Some pastors and elders in PCA churches seem to be adopting a style of worship that is called “contemporary”. The instinct behind this is, I think, good. They are attempting to reach the communities God has called them to serve, in a way that is understandable to those that they are called to reach.
Some other pastors and elders are opposed to this trend, seeing it as a slippage in standards of worship. The instinct behind this criticism is also good. They are trying to maintain a respect for our confessional tradition, in a day when respect for any tradition seems lacking.
I would like to propose that we try to get beyond the discussion of contemporary/traditional worship.Instead, get to what I consider the more fundamental issue. Both sides of this debate are struggling, honestly in most cases, to grapple with what it means to be a leader in a Reformed, confessional church in the modern world.
I want to make a proposal, first let us change the vocabulary of the debate.
I like to avoid the term contemporary when referring to reformed worship. It is a perfectly good term I just leave it to the baptists & the charismatics.
I prefer the term “accessible”. I admit that it is somewhat arbitrary, but I believe it helps us to understand the root issue better. The real issue under discussion is how accessible is a confessional reformed church to modern North Americans?
Ask yourself these questions to diagnose the accessibility of your congregations worship practices; “Does the typical visitor know what we are doing?” And “does the typical parishioner know why we are doing what we do?”
An extreme example is the historic inaccessibility of the Medieval Catholic worship that the Reformers protested. Forget for a moment the theological issues of the mass, and just think what “going to church” was like at the time. Worship participation by the congregation was nearly nil. For the most part, the people neither knew the “what” or the “why” of their worship service.
No congregational singing, service was in a foreign language, scripture was not read in an understandable language, etc. Along with reforming theology, praxis was also reformed. The congregation sang again. The service was in a locally understood language, as was the Scripture. In other words the worship service was “accessible” to the local people.
The twentieth century trend toward contemporary worship was largely motivated by a desire to present the congregation with a worship service that was accessible to the man & woman in the pew. I am not certain that the effect has lived up to the promise.
When I was a church planter in the early stages of the planting process I was free most Sunday mornings. This is an odd position for a minister to find himself. I have visited many congregations from several denominations. I have seen contemporary worship up close. Many contemporary services that I have visited in the last couple of years are very inaccessible. The singing is done (almost) solely by the pros on stage. Scriptures are rarely read and elements of most traditional services are completely absent. Creeds? Never saw one. Confession of sins? Ditto. Responsive readings? Also absent.
The role of the congregation in worship is being reduced. At its worst, it is little more than singing along with the band the way that people sing along with the radio. Intermittently and not well.
In Reformed churches we do not often fall into those errors. But many of our services often assume a very high level of knowledge of our “culture” to be able to participate. We do not worship in Latin, but we do use a language that is mostly foreign to modern English speakers. We do things that seem odd to many people, and we simply assume that people will “catch on” eventually. Trust me, many don’t.
In our church plant we have a very traditional worship service (call to worship, confession of sins, confession of faith, psalms & hymns, longish prayers & readings of scripture, etc) But I *try* to be as “accessible” as possible. I always assume that someone there is in a Reformed church for the first time. So I ask myself, “do they know what we are doing?”
An example is that instead of saying “Let us stand for the call to worship”, (or worse, just standing and doing it) I say (something like) “For thousands of years whenever the people of God gathered to worship him they began the service by listening to a brief sentence or two from the scriptures. These are the very words of our God, and He is inviting us into his presence, so hear the voice of God inviting you in these words…”
It takes a second or two longer & may add 5 (?) minutes to the overall service. But visitors often comment that they were glad that the could “follow” the service.
My goal is not to try to enforce a uniformity of practice within the PCA. My goal is not even to criticise the form of Worship that local elders have determined best reflect our standards to a local congregation.
My goal is to encourage everyone one of us to reconsider if our worship practices are “accessible”. Do members know “Why” we do what we do? And can a visitor figure out “what” is going on? When we can answer both of those questions in the affirmative, then we can get back to debating everything else.