Rev. Gritters is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hudsonville, Michigan.

In contrast to the new forms of worship, what is proper worship?

Reformed, biblical worship is covenantal.

We ought to be as precise as possible with our terminology. Our worship is certainly not contemporary. But neither is it simply traditional. Traditional can mean a lot of things. Even Reformed does not mean much today, although our worship is “Reformed” if it’s anything. But I prefer not to describe it now as Reformed, or even biblical, although it is both.

Our worship—proper, God-glorifying worship—is also covenantal.

By that, I mean that our worship emphasizes, is enjoyment in, and is a celebration of, the gracious union of friendship between God and His people in Jesus Christ. The covenant itself is the experience of friendship.

Covenantal worship, then, is simply (profoundly!) the experience of God “tenting” with us (see John 1:14) in Jesus Christ, through the only thing we glory in—the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Friend of His people comes to them closely, lovingly, intimately, for mutual delight and God’s glory. Little is more important and mutually delightful to a Christian husband and wife than a loving, close, intimate relation. So a Reformed believer views worship of His God.

As covenantal, this worship centers in the Word. The worship will have at its heart the Word of God preached, sung, prayed, confessed, believed. Every kind of worship that takes away from the Word is a service that undermines the great reality and exquisite delight of God’s friendship with His people.

How does the Word serve the covenant? In three ways.

First, the Word serves God’s gracious covenant in that, by the preaching of the gospel, God gathers His covenant people to Himself.

Because the preaching is what it is—the powerful voice of God Himself through a man called by the church—the preaching alone has the power to bring men and women out of darkness into the great light of His presence (Rom. 1:16I Cor. 1:18-24;I Thess. 2:13, etc.).

Preaching creates life out of nothing in men as really as the voice of God in creation brought forth plants and animals out of nothing. Preaching raises from the dead as really as the voice of Jesus Christ brought Lazarus from the grave. When it does that, those raised from the dead and given life come to God as His friends! Worship is drawing nigh unto God. And since no one can come unto Christ, except the Father who sent Christ draws Him, the Father irresistibly draws by the preached Word.

Worship services that don’t have preaching are worship services that don’t make Christians. They may make members, or followers of some minister, or something else, but they don’t make Christians!

Then, because God’s covenant also includes children, the covenant requires that we take children to worship services as soon as they’re able to sit still and be quiet.

We don’t have children’s church: sending out the children under a certain age to sit in another room to color pictures. We certainly don’t have children’s church where probably the minister’s wife sits on the podium all “cutesy-like” with the children in a circle telling a little story for the entertainment of the indulgent parents who smile and whisper politely to each other.

“Oh, we have children’s church,” I always tell questioners. We have it on Monday evening when the children of different age groups gather to hear the preaching of the gospel to them in catechism. Every Monday evening for the teenagers, every Wednesday afternoon for the children, we have “children’s church,” if you want to call it that—worship designed for the age level of the children. At the same time, God’s children learn very early to listen to the preaching with the assistance of their faithful parents. In an amazing way, the Holy Spirit provides them their milk, while their parents enjoy meat.

Second, preaching serves the covenant in that, by preaching, the covenant of God and the God of the covenant are glorified.When the Word is preached as it ought to be preached, the great work of God to establish His friendship with His people is proclaimed! God’s people need and want to hear that good-news proclamation. Preaching declares to the church that the great Creator of heaven and earth determined to be a friend with sinners! Preaching declares that the glorious covenant God came to live with sinners in the incarnation—that’s the significance of John 1. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us; and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. But because a holy God doesn’t fellowship with unholy people (“without holiness no man shall see God”) preaching declares that the covenant Son of God laid down His life as satisfaction of the justice of God, so that the barrier of sin between Him and us could be removed. Oh, the glorious work of God to establish His covenant with us! And, because the covenant God is a faithful God, preaching declares that He’ll never forsake His covenant friends. Never, ever, forsake them.

These things are preached. Oh, all these things are preached. Week after week these things are preached, so that the people of God may know the goodness of the God who is their Friend.

Third, by preaching, God actually engages in covenant life with His people.

Preaching is the actual fellowship of God with His blood-bought, eternally chosen children. In preaching, God speaks to us—the heart of fellowship as friends. He speaks tenderly, graciously, personally, to the hearts of His people. “The words that I speak to you, they are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63).

But why preaching, ultimately? Why always the Word? Why the Word until kingdom come? Why the Word eternally in glory? Could not God have fellowshipped with His people in some other way? Why not in plays, with drama? Why not with rock music? Why not with dances and banners and bands?

The answer: Because God’s own covenant life within Himself is a life of fellowship in the Word! Eternally, God enjoyed communion with Himself by the Word and Spirit. What is Jesus Christ, but the eternal “WORD”? Think of God’s eternal life within Himself as a sweet communion of conversation through the Word and Spirit. By His Word and Spirit, God is close to Himself, shares His own covenant life within Himself, delights in Himself.

Is it surprising then that I Corinthians says: “It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe”? To save by preaching is God’s eternal decree. But it is no cold, hard, meaningless decree. It’s His pleasure—the exquisite good pleasure of God. Why? Because it shows His own, active covenant life within Himself.

This is the heart of our criticism of any kind of contemporary worship that takes away from the preaching: It leads the people away from a true knowledge of God in Himself.

Is there nothing to be learned from contemporary worship? Indeed, but not what you might expect.

First, we learn how idolatrous our natures are. For we all are attracted to the visible, the sensational, the easy, the casual. We are all inclined to what’s cute. We are idolaters in our nature.

Second, we should learn to be careful not to over-react to the chaos and anarchy of the charismatic worship, or the loose and casual worship of the mega-churches, so that we are tempted to embrace the liturgical formalism and pomp of Eastern Orthodoxy or Rome. There’s no small temptation for people to do that. Hundreds are flocking back to the majesty and dignity and sense of reverence in Rome.

Third, let us learn to be fervent to bring the gospel in evangelism and personal witnessing to those who would never darken the door of a church. One of the criticisms of Reformed worshipers is that they are not interested in evangelism. That stings. Of all people in the world, we Reformed ought to be most zealous in bringing the gospel to the ends of the world—and to our next-door neighbor who would never come into our church building. Why don’t we do that?

Fourth, let us be careful to worship in Spirit and in truth.

One criticism of traditional worship is that it’s staid, formal, cold, lifeless. But the new worship services are lively, spiritual, happy, loud thanksgivings to Jehovah God.

Is that true? Is your worship not heart-felt, lively, spiritual? Does your minister not speak to the heart of Jerusalem? Does his preaching not speak to your emotions as well as your intellect?

This is no little danger for us. It is unbiblical to say that worship is primarily for the intellect (unless by that is meant that the intellect is to be addressed first, and not only or mainly.)

Finally: We are reminded that we live in a radically wicked, swiftly changing world, where people think differently than a generation ago, where people don’t read and think, but watch and feel.

Ours is a generation of electronics, of images, of videos and computers and entertainment. It’s one of the most difficult ages in which to be faithful in serving God that there ever has been. This is the world our children are growing up in.

How will we teach them? What will we say to them? We must change the way we worship? God forbid. By the grace of God we will continue to teach them to read, to think, to reason, to meditate on the precious Word of God in Jesus Christ.

And we will remind them with personal, experiential joy, that the “everlasting gospel” is: “Worship God.” In Spirit, and in truth.