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

Introduction

It should be a given in Reformed circles that all the members participate when the church gathers for the public worship of Jehovah God. Every heir of the Reformed tradition ought to know well the place of every believer in the worship services of the church. I would imagine that the Reformed officebearers present at this conference, because of their precious reformation heritage, simply assume that each member will be actively involved in the worship.

This—participation of the pew—should neither be taken for granted nor assumed. For as soon as the Reformed officebearer makes this assumption, either the church will lose the necessary participation of the pew, or will fall into dead orthodoxy, which I define as a formal carrying out of biblical mandates without the support of head or heart.

I pray that this paper will promote the biblical and Reformed understanding of the participation of the pew, so that we may present to God an acceptable worship, a sacrifice well pleasing to God, to whom belongs all our praise.

Participation of the pew can be lost, really, in two directions. On the one hand, the pew can participate in the worship in an improper manner, either by usurping the place of the duly appointed officebearers or by involving itself in activities that are not required by Scripture. By allowing this improper participation, the church will inevitably lose the true worship of God. I will say something about that in the second section of the paper.

On the other hand, pew participation can be lost by a reversion to the mentality of Roman Catholic sacerdotalism, where the pew only observes the worship of the priests or ministers, but does not actually participate in the worship of God.

I submit that there are always dangers for the Reformed pew on both sides—the danger to participate improperly, and the danger not to participate at all. Therefore, I would like first to explain the necessity of congregational participation in the worship of God, then to explain the manner of that participation, both negatively and positively. Finally, I will give suggestions as to how this participation can be promoted in the worship of Reformed churches.

The Necessity of Pew Participation

There are at least three reasons the people of God in the pew must participate actively and consciously in God’s worship on the Lord’s Day.

First, God demands active participation by the pew because He requires worship from His church, not only from the officebearers in the church. Writing to the churches, Peter says that they “should show forth the praises of” God. The Old Testament calling of Israel to bring their worship to God is a calling not to a select few people in the nation, but to the nation itself, as type of the new covenant church of Jesus Christ.

According to the Reformed faith, the church (the new covenant Israel) is made up of believers and their seed. (I realize that among confessing believers and their seed are also some reprobate, but that does not alter the point being made: that God requires worship from the church as it manifests itself on the earth.) In distinction from Roman Catholic ecclesiology, the Reformed faith holds that the church is the body of confessing believers and their children. Whereas Roman Catholic doctrine holds that the church is made up of the priests, bishops, cardinals and popes—the clergy—Reformation theology holds to the priesthood, and membership in the church, of every believer. Thus, the people of God all must bring worship to God when they gather together on the Lord’s Day in the house of praise.

(As an important aside, this shows the importance of doctrine for life, and the correlation between theology and the practice of the church. What we believe about the church directly affects the behavior of the church. I pray that this will always be pointed out to the people of God.)

Second, God requires active participation by the pew because by participating rather than simply observing, the believer receives the benefits of salvation that Christ purposes for him. What God has joined together in the church—namely the hearing of the preaching and the salvation of believers—man must not attempt to put asunder. When Romans 10 teaches that salvation is linked inseparably to the hearing of the preaching proclaimed by a “sent” preacher, we obey.

But “hearing the preaching for salvation” must not be understood in any other way than a believing hearing. To hear believingly requires a careful, active participation in the public proclamation of the Word. A worshiper must “hold onto the hem of His garment,” and refuse to let go until He blesses him. Any other manner of hearing comes under the classification of “tempting God,” that is, asking God to give what He has promised in a way that he has not promised.

God’s way of salvation requires of His people that they participate in worship.

Third, active participation by the pew in worship is necessary because the worship of God by the church is the purpose of God in saving the church.

At this point, many Reformed believers make a serious mistake of misunderstanding the truth of my previous point. We have just established that worship is the means by which God brings us the benefits of our salvation. But that is not to say that the primary purpose of worship, or the great importance of worship, is to receive the benefits of salvation. The ultimate purpose of worship is to declare the great worth of Jehovah God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. By definition, worship is declaring the worth of God. Our English word “worship” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word weorthscipe, which means sounding forth the worth of another; and the biblical words for worship indicate a “bowing the knee towards” and “bringing praise to,” another.

To make my point clear, we may ask which proposition the Reformed man would choose as correct if the alternatives were the following:

a.Salvation is the goal of our worship.

b.Worship is the goal of our salvation.

I contend, on the basis of Scripture, that the second is ultimately correct, even though the first has some truth in it. We may say without hesitation that God’s purpose in saving the church in Christ is that the church might worship Him now and in eternity. To put it differently, God does not call us to worship Him in order that we may be saved; He saves us in order that we might worship Him to His eternal glory.

Choosing only two familiar texts is sufficient to show the validity of this point. When God said in Isaiah 43, “This people I have formed for myself, they shall shew forth my praise,” it is plain that He meant: “I formed them in order that they would show forth my praise. This is why I created them, gathered them, and shaped them to be what they are: so that they would be able to give me praise.” When Peter, speaking to the church, said in I Peter 2:9, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew for the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light,” he meant: “This is the purpose or end of your election, your appointment to the kingly priesthood, and your setting apart as a distinct people: that you might bring me praise.” Although the KJV of Rev. 4:11 is a questionable translation, it is good theology: “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created” (my emphasis, BLG).

Forgetting this is why we participate wrongly. Supposing that our benefit is the primary purpose of worship, we sometimes complain (perhaps justifiably) about a worship service that did not edify us. How often do we complain if a worship service does not bring glory to God? This consideration ought to be primary in any analysis of a Reformed church service.

To sum up: the pew must always engage in the public worship of God with these things in mind: 1) God calls the entire church to worship, of which each member is part; 2) the benefits of salvation are received primarily by an active involvement of the believer; and 3) God saves His people with this design, that they might bring Him the “worship due unto his name” (Psalm 96:8).

The Manner of Pew Participation

If the danger of Roman Catholicism is to be feared, so is an over-reaction to this evil by an attempt to involve the pew in an illegitimate manner. I will try to be brief here as well, because I want to concentrate our attention on the positive aspect of pew participation.

The danger of an improper participation by the pew is that the pew either violates Paul’s command that everything be done “decently and in order” (the charismatic error), or that the pew tries to take a leading or entertaining role in worship (more the danger some Reformed churches have fallen into).

This negative point may be put in the form of a principle: Reformed worship is carried out by the people, not for the people. Or, Reformed worship requires the active participation in every act that they possibly can. Or, Reformed worship is a communal activity, in which all the worshipers are active at every point.

One outstanding example of violation of this principle is the inclusion of “special numbers” as part of the worship. Beautiful as they may be, special numbers by an individual or group (small or large) should be saved for another occasion than the public worship of the church. At every point, the congregation actively participates in the worship of God.

Where there is singing, the congregation sings. Where there is confession of faith, the congregation should recite a creed together. And although it is impossible for the congregation to be active in the same manner during the preaching of the Word, nevertheless, the members are as active as they possibly can be at that time—by believing, “kissing the Son,” receiving the Word as truth.

If it is objected that the church of the old covenant had special groups worshiping for the rest—the Levites and the special singers and players of musical instruments—we may respond that the Reformed officebearer should not make such a hermeneutical and exegetical mistake. The Old Testament includes many practices not carried over into the New. Now, because we confess the priesthood of all believers, we no longer ask “priests” or “Levites” to worship for us. To allow choirs to supplant any of the congregational singing is to detract from that great reformational principle.

The history of Reformed churches brings out plainly that this nineteenth century phenomenon, coming largely out of revivalism, is out of place in Reformed circles. For generations, no soloist or quartet, choir or musical group made its way to the pulpit of the Reformed church. But in the last century, without explanation or defense, they became so commonplace even in Reformed churches that when new members join a Reformed church that lacks these things, a good deal of time must be spent explaining the history and biblical principle behind the absence of these special numbers in our worship services.

