The whole question of liturgical revision is a subject for heated debate these days. It is, in a broad sense, part of the discussion which centers around the problem of making the Church relevant. Many are convinced that the Church is ineffective in our times because it has failed to adapt to the changing circumstances and is, consequently, speaking in a vacuum and reaching no one.
Such, for example, is the approach of Donald Postema in the March, 1969 issue of the Reformed Journal. He discusses the whole question of liturgical renewal and justifies his discussion with the remarks:
My conversations (with students) indicate that worship in churches of the Reformed tradition is not very vital to many students, young people, and even older people. In fact, some are bored, antagonized, embittered and embarrassed by it.
His discussion in this article summarizes rather well current thinking on the problem. Some of his suggestions are worth discussing in this column. They are worth discussing because of the fact that several important elements are missing from the article (and from most discussions concerning renewal of liturgy) which put the whole discussion on the wrong track. What is missing especially is the truth that at the heart of the liturgical practices of the Church is the believers’ worship of God. God is worshipped. But the very nature of this truth implies that God alone can determine how He shall be worshipped. His Word tells us how we shall approach Him and what shall be our conduct in His presence. We have no right to determine this ourselves. This is the one vital ingredient absent from so much of the discussion.
This does not deny that there are various aspects of the liturgical practices of the worship services of the Church which fall into the area of Christian liberty. There are principles laid down in Scripture which forms the basis for worship. But Scripture does not spell out in detail precisely how, in every instance, these principles are to be put into practice. This area of the application of the principles of Scripture is left to the Church to decide on the basis of the general principle of the “edification of the congregation.” Quite naturally practices which fall into this area are determined by the sanctified judgment of the Church. There will be differences between congregations in many matters. These differences will be determined by the community in which the Church lives as the Church is called to manifest the body of Christ in a given place. They will also be determined by the nature of the times in which the Church lives.
But there are fundamental principles also which Scripture clearly teaches and which must form the basis for all worship if it is truly to be worship. Much thinking on liturgical renewal denies the existence of any principles laid down in Scripture. The whole of the worship service is open to question, to change, to “modernization” to make it relevant. Every signal aspect of the worship service is to be determined as suitable or unsuitable without any reference to the Word of God. The article of Donald Postema is a striking example of this. There is not one Scripture reference in the entire article.
After some preliminary remarks and a discussion of some aspects of the worship service, the author writes:
Since everyone in the congregation is a (potential) worshipper, everyone should have something to say about the worship, should be actively involved in the preparation and celebration of the liturgy.
I get the impression from reports about many churches, that this point is lost. Worship is “regulated” and “conducted” by consistory and minister. Liturgy becomes then a plaything of the clergy (but the consistory usually quickly snatches away his toy), and worship becomes a performance for an almost silent (except singing and dropping coins in the offering plate), passive audience.
Here the author states the basic thesis of his article. He is making an important point. He insists that the congregation as a whole should participate in determining what the liturgy of the church shall be. He also is insisting that the congregation should have an active role in the actual carrying out of the liturgy. Precisely how this shall be done he describes in the rest of the article.
Turning first of all to his assertion that the congregation should play an active role in the formulation of the liturgy, the author writes:
Each worshipping person should have opportunity to answer the question: What vehicles would help you express your worship, adoration, of God best? How would you like to say thanks to God in church? What makes or would make worship really meaningful to you? What kind of liturgy would edify you and those you know? By each person I mean young as well as old, simple and educated, weak in the faith and strong—ALL. The answers to these questions should be taken seriously and if at all possible incorporated sometime, somewhere into the worship service; or an explanation should be given why they cannot be.
What can be and what can not be included in a worship service? . . . Since God is Creator of all, He expects creative use of His universe as our response to Him. There seems to be no limit to what can be used for worship, except the sinful. At least it will be a long time before we reach that limit.
This principle is intended to open us up to all the possibilities that can come from individual and corporate imagination.
It is not at all clear to me how the author can say with even a semblance of logic that the fact that God is Creator of all things necessarily implies that our worship of Him in Church must include a creative use of His universe. This is an example of the fuzzy thinking and bad logic that characterizes so much of this type of writing. But however that may be, the fact of the matter is that here the author implicitly repudiates Scripture as being in any sense the norm for our worship services. The people must determine how these services are to be conducted. Scripture has nothing to say about it. Specifically, God has nothing to say about it—about how He will be worshipped.
Correctly, the author speaks of necessary differences between various congregations in their liturgical practices.
Since each congregation will be trying to express its own worship, there can be no liturgy which is exactly the same for the whole Church. There can be much variety between the way one congregation worships and the way another congregation, in different circumstances, with different people, worships. Each congregation has to find its won mode of worship.
