A Look at Liturgy: Definitions

College Hill Reformed Presbyterian Church

College Hill Reformed Presbyterian Church before an evening worship service

Attending a college located almost 300 miles from the nearest United Reformed congregation has allowed me to acquire the hint of an outsider’s view of how our churches worship.  Sometimes I’m able to stop by one of the URC’s in Pennsylvania or New Jersey on the way to or from Geneva, but for most of the school year I attend worship at the College Hill Reformed Presbyterian Church on campus.  For someone relatively oblivious of worship practices outside our own federation, this sojourn has proved to be eye-opening.

The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) is closely related to the URCNA in background and theology, and its worship services exhibit the same basic structure and sequence: praise, confession, prayer, and preaching.  However, some of the particulars at College Hill are noticeably different.  Psalms are sung exclusively, instruments are not used, the service does not open with the familiar line “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth,” and the Ten Commandments are not regularly read.

It may seem like an obvious question, but why do different churches worship in different ways?  Which differences really “matter”?  Which distinctions are merely a product of history and tradition (such as the unique Dutch Reformed votum “Our help is in the name of the Lord”), and which arise from convictions about the nature of worship (such as the Reformed Presbyterians’ exclusive psalmody)?  Specific to the United Reformed Churches in North America, why do we worship as we do?  Are there areas in which we should improve our liturgy, and if so, how?

In the next few blog posts I’d like to explore some of these questions along with you.  It’s a study that will require delving into theology, ecclesiology, and history.  If you’re interested, I ask that you bear with my limited knowledge on this subject—I’m just beginning to seriously investigate it myself—and feel free to contribute your own thoughts.

The Psalter Hymnal SupplementAs a relatively simple introduction to the history of worship in the Dutch Reformed tradition, I’ll be referring often to material from the Psalter Hymnal Supplement published by the Christian Reformed Church in 1974.  The Psalter Hymnal Supplement contains a set of sixty-three songs commissioned by the CRC to “supplement” the contents of the blue (1959) Psalter Hymnal.  In addition, it includes the provisional translation of the Heidelberg Catechism that would later appear in the 1976 reprint of the Psalter Hymnal, and—most pertinent to our discussions—the report of the CRC’s Liturgical Committee to the synod of 1968.  While the Psalter Hymnal Supplement’s ideology of worship may raise some questions, and although it has ceased to be of much practical use to our churches (I dug this copy out from a musty corner of my church’s library), it continues to hold significant value for its historical insight.

Before such a discussion can even begin, we need to define our terms.  What is “liturgy”?  What, for that matter, is “worship”?  As the Liturgical Committee describes it, liturgy is “those acts done by the church in its solemn assembly with God” (Supplement p. 69).  Worship, though it can be applied in some sense to every waking moment of the Christian’s life, refers specifically to “a meeting between a Person and persons” (p. 74), that is, God’s meeting with his covenant people.  In other words, liturgy is the sequence of events that take place in our churches’ services; worship is the dialogue we are there to partake in.

Moreover, before any historical or practical arguments for particular worship practices can be made, we must emphasize two principles foundational to any faithful discussion of liturgy: the regulative principle of worship and the dialogical nature of worship.  The regulative principle of worship, a key tenet of the Protestant Reformation, is expressed succinctly in the Heidelberg Catechism’s treatment of the second commandment: we are not to “worship [God] in any other way than he has commanded in his Word” (Lord’s Day 35, Q&A 96).  (Presbyterian friends, see Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter XXI, Article 1.)  The dialogical nature of worship refers to the pattern of worship exemplified throughout Scripture: God speaks, and his people respond.

These two principles set limits on what can and cannot be incorporated into the church’s worship practices.  We live in a culture which prizes above all things freshness and novelty, and our own sinful hearts, “idol factories” as Calvin so aptly described them, love to devise not only wrong things to worship but wrong ways to worship.  The Catechism leaves us without excuse: in worship, as in all things, “we shouldn’t try to be wiser than God” (Q&A 98).

For DiscussionHaving laid this groundwork, we can go on to discuss the particulars of the Dutch Reformed tradition of worship in our next post.  For now, what is your church’s typical order of worship?  How are the various elements rooted in Scripture, and how do they represent an ongoing conversation between the Lord and his worshipers?

May the Lord guide us into the right actions and attitudes for worshiping him.

–MRK

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6 Responses to “A Look at Liturgy: Definitions”


  1. 1 Michael Kearney July 8, 2014 at 10:02 pm

    As an example, here’s a typical morning order of worship at West Sayville Reformed Bible Church:

    Prelude
    Call to Worship
    Psalm or Hymn of Praise
    Opening Prayer
    Votum
    God’s Greeting
    Affirmation of Unity
    The Decalogue
    Prayer of Confession
    Assurance of Pardon
    Psalm or Hymn of Redemption
    Offering
    Congregational Prayer
    Psalm or Hymn of Preparation
    Children’s Message
    Scripture Reading
    Sermon
    Prayer of Application
    Psalm or Hymn of Application
    Benediction
    Doxology
    Postlude

  2. 2 Doug Barnes July 9, 2014 at 9:45 am

    Michael,

    You can find the order of worship at Covenant Reformed Church of Pella here: http://www.covenantpella.org/bulletins.cfm

    Likewise for Hills URC here: hillsurc.com (click on “Sunday Bulletins” link).
    You might also want to check out the top selection on the page found by clicking the “Explaining Our Beliefs” link.

    This is a worthwhile study, brother. May it bless you & your readers richly!

    • 3 Michael Kearney July 9, 2014 at 3:26 pm

      Thank you, Rev. Barnes. These are very helpful resources! It is true, isn’t it, that spending time with Reformed Presbyterians can make one think much more deeply about worship–I can sense that in your own writings!

      Blessings to you,

      –Michael

  3. 4 Norm V. July 9, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    Likewise the Zion URC of Sheffield, ON does a fine job walking through the liturgy

    (http://zurch.ca/worship-services)


  1. 1 “How to Evade the Worship Wars” | URC Psalmody Trackback on June 16, 2015 at 10:04 am
  2. 2 Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 1) | URC Psalmody Trackback on July 3, 2015 at 1:06 pm

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