alternate between the minister and the congregation—he reads and/or preaches God’s Word and the congregation responds in song.

In short, it may be unlike any service that you have ever attended. It is not Roman, Lutheran, or even Anglican. It is not rooted in Finney. At its best, it is rooted in Scripture as confessed by the P&R churches in across Europe and the British Isles for hundreds of years. Indeed, at their best, Reformed services are quite like those of the earliest post-Apostolic Christians about whose worship services we know a fair bit.

So, as you visit one of these you will need to actively exercise some empathy. Do not judge the service by those with which you are familiar. At their best, the P&R churches are not trying to imitate the evangelical services with which you may be familiar. They are trying to be faithful to Scripture as they understand and confess it. They are trying to worship God in the way that he has revealed that he will be worshiped.

Give it time. It really does take time to get used to not getting a shot of dopamine etc every Sunday. It is a cultural shift. In a way, it is like time traveling. Hang in there. After a time you will come to appreciate it. It is a little like the difference between a glazed doughnut and a roast. The first gives you a shot, a buzz, and then you want more or you crash. The latter is substantial and stays with you even if it is not nearly as exciting.


  1. Pilgrims and Their Hosts
  2. Why Are Some Reformed People Such Jerks?
  3. On Traveling from Münster to Geneva

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  1. But golly, the P&R pastors might not have “piercing eyes” like Finney had, to get you to the anxious bench. (brought up by Dr. Godfrey in his church history class)

  2. I think that “shot of dopamine etc. every Sunday,” is the reason why broadly evangelical churches far outnumber Reformed churches, and are also growing much more rapidly. Sadly it is just men manipulating people, through clever tactics designed to bring about an emotional buzz or high. The worst part of this, is when people interpret their emotional high as an encounter with the risen Lord, and that they really are Christians, guaranteed to be going to heaven. Their assurance is in their feelings rather than God’s promises in Scripture, so they are hooked on getting a steady fix.

  3. Thank you for this excellent article. We have become “feelers” instead of “believers.” Also lost on most of evangelicalism is a basic definition of worship. Worship has become an exercise in entertainment — what can the pastor and musicians do for me today? In the Biblical definition of worship, worshipers minister to God with their praise, songs, attention, etc. (Psalm 100, 1 Chronicles 16:37).

  4. Thank you for encapsulating my experience. After 15 plus years in broader evangelicalism I was wore out! From the moralistic sermons to the ever changing programs on the whim of the last mega fad, I was wore out. I have found solace in reformed worship. Christ is proclaimed, my sin is exposed and confessed, we sing of His glories, we have the word read over us and its truth proclaimed to us and we sup with all the saints(past and present, maybe future?) in a holy communion and we leave with the Lord’s blessing prayed over us!

  5. Alas! Even the P&R churches are not immune. There are very few left that have not begun to implement emotional “worship.” Try going the other way; from reform to an emotional evangelical church. It’s impossible to succumb to the addition.

  6. I have been in far to many of these rock concert worship services through the years that when I hear the phrase “praise band”, like a reflex I cringe. For 30 years I’ve heard them defended by those saying it is a way to reach the young and today’s generation, yet the ranks of our churches nationwide do not support that and indeed show some negative results for sure. Let it be said that I’ve also been in churches where the music was “slow, plodding, archaic and wooden” so there can be the opposite for sure. That being said, I believe the number one reason that christians are finding church unappealing and not going is primarily due to the replacement of emotionally charged non-sense 7-11 music let by praise bands rocking out performances rather than leading others to worship. Granted I am just pointing out one aspect of the emotional church, but I believe it probably the most important. We need to strive for worship that is the highest form we can achieve, constantly evaluating the songs for good doctrine, being gospel rich, and which are not only singable but encourage as full participation as possible with loving, worshipful hearts engaged. I quote a title of a book by A.W. Tozer, “Whatever Happened To Worship?” In short, Finney’s techniques have been modernized and prevailed in today’s churches.

  7. Joy: You have described my experience. My PCA has a relatively new young pastor. We now sing emotional “hymns of grace”. There has been an explosion of programs and everyone is encouraged to be busy, busy, busy. We even were recruited to march with other church members in our city’s annual Halloween parade as a “witness”. Such is the state of too many PCA churches. We have many more marks of a modern evangelical church than we do of a Reformed church. I see a PCA split on the horizon because the liberal elements have gained control of the denomination and its seminary.

  8. In our old semi-tulipy evangelical church, my 6 year old used to do the “This is the church, this is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.” And then she wiggled her index fingers and said, “and these are the people upfront.” She knew what they were selling — guitar-hero priests offering up vicarious solos on our behalf while we watched passively.

    When we moved out to an actually reformed church, the first Sunday she strained and said, “I want to see.” I said, “There’s nothing to see; it’s not a show.”

  9. Dopamine really! I am sure from a medical approach this chemical flows even in a dead stoic esoteric adtmosphere of a P&R Church!

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