Reforming Worship

Worshipping God together is a fundamental expression of what it means to be a Christian Church. Because worship is expressed through the music, language, and community culture of a particular group, as well as being a reflection of the theology of the wider Christian church, it is usually a challenge to hold together different ideas about what is appropriate. Today musical taste, language and culture in most congregations are all plural, and the challenge is that much greater.

If the Reformers great concern was truth (right preaching of the Word, and right administration of the Sacraments), and the vision in revivals since has been for what looked right, sounded right, or felt right, perhaps all those dimensions matter today. Relevance is about connecting what God is wanting to say to us with what we need to say to God, using the media of who we are and how we communicate.

Of course it is never static. What seems heaven on earth today may not point in that direction tomorrow. Although a consistency of quality is important in preaching, prayer and music, so is regular innovation. Getting worship right is not a one-time project but a continuous one. Those responsible for worship have to manage change, be sensitive to the needs and tastes of different generations and cultures, and engage themselves and others in the task of being able to discuss and decide what is true, and what is acceptable in Christian worship. Leaders and people alike need skills of discernment that rise above knowing what they like and what they don't like. Thought needs to be given to "what happens to a community when its symbol system is disrupted”(1) and yet courage taken to allow new words, symbols and actions point us to God.

The distinction between matters of taste and matters of truth is important. Leaders have to minister to and provide for people whose musical tastes and spiritual needs may be quite different from their own. They also have a prophetic responsibility which is about challenge not just comfort.

Music in worship has ample precedent in the Bible. The use of hymns and songs is found in the early church, and then through Ambrose and Augustine and Pope Gregory the Great. During the medieval period music developed around the daily worship pattern in monasteries, the mass, and popular hymns. Every generation needs its Larry Norman, Scripture in Song, Hymn Book Trust, and Hill Song. Augustine is among those who gave Christian words to popular songs. It is easy to confuse questions of taste with issues of quality, but both are important. Having a care for worship that opens doors to spiritual experience more than it raises barriers may not be able to please all of the people all of the time, but it can go a long way. It can be helpful to know that the church in every generation has to deal with this.

The Reformers had a range of attitudes to music and to musical instruments. Luther's hymns, particularly Ein feste Burg is part of the universal church hymnody. Calvin was less positive, and Zwingli, a competent musician was hostile - at best it might be said that his sensitivity to the emotional power of music made him feel it was dangerously ambiguous in its ability to generate religious sentiment. Reformed anxiety about what was or was not acceptable to God, nervousness about association with Roman Catholic faith and practice, and the idea that the only safe thing to do in church was what Scripture expressly commanded, led to increasing distrust rather than confidence about music in Reformed worship. These sensitivities have extended to uncertainty about Creeds and the Lord's Prayer, and a distaste for responsive prayers still found in some congregations.

The Evangelical Revival of the 18th century was associated with a rediscovery of Christian song, particularly through Isaac Watts, Philip Doddridge, John and Charles Wesley, John Newton and William Cowper. Scotland was hard to convince, evangelicals included, and the Church of Scotland into the 19th century made it difficult for even other churches to have organs in church. What was sung in Scottish churches was the Psalms set to meter led and lined out unaccompanied by a Precentor aided by tuning fork. The Church Hymnbook, second edition, has 5 hymns and a few paraphrases from the 18th century as the only supplement to the Psalms. The Free Church of Scotland and smaller Presbyterian bodies retain these sensitivities into the 21st century and their youth have had to argue for the value even of "Scripture in Song." Arguments in New Zealand about music pale by comparison with earlier debates, or even culture wars in other parts of the Reformed family.

The mid-19th century "Anglo-Catholic" revival in liturgy and architecture eventually had an impact in Scotland, but it was a long battle to allow responsive prayers, the use of instrumental music and pipe organs, and the singing of hymns. It wasn't just Presbyterians, in England there were court cases over candles on the altar. It is not surprising that some of this went over the top, or that debates were thoroughly confused with Scots antipathy to things English, and fear of "Romanism and Ritualism". Zwinglian and Barthian theology remain hugely important, but they carried a suspicion of the idea of sacrament and of "natural theology" which made it difficult for people to look for or trust personal experience as a window into God. The Ecumenical Movement of the 20th century and the Charismatic Renewal from the 1960s broke down some of this prejudice. Many discovered a common openness to the Holy Spirit and appreciation that God's speaking in symbol, sign, and sense was about confirming God's word in the Bible not replacing it with something else.

