Rev. VanBaren is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.

Contemporary Worship

An interesting article concerning “contemporary worship” appears in the Outlook, Oct. 1995, written by Rev. Mark Beach. He evaluates “contemporary” worship services and expresses legitimate dismay. Now I have never attended a “contemporary” worship service. I have often wondered what was involved in such a “worship” service – though I could make a reasonable guess. This article explains the “contemporary” service, though it points out as well that not all “contemporary” services are conducted in the same manner. This is what Beach has to say about them:

What is contemporary worship versus traditional worship? As it is usually understood, contemporary worship is essentially a form of worship that makes its appeal to unchurched people who have little or no Christian background. It is worship geared for their needs, their tastes, their comfort zone and their appreciation. It is simple in format, informal in its conduct, and does not presume to impose either “churchy” culture, or language, or music into the service, since unchurched people are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with these things. This means that praise choruses are sung instead of hymns, and hymn books are exchanged for overheads. Where the goal is to keep services within an hour, sermons are shortened to make room for personal testimonies, dramatic skits, liturgical dance or some other alternative means to teach a lesson or offer praise. Where possible, organs are replaced with electric guitars and drums, and/or orchestra and brass. Why? Because organs sound “churchy” and hinder outreach to the lost. 

Contemporary worship has become quite the rage in some parts of the Christian Reformed Church. Christian Reformed Home Missions promotes it with enthusiasm, as I learned from its conference last June in Colorado Springs. Many mission-minded people marvel at the remarkable success of Rev. Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek Church of Willow Creek, Illinois (located in the suburbs of Chicago). This church draws thousands upon thousands of “seekers” to its services every Sunday.

Beach then quotes from a pamphlet written by Prof. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. of Calvin Seminary: “Fashions in Folly: Sin and Character in the 90s.” Under the subtitle: “Domesticated Worship of the democratized God, ” he makes the following observations:

Many of us are familiar with a history of theological liberalism in which the profile of God has been cropped in various ways. Sad to say, some evangel&& have lately been following suit. Some of the new revised versions of God are appearing in domestic evangelical markets. In these markets, God is not our Lord but our chum – maybe even our gofer whose job it is to make us rich or happy or religiously excited or self-actualized in some other way. 

Not surprisingly, worship of this domesticated God is likely to mutate into a religious variety show whose main focus is on us and on what makes us tingle. Why else the nightclub format for public worship? Why else have prayer warriors come trotting out in combat fatigues? As David Wells asks in a new book, why do certain evangelical preachers punctuate their sermons with such eye-popping antics as sudden ascensions to the skylights via invisible wires? Why illustrate the prophecy of John the Baptist that the ax is now laid to the root of the tree – why illustrate this prophecy by pulling a chain saw to life, walking over to a couple of potted trees on stage, and buzzing your way through them as the congregation gasps and roars its delight?… 

You start to change things in your services. The non-religious haven’t much of a feel for the holiness of God, so you do away with silent prayer and expressions of our littleness. Secularists don’t like to confess their sins, so you remove the service of penitence. Without confession of sin, you hardly need the grace notes of an assurance of pardon: out it goes. 

In general, you assume that the non-religious like things simple and upbeat. That’s where much of the popular culture is, after all, so away with lament, away with hard questions, expressions of anguish, dark ambiguities of any kind. While you’re at it, away with creeds and confessions, away with explicit references to Christian doctrine, or to the history of the Christian church. 

On the other hand, seekers are interested in improving themselves, so you maximize promises of personal growth and self-realization. Secularists do like pop music, so here it comes into the sanctuary, along with semi-celebrity music performers and audience applause for their performances. The nonreligious also like sports figures, so in the bigger budget services, in comes Tommy LaSorda, longtime manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers – here comes LaSorda to tell us how “the Great Dodger in the sky” has helped him win games and lose weight…. 

Suppose a seeker came away from a service of the kind I’ve been describing – let’s say a fairly heavy duty service of that kind. Suppose he came away and said to himself, “Now I understand what the Christian faith is all about: it’s not about lament, or repentance, or humbling oneself before God to receive God’s favor. It’s got nothing to do with a lot of boring doctrines. It’s not about the hard, disciplined work of mortifying our old nature and learning to make God’s purposes our own. It’s not about the inevitable failures in this project, and the terrible grace of Jesus Christ that comes so that we may begin again. Not at all! I had it all wrong! The Christian faith is mainly about celebration and fun and personal growth and five ways to boost my self-esteem!” 

My question is, again, a simple one: How do you prevent that conclusion? Or, to sum up for now, let’s put the question very generally: How likely is it that a popular God is really God? How likely is it that a user-friendly God will rebuke sin? Or save people with transcendent and unexpected force? Or have to suffer to do it? Or call us to suffering and discipline as well as to joy and freedom? Meanwhile, how can we talk about sin to people, including ourselves – people who have lost an ear for some of its overtones?

