Pietism and Subjectivism: Undoing Biblical Worship

  The Pietist movement and subjectivism are two things – among others – that have corroded, watered down, and weakened Christian worship in the United States.  When all the emphasis is on the self, feelings, experiences, and emotions, you know you’re in the realm of pietism and subjectivism (that or an Oprah show).  We’ve all heard these types of phrases: “what will my heart feel” to “I could sing of your love forever,” to “I feel your presence” to “let it burn in me.”  The objective truths of Scripture – sin and salvation – are only alluded to (if at all) and the enraptured feelings of the inner self are front and center.  Rather than asking what God wants us to do in worship, many simply do what makes them feel a religious “high.”  Unfortunately this is even prevalent in many Reformed and Presbyterian churches which historically have placed the objective truths front and center. I like what Scott Clark has to say about this topic.

“Perhaps the most outstanding example…of the subjective turn in Reformed piety is in public worship.  It would not be hard to find a Reformed congregation today in which the Sunday (or Saturday night) liturgy begins with twenty-five minutes of Scripture songs sung consecutively, each song blending into the next, perhaps augmented by a Power Point or video presentation.  In this increasingly popular liturgy, the singing is followed by a dramatic presentation which, in turn, is followed by congregational announcements, most of which focus on the various cell-group programs.  Increasingly, the sermon is a brief, colorfully illustrated, emotionally touching collection of anecdotes, in which the hearer is not so much directed to the law and the gospel, but, in one way or another, to one’s self.”

“Anxious to intensify the religious experience of parishioners or to make the church accessible to the nonchurched, many Reformed congregations have turned to new measures, to drama, dance lessons, and even a service arranged thematically by the name of the local professional sports franchise.  Such practices are rather more indebted to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revival practices than they are to Geneva, Heidelberg, or Westminster Abbey.  Such practices are also symptoms of the synthesis of Reformed worship with the emerging modern culture in which, as Philip Rieff noted, hospital and theater replace the church” (p. 73).

 R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008).

shane lems

One Reply to “Pietism and Subjectivism: Undoing Biblical Worship”

  1. Sometimes it’s not so obvious. Our URC has a simple “song service” before the stated PM service, which employs the revivalist hymnbook (“Great Hymns of the Faith”) at least as much as the Psalter. The assumption seems to be that affect needs stirring before formal worship, which seems pretty revivalist-y. But isn’t silence the best way to prepare for worship characterized by reverence and awe?


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