Leadership in Worship

It is not just weddings that can do worse than have "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue." People need the familiar as well as the new. We are ministered to by music that touches feelings as well as our understanding, and we connect with the world and the wider church through music that is borrowed from our cultures and from other Christian traditions.

It is helpful to talk about what is going on in all this. People have opinions about music in church that need to be heard and to be understood. Folk may need help to be able to say why they like and dislike different music, and may need to be encouraged to acknowledge the sincerity and value of stuff that is not appealing to them personally.

We may need to acknowledge that contemporary hymns in traditional form (eg Iona, Shirley Murray, Colin Gibson) do not necessarily communicate with younger generations, though  their appreciation may grow with encouragement. Renewing music for older generations is not the same as creating space for the music of younger generations.  The very word "hymn" is a turn-off or at best a curiosity for some people now in their 30s or 40s. People approaching middle age may have music tastes which connect neither with those younger than them, nor those older. Yet there are hymns which still speak across the generations, even if the words need checking not just the music.

Whatever your theology of ordination, ordained ministers of the Presbyterian Church have authority for what happens in worship. This is a serious responsibility for leadership which properly exercised can take a community of people where they did not know they could go. A consistent teaching ministry can give confidence to a group of mixed ages, cultures and tastes to grow their gifts of discernment and to handle change and variety as well as the familiar. It is also the responsibility of leadership to develop the ministry skills of others and the patience involved in cultivating a care for the tastes and views of others in music and other aspects of worship may have greater value for building the community of the church than we realise.


1. Cardinal Francis George at the 40th anniversary of Sacrosanctum concilium, the document on liturgy of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Word from Rome, 5 December 2003.

Key texts:

It is concludit that ane uniform ordour salbe takin or keipit in the administratioun of the Sacraments ... according to the Booke of Geneva. Attour, ordains the communion to be minstrat four tymes in the yeir within burrowes, and twyse in the yeir to landwart. Act of the General Assembly, 31 December 1562.


 Worship and the Sacraments in the Westminster Confession:

Chapter XXVII. Of the Sacraments.

I. Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace,[a] immediately instituted by God,[b] to represent Christ and His benefits; and to confirm our interest in Him;[c] as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church, and the rest of the world;[d] and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to His Word.[e]

[a] Rom. 4:11; Gen. 17:7, 10
[b] Matt. 28:19; I Cor. 11:23
[c] I Cor. 10:16; I Cor. 11:25, 26; Gal. 3:17
[d] Rom. 15:8; Exod. 12:48; Gen. 34:14
[e] Rom. 6:3, 4; I Cor. 10:16, 21 

II. There is in every sacrament a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.[a]

[a] Gen. 17:10; Matt. 26:27, 28; Tit. 3:5 

III. The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it:[a] but upon the work of the Spirit,[b] and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.[c]

[a] Rom. 2:28, 29; I Pet. 3:21
[b] Matt. 3:11; I Cor. 12:13
[c] Matt. 26:27, 28; Matt. 28:19, 20 

IV. There are only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained.[a]

[a] Matt. 28:19; I Cor. 11:20, 23, I Cor. 4:1; Heb. 5:4 

V. The sacraments of the Old Testament, in regard to the spiritual things thereby signified and exhibited, were, for substance, the same with those of the New.[a]

[a] I Cor. 10:1, 2, 3, 4

Chapter XXVIII. Of Baptism.

I. Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ,[a] not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church;[b] but also, to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace,[c] of his ingrafting into Christ,[d] of regeneration,[e] of remission of sins,[f] and of his giving up unto God through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life.[g] Which sacrament is, by Christ's own appointment, to be continued in His Church until the end of the world.[h]

[a] Matt. 28:19
[b] I Cor. 12:13
[c] Rom. 4:11 with Col. 2:11, 12
[d] Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:5
[e] Tit. 3:5
[f] Mark 1:4
[g] Rom. 6:3, 4
[h] Matt. 28:19, 20 

II. The outward element to be used in this sacrament is water, wherewith the party is to be baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by a minister of the Gospel, lawfully called thereunto.[a]

[a] Matt. 3:11; John 1:33; Matt. 28:19, 20 

III. Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person.[a]

[a] Heb. 9:10, 19, 20, 21, 22; Acts 2:41; Acts 16:33; Mark 7:4 

IV. Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ,[a] but also the infants of one or both believing parents, are to be baptized.[b]

