I’ve attended church for as long as I can remember. For over 30 years as a Christian, I’ve sat in either a church pew or seat listening to the monologue of a preacher directed toward the audience of those who have come to share in the worship of God and hear the message of the Word. The number of sermons and services that I’ve attended are most likely incalculable. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to an appreciation that church attendance is not optional, but mandatory. Even still, as I’ve come to embrace Reformed theology, I can appreciate the emphasis on the sanctity of the Lord’s Day, as a continuation of the Sabbath ordinance instituted at creation. Additionally, through many helpful ministries such as IX Marks, Grace to You, and Desiring God, I’ve come to see the importance of the local church, the emphasis on membership, service, and the centrality of the Word in a church service, the importance of discipleship of the body, et.al. However, one critical component has been missing, until now. All of this is not some sort of boast, but an example of how easy it is to accept tradition rather than Scripture.
Recently, through circumstances, and through my current seminary course on the Doctrine of the Church, I have been immersed in what God’s Word has to say about His Church, how He desires to be worshiped, and what a local church or gathering of the Lord’s people should look like. I’ve come to wonder why it has taken me this long to examine what God has to say, rather than just assuming 30 years of experience and observation is in line with what God has ordained.
Here are my observations of what the majority of American evangelical churches look like:
- Most have an identified “Lead Pastor” who is responsible for the vision and direction of the church, primary teaching responsibilities, and otherwise operates as the face of that local assembly.
- Most have at least 1 paid staff member, generally identified as the Lead Pastor, though many have additional pastoral staff and administrative support.
- Most have acquired a building, or property, in which to meet and hold their services. Most have either purchased or are renting, though I’ve noticed more are becoming inclined to utilize existing spaces such as schools, meeting halls, or movie theaters.
- Most operate as a non- profit (501 c) organization that has registered with the government as a tax-exempt business.
- Most have a pre-orchestrated script for how the worship service will proceed from beginning to end; some include the times that each transition will occur.
- Most have a preacher delivering a monologue derived from either personal experience or anecdotes, an exposition of God’s Word, or a combination of all of the above. Generally speaking, the congregation is passive in her participation, but is expected to be proactive in her listening.
- Most last from 1-1 ½ hours and include announcements, worship music, prayer, preaching, and a benediction of some sort.
- Most offer a separate time of worship for children and sometimes teens.
- Most offer programs throughout the week to encourage people to return to the church building.
- Most offer an additional time of study or fellowship through the use of small groups, bible studies, or classes.
These are 10 fairly common observations and please note that I’ve not determined if one is inherently wrong or unbiblical, they are just simply observations. It doesn’t necessarily assume they are good or bad, just that they exist. Perhaps more could be added and some deleted or tweaked a little here or there, but largely this is probably similar to what you have observed as well if you have spent anytime in an evangelical church.
As I stated earlier, until now, I have just assumed that many of those points listed above were universal among churches and were simply the established patter of “how to do church” regardless of where one might attend (though admittedly these elements may be more common in baptistic churches). Only until recently have I stepped back to say, Who said any of those things are how God desires to be worshipped on His Day? What Scriptures are the bases for how these things are derived? Who has said that this is how church should be? What or Whom is regulating our worship services, form of church government and structure, and the general look and feel of our churches? If God has not said, then there needs to be a serious reevaluation to determine if what is being done week in and week out across this country, and elsewhere, anywhere resembles what God desires and has either described or prescribed in His Word.
The Puritans held commonly to something called the Regulative Principle of Worship, even more accurately, the Regulative Principle of the Church, which simply states that God has prescribed in His Word how He will be worshiped. While its formalized origin can be debated, one can see it in the ministerial writings of Luther and Calvin. The former held that God has allowed whatever He has not specifically forbidden in worship, while the latter held that God has allowed whatever He has specifically included in Scripture, all else is forbidden. For Luther, worship would essentially be wide-open, with the exception of those things which God has expressly forbidden. For Calvin, a much more limited, narrow focus of worship would be guided by Scripture only allowing for those things which one observes in Scripture.
Often times this principle draws its biblical basis from passages such as the following:
Exodus 25:40 “And see that you make them after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain.”
Genesis 4:1-5 “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
Exodus 20:4-6 “4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Matthew 15:3 “He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”
2 Kings 16:10-18 ”
10 When King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, he saw the altar that was at Damascus. And King Ahaz sent to Uriah the priest a model of the altar, and its pattern, exact in all its details. 11 And Uriah the priest built the altar; in accordance with all that King Ahaz had sent from Damascus, so Uriah the priest made it, before King Ahaz arrived from Damascus. 12 And when the king came from Damascus, the king viewed the altar. Then the king drew near to the altar and went up on it 13 and burned his burnt offering and his grain offering and poured his drink offering and threw the blood of his peace offerings on the altar. 14 And the bronze altar that was before the Lord he removed from the front of the house, from the place between his altar and the house of the Lord, and put it on the north side of his altar. 15 And King Ahaz commanded Uriah the priest, saying, “On the great altar burn the morning burnt offering and the evening grain offering and the king’s burnt offering and his grain offering, with the burnt offering of all the people of the land, and their grain offering and their drink offering. And throw on it all the blood of the burnt offering and all the blood of the sacrifice, but the bronze altar shall be for me to inquire by.” 16 Uriah the priest did all this, as King Ahaz commanded.
17 And King Ahaz cut off the frames of the stands and removed the basin from them, and he took down the sea[a] from off the bronze oxen that were under it and put it on a stone pedestal. 18 And the covered way for the Sabbath that had been built inside the house and the outer entrance for the king he caused to go around the house of the Lord, because of the king of Assyria.”
See also: Lev. 10:1-3; Deut. 17:3; Deut. 4:2; 12:29-32; Josh. 1:7; 23:6-8; Matthew 15:13; Col. 2:20-23 for the Bible’s explicit condemnation of all worship that is not commanded by God.
In this post, it is not my intention to condemn any church or service that contains any of the elements mentioned in the list above. Only that if we believe everything in our lives should be guided and informed by Scripture, and above all how God desires to be worshiped, then we must turn there to see what His Word says. The heart of the question being asked is, Who has said that what you participate in and observe on your Lord’s Day worship is how God has desired worship of Himself? We should all be Berean-like in our diligent search of the Scriptures to see if these things are so. Reform of a local church can only happen if we know what form it should’ve been in the first place.
Soli Deo Gloria