The most important thing about worship is that it should be oriented to God and not to man, though the wonderful thing is that, as we glorify God, he blesses us and deeply satisfies our souls.
Reformed churches subscribe to the ‘Regulative Principle’, which means that what we do in worship must be authorised by God in Scripture, either by precept or commended example. By contrast, what is sometimes called the ‘Lutheran Principle’ takes the ‘broader’ view that anything not forbidden by Scripture may be done.
We believe deeply in the Regulative Principle. But how does it operate?
Handle with care
The Regulative Principle must be handled with care and without undue rigidity. I do not believe, for example, that it forbids following the ‘Church Year’ or singing hymns and spiritual songs, or using musical instruments.
On the other hand, I have listened to those who argue for new elements such as drama or sacred dance. Every experience I have had of them has been an embarrassment.
I would not introduce such things, even if they became commonplace and constitutional documents, such as the 1689 London Confession of Faith, were amended to make such practices acceptable.
My conviction is that such novelties go beyond the Regulative Principle. That does not mean I do not believe that worship is dramatic (it is, and all preaching has an element of drama in it) or that it is wrong to move rhythmically with the music one is singing (every time I saw John Murray in a service, he moved his psalm-book vigorously as he sang!).
I am hooked on ‘historic worship’. By this I mean that, while worship will always have cultural aspects, we do not begin de nouveau every time we review our practices.
The contemporary British Christian, in particular, tends to think about worship, theology, discipleship, and so on as if the world began yesterday and centres on him. We need to avoid this mind-set.
We are instructed in this matter primarily by the Bible, but also by historic practice. For instance New Testament worship was, it seems, a Christianised synagogue service, with a liturgy consisting of singing, prayers, Scripture readings and sermon. This was true even in Gentile areas.
The things just mentioned, therefore, are our New Testament elements, plus the two ordinances Christ gave us, of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We should choose our own blend, according to our own light and ability.
I lead the whole service myself. I have chosen a Bible passage for a certain reason and my emphasis throughout the service is on the details which I have chosen.
So I read Scripture slowly and clearly. The pastoral prayer should be just that, the voice of the shepherd who knows the congregation. Whatever the hurts, doubts, and concerns of the people, my praying reflects these things as I represent the congregation before God.
I choose the great hymns. Isaac Watts is my favourite hymn-writer. The hymn most dear to me is ‘How sweet the name of Jesus sounds’.
I particularly love Victorian hymns because they provide a spirituality, richness of imagery, colour and theology that have pervaded my life.
I refer to hymns by Alexander, Bonar, Cousin, Dix, Elliott, Faber, Gadsby, Havergal and so on, alphabetically, almost to the letter ‘Z’.
Not only do they offer verses of sensitivity and beauty but they are matched to tunes of great power and compelling ‘singability’. They are far from our instant, pick-and-mix post-modern culture.
I will not be seduced by those who would strip out the beauty from ‘difficult’ language and replace it with the bland and banal.
Of course, not all Victorian hymns are equally acceptable. I think the compilers of the 1889 supplement of Hymns Ancient and Modern were wise to cut out the verse from Edward Plumptre’s ‘Thy hand, O God, has guided’ that reads:
God bless our merry England,
God bless our Church and Queen,
God bless our great Archbishop,
The best there’s ever been.
The essence and climax of worship is when God speaks to us in the preaching of the Word. Then the present world can disappear and the invisible world be seen.
If there were a voice, and nothing else, I would be happy. In preaching, the central affirmations of the faith are brought to bear on a congregation, with repercussions for every part of our lives.
What is important is the impression made on the mind at the time, not merely the remembrance afterwards of the truths preached. The unction present during preaching can break the power of cancelled sin.
Contemporary worship suffers from the idea that preaching is nothing more than applied exegesis. If that view reigns, we extinguish the impressive silence, the sense of divine love, the solemnity, and the conviction of sin and guilt.
Preaching conveys the voice of God, and when you hear that there is nothing to do but worship and adore. The life of the contemporary preacher is one of continued sadness that having been occasionally exposed to such blessed preaching he is rarely able to emulate it. This is to his own loss, and that of the congregation.
Every single service is different. Hymns, readings, prayers and sermons are never the same. The only thing that rarely changes is the order in which things are done.
There is little scope for change in this. One form gives way to another, not to freedom. When there is a form, the worshipper can ignore it and address the God he has come to meet, rather than the innovator who has just popped on stage with his latest fad.