In the late 1940s, the Rev. P.Y. DeJong wrote long series of excellent articles in the Banner about worship. Understanding “special numbers” to be a danger for his denomination already then, he issued a warning to the churches about them: “The church in the middle ages reduced believers to a state of nonage. Instead of being active at the time of public worship, they were present in the church largely, if not exclusively, as silent spectators. A dead and dread silence hung over the cowed worshipers on the eve of the Protestant Reformation. One of the outstanding contributions of this new arrival was the restoration of congregational singing to its rightful place in the house of God.”

As church history shows, allowance of “special numbers” in the worship services inevitably leads to the mentality that church is entertainment rather than worship. The Lutheran Soren Kierkegaard put his finger on this danger when he remarked (although with a not altogether happy analogy) that “people have the idea that the preacher is an actor on the stage and they are the critics, blaming or praising him. What they don’t know is that they are the actors on the stage; he is merely the prompter standing in the wings, reminding them of their lost lines.” God is the object of worship by the congregation.

Perhaps inconsistent with this principle—that the entire congregation actively participate in every element—is (at least can be) the practice of the playing of an instrument (organ) while the deacons receive the offerings. I cannot see how the singing of a solo or a quartet is different in principle from the playing of the instrument. Although the playing of an “offertory” will be viewed differently than a “special number” because of its long use among us, it is nevertheless the participation of one to help the whole worship better—the purported purpose of all special music. Understand well, this is not said out of a desire to promote special numbers during the offering or any other time. I only submit that the PRC are not without some slight inconsistencies in their holding to these principles of worship. (Another example of which could be the singing of the beautiful trinitarian hymn, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow … praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” as the beginning doxology, rather than a Psalm.)

How should the pew participate in worship? What must be said about the congregation’s activity in worship? How may the Reformed officebearer be instructed to build up the worship services in his congregation? I will submit three particulars in answer to these questions. And then I will give some ways in which the officebearer can promote godly worship among the members of his congregation.

First, the people of God must be taught to participate with the proper attitude. Required of the people of God is that they worship with the desire to bring something to God, rather than to get something from Him. In order to foster that attitude, the people of God must learn to reverence the holy God, as I trust Pastor Steve Key will have pointed out in his introductory address to this conference. But that must be emphasized here as well. The people of God will not participate properly unless first of all their hearts are right. They must come to give the worship that is due the majestic, holy, sovereign, gracious, creator God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

How, pray tell, will that happen unless they learn, in a reverent atmosphere, that “God is great and greatly to be praised”? The people of God must know their God. They must know Jesus Christ—and not as a weak, pathetic beggar who cannot accomplish his will, but as the sovereign Lord who reigns as King over all. A man will not worship as he should unless this reality is established in his heart.

A delightful illustration of the truth that must be learned here is found is C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Every few years I take the time to read these books to the younger children in my family, as much for my enjoyment as theirs. In that series, Lewis symbolizes the Christ with a great lion, Aslan. Before the children—Lucy, Susan, and Peter—meet Aslan for the first time, talking beavers answer their questions about him:

“Ooh,” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” 

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then isn’t he safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Second, the people of God must participate with their intellect firmly engaged. This is not to say that in the Reformed worship service the intellect has the primacy. It is to say the worship service is and must remain intellectual. The way to the heart is the head. The people of God must think. Away with the worship services that are so orchestrated that the emotions have the primacy.

Let every Reformed believer be reminded of Paul’s warning in I Corinthians 14: “I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.”

Worshiping without the intellect is one way of coming under the condemnation that God pronounced on apostate Old Testament Israel. It is formalism—a going through the motions, doing what is right, without engaging the mind and directing it towards God. The heart cannot be close to God unless the mind participates in worship.

A Reformed sermon addresses the mind of the people of God, the mind of every person present, young and old. The Reformed preacher understands that, today as well as 2500 years ago, “God delights in obedience rather than sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offering.” It is striking to me that the Hebrew parallelism in that verse indicates that the knowledge of God is parallel to, and therefore an explanation of, obedience! This—knowing God—is the proper manner in which God wills to be worshiped!