If the author limited these remarks to the area of “Christian liberty,” we would agree. But he does not. He applies them to the entire structure of the worship of the Church. He discusses, for example, the use of liturgical forms such as the Baptism Form, the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, etc. He writes:
The other question has to do with the use of formularies produced by ecclesiastical assemblies. Must we stick to them exclusively and strictly or not? I would hope the answer is no. Not that the content of the formularies is bad (though it could stand improvement), but when used often, the formularies limit creativity and imagination. Perhaps we ought to use them as guides . . .
He makes no mention of the fact that these “formularies” are basically creeds which express the truth of God’s Word—although we usually call them “minor confessions”. But that they are creeds implies that the Church believes that these formularies express the truth of Scripture which the believers want to confess. When these creeds are used in their approved form throughout the Church, they are used in such a way that the Church confesses the unity of her faith in Christ. To leave such important matters as the confession of the Church to anyone who wants to compose a Form for Baptism or to use the present Forms as “guidelines” is to abandon the faith of the Church which is her only unity in the world.
That the author wants this is clear.
I implied that many members of the church should be in on the decision-making when it comes to worship and liturgy . . . This means that people of the congregation, individually and collectively, ought to write liturgies for both Word and sacrament services. If they feel incapable of composing such a service, they at least should be consulted for ideas that would make worship meaningful to them and their fellow worshippers. Let it be a project for Ladies’ and Men’s Societies, catechism and Sunday School classes, retreats, and the like. They should be able to make mistakes, and if what they try doesn’t “work”, be able to try again. This means an openness to experiment with new structures of church life, a commitment to flexibility of styles, and the courage to risk failure in order to discover new truths. . . . Once we do allow all members, young and old, the chance to voice their opinions, we will have to be ready to face the question of using silence, kneeling, conversation, poetry, drama, gospel songs, folk music, jazz, simple or complex liturgies, and whatever ways people may use for celebration.
There is absolutely no doubt about it that, if the suggestions of the author are followed, the results will be exactly as he describes them. But to call this the worship of God seems to be approaching near to blasphemy.
But the author has more to say particularly about this matter of audience participation in the worship.
But there is more for laymen to do than prepare worship and liturgies. I believe there should be participation in all the elements of worship as well as preparation of them.
Certainly there should be participation in responses, hymns, the Lord’s Prayer and the recitation of the creeds. . . .
If our prayers are really to be congregational prayers, shouldn’t members of the congregation offer these prayers, at least some of the time? It is presumptuous of clergy to think they know the needs of people and the world better than the people themselves and can present them more acceptably before the Lord. Students in our church have offered many prayers, both from the pulpit and from the pew. I have found prayers by the congregation moving and worshipful.
It is highly presumptuous of the author to say that the reason why clergy offer the congregational prayers is that they think they know the needs of the people and the world better than the people themselves. Nothing could be farther from the truth: Why does the author introduce something so patently false? and cast aspersions on the clergy?
But he goes on:
I think we must face (the) questions directly—why not have lay participation in Scripture reading and preaching?
Another question about proclamation. The aim of proclamation is that the gospel lays claim on a man and calls to him for decision and commitment. Is the monological sermon the only way for powerful proclamation? Could not choral reading, poetry, drama, dance, film, dialog, whatever form of communication that is available, be used to proclaim the message of God?
Nor must this lay participation be limited to the preaching; it must extend to the administration of the sacraments as well.
But this raised a question among us, could they (laity) also preach, read Christ’s word of institution, break, pour and pass the elements (of the Lord’s Supper)? That would be complete participation in the celebration.
It is here more than anywhere else in the article that the author’s radical break with Scripture shows through. He is opposed to the injunctions and principles of Scripture. He is not speaking of some liturgical renewal which touches on those aspects of the service which fall in the area of Christian liberty. He is hitting hard at the very essence of the worship service and is attempting, with some appealing suggestions, to cut the heart out of the worship of God.
He does two things. He first attacks the offices in the Church. In other parts of the article it is apparent that his view of the offices of elder and deacon differ from the Reformed view. But here he attacks the office of the minister. The minister is an ambassador of Christ called by the Church and therefore by Christ Himself to bring the Word of the Lord officially, authoritatively and in the name of Christ. He alone can and must do this. And only when he does this can there be worship in any true sense of the word.
And only, in the second place, when a minister speaks is the gospel preached. This gospel, preached by the minister is the heart of all the liturgy. It is God speaking to His people. And only when God, effectively, powerfully, officially, speaks can the people of God respond in worship and adoration. The official preaching is “the power of God unto salvation.” To destroy this is to destroy worship altogether and to introduce into the Church a caricature, a mockery which is detestable in the sight of God.