Using a word like historic in connection with worship can immediately raise defenses and lead to misunderstandings. When some folks hear “historic” they think: “Oh no, you want a boring formal service with no new songs” or “you are trying to impose extra-biblical standards on our public worship.” Indeed, a word like “historic” may have (and does have!) very different meanings for Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics. Additionally, someone from within the Presbyterian tradition might legitimately ask “which historic” do you mean: Psalm-singing a cappella sixteenth-century Scottish Presbyterianism, or psalm and hymn-singing a cappella nineteenth-century American Presbyterianism, or (still again) choir, organ and predominantly hymn-singing American Presbyterianism of the twentieth century? You can ask that question chronologically, denominationally, nationally and culturally and get different answers.
Futhermore, one can find the aspiration to be “historic” deployed in different ways among contemporary Reformed folk. For instance, some people in more conservative American Presbyterian circles today embrace a so-called “ancient-future” approach to worship, which borrows forms and practices from the scope of the Christian tradition and deploys them in public worship. For them, “historic” means incorporating things from the “Great Tradition” into the Presbyterian tradition and combining them with contemporary forms (often especially seen in the music of the services). On the other hand, “historic” may signify to others going back to, say, a continental Reformed liturgy from the 16th century and deploying it line for line in our services today. But neither of those things is what I mean by commending public worship that is “historic.”
I am speaking into the world of conservative confessional evangelicalism (the theological tradition birthed out of nonconformity in England, post-1662 in combination with evangelical Scottish Presbyterianism that created a general consensus on theology, salvation and the Christian life –and even striking similarities in the structure and content of worship services– among Presbyterians, low church Anglicans, Congregationalists and Baptists) and saying, our forbearers had some common and central commitments in their approach to public worship, based on biblical convictions, from which we need to learn and in fact preserve in the worship of the churches today. What I mean is, we ought to give deference to the basic theology and practice of worship in the historic Reformed tradition in the order of the church’s public worship right now in our own time. People committed to historic Reformed worship needn’t try to reinvent the wheel.
Why do I think “historic” is a good thing to aspire to in our own time? Well, there are several reasons. For one, starting sometime in the 1970s/80s many evangelical churches began to aim, first and foremost, to be “contemporary” or “seeker sensitive” in their worship. Thus expository sermons, pastoral prayers, scripture readings, classic hymns and metrical psalms were out, and a more relaxed, conversational, less “churchy” feel and content were in. In short, there was a de-emphasis on continuing the main things our forbearers considered to be important in worship (reading, preaching, praying and singing the Bible, and observing the sacraments or ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper). The churches who took this approach sincerely saw this as the best way to reach people for Christ and as the best way to cater to the preferences of their own congregants. However, we now know that this approach did not in fact attract the unchurched to the church, but it did de-church the churched. That is, it effectively robbed a generation or more of Christians of a working knowledge of the Bible, and an experience of the content of worship that would have been common among almost all the main branches of Protestantism a generation before.
Another, and even more important reason I appeal for a “historic” approach to worship is precisely in order that we will be more biblical in our form and content. Because, I would assert that, in general, our forbears in the Protestant and Reformed tradition of the last 500 years have done a better job at being biblical in their approach to the public worship of the church than has the evangelicalism of the last 40 years.
Now one of the pushbacks you get when you suggest that you want the churches worship to be “historic” is that you are privileging some moment in history and culture and then making it normative for everyone. That is, you are imposing manmade tradition on the church. That is a serious concern. Both the Roman and the Orthodox traditions have done precisely this and it has impacted the worship practice of a billion people, so when people express concern that a Reformed approach does the same thing, we’d better have a good answer. Hughes Old helps us here. He tells us that we want to know how our forbears did public worship (and why) not because what they did was normative, but because it lets us know how they understood Scripture, and thus helps us read Scripture better.
Because they lived in a different place and time, they were not vulnerable to same tendencies and assumptions that often influence us. And because we have had the opportunity to do a post mortem on their era, we are alerted to areas where they may have erred. C.S. Lewis explains this in his famous essay on “Old Books”
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.
So, I would submit, that if we look at the outline of worship supplied by the historic Reformed practice, and follow it, we will have an order and content for public worship that is more substantial and biblical than that which is offered as the alternative in many evangelical churches (and, of course, high church liturgical ones as well). Because, their first concern was for worship to be biblical, whereas we are often asking different questions.
Interestingly (and perhaps ironically), I have found a great attraction among the younger generations to historic reformed worship. Over the years, I have encountered droves of young people burned out on the “every Sunday a pep rally” kind of worship that is ubiquitous our there. I find them deeply attracted to the reverence and substance of the historic reformed order. Now, the reason the reformed approach public worship they way we do is not because it is “more effective” in attracting the younger generations, but because we think it is biblical. But I mention this, because often advocates of changing what we do in public worship in order to attract seekers will say of historic worship practice: “it doesn’t work anymore,” “the young people won’t come,” “people are looking for something fresh,” etc.
Indeed, having pastored a traditional Presbyterian congregation for almost 18 years, I can attest that young people coming to us from other denominational traditions with worship practices that were shaped explicitly with the aim of attracting young people, when asked why they have come to our church, they almost invariably say “the preaching (expositional, theological, Gospel proclamation) and the approach to public worship (simple, substantial, reverent, historic, biblical).
So don’t let someone tell you “historic won’t/can’t work.” It can and will, if it is biblical.