Third, the people of God must participate in every element of the worship. With a proper attitude of humility and reverence, the Reformed worshiper engages his mind and heart in all parts of the worship.

I detect that a danger for many is that they may be prepared to listen to the sermon, ready to hear a good message, perhaps even to talk about it for a while afterwards, but they are relatively unprepared for and unthinking as regards the other elements of worship. A man supposes, perhaps unconsciously (to judge graciously), that the rest of the service is only introductory to, or a warming up for, the sermon. Then he is not “listening” when the people of God confess together, “Our help is in the name of Jehovah, who made heaven and earth.” He is not worshiping when the commandments are read or the Psalms are sung. He does not really make the congregational prayer his prayer. He seems to be interested only in the Word preached. The mistake is that he sees the Word only in the sermon, and forgets that the Word is primary in every aspect of the worship.

A notable illustration of weakness in this regard is the offerings. I believe that gross weakness is exhibited when the time to give our offerings is almost viewed as a “half-time.” Here the children go out to the bathroom, the latecomers read the bulletin, moms pass out peppermints, the serious-minded reads his pamphlet (and to include the preacher, the preacher finds the stanzas for his next song, or reminds himself of his sermon’s introduction). But precious few are meditating on the act of worship that giving gifts is. Either the time of offering is an important part of worshiping God and must be treated as such, or the churches ought to put the box in the back of the building for the money to be dropped in as the people arrive and not take the five minutes or so required to “pass the plate.”

There is work to be done properly to participate in every part of worship.

But even though there is weakness in these other areas, no weakness could be more serious than a weakness with regard to the hearing of the gospel. In this part of worship, Jesus Christ speaks to His people as really as when He did during His earthly ministry. To be in the presence of the speaking Christ without honoring Him with attentive ears and believing hearts—why, what could be more tragically evil? Let no one be present during offerings, singing, and confessing faith, without active and careful participation. But God forbid that the people of God sleep or ignore the speech of the Son of God to the church. Here, above all, we “kiss the Son.” On account of failure in this, more than anything else, “his wrath is kindled” (see Psalm 2).

The Promotion of Pew Participation

How can the officebearers promote godly participation in worship?

I would suggest that during family visitation, a special point be made to discuss with the members the urgent necessity of a worship that pleases the Lord. I am encouraged by the willingness of elders to talk specifically about particular needs in the congregation. Here is a great need: proper worship by the members. What need could be greater? The purpose of our salvation is worship! The minister must preach about proper worship. But the elders must reinforce that word with the one they bring “from house to house.”

Among other things, I pray that the elders would encourage the people of God in this way:

First, the elders should see to it that the current trend of casual dress in worship does not catch on among us.

It may seem trivial to begin with this as a way for the elders to encourage proper worship; but I do not consider it trivial whatsoever.

I was astounded recently when we worshiped in a conservative church away from home, and most of the members who returned to God’s house for the second service (few though they were) came in jean-shorts and tennis shoes. It cannot be said categorically that casual dress is indicative of an irreverent heart. But it usually is. Not for the praise of men, but for God’s praise, we ought to wear our best. Controversial, I admit. Old fashioned? I accept the label without shame.

Second, the elders can suggest ways for the people of God to listen well to the preached Word. The sermon is not the only element of worship; but it is the most important. Thus, the better the people of God can do with hearing the Word, the more holy will be their worship. Some take notes on sermon outlines provided by the pastor. Children too young to listen for concepts can be taught, even at the youngest age, to listen for certain words, making marks by the word holiness on a pad of paper each time that word is said, Jacob if the sermon recounts his history, wisdom or some other key word that parents can certainly anticipate by looking at the sermon title or outline. Children who have a difficult time listening, or are fidgety after ten minutes, can be asked to make notes of the sermon. Anything (within the bounds of reverence and holiness) to keep them from counting bricks or falling asleep.

Finally, in connection with hearing the Word, the members must be taught to prepare for worship. In order to come with the proper attitude that God requires, the people of God must be encouraged to prepare. If the elders would do nothing else than this, and the Lord would bless it, my heart would rejoice.

