What is Reformed worship?

In many churches, across denominations, public worship has changed vastly in the last few decades. Popular music styles and electronic instruments have been adopted; preaching styles have changed and sermons shortened; services may be less formal, with much congregational participation. Some churches so try to avoid “liturgy” that you may not know what’s going to happen in a service from one Sunday – or even one moment – to the next. And some of the elements that used to be part of every service have disappeared.

“Liturgy,” by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean “formality.” A service consisting of spontaneous songs, Bible reading, sermon and prayers still has a liturgy. If you worship in a Reformed church, chances are your services do have the elements I just mentioned, plus a few more: a greeting, an offering, a benediction.

Have you ever thought about why (or if?) all those things are really necessary to a service, or whether there are other elements that should be there and no longer are? Where did Reformed churches get those elements, and they still important in our digital age?

If you guessed that most of the elements still found in today’s Reformed worship services can be traced back 500 years to Calvin and the Reformation, you would be right. The strong Reformed emphasis on sermons in public worship came, understandably, from the fact that the Mass and accumulated extra-biblical traditions had greatly obscured the Word. But there’s much more to Reformed worship, all of it carefully thought out and based on biblical principles and models.

Worship must first and always be God-directed. Yes, worship is a “dialogue” between God and his people. But we’re not equal partners. God speaks; we his creatures and servants, listen and respond – a pattern that occurs throughout every Reformed service.  

Communal sin confession needed?
Calvin’s services began with an invocation: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 124:8). This immediately acknowledges God as our Creator and our need of his help (the pastor, on our behalf is “invoking” God’s name and help). It makes sense, then, that the first thing Calvin’s congregation did after that was to communally confess their sins. The pastor then absolved the congregation (assured them of pardon) on God’s behalf.

Confession and absolution at the outset of worship immediately acknowledges our position as sinners and need for a Saviour and accepts God’s gracious forgiveness. Then, we can carry on our worship in right standing with God, open to hearing and receiving his Word, and giving him thanks and praise with pure and joyful hearts. (If your church no longer includes a communal confession of sin you might ask your pastor or council why not.)   

The Ten Commandments have also had a place in Reformed worship since Calvin. Calvin saw the Commandments as guides to thankful living rather than guilt-laying convicters of sin. Thus, in Calvin’s services the Commandments came at the end of the Confession/Absolution, in essence saying to the congregation: you’ve confessed your sin, now let the commandments guide your life of thankfulness to God for his saving grace. (Not incidentally, Calvin’s congregations sang the commandments, and the several Psalms in the service. There were no hymns, i.e, nothing sung without direct words from Scripture.) 

There was, of course, other Scripture reading and a sermon – a very long sermon, which was the main vehicle for teaching biblical truths to 16th century congregations made up primarily of people who could not read. Calvin’s services ended with a collection taken for the poor, intercessory prayers, confessing the Apostles Creed, another Psalm and a benediction (the pastor blessing the people on God’s behalf).

Weekly confession of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed together has also fallen by the wayside in many churches. That’s a serious omission. It both deprives the congregation of the opportunity to remind themselves and each other of the basic tenets of the biblical faith they individually and communally believe, but it also prevents a feeling of tangible connection to “the church of all ages,” on earth and in heaven, which for centuries confessed these truths before us.

That connection can also be felt in the Eucharist. It might surprise you to know that Calvin advocated weekly Communion, but the magistrates in Geneva decided that that was too “Romish,” so they vetoed Calvin’s wish, adopting the still common Reformed practice of Communion every three months.

Reformed worship can be summed up, I think, with this phrase: God speaks, we respond. If everything included in a service keeps that in view it eliminates the most egregious modern attitude evident in many services, across denominational lines: that worship is really about me and my “felt needs.” Of course God does meet our needs (if not always in the way we’d like). God is the sum of all things and the only proper object of our adoration. We know that, but we need to make sure that our weekly worship still reflects that truth.

Author

  • Marian Van Til is a former CC editor who lived in Canada from 1975-2000. She now freelances for journals and writes books. Marian is also a classical musician and the music director at a Lutheran Church. She and her husband, Ed Cassidy, live in Youngstown, NY.

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