Clay Libolt’s feature article (“More Dreaming”) suggests that worship is so universal and central to us all that it’s the best avenue through which to promote further unity and find a common identity. I heartily agree. It is in worship that the church is constituted, and it is through worship that its people are shaped.
Promoting unity through worship isn’t easy. Widely varied forms of worship in local congregations and the huge influence of a generically evangelical form of worship over the last 25 years make the task of rediscovering worship as “our signature as a denomination” somewhat more difficult. But it’s not impossible, and it may well prove to be our best path toward a more unified and distinctive denominational identity.
We cannot enter this important discussion without a common understanding of what Reformed worship really is. I would like to suggest two key principles around which we might begin that discussion.
The first principle that characterizes Reformed worship is that it is a gathering before God for covenant renewal. Our Reformed ancestors understood that one of the most important biblical patterns for worship is the “solemn assembly” of God’s people before the face of God in the Old Testament.
The worship service, then, is essentially a dialogue between God and God’s people. God welcomes us in grace; we respond with praise and adoration. God reminds us of his commandments; we offer our confession and seek God’s forgiveness in Christ. God speaks to us in his Word; we respond with thanksgiving and prayer. God offers us the new covenant of grace in Jesus Christ through the bread and wine of communion; we receive it with thanksgiving. Finally, God blesses us to go out and serve in the world as covenant people.
The second principle is that Reformed worship is trinitarian. That might sound like a heavy theological category to apply to worship, but just as the Trinity is central to Reformed theology, it’s also central to our understanding of worship. As James Torrance points out in his book Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace, some forms of Protestant worship are more unitarian than Trinitarian. “Unitarian worship” is primarily the human activity of inspiring and encouraging faith, and teaching people about God. Through careful planning we bring people into the experience of God.
Trinitarian worship, according to Torrance, is “the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father . . . through which we know that the living Christ is in our midst, leading our worship, our prayers, our praises.” Practically speaking, it means, for example, the difference between beginning our worship with “Let’s all greet one another with a hearty, welcoming handshake” or with “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” In the second case, one is immediately aware that this is not primarily about us. We are being invited into the awesome presence of the triune God, through Jesus Christ our mediator, by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
These are two key principles of Reformed worship, though we could add a few more. If we all pay serious attention to these two values, our worship would be transformative, missional, and winsome. What’s more, these two features require no particular style of music or architecture, they can be followed within any cultural or ethnic setting, and they fit within congregations of any size and with any level of resources.