Formality in Worship
Evangelical Christians as a whole are rightly opposed to dead formalism in worship. Just going through the motions of worship is not enough. The whole person (heart, soul, body and intellect) must be engaged in the act of Divine worship. Holy Scripture requires us to love God with our entire being (heart, soul, mind and strength), so a mere, dead formalism in worship is seriously deficient and displeasing to God. Reformed-leaning evangelicals and confessional Reformed Christians would agree with their more broadly-evangelical brethren in condemning dead formalism. But at the same time, many evangelicals not only condemn formalism. Many also distrust and even oppose any kind of formality in the gathered worship of the church. To address this issue of formality in worship, let me again quote from Dr. D.G. Hart’s excellent book Recovering Mother Kirk: The Case for Liturgy in the Reformed Tradition:
“Evangelicals have for almost three centuries distrusted the formal and the routine in worship. They discount forms in worship because they insist that genuine piety or faith must be expressed in an individual’s own words. A believer who uses the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith to express his or her own faith or uses prayers written by dead Christians is going through the motions and has not experienced a real outpouring of grace, which would automatically express itself in personal and intimate language. Thus, evangelicals often ridicule the elements of various liturgies as dead and boring. Real Christian experience comes alive in new and different words, and the more emotional and intimate those words are, the better. Evangelicals are also suspicious of routine in worship for similar reasons. Order or set patterns of worship restrict or confine the movement of the Holy Spirit. It does not seem to matter that these elements may be precisely the means that God uses to bring people to himself. If some people do not respond well to the various elements of worship, such as the unchurched, then we need to find new ways of worship that will allow seekers to be moved by the Spirit.
“The irony, of course, is that even the most seemingly spontaneous and informal worship can be just as formal and routine as the highest of Ango-Catholic services. Anytime there is an order of service (e.g., thirty minutes of praise songs, thirty minutes of talking by the pastor, and twenty minutes for prayer, announcements, and offering), then worship is not spontaneous. Also, what evangelicals so often fail to remember is that outward expressions of piety, whether the hymn “A Mighty Fortress” or the praise song “Majesty,” do not guarantee or determine the state of the singer’s heart. A participant in the most charismatic of services can fake speaking in tongues and being slain in the Spirit just as much as a Presbyterian can fake recitation of the Nicene Creed, praying the Lord’s Prayer, and paying attention to the sermon. None of us can see into the human heart. All we have to go on are outward appearances or a credible profession of faith. Worshiping in a particular manner does not indicate the state of the soul. Once this truth is conceded, once it is a given that all worship will be formal in some sense because we cannot help but use forms in worship (again speaking in tongues is as much a form as a corporate prayer of confession), the question then becomes, Which forms of worship does God reveal to us? The answer to that question is not announcements, testimonies, and special music. Rather, the elements or forms of worship revealed in Scripture are the reading and preaching of the Word, prayer, singing of praise, and the administration of the sacraments.
“But these forms are not satisfying to evangelicals, hence their hostility to liturgy. These forms are dissatisfying because evangelicals want absolute certainty in knowing who is and who is not a real Christian. Because forms are not good barometers of the state of the human heart, evangelicals have looked for other clues. The clue that seem to be the most convincing is experience, especially a religious experience that testifies to a dramatic and immediate work of God in an individual’s life. Conversion filled the bill for a long time. But then came the second blessing of perfection and with it speaking in tongues and, most recently, holy laughter. Whatever the manifestation, evangelicals want direct proof of God’s activity. This activity has to be visible, a dramatically changed life or an extraordinary display of piety. Thus, evangelicals, despite their seemingly mystical stress on experience, are really closet positivists. They need a physical manifestation of grace to be convinced that it has occurred and are not content with expressions of grace that may be formal, routine, restrained, and conventional.” (pp. 214-215; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, copyright 2003 by D.G. Hart)
Hart’s conclusion? “The solution, of course, is not for evangelicals to rediscover the value and appeal of liturgy. Rather, evangelicals need to take stock theologically of what constitutes biblical worship, the real purpose and ministry of the church, and genuine Christian piety. But that kind of stock-taking would undo evangelicalism, for it would send evangelicals off to the riches of the Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions in which these matters have been defined and articulated and in which worship is the logical extension of a congregation’s confession of faith and lies at the heart of the church’s mission.” (p. 216)
God’s Word condemns hypocritical religion and worship that involves merely going through the motions. But at the same time, some kind of formality in worship is inevitable, and even churches that strive after informality and spontaneity in worship follow some kind of order or pattern for worship, some kind of “form.” The evangelical tendency to judge the state of someone’s soul to be in a lost condition or to judge the genuineness of someone’s Christian profession to be deficient simply because that person doesn’t follow the supposedly “informal” and “spontaneous” methods of worship which predominate in contemporary revivalist-style churches may be well-intentioned, but it is uncharitable. Some kind of formality in worship is inevitable, even in “informal” churches. The issue should not be trying to peer into the inner recesses of the souls of worshipers. Rather, the issue should be: Do our forms of worship conform to the requirements and elements of worship that are revealed in God’s Word?