Key Features of Reformed Worship

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It is through worship that people are shaped.

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.

About the Author

Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (1)


Clayton Libolt suggests that it is not enough to find a sense of a compelling “we” through our denominational structure and financial support system.  It may have worked in the past but has lost its edge. Reshuffling at this denominational level isn’t going to help. He suggests that our hope for a new energy could come through our worship. Do you, Len, really think that this “covenant renewal” and “Trinitarian” emphasis in worship is what Clay has in mind for promoting mission, unity and identity?  Do you really think that such a perspective within evangelical Christianity is going to set the CRC apart and give us, as a denomination and as churches, a fresh new start, maybe even reverse our downward spiral that Clay talks about in his article?  Is this what will separate and distinguish our worship (CRC worship) from other Christian worship?

 I think your suggestion, Len, is doable but I doubt that it will even be noticeable.  It is so subtle that very few will even notice. Nearly all, if not all of Christianity, is Trinitarian. No one is going to jump up in worship and say, this is new and interesting, this really sets us apart. You suggested the difference between two possible greetings at the beginning of worship.  The Trinitarian formula that you suggested is what is typically used in CRC churches for the benediction at the end of the worship service.  But what if at the beginning of the worship service instead of “let’s greet one another with an embrace,” we said, “Our Triune God welcomes us to worship. In that spirit of welcome, let’s welcome each other.”  Although that small difference may be big to you, it will likely not even be noticed by those attending worship, because among Christians it is assumed we believe in and worship a Triune God.

And as to “covenant renewal,” the bullet headings that you suggest are already quite typical of the headings that break up our worship bulletins and worship services already.  I can’t see how that is going to send our worship in a new and distinct direction. It’s like, been there, done that, or isn’t that what we already do? 

One thing we used to do that set our churches apart from all others and gave us a sense of unity was catechism preaching.  That was a practice that united the CRC in belief.  It was what emphasized our confessional integrity.  When few churches or denominations claimed to be a confessional church, we did so and backed it up by preaching our confessions.  But of course, such preaching became boring and most of our churches have abandoned the practice.  Other than being the Dutch church, our greatest identity and emphasis in the past was our deep Calvinistic roots.  But for the sake of being more eclectic, we seem to be dumbing down our doctrinal heritage and identity. 

I have to admit, that today churches having a strong conservative doctrinal emphasis are the first to lose its membership and broad appeal.  So maybe in subtle ways, we are being led away from such an emphasis by our denomination and putting a greater emphasis on emotion.  But I doubt that finding a new identity in worship will have any impact in giving us a new enthusiasm.