PCA Worship Is Better But It Has Some Distance Yet To Go

The state of worship in the Presbyterian Church in America is arguably better than it has ever been, at least as far as liturgy goes. More churches now use recognizably Reformed liturgies than at any point in the denomination’s history. These are liturgies that include the biblical elements of worship—they are not just the standard evangelical format of  “30 minutes of singing/30 minutes of preaching.” What may be lacking though are the hard-to-define (but essential) qualities of reverence and awe. What may be trending is leadership of worship that does not comport with or support presbyterian polity. And what may be chipping away at the foundations of proper worship are errant and novel practices, mostly regarding the Lord’s Supper.

…What are some examples of tangible and intangible things which have been added to liturgies, to the detriment of simple, biblical, Spirit-and-truth Reformed worship? We would propose the following:

First, an overly horizontal, man-centered ethos may be reflected in informal or casual approaches to the service, which could include announcements or presentations that break up the dialogical-biblical flow and tone of the service. These might focus on service opportunities or might amount to promotional pitches complete with video presentations or distribution of materials. Fellowship times in the middle of the service (sometimes called “passing of the peace” or even “halftime.”) might succeed in establishing a familiar or homey feel even as they distract from the holy purpose of worship. Children’s activities or the departure of children from the service at some point may also prove disruptive. Other unwelcome additions include showy musical performances, loud or complex musical accompaniment or leadership (which may also dominate visually as a central focus),  or other inappropriate visual elements. Too often, we also find whole seasons imported to the simple, ordinary,  and biblical Reformed tradition, like Lent and Holy Week. Somewhat related are the eclectic additions of the Anglican-attracted, which includes complicated and variable clerical garb and vestments, crossings, bowing at prescribed times, or turning to face a cross, bible, or procession. Finally (and possibly most destructive) we may bring “the warfare of the world…into the house of God,” as J. Gresham Machen lamented in the 1920s. In his day the imported social and political issues included “things that divide nation from nation and race from race…human pride…the passions of war.” Little has changed in the last 100 years since Machen published Christianity and Liberalism. The battle for spiritual worship continues.

What things are sometimes omitted to the detriment of simple, biblical, Spirit-and-truth Reformed worship? We have noted that the long or “pastoral” mid-service prayer is less common than in previous decades. Its shortening or omission may be the result of other service-lengthening things like weekly communion or extended, mid-service announcements and fellowship times. In some larger, more contemporary churches extended scripture readings or confessions of faith have also fallen on hard times. Perhaps the most serious omission from the worship of PCA churches today is not merely an element, but an entire service—the evening or “second” worship service. Few newer PCA churches (and many older ones) have the second Lord’s Day service which was near ubiquitous in previous centuries. The effect of this omission (and its effect on keeping the whole Lord’s Day as a Christian sabbath) is incalculable, but many fear that it is real…and tragic.

All is not well in the way worship is conducted in the PCA. Even as observance of the Lord’s Supper becomes more frequent in our churches, it seems that errors in its conduct multiply. These include the bizarre and biblically-unfounded practice of intinction (where the bread is dipped in wine and the two actions of the supper become confused), distribution of elements by unordained persons and even children, and so-called “young child communion” where some churches regularly admit children as young as four years old to the table. Church members who visit PCA churches across the country often come home stunned and confused by the variations they see. Less obvious to many is the perfunctory and inadequate “fencing” of the communion table, which is often less than compliant with the Book of Church Order’s clear and specific instructions for ministers. Read more»

Brad Isbell | “Worship, Polity, & the PCA” | January 24, 2022


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  1. Amazingly timely in my case as we are currently searching for a new pastor and looking for answers on views regarding non ordained roles in the worship service.

  2. Brad,

    As you know, you are “preaching to the choir” in my case, since I agree heartily. We are the only Presbyterian communion in the history of Presbyterianism whose Directory for Worship is not constitutionally binding. Apparently, our founders did not desire to disrupt the work of the church over such trivial matters as worship (and please notice the intended irony, if not contempt, in that statement). We are not a Presbyterian communion; we are an Evangelical communion with a whiff of Presbyterian polity, and here’s why: Presbyterians believed that we evangelized in order to worship (since the ultimate/eschatological goal of the human race is the worship of God in life to come). Evangelicals believed that we worship in order to evangelize. The litmus test, in my imperfect opinion, is right there. Which of the two (worship and evangelism) is an instrumental good, and which is the telic good? Dull-witted individuals will wish to evade such a question, but it is not possible to do so; in the hierarchy of virtues—whether individual or liturgical—push eventually comes to shove, and one virtue must defer to another. In our denominational case, worship ordinarily defers to (perceived) evangelism.

    The good news is this: while the PCA has never REQUIRED its congregations to worship in a Presbyterian manner, it has also never PROHIBITED its congregations from doing so.

    As you recall, Samuel Miller’s students (who took nearly verbatim notes) presented him with a manuscript of his lectures on prayer that was published in 1849 as Thoughts on Public Prayer, that runs over 300 pages. That says an enormous amount about how important the matter is, and why it should not be abandoned to the non-ordained. As my Anglican friends remind me: The Anglicans do not trust their ministers enough; the Presbyterians trust their ministers too much.

    T. David

  3. What makes things worse is when a pastor or elder tries to use a particular voice, different from their ordinary speaking voice, to fake awe or reverence. It used to be called a “stained glass voice.” Less shouting would be good too. Most Presbyterians just need more class. There’s no other way I know how to put it. It’s as if nerdier, louder, working class kitsch is the way to go. Almost as if being royal were foreign to the Church.

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