Church worship and involvement have changed dramatically during my lifetime.

It used to be that you went with the primary intent of worship. That meant you were on your best behaviour, you had a solemn frame of mind, you were prayerful, you received Communion and partipated in the liturgy. You also paid attention to the readings and the sermon, even if the latter was sub-par. The ‘Peace’ was also not part of the deal. Maybe you had coffee afterward, but it was always acceptable to simply go home.

There was no compunction to serve on a committee. Most were few and far between, outside of a vestry, perhaps a prayer group for men, an altar society for women and an informal club for senior citizens. The one exception I can think of is a large Episcopal congregation I belonged to for several years. As it is in a big city centre, the congregation has a need for them. Furthermore, small groups did not exist during most of my churchgoing history.

Today, everything is different.

There’s meet-and-greet beforehand. The Peace — a Roman Catholic innovation — is slipping in to more Protestant liturgies, which are becoming more watered-down so as not to make anyone uncomfortable. The congregation is encouraged to focus more on man than on God.

Church members are strongly encouraged to join committees. Everyone has to ‘do’ something for their church. New or prospective joiners are quickly recruited for something or other.

Why?

Why do our church congregations mandate all of this? Why must church-oriented activity occupy the majority of our lives? And why do so many of us meet with a churchy evil eye when we decline to participate in these numerous committees and groups?

Surely it would be better if we focussed on attending church to worship God and do our best to lead good Christian lives the other six days of the week.

Those of us with such questions, particularly on worship, are not alone.

One of the co-founders and contributors to the Reformed site, Old Life, is Darryl G Hart, an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church discussed the change in perspective on worship. In ‘Preparation for Worship’, he examined a New Calvinist (Calvinist theology with Evangelical-style worship) exhortation to press the flesh on Sundays because you’ll be a better Christian.

D G Hart’s analysis reminded me of the good old days of church (emphases mine):

I used to think — silly me — that the point of going to church was not for me or for my fellow members but to obey the first commandment: know and acknowledge God to be the only true God and our God, and to worship and glorify him accordingly

Still, one of the reasons for the worship wars and the silliness that God’s people have had to endure for the last 35 years (though in many instances they wanted it and got it good and hard) is that Christians seemed to forget that worship was chiefly an instance of entering God’s presence and honoring and praising him as creator and redeemer — you know, assembling with all the saints (living and dead) and angels at Mt. Zion. If you go with that understanding, you may actually come across as one of God’s frozen chosen since you may be thinking more about how to please God (and worried about offending him) than about whether the pastor and church members were friendly.

Yes, my fellow congregants and vicar would certainly call me a member of the ‘frozen chosen’. I attend the traditional service which, except on Christmas and Easter, has no hymns. I do not participate in the Peace. I am there to be with God and worship him in the frame of mind that Hart describes.

Anyone who is as bemused and frustrated with the change of focus for worship and emphasis on committee participation will enjoy the readers’ comments following Hart’s concise post, especially these:

MPS: I remember when my childhood Lutheran church started doing the greeting thing. I didn’t like it and it seemed to come out of nowhere. We can greet and chit chat AFTER the service when people are rushing downstairs to get donuts and coffee.

At my present RPCNA [Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America] “home” … there is no early or mid-service greeting time; there is only proper worship.

E. Burns: For the New Calvinist there are 3, no, make that 4 sacraments.
1. Community groups and programs designed for being the gospel
2. The Praise Band
3. Baptism
4. The Lord’s Supper

Erik Charter: No greeting anyone during the service, please.

After the service if I can have 1, maybe 2 decent conversations with someone each week I ‘m happy. Over the course of the year hopefully I get to have a conversation with everyone.

It’s not the Country Club.

Brian Johnson: Why’s he gotta pick on the quiet guy, yo? Interesting, no mention of the ‘natural’ disposition of the resident gossip, the chronic complainer, or the bin-Ladin esque conversation highjacker. I will take a book and a corner any day, twice on Sunday.

