American Revivalist Hymns (Marsden)

(This is a repost from February, 2012).

Many aspects of today’s shallow American hymnody are rooted in the 19th-century revivals.   This is a huge topic, of course, but to get a little glimpse I like how George Marsden writes about it in Fundamentalism and American Culture.

“The surge of revivalism associated with the rise of Charles Finney in the 1820s which developed in the ‘New School’ tradition certainly did not forsake intellect, but it did create new channels for emphasis on emotion throughout American evangelicalism.  Sandra Sizer in her analysis of the rise of the gospel song in nineteenth-century America has suggested that Finney’s revivals marked the beginning of the attempt to build a new Christian community united by intense feeling.  The focal point for the emphasis was the ‘social religious meeting,’ small groups gathered for prayer, Bible study, witnessing, and song.  Witnessing, or testifying to one another about how God had transformed their lives, was an important way in which these communities built themselves up and provided emotional support.”

“Finney added emphasis on such meetings to his more-or-less conventional mass-preaching services, but by the time of the remarkable businessmen’s revival of 1857-1858 the awakening itself originated in noon hour prayer meetings which were just such ‘social religious meetings.’  Every new evangelical movement of this entire area, through the rise of fundamentalism and including the holiness, pentecostal, and premillennial movements, had a base in some form of ‘social religious’ gathering.”

“The revivals of Moody and Sanky, Sizer argues persuasively, in a sense applied to the principles of the smaller group meetings on a massive scale.  The use of a song leader, which Sankey made a lasting part of evangelicalism, was a conspicuous means of building emotional ties.  The most common theme was the distress of sin, to be relieved by a passionate surrender to the incredible love of Jesus.  Hymns that told stories of prodigals reclaimed and the like made the song itself a kind of witnessing.”

“In contrast to eighteenth-century hymns like those in the influential collection of Isaac Watts, the focus of revivalist songs shifted from praise of the awful majesty of God and the magnitude of his grace revealed in Christ’s atoning work, to the emotions of those who encounter the Gospel.  Similarly, Moody’s sermons virtually abandoned all pretense of following conventional forms of explicating a text, and were closer to ‘layman’s exhortation’ filled with touching anecdotes with an emotional impact comparable to that of personal testimony.”

There is more to it, but these are some of the theological, historical, and practical reasons why confessional Reformed churches typically do not sing these songs.  In other words, we avoid these songs and worship techniques for several different reasons and not just to be “traditional” or “conservative.”  I recommend Marsden’s book Fundamentalism and American Culture if you want to dig deeper into hymnody and other aspects of American Christianity.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI


The Simplicity of Reformed Worship

Historic Reformed churches worship the Lord in simplicity.  That is, Reformed churches do not include ceremonies, festivals, crucifixes, processions, incense, relics, images, vestments, altars, and so forth in their worship services.  Reformed worship simply consists of the Word (read, preached, sung, confessed, prayed) and the sacraments (the Lord’s supper and baptism).

The main reason for the simplicity of Reformed worship is the teaching of Scripture.  The Bible doesn’t command God’s New Covenant people to worship him with all the images and vestments and ceremonies.  The Reformers believed that the external ceremonies and images didn’t elevate the mind to God, but domesticated God and therefore were idolatrous.  Furthermore, they said that all these non-biblical extras in worship throw a fog over the gospel.  Simple worship, therefore, means the gospel will not be obscured.  In 1560 the Reformer Guillaume Farel explained it like this:

The Church should be decorated and adorned with Jesus Christ and the Word of his gospel and his holy sacraments.  This great Sun of Righteousness, Jesus Christ, and the light of his gospel, have nothing to do with our burning torches and our candles and candelabras.  God has instead ordained that by true preaching and by the holy sacraments practiced in their simplicity this light might be manifested and illumine us with all glory.

Similarly, Theodore Beza preached the following in 1585:

[God’s house is not a place] that we enter to see the beautiful shapes of vaults and pillars, or to admire the splendor of gold and silver and precious stones.  Nor is it a place that we visit in order to fill our ears with the signing of choirs and the music of organs.  Rather it is a place where the pure Word of God is clearly preached in the presence of each person, with words of exhortation, consolation, warning, and censure necessary for salvation.