The Westminster Confession of Faith claims that without “a due preparing of their heart, and ordering of their common affairs before-hand,” the people of God cannot keep the Lord’s Day holy, and proper worship cannot take place (Conf. 21:8; see also Cat. 117, 160!).

Preparation for worship begins already on Monday morning when we begin to teach our children to look forward to worship. When they learn that Sunday is the beginning of the week instead of the end; that Sunday has the power to bring us through this desert land where all the streams are dry; they will begin to look forward to the Lord’s Day as a day of rest and enrichment, instead of dreading it as a day of dreariness.

A commendable way to prepare for the worship is to speak about the sermons both before and after the service. In this way, the people will find it a joy to listen, so that they can be ready to speak with like-minded believers about their faith. Probably one of the most difficult things for a pastor to understand (or is it humbling?) is that after the worship is finished, the people can immediately begin speaking about the car they bought the day before, the fish they caught, the meal they served. I think we can learn something from our Presbyterian brothers, whose confession is that it is sin not to rest from all our “own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations” (Conf. 21:8). The elders can help by mixing with the people and encouraging discussion about some positive aspect of the sermon. Parents ought to ask questions of their children at the dinner table, making sure that they are genuinely interested in the subject themselves.

Some prepare for the Lord’s Day by reading through a good commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, anticipating the sermon for the coming Sunday. I have had more than one member tell me of his profit from reading Herman Hoeksema’s Triple Knowledge as we proceeded through the Heidelberg Catechism. Having one’s heart and mind on spiritual things throughout the week makes for eagerness to come to God on the Lord’s Day. But any good Reformed literature will whet the appetite for worship.

Perhaps best, by way of outward, physical preparation, is what is done on Saturday evening. Is it any wonder that worship is drudgery when the night before was late and busy? How many of our families are at restaurants until late, playing cards until late, doing books or finishing the wash or out in the garage until late on Saturday night? I have a difficult time understanding that there is any heart for worship at all when no concerted effort is made to be in bed on time the evening before. Has anyone ever done a study on the Old Testament boundaries of the day as “evening and morning”? What implications might there be for the church today if we considered the Lord’s Day to begin Saturday evening? If all the families (or individuals) spent the evening in quiet meditation, singing of the Psalms, reading a good book, the Lord’s blessing on our worship would be rich.

Above all, the preparation must be spiritual. It is a matter of faith. All the outward things mean nothing unless the heart is right before God. Each outward element of preparation must be exercised with the desire of Psalm 27: “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple.”

But the Lord will not bless all the elders’ talk in the world, unless the officebearers themselves are practicing what they preach. I often remark to people in my pastoral work that, even if the member does what is right before God in one respect, if he is not living before God honestly in another respect, God will “dam up” His blessings to the man until he returns in a way of serious and genuine repentance. Likewise, the officebearers may speak until they are blue in the face, but if their worship is not heartfelt, intelligent, and with the proper attitude, the Lord will likely not answer their prayers when they plead, “Lord, give us true, spiritual worshipers.”

The minister must prepare his heart, and his mind. He must think about the songs before he announces them. What will the people think when the minister shows that he hasn’t even taken the time to consider which stanzas of the Psalm to sing? How can the people be eager to hear the law when, in a monotone, the minister reads the commandments with his mind on something else? Where will the heart of the people be when the pastor introduces the service with the great apostolic benediction, but with such lack of feeling that in the very same breath he can announce the next song? The spirituality of the people and the service will rarely be higher than the heart of the pastor who leads. Pray God to give us (make us) pastors who show their preparation to the pew.

Pastors and elders, the responsibility is ours first of all. Moats and beams, men. And our preparation is not complete unless it has led us to say, as we walk to the sanctuary, “As pants the hart for streams of living water, So longs my soul, O living God for Thee; I thirst for Thee, for Thee my heart is yearning; When shall I come Thy gracious face to see?” When we do, I believe that the Lord will honor that preparation with a membership that participates, to His glory.