[Repost] The words of men

I wrote this post in 2010 and offer it again

As I enter the final stretch toward my ordination as a Minister of the Word and Sacraments in May, deo volente, I continue to ponder the meaning of pastoral work. Over the last three years I have become wary of the traditional evangelical way of worship. If you’re part of the evangelical tribe, you know what I’m talking about. For those who aren’t, let me elaborate. Traditional evangelical worship over the last hundred years has emphasized spontaneity within an established structure of worship. This structure consists of the traditional elements of worship: singing, praying, collecting money, preaching, etc. Evangelicals have long been profoundly wary of liturgy since liturgy is a praying of someone else’s words and is somehow seen to be less authentic.

One of my concerns with the current evangelical way of worship is that it has become that which it decried, only a cheap and superficial copy of it. A glance at the bulletins of most evangelical churches will reveal a striking consistency in hymns and songs sung, especially focusing on a handful of popular songs that also crowd the airwaves on your local, “family friendly” Christian radio station. This is disturbing because it evinces a cultural narcissism that asserts that only that which is current and contemporary can speak to my situation.

What is more disturbing, however, is the extent to which the persona of the minister becomes entangled with the act of worship. Those moments of transition between singing and praying become little acts in which the minister’s personality, his winsomeness and humor, shine. Isn’t he funny? Isn’t he handsome? Isn’t he so relevant?

And so the words of men come to take pride of place. We protested against praying words written by men of deeper faith and keener intellect than the best of us. Prayers tried by the centuries rather than expressing the concerns of the moment. We substituted the trifle, the banal, and the superficial for the deep and resonant intonation of words that are prayed across the time and across the continents. How can this be wisdom?

I’d like to go on record as believing that I’d rather have a man of deep prayer and keen intellect as my pastor than the funniest, handsomest, most relevant modern. And until the broader evangelical church can become more aware of the wisdom of this, it will continue its slow descent into superficiality and the very irrelevance it so desperately wishes to avoid.

It is for good reason that the reformed tradition has emphasized the centrality of Scripture in forming the words we use in our liturgy. Scripture is God’s Word to the Church and it is therefore preferable to the words of men.

Note the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith (ch XXI):

The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might.[1] But 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.[2]

1. Rom. 1:20; Psa. 19:1-4a; 50:6; 86:8-10; 89:5-7; 95:1-6; 97:6; 104:1-35; 145:9-12; Acts 14:17; Deut. 6:4-5
2. Deut. 4:15-20; 12:32; Matt. 4:9-10; 15:9; Acts 17:23-25; Exod. 20:4-6, John 4:23-24; Col. 2:18-23

It’s important to emphasize the centrality of Scripture in worship and the wisdom of using written prayers, especially those tried and true among the Church Universal. The uniting of a heart full of love and passion for God with Scriptural worship and wise prayers can, God willing, be a significant part of creating worship that is both pleasing to God and beneficial for His people.