In other words, the Reformers wanted worship to be ordered according to the Word and centered on the gospel.  They wanted to keep it simple so God’s word and his gospel would clearly be front and center.  In that way, he alone would receive all the glory, honor, and praise.  ‘Soli Dei Gloria’ goes hand in hand with Reformed worship!

The above discussion and quotes are found on pages 31-37 of Scott Manetsch’s book, Calvin’s Company of Pastors.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Can We Worship God However We Want? (Ames)

A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism (Classic Reformed Theology) Why are the worship services of Reformed churches different from the worship services of most evangelical churches?  Why won’t you find props, balloons, skits, films, lights, projectors,* and rock/pop music at confessional Reformed churches? And why aren’t worship services in Reformed churches a Sunday morning free-for-all where we can just wing it?

It’s not simply because Reformed Christians don’t like film, rock/pop music, or skits.  Instead, it’s because Reformed churches do their best to have God’s Word regulate everything they do in worship.  From the opening prayer to the closing Scripture reading, confessional Reformed worship services are ordered according to clear biblical principles.  This is called the Regulative Principle of Worship and you can find it explained in various places in the Reformed confessions (HC Q/A 96, WLC Q/A 108-9, etc).  The RPW is essentially based on the second commandment and other places in Scripture where it’s clear that God does not accept worship that is contrary to his command (see the stories in Leviticus 10 and Numbers 16 for two examples).  Reformed churches have worship that is reformed according to the Word.

William Ames (d. 1633) defines it this way: “God must be worshiped only for the reason and by the means by which he has personally prescribed that he is to be worshiped in his Word.”

He also wrote the following concerning worship and the second commandment:

“It is taught…that under the names of images, every will-worship introduced by people is condemned, so that no one may approve anything other than what God personally has prescribed.  Also it appears to hint at this doctrine in the phrase, ‘You shall not make for yourself’ – that is, by your own decision (arbitrio) – and you will introduce no worship by your own pleasure.”

Here are the reasons he gives for this Reformed position on worship:

1) God alone knows what is pleasing and suitable to his nature.

2) The blessing and fruit of all our worship that we owe to God depends on God himself.  It is also not for us to prescribe to God the means by which it might be performed and he might be blessed by us.

3) The worship that has not been prescribed does not have in itself the rationale of obedience.  Moreover, God wishes what pertains to his honor, so that by obeying we may worship him and by worshiping him we may obey him.

4) Such is the vanity and futility of the human imaginations in divine things, that if it were left to us to choose for ourselves the means of divine worship, that our entire worship would be converted into ridiculous and inane observances, just as experience teaches that the devil has in this way led humans to inane superstitions throughout almost the whole world.”

I appreciate Ames’ commentary on the second commandment as it applies to worship.  Obviously more can be said, but these are some good thoughts about worship that truly pleases God.  God-pleasing worship isn’t defined by our feelings, emotions, likes, or dislikes, but by God’s own word!

The above quotes are found on pages 161-162 of A Sketch of the Christian’s Catechism by William Ames.

*(By “projectors” I mean projectors for showing movie clips.)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Worship: What If The Problem Is Me?

Many churches bend over backwards to make their services an exciting and entertaining event.  I don’t have to make a list of worship innovations – most readers are familiar with them.  Basically, in order to fight boredom and to be on the cutting edge of worship experience, churches go all out in thier services.

But as Michael Horton notes well, being bored in worship isn’t the end of the world.  It’s not necessarily a horrible evil.  Horton says,

It is okay to be bored sometimes: ‘no pain, no gain.’  …If we don’t do anything that sometimes bores us, we will miss out on some of the most important things in life!  …Although we like to be entertained, we know that our parents, siblings, or children will render us disillusioned if we thought for one moment that they existed to keep us occupied.  And yet, few of us would suggest that the family institution needs to be radically altered in order to make it more interesting….

“Too often we are impatient with progress and we have come to expect worship to be exciting, so if it isn’t, we are disappointed.  The fault must lie with the service and not with us.  Perhaps we need a new sound system, a new choir, a new pastor.  Radical moves may be necessary, because I’m losing my interest.  But what if the problem is with me?  And what if, by virtue of our continuing struggle with sin and the fact that we do not yet behold God face-to-face, excitement in worship is the excitement rather than the rule?  Many of the most exciting things in life are the ephemeral, bubbles that delight only to disappear when captured, while many of the most enduring and ennobling ventures are driven along by quite ordinary habits – commitments – of mind and body.”

