Why do we worship the way we do?
The worship that one typically finds in most Orthodox Presbyterian Churches today goes against the grain of much worship practice that one finds in the broader Christian world. Visitors to OPC churches from non-OPC backgrounds may find OP worship practices to be unfamiliar, strange, perhaps even somewhat mystifying. For example, those from a “high church” or liturgical background may find it strange that the minister doesn’t wear colorful vestments, that no candles are lit or incense offered during the service, that the church calendar is not strictly adhered to or that prayers are not recited from an authorized prayer book. They may find the unadorned simplicity of OPC worship and the lack of complicated ritual and ceremony to be odd. On the other end of the spectrum, evangelical believers who are used to a more contemporary, informal and “spontaneous” worship style may find the emphasis on order and formality in OPC worship practice to be quite foreign, if not somewhat stifling. Since most OP churches use a hymnal (typically the Trinity Hymnal) in worship instead of singing “off the wall,” those unfamiliar with using a hymnal may find singing from a hymnal to be awkward and difficult to get used to. Those used to the more typically “democratic” worship leadership as found in many evangelical churches today (with a “worship team” typically leading worship) may find the prominence of the ordained Minister of the Word as the primary (if not sole) worship leader in an OP service to be rather foreign, if not downright “elitist” and a “quenching of the Spirit.” And some may find the absence of an “altar call” at the end of an OPC service to be jarring.
Why, then, do OP congregations worship the way they do? Below are some reasons behind our worship practice in the OPC:
(1) Worship practice in the OPC is grounded in the biblical conviction that “…the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1)
We believe that God, who is holy, takes His own worship with the utmost seriousness. Indeed, there are instances in the Scriptures where God actually killed worshippers who dared to approach Him in a careless or unauthorized manner (for example, see Leviticus 10:1-3, and First Corinthians 11:27-30). We believe Scripture teaches that worship which is acceptable to God is instituted by Himself, limited by His revealed will in Scripture, and Divinely prescribed by Him. Any element of worship or worship practice which cannot be proven to have either explicit or implicit Divine warrant is a mere human tradition, and thus is unacceptable to God. Thus our worship in the OPC is very simple, including only those elements of worship that can be proven to have clear Divine warrant. These elements would include such things as: The public reading and preaching of God’s Word (and the reverent hearing of that Word by the congregation); the administration and receiving of the sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper); prayer; the singing of praise; the giving and collection of tithes and gifts; oaths and vows; etc.
This worship principle is sometimes called “the regulative principle of worship,” for it asserts that our worship practice must be regulated by the commands, examples and principles pertaining to worship as they are revealed by God in His Word, the Bible. This is why man-made traditions such as crossing oneself, lighting candles as an act of worship, waving banners in worship, liturgical dancing, “altar calls,” the blessing of pets, sprinkling of “holy water,” sharing personal testimonies in the worship service, genuflecting before a cross, “laughing revivals,” praying a “sinner’s prayer,” and other merely human rites, ceremonies and worship practices, are not found in the worship practice of OPC churches. None of these human traditions have any warrant in Holy Scripture, and thus the OPC refuses to burden the consciences of God’s people with such man made worship traditions. Instead, the OPC strives (albeit imperfectly) to be “puritan” (in the good sense!) in its worship, by seeking to purify its worship practice of human inventions and seeking to leave the Christian conscience free from the traditions of men.
(2) The OPC believes that worship practice should be reverent, God-centered and serious-minded.
While true worship certainly should not be “boring” to the believer, at the same time worship is not to be amusing or to be merely a spiritual form of “entertainment.” A “casual” attitude is out of place in the presence of the infinitely holy God of the universe. We don’t come to worship in order to “hang out” with Jesus and His pals (our fellow believers); rather, we come in order to enter by faith, and through the Holy Spirit, into the very throne room presence of the great I AM, and to join our hearts and voices with the angels and saints of heaven in offering up a sacrifice of praise to the Almighty Triune God who created, redeemed and renewed us! Therefore, while worship should be joyful and uplifting, it should also be serious-minded and reverent, not “laid back.” God is not “the man upstairs” (as He is sometimes blasphemously described), nor is He our “buddy” or “chum” or even our heavenly “Life Coach.” He is our Creator, our King, our Lord, our Sovereign! Therefore, while we indeed approach the Father with boldness through Christ (Hebrews 4:14-16), we also approach the throne of grace recognizing that our God is a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29, ESV), and thus with an attitude of holy “fear and trembling.”
