Tuesday, 11 November 2008

The demise of scripture in church

I am reading R. Scott Clark’s provocative new book Recovering the Reformed Confession. It is a great read, argued crisply with some fascinating historical studies along the way. If you know Scott and his Heidelblog you won’t be surprised to know that he pulls no punches (in one chapter he argues the revivalist tradition including Edwards, Lloyd-Jones, Packer and Iain Murray has subverted Reformed theology and piety!) I’ll comment on the book in the next few weeks. Now I want to take up one issue that reading it crystallised for me.

Lots of Evangelical churches in Australia with a reformed tradition (I’m thinking of Presbyterian, Anglican and some independent churches) have changed their patterns of worship
  or  liturgy in the last generation. (Most of them  would not use the words worship nor liturgy but they are better than circumlocutions such a “what we do when we meet as a church”). That is no great news, though those of us who have grown up through the changes may not see how great they’ve been.Lots of those changes ‘had’ to happen, because older patterns reflected a culture of formality that has gone. However I’ve had a nagging sense that some valuable things are lost in the shift (and I’ve bemoaned the loss in class!)

In “Recovering the Reformed Confession” Clark argues for exclusive psalmody, which is something I grew up with. I am not going to join him in that (and I’ll explain why some time). I do agree that we have neglected the song book that God gave the church. As I thought about that again I had my moment of clarity. It dawned on me that this is part of a wider pattern in the change in worship. We have managed to remove almost all the points at which the church used to hear Scripture!

Think about a traditional Presbyterian service that you’ll find in the The Book of Common Order (Presbyterian Church of Australia, 1956). It would open with a call to worship, usually drawn from scripture. There would be a prayer of approach, often taken from Scripture. A pray of praise (which would have more or less scripture depending on the minister) and a prayer of confession which would often appeal directly to a promise such as 1John 1:9. Then there would be an Old Testament and New Testament reading and a sermon, the Lord’s prayer and a benediction and doxology often taken from Scripture. Even in the hymn singing churches there was often a pattern of having at least one psalm. In more recent years responsive readings were also used. If the Lord’s Supper was celebrated then the narrative of institution would be recounted twice and there might be a further Bible reading and reflection. There were plenty of things that could be done badly in all this, and the prayers and sermon could be drivel while the people had little heart for worship. But even in the worst case it was a form which gave the opportunity for extensive reading of Scripture. We could do the same analysis of the shift from a Prayer Book Service in the Anglican Church.

What happens in lots of churches today? The call is a welcome which runs along the lines of “a funny thing happened to me on the way to church …”. The prayers are brief and while perhaps (and only perhaps) more heartfelt than in more traditional services do not have any more substantial reflection on Scripture. In a family service there will be a kid’s talk, which is often an object lesson on a general theological or moral point including the words “the Bible says”, but with nothing read and certainly not a passage explained. The Lord’s prayer is not heard and there is probably only one (often short) reading. The service (meeting) finishes with the now traditional benediction, “please stay for coffee”.

I know that is a caricature and that it is not as bad as all that in all churches. Is your church very different though? (For my local friends, this is not a complaint about Springwood-Winmalee PC . We have some of these problems sometimes but often do better than I’ve described here).

The last generation has seen an encouraging resurgence of textual-expository preaching and an enthusiasm for small group Bible study. But we’ve lost something as well! We fret that people don’t read their Bible’s, but we don’t read them much when we get together, so people are simply following the example of church!

I don’t want a return to formalism or even formalities, but we need to work on how to infuse worship with Scripture. There’s the challenge.


Marty said...

Hey John,

Spot on post brother. I feel exactly the same way. I guess the big question is why this is happening, particularly amongst people who have a high view of Scripture?

David Wells' books perhaps goes some way to answering that question. But, only some of the way, because again, we have a high view of Scripture.

I wonder if it doesn't have something to do with how the church gathering is viewed itself? Many people I've bemoaned the same thing to have said, "Yes, but we now, in our age, can just read Scripture at home", i.e. it's now less important in church. Church is fundamentally there for a sermon; a horizontal view of church.

Anyway, enough ramble. I'd be fascinated by your own insights on this one.

Blessings brother,

Marty F.

Vaughan Smith said...

Hi John,
This is a great post, and reflects something of what I've been thinking recently too. I listened to Derek Thomas' address on the Puritans and worship from the 07 Westminster Confession for Today conference, and it got my brain ticking over. The idea of reading at least (!) one chapter from both the OT and the NT, plus the reading for the sermon, plus Psalm singing blows my mind.

His challenge at the end of the address was to update and apply the Directory for Public Worship in a way that reflects the times. I reckon it'd be a great project.

Murray said...

thanks for this John. it is a great challenge! I would add that in losing the points at which Scripture was infused in the service, we have also lost the points at which the gospel is proclaimed week by week in the service. what clearer way to proclaim the gospel than a scriptural call to repentance and confession followed by biblical assurance? or by the use of the Lord's prayer or a biblical confession of faith, or ...

I agree that we need to work hard at making Sunday meetings lively and engaging, and they need to have a level of (in)formality appropriate to our context, but too often the only chance people get to hear the gospel in many church services is if the sermon happens to present it. now, of course, one would hope that every sermon is related to the gospel of Christ crucified and risen in some way, but it is probably right that much of the time we do this indirectly rather than directly. but if other elements in the service are infused with the scriptures and proclaim the gospel, then I am convinced that we will all (visiting non-believers included) will be much the better for it ...

thanks for the stimulus in this direction!