If we better understood what we were doing every Lord’s day (responding to His gracious call to worship, and having Him accept our pathetic attempts as if they were Christ’s) I imagine we would kill two birds with the same stone; worshiping in gratitude and unity without the need for the command to stand up and greet your pew-mates.

The Mad Hungarian: While it is true that as members of the body of Christ we should look to serve each other, there is a danger inherent in such a “service culture.”

That danger is, I believe, a shift in orientation from the sinner in need of the gospel to the mature Christian who is not there to receive, but rather condescends to give from his or her spiritual bounty.

I believe that the worship service is primarily about our receiving God’s grace through his ordained means and responding in praise. Being a member of a church is not primarily about what you can do to serve the church, but about how the church can serve you, and me — because we need it.

Coming to church with a profound sense of our own need for the gospel does not preclude one from serving others in the body of Christ — rather, it is the foundation from which we can best serve and be served because it is based on the reality that we are all sinners.

Coming to church with a profound sense of our own ability to serve others, however, brings with it the danger (IMHO) of false friendship, a sense of superiority, the not-so-restful business of extraneous programs (b/c everyone needs to serve!), and small groups (an Anabaptist invention).

I emboldened those words because there is nothing more anathema to church membership than small groups. They only used to exist in offbeat denominations or sect-like independent churches. Now everyone has them. Avoid them.

The two most important comments regarding worship are below. The first quotes the great 20th century Presbyterian minister and theologian John Gresham Machen:

Jack Miller: Community groups, praise bands, (and I’ll add) testimonies, “spirit-filled” chorus singing… In the 1920’s, J. Gresham Machen diagnosed not only the intellectual and theological drift of his day but of that which would continue to develop over the next 90 years. He wrote,

The depreciation of the intellect, with the exaltation in the place of it of the feelings or of the will, is, we think, a basic fact in modern life, which is rapidly leading to a condition in which men neither know anything nor care anything about the doctrinal content of the Christian religion, and in which there is in general a lamentable intellectual decline. (Machen, What is Faith?, p.28)

But if theology be thus abandoned, or if rather (to ease the transition) it be made merely the symbolic expression of religious experience, what is to be put into its place?… Mysticism unquestionably is the natural result of the anti-intellectual tendency which now prevails; for mysticism is the consistent exaltation of experience at the expense of thought. (p.35)

How true, hence my putting that warning in bold. Many congregations today have silent prayer mornings (a Quaker way to pray) and programmes on mysticism. It isn’t just a product of the New Age meeting the Church but, also, as Machen said nearly a century ago, a sign of anti-intellectualism.

Furthermore, my current Anglican congregation has very few members who know or understand Christian doctrine. It is not seen as important — by anyone. No one there will know why we believe what we do. As a member of the vestry approvingly put it in an issue of our church magazine (paraphrased), ‘People just want to be nice. Let’s leave divisive theology to one side.’

To conclude, this is what one of my readers, the Revd Donald Philip Veitch of Reformed Churchmen, wrote. If Anglicans wish to know the tenets of worship, this is essential:

5 purposes in worship: (1) confession of sin & assurance of pardon, (2) render thanks for the great benefits received from His hands, (3) to set forth His most worthy praise, (4) to hear His most Holy Word, and (5) to pray and ask for things needful for body and soul.

Thankfully, I learned theology from Reformed theologians and, just as thankfully, I learned divine worship from the Church of England.

1662 Book of Common Prayer, Order for the Service of Morning Prayer

“DEARLY beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us, in sundry places, to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloak them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy. And although we ought, at all times, humbly to acknowledge our sins before God; yet ought we chiefly so to do, when we assemble and meet together to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul. Wherefore I pray and beseech you, as many as are here present, to accompany me with a pure heart, and humble voice, unto the throne of the heavenly grace, saying after me…”

No praise bands, no Peace, no emotional experience.

Yes, solemn worship in God’s house is desirable and to be encouraged. If that makes me part of the frozen chosen, then, so be it.

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