Casualness, light-heartedness, and an overall tendency not to take life seriously are the in-things in our broader culture today, and this super-casual attitude has crept into the church’s worship practice. Not too long ago I received a mailing in the post advertising a newly founded church in the area, and one of the “selling points” that this new church was advertising was its invitation for visitors to “dress casually.” (This church ad seemed to stress so strongly being casual that I got the sense from this advertisement that someone deciding to show up at their service in their “Sunday best” would ruin the casual mood of their service, and probably offend some attendees.) The basic message of the mailing was, “Come as you are; we won’t judge you.” Of course, it is true that God is much more concerned with the state of our hearts than He is with our outward dress, and God’s Word does not lay before us a required “dress code” (whether casual or formal) that we must adhere to before we can come to church. But the point is that this church was shamelessly catering to this casual, light-hearted, unserious and “laid back” attitude that is so common in our culture. But when approaching the infinitely holy God of the universe, we must check our casual attitude at the door and prepare to enter into the heavenly chamber of the King of the universe with an attitude of reverence and awe. However we choose to dress for church (whether casually or more formally), let us not come into the assembly of God’s people on the Lord’s Day with a casual attitude. Because the OPC takes God seriously, it is also serious-minded in its attitude toward and approach to the worship of God.
(3) Worship practice in the OPC recognizes the “dialogical” and “covenantal” nature of biblical worship.
In worship we not only talk to God. He also talks to us. There is a real dialogue and communication that takes place in Divine worship between God and His covenant people. In fact, God’s speech to us in Word and sacrament is even more important and foundational to biblical worship than our response to God in prayer and praise. (This goes contrary to much of what one will find in some contemporary praise and worship churches, where a large chunk of the worship time is given to singing corporate worship songs under the direction of a worship band, followed by a comparatively brief message or sermon from the pastor.) In worship we not only offer to God our prayers and praises; even more fundamentally, God in His amazing grace comes down to us in Word and sacrament to feed and nourish our souls, and to reaffirm His covenant love for us in Christ. God speaks to us in the public assembly of worship through His Word as that Word is administered by His ordained servant in the public reading of the Holy Scriptures (the Word read), and in the official proclamation of the Word (the preached Word), which is signified and sealed to the believer in the sacramental word (the “visible word” of the sacraments, the word of the gospel in symbol form). We respond to Word through our prayers, praises and offerings. Public Worship is a covenantal assembly where there is real communication and communion between God and His covenant people taking place in the Holy Spirit and through faith, by means of the Divinely ordained ministry of Word and Sacrament. In a biblical worship service as conducted according to the regulative principle, God renews His covenant promise of grace and mercy in Christ to His repentant people, and they in turn renew their vows of faith and covenant loyalty to their gracious God and Redeemer. (If we really understand and embrace the spiritual realities of what is taking place in a biblically reformed worship service, how could we ever consider such a service to be “boring”?) It is because of the “dialogical” and “covenantal” nature of biblical worship that worship practice in the OPC tends to be carefully structured, planned and carried out (hence the “order” and “formality” of reformed worship).
These, and other similar reasons, are why we in the OPC worship the way we do. While there is some variety in worship practice within the OPC (we do not require rigid uniformity of worship practice or an authorized liturgy, only that the biblical elements of worship be observed); and while no OPC congregation would claim to be perfectly pure or always consistent in its worship practice; nonetheless, with God’s help we strive for a worship practice that is pleasing to God, based firmly upon the teachings of God’s Word, and edifying to God’s people. If you’ve never experienced reformed worship before, won’t you consider joining us sometime for worship? We’d love to have you visit with us!