“The most valuable things in life must be won by active struggling, not by passive stimulation.  Whether due to the weaknesses of our finitude or our own sinful hearts (‘prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love’), our boredom must be acknowledged as a real struggle and yet as a doomed foe because we will not surrender the gold for the glitter.”

Michael Horton, A Better Way, 234.

Shane Lems

The Hermit Crab Church (Wells)

Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (This is a re-post from July 2012)

In Losing Our Virtue, David Wells explains how many aspects of modernity and postmodernity have crept into the church to the point where any talk about sin is avoided and talk about self is central.  From watered down emotional praise songs to therapeutic sermons to the loss of reverence and awe in worship, Wells calls out the sins of the modern church.  This book is a sort of trumpet call for churches to repent of their worldliness and reform according to the word (rather than culture).  I appreciated these paragraphs near the end of the book.

“The wisdom common to many of our marketers is that, if it wants to attract customers, the Church should stick to a positive and uplifting message.  It should avoid speaking of negative matters like sin.  Not only so, but what has distinguished the Church in its appearance and functions should now be abandoned.  In order to be attractive to people today, church buildings should not look different from corporate headquarters, malls, or country clubs.  Crosses and robes should go; dress should be casual; hymns should be contemporary and empty of the theological substance by which previous generations lived, because this is incomprehensible today; pews should be replaced by cinema-grade seats, organs by synthesizers and drums, solemnity by levity, reflection by humor, and sermons by light dialogues and catchy readings.  The theory is that people will buy Christianity if they don’t have to deal with what the Church has traditionally been.”

“The best construction that can be put on this is that these market-driven churches have become like hermit crabs, which walk around concealed within a shell.  Hidden beneath the outer shell – the corporate style that disguises the churchly business that is supposed to be going on , the mall-like atmosphere in which faith is bought and sold like any other commodity, the relaxed, country club atmosphere – is the little animal who supposedly is really evangelical.  As it moves from rock pool to rock pool, all we can see are the little legs – the most minimal doctrinal substance – that protrude from under the shell.  Is this substance enough to sustain people amidst life’s fiery trials?  Is it enough to preserve biblical identity in these churches in the decades ahead?  I think not.”

Well said.  As you may have guessed, I highly recommend this book.  If your church is a hermit crab church, or if you’ve left one, or if you want to be sure your church doesn’t become a hermit crab church, get this book today (and give one to your pastor!).  Be prepared to be challenged, prodded, encouraged, and motivated to get back to Scripture and the historic Christian faith.

David Wells, Losing Our Virtue (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 201.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Worshiping Worship (or Making an Idol of Worship)

Worship by the Book Ironically, sometimes people who are constantly seeking better worship might just be worshiping the worship “experience” instead of God.  Yes, our hearts are sinful to the extent that we’d make an idol out of worship or a worship “experience.”  God help us!  Don Carson put it this way:

“It is disturbingly easy to plot surveys of people, especially young people, drifting from a church of excellent preaching and teaching to one with excellent music because, it is alleged, there is ‘better worship’ there.  But we need to think carefully about this matter.  …Although there are things that can be done to enhance corporate worship, there is a profound sense in which excellent worship cannot be attained merely by pursuing excellent worship.  In the same way that, according to Jesus, you cannot find yourself until you lose yourself, so also you cannot find excellent corporate worship until you stop trying to find excellent corporate worship and pursue God himself. …It’s a bit like those who begin admiring the sunset and soon begin to admire themselves admiring the sunset.”

“This point is acknowledged in a praise chorus like ‘Let’s forget about ourselves, and magnify the Lord, and worship him.’  The trouble is that after you have sung this repetitious chorus three or four times, you are no farther ahead.  The way you forget about yourself is by focusing on God – not by singing about doing it, but by doing it.  There are far too few choruses and services and sermons that expand our vision of God – his attributes, his works, his character, his words.”

