Ought we to revise and revamp our liturgy? This is the burning question which is presently stirring the churches in this land and abroad. Many Churches are not content to talk about it; they have begun to do something about it. Not minor revisions in the order of worship are being introduced. Not a few additions to or subtractions from the regular liturgical practices are deemed sufficient. Fundamental changes in the very structure of the liturgy which involve complete alterations are being tried. Experimentation, innovation and basic change characterize “liturgical renewal”.
It is not without significance that these liturgical experimentations are characteristic of the Church. The Church is bent on doctrinal alteration and Biblical apostasy. The Church is frantically engaged in ecumenism. The Church is exchanging the ministry of the Gospel for social, political and economic involvement. This is what characterizes the Church scene. It is not an accident that in this ecclesiastical climate there is much discussion of liturgical change as well. And, if we should find that the suggestions made for liturgical change are closely associated with the general upheaval within the Church world, we should not be surprised.
In the February, 1969 issue of the Reformed JournalNicholas P. Wolterstorff, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, writes an article entitled “The Young Person and Liturgy”. While discussing the problems of liturgy from the vantage point of the young people in the Church, he makes a strong plea for basic and drastic liturgical alteration.
His starting point is the general dissatisfaction to be found among young people with the worship services within the Reformed Churches:
It is no secret that many of the reflective young people who are members of the Reformed Churches are intensely dissatisfied with the current form and manner of worship in their churches. The fact is known to anyone at all who has listened to them. They do not conceal their dissatisfaction. . . .
. . . I am convinced that they mean their objections so seriously that unless we listen to them and institute reforms they will either leave the Reformed churches for some church which has, in their judgment, a more soundly Christian liturgy, or they will become the sullen, custom-ridden church members which we in the Reformed churches are so adept at producing. They will not become vital, energetic participants in our churches.
It is true, I think, that the objections of young people to whom Dr. Wolterstorff has bent an ear are objections rather current among young people. I have, from time to time, heard objections raised among our own people and, young people about the liturgical practices of the Church. Many times the objections were raised that the liturgy of the Church has become so familiar that it is practiced automatically; it has become a worship of the lips and of outward form. The true worship of the heart is all but absent. This has been used as an excuse to make alterations in our liturgical practices so as to construct a liturgy more meaningful and to guarantee a more spiritual participation in the service.
We do well to consider the problem. Our young people especially will do well to give their thought and discussion to this matter.
Dr. Wolterstorff’s basic thesis is that the most important feature of worship in the Reformed liturgy is “dialogue”.
To understand what the young person is driving at, I think we must dig into the fundamental structure of a Reformed liturgy. That fundamental structure, it is generally agreed, is a dialogue, a dialogue between God and His people. The Reformed liturgy, indeed, the Christian liturgy, consists in its basic structure of a series of acts in which God addresses His people and His people address God—the people confess their sins to God, God gives to the people His assurance of pardon, God speaks His Word to the people, the people respond with thanks and praise to God, and so forth, back and forth in dialogue.
Here is a key point. We must not lightly pass over this and accept Dr. Wolterstorff’s definition of liturgy without some thought. His contention that the structure of the Reformed liturgy is essential to an understanding of what ought to be included in a proper liturgy is surely sound. But is “Reformed liturgy” to be characterized as essentially “dialogue”? Dr. Wolterstorff says that this “is generally agreed” upon.
It is true that there is an element of fact in this definition. But the word “dialogue” strikes me as being singularly inappropriate to describe what happens at a worship service. A. dialogue is carried on between equals. Two people may engage in a. dialogue. Two groups of people may have a dialogue. Even two committees, each representing a particular denomination, may conduct a dialogue if they choose. This is, in fact, rather fashionable in our ecumenical age. But can a man have a dialogue with his pet dog? Or if the analogy strikes you as unsound, is it even possible for a mature adult with the wisdom of many years to hold a dialogue with a little child of one year old? Is there a possibility of dialogue (with all that that implies) in such a situation? Is it not far more impossible for the God of heaven and earth to hold a “dialogue” with a man? There is speech from God to man and from man to God in a worship service. There is speech which implies closest fellowship. But “dialogue” is exactly not the word to describe this unique exchange of words which is characteristic of a worship service.