We too had better remember that we gather to worship our God in our services – and not seek to gain “self-esteem” or be entertained. Man-centered, humanistic “worship” is all too often the order of the day – and increasingly in Reformed circles too. God’s Word has a stem reminder to God’s people that they are not to “remove the ancient landmark” (Prov. 22:28).

The Interclassical Conference of Christian Reformed Churches

A report from Darrell Todd Maurina, Press Officer for United Reformed News Service, gives an account of the actions taken at the recent meeting of a conference called by Classis California South held the week of November 5 at South Holland, Illinois. According to Maurina’s report, there were an “unprecedented 290 delegates from 110 of the Christian Reformed denomination’s 985 churches.” These “voted to call the Christian Reformed synod to lead the denomination in repentance. The call to repentance will respond to Synod 1995’s decisions allowing women to serve as ministers, elders, and evangelists in the 294,000-member denomination and its failure to sever ecclesiastical fellowship with the CRC’s mother church, the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, despite its earlier decision to admit practicing homosexuals to church membership and to ordain them to church office.”

To accomplish the above, the conference also voted to form a Covenant Union of Christian Reformed Churches (CUCRC) seeking “to return the Christian Reformed denomination to its historical biblical positions regarding important denominational issues.” The report continues:

The Covenant Union, to be organized as a non-profit corporation, is to hold an annual conference and may hold regional meetings as well to “encourage its members to form a united front in their participation in classical and synodical sessions.” Other specific objectives for the Covenant Union will be to “assist in the preparation of overtures and communications,” “promote education for office bearers,” “enable its -members and member churches to do ministry,” and “promote the restoration of discipline in its member churches.”

Strangely, the conference responded to the actions of six CRC classes which have exercised an option given them by Synod 1995 to permit the ordination of women by declaring parts of the church order “inoperative,” by voting to “endorse the idea of classes based on the idea of theological affinity for churches that in conscience believe they must be part of such classes.” This would mean that classes would be formed based on theological viewpoints rather than geographical boundaries. The proposal is presented as a way to prevent “schism” while maintaining distinctives regarded as important by many in the CRC. Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, professor of Church History and president of Westminster Seminary in California, presented this proposal in the Outlook, Oct. 1995 as follows:

1. Form new classes based on our historic Christian Reformed doctrines and Church Order. We expect that synod will approve these new classes. We do not recognize, however, the right of synod to prevent this action. The decisions of Synod 1995 forced this action upon us when it acted tyrannically and unbiblically and so disrupted the life of our churches. Since Synod 1995 has declared some aspects of the Church Order “inoperative,” we have no choice for the protection of our churches except to follow that precedent. We may have to declare some articles of the Church Order inoperative for us; 

2. Organize these like-minded classes into the “Fellowship of Conservative Reformed Classes.” These classes will only receive synodical deputies from other classes in the Fellowship; 

3. Declare that the new classes will only send delegates to synod if no women officebearers arts delegates to the synod; 

4. Declare that the Fellowship will not recognize the GKN as a church in ecclesiastical fellowship;

5. Declare that the new classes accept the Church Order as it existed in 1994, but reject all supplements to it that have the effect of changing its meaning including: 

a. the supplement to Article 3 permitting the ordination of women; 

b. the supplement to Article 7 restricting ordination under this article to very few. We are in great need of historically Reformed ministers and cannot be limited any longer to graduates of Calvin Theological Seminary who have been made candidates by the synod.”

Godfrey himself admits that “this proposal is radical and will be controversial.” Indeed it is. One is reminded of the situation in Israel in the days of the judges when “there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Jud. 21:25).

The conference did place some “teeth” in their call to repentance: it adopted a resolution to “inform synod that should she not humble her heart in repentance before the Lord, this conference will reconvene next year to consider a proposal to form a new denomination.”

If the threat is carried out, then the new denomination will face a jungle of thorny issues. Will it be a denomination which holds to all past decisions of the CRC – except those pertaining to women serving in the office of elder or minister, and those pertaining to maintaining fraternal relations with the GKN? Or will it go back further and renounce those decisions which earlier allowed women to serve as deacons? Or will it go further back still and reject those decisions which allowed women to vote in congregational meetings? Then would such a denomination condemn earlier synodical decisions which gave approval to worldly amusements as the dance and earlier still to movie attendance (both decisions in part based on the CRC doctrine of common grace)? Perhaps it is but wishful thinking but could such a new denomination reconsider the whole issue of common grace and the effect that this decision has had on current difficulties that the churches face?

Our prayers must be with dedicated children of God who strive to find their way through this “jungle” in order to glorify God and to preserve a faithful church. We ought also, however, to pray that these take no “half-way” measures, but deal carefully and thoroughly with all of the issues which have affected the CRC in past years.