Reformed Worship Is For Pilgrims

One of the several challenges faced by those who are moving from outside the Reformed churches to inside the Reformed churches is the transition from, e.g., worship in the broader evangelical world to worship as the Reformed churches understand it. Underneath the surface of that problem there lies another: two competing eschatologies, i.e., two competing ways of thinking about the relations between heaven and earth. This difference manifests itself in several ways but prominent among them is the difference between the way the Reformed think about worship and the way other traditions think about it.

Recently I saw this comment on Twitter and something about it crystallized these issues for me:

Calvinism bores me…it has no poetry and you are sensory deprived in your worship service…no attraction theologically (logically) or emotionally

The instant I read it I realized that this writer was not really talking about aesthetics but about eschatology, how much of heaven ought Christians expect to experience in this life. I drew this inference because the first allegation is absurd. Of course the Reformed have poetry. At our best, we are a people of the Psalms. In the Reformation we translated the Psalms, set them to meter, and sang them. We use them in our worship services, we pray them, we meditate upon them and they fill our piety and practice. Anyone who says that the Reformed have no poetry must entirely unfamiliar with our history with and use of the Psalter.

It was the second comment, however, that really brought the issue of eschatology into focus. I was particularly struck by the words “sensory deprived.” Obviously, Reformed worship services are not literally or absolutely “sensory deprived.” We make use of the voices in the reading and preaching of God’s Word. There are prayers said out loud. These all make use of our auditory senses. We make use of the two sacraments that our Lord Jesus instituted, holy baptism and the holy supper. Those make use of the senses of smell, taste, touch, and sight. To hear a congregation singing33 God’s Word in response to his Word is a marvelous experience. Not too long ago, in our home congregation (the Escondido United Reformed Church) Pastor Gordon (the principal voice of AGR) asked us to sing a psalm a capella, i.e., without musical instruments. Now, one might think that to sing a song without instruments would have been a prime example of the very sort of “sensory deprived” worship about which our critic complains but one would be wrong. Without the organ or the piano we could hear not just the cumulative sound of the congregation singing. We could hear the particular words—God’s Words—being sung all about us. Here we were, affirming God’s promises together using his very own Word. By the end more than a few in the congregation were in tears. It was an unexpectedly powerful moment. There was nothing deprived about it. Indeed, it was truly overwhelming in its simplicity.

In the history of God’s people there have times when the Lord has provided a great deal of sensory input, even sensory overload. In Exodus 20:18–19 we read:

Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (ESV).

That was sensory input. Yahweh descended upon the mountain in such a way that we were overwhelmed and terrified. Heaven came down to earth, as it were, and we wanted none of it. We cried out for a mediator. In his grace and mercy, God has given us a Mediator, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim 2:5). He is at the right and of the Father. There he represents us in the holy of holies. This is the great message of Hebrews chapter 9 (esp. verses 24–25).

To demand sensory satisfaction, of the sort that our critic seems to want, is to misunderstand where we are in the history of redemption. We have not arrived. We are still on the way. The Apostle Peter calls us “pilgrims” or “aliens” and “strangers” (1 Pet 1:1; 2:11). We live in a time of trouble and persecution (1 Pet 4:13). Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit dwells upon his people as his holy dwelling place (1 Pet 4:14). The world cannot see it and sometimes even Christians are tempted to ask for a little more heaven now. We seek a little more heaven now falsely in grand temples and cathedrals. The worship services in some traditions actually resemble the smoke and fire of Sinai. The ministers who conduct them are dressed like Roman civil officers from the 4th and 5th centuries AD, when the church began to try to imitate the glory of the Roman Empire.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the revivalists sought to bring down a little more heaven through the deliberate manipulation of emotion. Songs were chosen, arranged, and played and sermons were preached in a way calculated to affect the emotions. Since the 1970s we have seen the rise of so-called “contemporary” worship (which Pastor Gordon has called “Wow Worship”), with its own “smells and bells.” In many places worship services have become indistinguishable from a soft-rock concert or pep rally combined with a well-produced self-help seminar. This is the modern evangelical attempt to bring down a little more heaven. There is so much sensory input in some of these services that the congregation graciously supplies ear plugs for those whose hearing is not yet damaged.

There will come a time for the sort of sensory experience that many seem to want but just now is not that time. Ours is a time of waiting and expecting. The Apostle John was taken to heaven (remember, he was an Apostle, who had seen and touched the Lord Jesus). There he saw something of what is happening there now and what lies in store for us. He saw an angel, whose voice sounded like a trumpet. He saw the heavenly throne from which King Jesus rules all things now. It was such a sight that he could only describe it in terms of similes. It was a like a rainbow. From the throne came lightning and thunder. There were burning lamps, representing the Holy Spirit. There was something like a sea of glass. Remember, these are figures of speech. Then there were the four living creatures. They are praising God: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.” There are twenty-four elders praising God: “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.”

There is your sensory input but now earth is not heaven and we have not yet arrived. We are on our way. The Lord has instituted worship that is fit for pilgrims. We are more like those to whom the Lord said,

Now you shall eat it in this manner: with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste—it is Yahweh’s Passover. For I will go through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments—I am Yahweh (Ex 12:11–12).

We are awaiting Christ’s return. For us who believe it is salvation. For those outside of Christ, it is judgment. The question is how we wait. What stance do we take toward the world around us? Fundamentally, we are exiles, strangers, and pilgrims. This is the Lord’s world now as then. We have our vocations in this world now as then but now is not heaven (the eschaton). Now we eat the Passover, as it were, as the Lord has instituted, in haste—ready to move because this world is not heaven.

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  1. “sensory deprived”? There’s good sensory input, and not good. When we were in our past church (EFCA), I can recall times when (it seemed) after going through the singing portion I could barely think. Some people don’t take well to that.

  2. “Calvinism bores me…it has no poetry and you are sensory deprived in your worship service…no attraction theologically (logically) or emotionally”

    Nothing a few clowns and some popcorn can’t fix to this guy’s satisfaction, I’m sure. Or maybe he’d prefer a pint of beer and a tonsure of chanting monks? 😉

    • You said it! If we do not feel any gratitude and love to God for so great salvation, we will not be concerned about what His Word says about how we should respond to Him in worship, we will want worship that caters to our desires for self gratification.

  3. sensory deprived“.

    IOW walking by sight and not by faith?
    Or mistaking the sensual for the spiritual?
    A common enough temptation or error one supposes, but not something to boast about, encourage or run after.

    Which is not to say that on the ground the modern P&R churches understand what it means to be reformed in worship, as well as doctrine and government.
    They got the five points of Calvinism so called down pat and by rote, but basically otherwise they are conservative – not principal constitutionalists aka confessionalists. The sovereignty of God in his worship – the reformed confessional understanding of the Second Commandment in its good & necessary consequences – is more honored in the breach, than in its obedience.

    Not complaining, just saying. But sooner or later a generation in the church grows up which is not content to rest in tradition and then either finds its way back to the truth or goes the smells and bells, pictures, plays and puppet route to liven up the worship. And people wonder, “what happened”?

    Or say,” it will/can never happen here”.
    How’s that working out in the CRC?
    The PCA?

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