“Some think that corporate worship is good because it is lively where it had been dull.  But it may also be shallow where it is lively, leaving people dissatisfied and restless in a few months’ time.  Sheep lie down when they are well fed (cf. Ps 23:2); they are more likely to be restless when they are hungry.  ‘Feed my sheep,’ Jesus commanded Peter (John 21); and many sheep are unfed.  If you wish to deepen the worship of the people of God, above all deepen their grasp of his ineffable majesty in his person and in all his works” (p. 30-31).

D. A. Carson,  “Worship Under The Word” in Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Hammond, WI

On Neglecting Public Worship

(This is a re-post from November 2012.)

In 1781 John Newton wrote a letter to the members of his church in London.  One of the main reasons he wrote this letter was to address a burden he was facing as a pastor: his parishioners were not coming to worship services.  This is something that pastors still face today.  Some Christians miss worship services for valid reasons (illness, emergencies, etc.).  But many Christians simply neglect worship services.  In other words, they don’t really have a good, biblical reason for not assembling with the saints.  In the following paragraphs, I’ve summarized and edited Newton’s letter in which he pastorally addresses this problem.  (Note the lines on entertainment.)

“The only cause of grief that you have given me is that so many of those to whom I earnestly desire to be useful refuse me the pleasure of seeing them at church every Sunday.  I’m not troubled because the pews are empty.  If a large congregation could satisfy me, then I would already be satisfied (the pews are full).  But I must grieve because I see so few of my own parishioners in the full pews.  God has not been pleased to place me elsewhere, he saw fit to fix me among you.  This appointment gives you a preference in my regard and it makes me studiously attentive to promote your best welfare.”

“If I am a servant of God, a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ, if I speak the truth in love – how can I not be pained at the thought that many to whom the word of salvation is sent refuse to hear it and reject the counsel of God against themselves (Acts 13:26, Luke 7:30)!  Most of you agree with me that Scripture is God’s revelation. But do not some of you act inconsistently with your acknowledged principles?  Your business and entertainment indispose you for due observation of our church services.  You have other things to do, so you miss many sermons.”

“I have done my best to avoid whatever might give you needless offense.  I knew that if I would be faithful to Scripture and my conscience, that some of my hearers would be displeased.  But, though I was constrained to risk your displeasure, I have been careful not to needlessly provoke you, or to lay any unnecessary difficulties in your way.”

So that I may not weary my hearers by the length of my sermons, I carefully endeavor not to exceed forty-five minutes.  Many people can give their attention to trivial entertainment for several hours without weariness, but their patience is quickly exhausted under a sermon where the principles of Scripture are applied to the conscience.”

“I am not a polished orator nor do I wish to capture your attention by the elegance of my words.  If I had the ability to use elegant words and capture your attention with them, I would not do it.  I speak to the unlearned and the wise, so my principal aim is to be understood.  Yet I hope that I am not wrongly charged with speaking nonsense, with flippancy, carelessness, or disrespect.  But alas! There are too many hearers who seem more desirous of entertainment than of real benefit from a Christian sermon!”

“My heart longs for your salvation; but whether you will hear or whether you will not, I must take your consciences to witness that I have been faithful to you.  If after this warning any of you should finally perish, I am innocent of your blood (Acts 20:26).”

“You know the difficulty of my situation and will assist me with your prayers.  I trust likewise you will assist me with your conduct, and that your lives and godly speech will constrain the ungodly to acknowledge that the doctrines of grace which I preach – when rightly  understood and embraced – make a person peaceful, content, loving, and full of humility.”

This is obviously the summary of a longer letter.  Here’s who needs to read this letter today: 1) those of you who neglect regularly assembling with the saints and 2) those of you – pastors and elders perhaps – who wish to lovingly admonish Christians who neglect the assembly.

Newton’s pastoral heart comes out in this letter.  He is straightforward, blunt, and biblical.  At the same time, it is very evident that he simply wants his parishioners to hear the sermons for their own Christian good and growth in godliness.  Newton certainly wasn’t a legalist looking to make people proud of their church attendance.  He was writing in the spirit of 1 Peter 5:1-4 – as an undershepherd who loved Christ’s sheep.  Or, in other words, this letter is a pastoral commentary on Hebrews 10:24-25.

shane lems
hammond, wi