And here, I am convinced, we have .hit upon a fundamental point in the discussion. If there is one thing which characterizes all the discussion of doctrine, of church unity, of the church’s calling, of liturgy, it is a growing disregard for the awesome majesty and supreme glory of God. Every effort is made to make God common, to bring Him down to the-level of man, to make Him a next door neighbor with Whom we can chat over the backyard fence. The vision of Isaiah 6 is forgotten. God is filled with such great glory that before Him the angels cover their faces. God is infinitely exalted above man. It is because of this fact that God’s revelation of Himself to man is so essential. He cannot be known apart from His revelation. Yet it is precisely this revelation which men consistently ignore. The Church does this. It does this when it denies the infallible inspiration of Scripture. It does this when it turns away from the truth of Scripture to say what Scripture does not say concerning doctrine. It does this when it seeks to find its calling in the world not in what Scripture says, but in what a given man (or group of men) at a given time happen to think their calling is.
And here is the big disappointment in Dr. Wolterstorff’s article. He listens to the young people. They have various objections against the liturgy. He ought not to be doing this. He ought to be listening to God. Yet the article makes no mention of God’s Word—not even once. There is absolutely no indication in it (you may search all you will) that the author has even given any thought to the matter that God ought to have the say in all this matter of liturgy.
After all, God tells us Who He is. He is the only One Who can tell us. And because He tells us Who He is, He is the only One Who can tell us how He ought to be worshipped. The very fact that we call our church services “worship” services already suggests that God is higher than one with whom we can have dialogue. If there is a king who rules over a vast empire and expects obedience, allegiance, respect and honor from his subjects, he is the one who has the right to determine how his subjects shall conduct themselves in his presence. This is not the prerogative of those who will come from time to time into his throne room. They may not decide on the matters of conduct which become them as citizens in his realm. The king has the right to determine whether his subjects must bow before him, what words they may rightly say, how they must address him and behave in his presence. Above all, only the king has the right to determine the all-important question of who may come into his presence. The scepter is not held out to all. And one who presumes to come without the king’s permission suffers the loss of his head.
How much more is not this true of the living God. Because He is Who He is, He shall determine how men shall worship Him in His presence. This is surely the basic principle of liturgy. We must expect then that our liturgy will be, in its essentials, prescribed in God’s Word.
Essential to this liturgy is worship. And worship is not dialogue. Perhaps we need to learn once again the meaning of the Scriptural idea of fear. I am aware of the fact that fear in Scripture is not terror. The wicked must be afraid of God. They do not show this terror in their life. They are careless and incredibly foolish blasphemers. Because God does not strike them in the moment of their blasphemy with sudden bursts of judgment they think they can say about God what they please. But this shall some day change when the awful cry goes up pleading for the mountains to cover them from the face of God. But fear is not terror. Fear is characteristic of God’s people Who know God and know of His love for them. But while fear is not terror, neither is it familiarity. Even the intimate fellowship of God’s covenant into which God takes His people is always characterized by fear. It must forever remain so. Nothing can bridge the chasm between the Creator and the creature. God must and shall remain God. Indeed, this is the only thing which makes worship worth while and wonderful. If God is like us in any respect, there is nothing to it at all. It all becomes an exercise in futility and self-delusion. Worship. That is the key word.
It is but natural that the conception men have of God will be reflected in their liturgy. The point is that God tells us Who He is. He will also tell us how He must be worshipped. And what He tells us as to the manner of true worship is the only kind of worship pleasing to Him.
Men will not listen any more to God’s Word. They will not accept the Scriptures as God’s Word. That is, they will not accept the Scriptures as the verbally inspired record of God’s revelation of Himself. It is easily predictable what will then happen. Men begin to think of all sorts of ideas which arise in their own minds as to Who God is. They make inventions. They make idols. They construct philosophical and theological systems which are of their own thinking. They will not and do not listen in humble adoration to what God says. They speak to God telling God what kind of being they think He is and ought to be. And this will surely be reflected in their liturgy. It cannot be otherwise. Forming their own ideas of what God ought to be, they lay down their own rules of worship. They themselves define how they will worship the God they have constructed. The heathen have always done the same. After constructing their idols of wood or stone, they invented their own rules of worship. But the god they made was their creation. And the rules of worshipping this god were their own regulations.
Characteristic of this kind of thinking is always a tendency to cast large and dark shadows on God’s awesome majesty and glory. That God is great and greatly to be praised is forgotten. That He is a consuming fire is ignored. The sermons preached, the songs written and sung, the prayers offered—all simply reflect man’s urge to drag God down from His high throne. Worship has become man-centered, world-oriented. The reason is that man’s god is little more than a man.
Paul concludes his discussion of the election of Israel in the last verses of Romans 11 with the words: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counselor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen.”
No man can tell us how God ought to be worshipped; much less the young people. It ought to be engraved deeply upon the hearts of anyone who walks the hallowed courts of God’s presence: “God is a spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in Spirit and in truth.”