[a] Mark 16:15, 16; Acts 8:37, 38
[b] Gen. 17:7, 9, 10 with Gal. 3:9, 14 and Col. 2:11, 12 & Acts 2:38, 39 & Rom. 4:11, 12; I Cor. 7:14; Matt. 28:19; Mark 10:13, 14, 15, 16; Luke 18:15 

V. Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance,[a] yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it;[b] or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.[c]

[a] Luke 7:30 with Exod. 4:24, 25, 26
[b] Rom. 4:11; Acts 10:2, 4, 22, 31, 45, 47
[c] Acts 8:13, 23 

VI. The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered;[a] yet notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in His appointed time.[b]

[a] John 3:5, 8
[b] Gal. 3:27; Titus 3:5; Eph. 5:25, 26; Acts 2:38, 41 

VII. The sacrament of Baptism is but once to be administered unto any person.[a]

[a] Titus 3:5 

Chapter XXIX. Of the Lord's Supper.

I. Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein He was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of His body and blood, called the Lord's Supper, to be observed in His Church, unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of Himself in His death; the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in Him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto Him; and to be a bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other, as members of His mystical body.[a]

[a] I Cor. 11:23, 24, 25, 26; I Cor. 10:16, 17, 21; I Cor. 12:13 

II. In this sacrament, Christ is not offered up to His Father; nor any real sacrifice made at all for remission of sins of the quick or dead;[a] but only a commemoration of that one offering up of Himself, by Himself, upon the cross, once for all: and a spiritual oblation of all possible praise unto God for the same:[b] so that the Popish sacrifice of the mass (as they call it) is most abominably injurious to Christ's one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of His elect.[c]

[a] Heb. 9:22, 25, 26, 28
[b] I Cor. 11:24, 25, 26; Matt. 26:26, 27
[c] Heb. 7:23, 24, 27; Heb. 10:11, 12, 14, 18 

III. The Lord Jesus hath, in this ordinance, appointed His ministers to declare His word of institution to the people; to pray, and bless the elements of bread and wine, and thereby to set them apart from a common to a holy use; and to take and break the bread, to take the cup, and (they communicating also themselves) to give both to the communicants;[a] but to none who are not then present in the congregation.[b]

[a] Matt. 26:26, 27, 28 & Mark 14:22, 23, 24 and Luke 22:19, 20 with I Cor. 11:23, 24, 25, 26
[b] Acts. 20:7; I Cor. 11:20 

IV. Private masses, or receiving this sacrament by a priest or any other alone;[a] as likewise, the denial of the cup to the people,[b] worshipping the elements, the lifting them up or carrying them about for adoration, and the reserving them for any pretended religious use; are all contrary to the nature of this sacrament, and to the institution of Christ.[c]

[a] I Cor. 10:16
[b] Mark 14:23; I Cor. 11:25, 26, 27, 28, 29
[c] Matt. 15:9 

V. The outward elements in this sacrament, duly set apart to the uses ordained by Christ, have such relation to Him crucified, as that, truly, yet sacramentally only, they are sometimes called by the name of the things they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ;[a] albeit in substance and nature they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before.[b]

[a] Matt. 26:26, 27, 28
[b] I Cor. 11:26, 27, 28; Matt. 26:29 

VI. That doctrine which maintains a change of the substance of bread and wine into the substance of Christ's body and blood (commonly called transubstantiation) by consecration of a priest, or by any other way, is repugnant, not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense and reason; overthroweth the nature of the sacrament, and hath been, and is the cause of manifold superstitions; yea, of gross idolatries.[a]

[a] Acts 3:21 with I Cor. 11:24, 25, 26; Luke 24:6, 39 

VII. Worthy receivers outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this sacrament,[a] do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually, receive and feed upon Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.[b]

[a] I Cor. 11:28
[b] I Cor. 10:16 

VIII. Although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament: yet they receive not the thing signified thereby, but by their unworthy coming thereunto are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord to their own damnation. Wherefore, all ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with Him, so are they unworthy of the Lord's table; and cannot, without great sin against Christ while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries,[a] or be admitted thereunto.[b]

[a] I Cor. 11:27, 28, 29; II Cor. 6:14, 15, 16
[b] I Cor. 5:6, 7, 13; II Thess. 3:6, 14, 15; Matt. 7:6

John Roxborogh, updated 20 July 2009