While on vacation a number of years ago, I visited a church for Sunday worship but left questioning whether I had worshipped at all. I took in the full complement of announcements, shook hands with several greeters, viewed a skit, and enjoyed something of a concert. Though a rote prayer was offered, there was no congregational singing, Scripture reading, or sermon. I left puzzled, frustrated, and with a sense of loss. I felt like I had visited a restaurant but was not served a meal.
What should a church do during its time of corporate worship? Or, perhaps better asked, why do churches do what they do during worship? These questions are necessary enough, but ask them in the typical church and they will elicit puzzled looks and confused answers.
What a church is to practice during corporate worship is not a new consideration. In fact, it was a pressing concern in Reformation Europe, and its answer continues to shape the 21st century church.
The Regulative Principle Considered
The ordering of worship for Protestant churches has followed two general patterns over the past five centuries. Martin Luther advocated what became known as the normative principle, arguing the mass—as celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church—should basically remain intact, sans the aspects of RCC worship that clearly violated Scripture. The Pandora’s box-like openness of the normative principle—that worship is free to incorporate what is not forbidden scripturally—is its most obvious and vexing liability.
The regulative principle, advocated by John Calvin and the Reformed tradition, argued the church should essentially start over, only permitting into corporate worship that which the New Testament explicitly calls for. Over time, the regulative principle became common practice in much of the Free Church tradition, including Baptist churches.
Based upon what is specifically prescribed in the New Testament, the regulative principle includes four features in public worship: Scripture reading, corporate prayer, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and the preaching of God’s Word.
Historically, the public reading of Scripture, mandated in I Timothy 4:13, has served as a scriptural call to worship—a reminder the church has gathered to hear from God. Often the congregation stands as it is read, showing reverence, deference, submission, and a physical reminder the Bible is the Word of God.
Prescribed in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs have always marked the worship of God’s people. The psalter served as a Jewish hymnbook, and the New Testament records early church hymns.
In I Timothy 2:1, Paul instructed the church to practice corporate prayer. Whether praying for one’s nation and governmental leaders, the infirmed, the church’s ministries, the lost, or for God’s blessing on the service, every time God’s people gather their prayers are to be offered.
In II Timothy 4:2, Paul instructed Timothy to preach the Word, explaining and applying the Scriptures for God’s people. The preached Word is one of the central recoveries of the Protestant Reformation, even effecting church architecture with the pulpit becoming the central feature of the worship center and the main course of the worship service.
Additionally, observing the ordinances are always welcome when an individual is ready for baptism or the church elects to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Moreover, the regulative principle does not preclude making announcements, greeting visitors, or collecting an offering, but it does so mindful of the worship service’s flow and where such ancillary matters are best positioned.
Biblically Faithful, Practically Helpful
While the regulative principle helps ensure the worship service is biblical, it also brings many practical benefits. As a pastor, one will often be asked for special promotions, features, or emphases to be made in the worship service. Some of these are especially cringe-worthy, sure to distract from the worship service, if not downright unbiblical. If the congregation has a general awareness of why the church does what it does in the worship service, then the pastor can point to the regulative principle as an objective criterion. This depersonalizes the denial of the request and avoids the appearance of playing favorites.
Practicing these four elements brings other benefits as well, including keeping the church in the stream of believers from previous generations. It also sets the worship service on higher ground—thus avoiding worship wars—and it ensures a certain baseline quality and spiritual vitality in the service.
This doesn’t preclude a Sunday evening concert, a Bible conference, or a service exclusively for prayer; rather, it means we might best think of those events as concerts and conferences, as opposed to formal worship services. We might also more intentionally guard the integrity of corporate worship, especially when God’s people gather on Sunday morning.
I once frequented a restaurant that had fabulous food, but it always seemed just a bit much. The entrée, which was hard to beat on its own, always had an added sauce splattered on the top or a garnishment protruding from the steak. The chef intended the additives to complement the meal, but they wound up distracting—and detracting—from it.
Sometimes we do the same thing in public worship. Our attempts to improve Christian worship may, in fact, distract from it. Often, less actually is more. There can be a beauty in simplicity. We might do well to de-clutter our worship services.
When it comes to the regulative principle, I am not legalistic. I still facilitate an offering, greet visitors, and make announcements. But a broad recovery and commitment to these four elements might revive our services. Let’s be intentional about our worship services and privilege these four biblical aspects of worship.
*This article originally appeared on 2/24/14*topicsChurch & Ministry