I wish that 40 years ago when I joined the PCA that the denomination’s elder statesmen had raised their voices warning those of us who came into Presbyterianism from other traditions, be they Baptist (as in my case), Lutheran, Anglican, or Pentecostal, that it was not for us to remake the church in accord with our own background and preferences. I recall trying to persuade stuffy Anglicans and Presbyterians to loosen up and sing “Heavenly Father, I Appreciate You,” and “Father, I Adore You.” I might also have tried to import the altar calls and gospel songs of my childhood and youth. I wish that we all had been counseled to respect the regulated worship culture of international Calvinism and conform to it for at least a decade or two, so that we might learn to love its distinctive strengths.
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.
My question is, why? Why all this novelty? Why are the organizers of these services not more concerned about their brethren of tender conscience for whom these innovations are a matter of great concern? Large numbers of commissioners have simply stopped attending General Assembly worship services. Should we not be seeking to feature generic Presbyterian services that are familiar, common, and beloved by the majority? Should we not seek strong and obvious lines of continuity with the past? There actually are those of us who, if we had to choose (which we’d rather not), would prefer eliminating all instrumentalism, eliminating the choir altogether and reducing the sung part of the service in half if we could have a simple service of Scripture reading, congregational singing of psalms and hymns, and expository preaching without the on-stage distractions. Call it the Zwingli option.
It’s not that we’re uptight and stuffy – okay, we are uptight and stuffy – but it’s not just that. Rather, we dissent as a matter of conviction. Should we not seek to organize services that express the ethos and substance of the vast majority of our churches, even as they reflect the ethos and substance of historic Presbyterianism? When the Anglican and Episcopal churches gather for national conventions, should their members not expect to worship according to the Book of Common Prayer? Would it not be considered odd if the powers that be dropped the prayer book and treated them instead to a “seeker friendly” or Pentecostal service? If so, why is it any different for Presbyterians? Presbyterianism is characterized by both a distinctive theology and a distinctive worship. Doctrine and practice are interrelated and mutually dependent. We would be advised not to allow our zeal for diversity of forms undermine what for centuries has united us at the hour of worship.
I wish that 40 years ago when I joined the PCA that the denomination’s elder statesmen had raised their voices warning those of us who came into Presbyterianism from other traditions, be they Baptist (as in my case), Lutheran, Anglican, or Pentecostal, that it was not for us to remake the church in accord with our own background and preferences. I recall trying to persuade stuffy Anglicans and Presbyterians to loosen up and sing “Heavenly Father, I Appreciate You,” and “Father, I Adore You.” I might also have tried to import the altar calls and gospel songs of my childhood and youth. I wish that we all had been counseled to respect the regulated worship culture of international Calvinism and conform to it for at least a decade or two, so that we might learn to love its distinctive strengths. Too many of us thought we knew better and, as a result, all these years later we are drowning in the liturgical chaos we call the PCA.
Terry L. Jonson is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga.