After the 2017 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, a 30-something church-planter asked me if I attended the worship services. I said I did. He asked, “Why?” Why do you torment yourself?” “Didn’t you attend?” I responded. “No, I never do.” Well, I thought, after hearing this same admission at the Assembly multiple times, this is a trend, isn’t it?
When I joined the PCA nearly 40 years ago, I did so for two reasons: theology, particularly the doctrines of grace; and worship, that is, the word-filled, God-centered, gospel-driven, emotionally disciplined and reverential worship of the Reformed church. I was fleeing the revivalistic Baptist services of my childhood and the charismatic/Pentecostal influences encountered in college and seminary.
Back in 1980, in 1985, in 1990, and perhaps even in 2000, the preceding sentences describing worship would have been widely understood in the denomination. We enjoyed considerable consensus throughout those years, rooted in nearly 500 years of Reformed practice, from Calvin’s Form of Church Prayers, to the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for the Public Worship of God to the more free-form but weighty Presbyterian worship of the 18th and 19th centuries. Up to nearly the end of the 20th century our services featured substantial Bible reading, expository preaching, a full-diet of biblical prayer, the singing of biblically-rich praises, and the regular administration of the sacraments.
Moreover, a distinctive culture, a distinctive ethos characterized our churches and the Reformed church internationally (see John Murray, “Tradition: Romish and Protestant,” Collected Works, Vol.4:264-273). The worship culture of Presbyterianism has included quiet reverence and emotional restraint, even among those not temperamentally given to such restraint such as the hot-blooded Scots and Scots-Irish Presbyterians and the more emotionally-expressive French Huguenots. Emotional discipline was thought to be important, an excess of sorrow and exuberance to be avoided. Why? So that one’s focus on the word, sacraments, and prayer might be undistracted by one’s overwrought passions. It was understood that those overcome by either extreme of emotion would struggle to redirect their attention to the word read, preached, prayed and seen. Jonathan Edwards defended the excessive emotions of the revivals in his Religious Affections, while at the same time sharply clamping down on those emotions. Emotions, yes; emotionalism, no. This is the typical viewpoint of sound Reformed churches.
A quiet solemnity has characterized Puritan and Reformed worship (Eccl 5:1; Hab 2:20). Emotions are powerfully moved, but they run deep, below the surface. We have sought to worship God with the “reverence and awe” that is, with a disposition that is compatible with bowing and kneeling, whatever our posture happens to be (Heb 12:28; Ps 95:6). It was this consciously cultivated atmosphere of disciplined reverence that many of us found deeply satisfying, and more importantly, biblically balanced and sound. It was for this that many of us became Presbyterians.
The worship services at General Assembly were quite different from what I am describing. They were novel, unlike the culture and practice of Reformed church across the centuries and across the continents. They were also quite unlike anything practiced in 95-99% of our churches today, though not unlike General Assemblies of recent years. I began criticizing the worship services at General Assembly in 2003. I found the addition of contemporary forms, plus those forms that mirrored the entertainment industry, plus forms borrowed from charismatic and Pentecostal churches, unsettling. It is clear that those who over these years have sought to remake the worship culture of the PCA to a significant degree have succeeded. Though the services at General Assembly were uncomfortably different from historic norms, they seemed to be widely appreciated, even enthusiastically received by many. At least that was the case in the section in which I was sitting. The sensibilities regarding what is appropriate in worship are changing in the PCA in ways that many of us find disconcerting.
How may I characterize this year’s services without wounding those who lead us, indeed led us with enthusiasm and skill? I would describe the services as contemporary with a dash of Pentecostalism minus tongues. The choirs’ performances, the gestures of those leading (arms thrust skyward, hands clapping overhead, hands waving back and forth, one leader literally jumping up and down), up-front leadership of three women, non-traditional instrumentation (drums, tambourines featured prominently), plus choir-dominated and leader-dominated congregational singing, were all outside the norms of Presbyterian practice over the past 400-500 years.
I am not now attempting to engage in biblical argumentation. I’m not saying that anything that was done was wrong or invalid per se. There are many ways to worship God. What separates various Christian groups is their disagreement as to what is the best way to worship. Hence we divide into charismatic, high-church, free-church, and countless variations on those themes. All may be valid. All may be sincere and earnest in their forms of preaching, prayer and praise, etc. Yet only one can be best. We all choose to do what we think is best and alter our services when we think we can do better. What I am saying is that the services were foreign to what our tradition has considered best, and to the regular practice of the vast majority of our churches today. Yes, there was a superficial resemblance to the tradition: old words joined to new tunes on occasion; also, several souped-up versions of traditional hymns were sung. Scripture was read, the word was preached, the sacrament were administered, prayers were offered. However, the overall impact was overwhelmingly novel, from the prelude all the way to the end, when we were instructed to hold out our hands to receive the benediction.