“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (Jesus Christ to the Samaritan woman, in John 4:24, ESV)
Ever since the beginnings of the Pentecostal movement, the Holy Spirit has been getting a lot of attention in the broader Christian world. With this heightened focus on the third Person of the Holy Trinity has come an increased emphasis on “Spirit filled worship.” Do Presbyterians believe in “Spirit filled worship,” and do they seek to practice such worship?
In the minds of many believers, “Spirit-filled worship” is associated with such things as casual informality, spontaneity, personal expression in worship, deep emotional engagement, freedom from external forms and rites, lay involvement in the leadership of the worship service, the exercise of spiritual gifts within worship, etc. While Presbyterians are certainly not against emotional engagement in worship (after all, we are commanded in Scripture to worship God with all our being, which includes our emotions!), the historic Presbyterian emphasis on such things as a structured, well-thought-out and formal order of worship, dignity, simplicity, the Minister as the primary worship leader, and the centrality of the ministry of the Word (with lengthy Scripture readings and a sermon involving a lengthy, detailed explanation and application of a Scripture text), strikes many believers as anything but “Spirit filled worship”! In fact, those of us who practice the kind of formal, liturgical worship such as one finds in historic Presbyterianism are often accused of being guilty of “dead orthodoxy,” perhaps even guilty of “quenching the Spirit.” We Presbyterians are sometimes uncharitably derided by other believers as being “the frozen chosen,” perhaps precisely because our worship seems so “cold” and formal to outsiders. To those believers used to more informal methods of worship, Presbyterian worship, with its hymn and Psalm singing, its invocations and benedictions, its prayers led by the Pastor, its lengthy Scripure readings and long sermons, its creeds, its responsive readings, its reverent, simple celebration of the sacraments, etc., may seem almost like the sacerdotalism of Roman Catholic worship (minus the incense, the candles, the ornate priestly vestments and the prayers to Mary and the saints). But be this as it may, I would suggest that historic Presbyterian worship, when carried out thoughtfully and from the heart, is in fact “Spirit filled worship,” biblically-speaking.
Church Historian, Ruling Elder and fellow Orthodox Presbyterian, Dr. D.G. Hart, offers some thought-proking comments on the subject of Spirit-filled worship in his excellent book, Recovering Mother Kirk: The Case for Liturgy in the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, copyright 2003 by D.G. Hart):
“The truth-revealing work of the Holy Spirit has important implications for the way we think about worship. If the truth of the Bible rests on the inspiration of the Spirit, and if believers cannot be convinced of Scripture’s truth apart from the regeneration and illumination of the Spirit, is it possible to conceive of “Spirit-filled” worship that is not also “truth-filled”? To put it another way, if we were to examine a worship service to see if the Holy Spirit were active in it, what would we be looking for? In the current rage for expressive and spontaneous worship, most people look for the Spirit’s presence in the style of song, the emotions and posture of worshipers, and whether people feel blessed upon leaving the service. But this reflects a radical misunderstanding of the work of the Holy Spirit, as if the Spirit is involved with only the experiential or emotional aspects of the Christian life. In fact, the Bible teaches that the principal work of the Holy Spirit is to reveal the truth of God. This work involves the mind and the heart because the intellect and the will of a sinner both need to be changed in order for him or her to accept and believe the truths of the gospel. Still, the purpose of the revelatory work of the Spirit is to yield proper understanding, not warm feelings. This means that a Spirit-filled worship service will be one that conforms to the revelation of the Bible.
“Looking at the work of the Holy Spirit this way means that so-called traditional worship, as opposed to contemporary forms, has the greatest claim to being Spirit-filled. This statement will likely startle many readers because worship in the Calvinist tradition has not been known for its zeal or intimacy. Instead, the words cold, formal, and stodgy come to mind most often when thinking about Presbyterian and Reformed worship. Yet this impression reveals how much contemporary Protestant thinking equates the work of the Spirit with emotions, not with understanding and believing the Bible. It also shows how much contemporary Protestant thought has separated the work of the Spirit from the teaching of God’s Word.
“Ironically, the most distinctive feature of Reformed worship is the very thing that makes it Spirit-filled, as we are using the phrase. The Reformed tradition has insisted that worship conform to the teaching of Scripture. For this reason, Protestants restored the sermon to its central place in worship as the time when God’s people hear the Word of God. Reformed worship emphasizes the Bible not only by giving so much weight to preaching but also by insisting that every part of a worship service have a biblical warrant. Sometimes called the regulative principle, this doctrine teaches that the church may worship only as God has commanded his people to worship him. Because the Bible ordains prayer, preaching, the singing of praise, the reading of Scripture, and the administration of the sacraments, the Reformed believe that these elements must be part of worship. The question is not whether the Bible permits a certain practice such as dance or drama in worship. Instead, the regulative principle requires a direct charge from the Bible. Scripture, therefore, functions as the barometer for evaluating a worship service. If worship contains those things that God has commanded for his praise and honor, then it is good, and because the Holy Spirit works in accordance with the Word of God, worship that conforms to the Bible is filled with and drawn from the Spirit.” (pp. 100-101)
Insofar as Presbyterian and Reformed worship is conducted according to the commands and principles of God’s Word, it is “Spirit-filled worship,” for Truth-filled worship is Spirit-filled worship (the Holy Spirit Himself being “the Spirit of Truth” who inspired the Scriptures, 2 Tim. 3:16). On the other hand, whenever churches (of whatever tradition) emphasize personal experience and the emotions of worshipers while denigrating sound doctrine and the truth of God’s Word, such churches do not manifest the marks of genuine, Spirit-filled worship, even if they loudly and proudly advertise themselves as offering attendees “Spirit filled worship”! Whipping up emotions while denigrating Scripture as a “dead letter”; offering a powerful “worship experience” while downplaying sound doctrine (or while teaching false doctrine); manipulating congregants through a highly-choreographed and well-rehearsed stage show involving music and lights and drama which tugs at the heart-strings but offers little intellectual or doctrinal content; these things are not genuine Spirit-filled worship. Rather, they are crass, emotionally-manipulative techniques of psychological crowd manipulation. Where the Word is faithfully preached, the sacraments are rightly administered, and worship practice is ordered according to the principles and commands of Scripture — that is where you will find real, genuine “Spirit-filled worship.” And that is precisely what historic Presbyterian and Reformed worship has to offer. Don’t settle for the many false, contemporary substitutes for Spirit-filled worship. Come and experience the “Spirit and Truth” worship of historic Presbyterian liturgy!
D.G. Hart’s book, Recovering Mother Kirk, which had been out of print, is now back in print. I highly recommend it. Interested readers can order it here: http://www.amazon.com/Recovering-Mother-Kirk-Reformed-Tradition/dp/1625646933/ref=tmm_pap_title_0/177-3374289-2290628