Idol Factories of Modern Worship

Christian Readerby Eric Rauch

Few topics generate more opinions in the 21st century church than the topic of worship. In fact, it would be safe to say that most Christians have pretty strong views about what they like, and don’t like, about their church’s worship service. Some of you reading this review have probably left or joined a particular church based on how their worship service was structured. While subjectivity and opinions are legion when it comes to the area of worship, all Christians should be able to agree that the Bible should have the final word on true worship. After all, it is the Writer of the Bible who we claim to be worshiping, so His Word should have the ultimate authority.

Sadly, this is not the case. Too often, the Bible is the last source which is consulted in many modern books on corporate worship. In a well-intentioned but misapplied attempt to make church relevant to everyone, modern church-growth gurus have made the church relevant to no one. Worship services have become nothing more than hour-long praise concerts, complete with smoke machines and light shows. Our favorite preachers have become our version of rock-stars—and we treat them as such—unwilling to question any words that happen to fall from their purpose-driven lips.

It was because of this confusion in the area of worship that Dr. Jon D. Payne began writing short pastoral letters to his own congregation, explaining why they worshiped the way that they did. These letters have been collected and published in a small but powerful book called In the Splendor of Holiness: Rediscovering the Beauty of Reformed Worship for the 21st Century. Rather than looking for advice in modern seeker-sensitive manuals on how to grow a church numerically, Dr. Payne gets his insights on worship from the Bible itself, by what is known as the “regulative principle.”

The Regulative Principle states that Christians are to do nothing in worship except that which has been prescribed or commanded in Scripture. Not only does this principle underscore the fact that God has revealed in His Word how he desires to be worshiped, but it also wonderfully safeguards worship from the innovations of sinful mankind. Calvin once remarked that our minds are idol factories, always inventing new objects of worship and dreaming up new ways in which to worship. The Regulative Principle takes very seriously both the truthfulness of God’s Word and the deceitfulness of men’s hearts. (p. 22-23)

With this scriptural hedge placed around his study, Payne goes on to describe a typical reformed “liturgy,” describing each aspect of the worship service and its significance to the whole. One of the most helpful sentences in the whole book can be found in the chapter on “The Pastoral Prayer.” Here, Payne defines just what corporate “worship” is supposed to be: “Worship, in its essence, is a covenant renewal service where God communicates His everlasting promises through Word and sacrament and His redeemed people respond with adoration and thanksgiving through prayer” (p. 75). While Payne doesn’t explicitly say it, we might guess that he would agree that many of the disagreements over what worship should look like stem from a misunderstanding of what worship is. Payne is correct to call worship a “covenant renewal service,” but how many modern churches ever teach on the covenant in the first place, much less the need for a renewal and reminder of it each week?

In the Splendor of Holiness is an intensely practical book that reads more like a handbook than a dry study. Each chapter concludes with questions for further study and review, making this book a great choice for Sunday School classes, small groups, and officer-training classes, as well as individual reading. Payne’s goal for his book is plainly stated on page 20: “In the following pages I attempt to set forth a relatively simple, lay-friendly introduction to historic Protestant and Reformed worship. This book, therefore, is intended to be neither scholarly nor exhaustive.” From where this reviewer sits, Jon Payne has succeeded in his efforts; Splendor is neither tediously boring (by beating the horse dead with one stick, then continuing the flogging with many others of various shapes and sizes), nor overly simplistic (making the reader feel like he did something terribly wrong to deserve such an intellectual hand-holding). And for those who may not count themselves among the “reformed” or even “Protestant” traditions, Splendor is a great introduction to the worship liturgy that characterized the Protestant Reformation, not to mention many churches in the first 200 years of America’s history. Payne’s book is a welcome and much-needed addition to the shouting voices in the worship debate. In fact, this book very well may prove to be the “still small voice” that remains—long after the guitar amps have been powered down.