“True religion is to have fellowship with the living God. That fellowship is richly enjoyed together 'with all the saints.' And the goal of all worship services must be to let the assembled congregation taste that fellowship with their God.”1
When Abraham Kuyper offers guidance in the early 20th century to the Dutch Reformed churches in Onze Eredienst, he addresses a specific subset of biblical worship, the Sunday morning gathering of God's people. He speaks of unrest in the churches and irregularities in worship, hoping that a period of calm will lead to reflective renewal. He offers his work to that end, a preaching pastor seeking to apply theology to local worship. Kuyper has influenced the Reformed tradition in many areas, and here as well he serves as a positive example.
Kuyper never offers a definition of worship,2 though I think he would agree in essence with the definition I developed in a previous blog: biblical worship is the celebration of God as Creator and Redeemer. I argued that God is grammatically the object of worship and Scripture will suffer nothing else to be worshiped alongside, before, or in place of God. This worship surrounds God in heaven, led by the angels and the redeemed in glory, and is joined by the redeemed on earth, with creation adding its voice after its own
fashion. It is the first of the Ten Commandments, a constant issue given the sinful bent of humanity toward idolatry, and one of the simplest distinguishing marks of a child of God – they are worshipers of the God of Israel.
God is not worshiped abstractly, but as he has revealed himself as Creator and Redeemer. His acts of creation (the formation and governance of all things) join his acts of redemption (judgment and salvation) to fill out the “story” of God that is celebrated in worship. The center of this history is Jesus Christ, through whom the Triune nature of the Deity is fully revealed. Scripture records, clarifies, and properly accents the essentials of this revelation for the salvation of fallen humanity.
This worship is celebration. God desires joyous fellowship with his people; they in turn respond joyously to their covenant God. This response moves from solemn reverence to exuberance, and includes such acts as blessing, sacrifice, petition, dancing, and song. Sin and suffering offer challenges to joy, and worship provides a path back to celebration through lament. A yearly calendar of festivals, augmenting daily and weekly worship, gives rhythm and shape to the celebration of God, touching his relationship to his people as Creator and Redeemer. This worship extends to the whole of life, as God's people offer themselves to him as living sacrifices. The new covenant stamps this worship with a Trinitarian form, rooting celebration in Christ Jesus.
Again, I believe this definition is one Kuyper would support. One sees this already in his analysis of the pressures on worship in the Netherlands.3 Personal piety and an introspective concern for true faith had put the focus on the individual. This combined with Reformed and Enlightenment stresses on knowledge and understanding to create a sense of worship as an audience listening to teaching for personal examination and enrichment. Added to the mix was the largely negative trend to incorporate in worship musical and oratory “performances” by talented worship leaders, leaving impoverished, liturgically chaotic worship services that catered to individual preferences.4
Kuyper's response was to stress weekly worship as a communal enjoyment of God's presence among his people, defined carefully through Scripture in light of historic Christianity. The celebration begins as people arrive for worship. He disliked the prevailing practice in which congregants took their seats as quietly as mouses, refrained at all costs from talking to neighbors, took offense at those who did, read the Bible or Psalter to pass time, and waited in reverent expectation to hear the “thunderous” voice of God. He found this a misguided Lutheran conception of worship, and would rather have people arrive in joyous expectation of worship, the happy gathering of God's family. People should embrace one another, chat and talk, mingle, laugh, and be a little raucous as siblings in Christ. When the time arrives for the beginning of worship proper, this tone of joyous communal celebration will merge with the stately entrance of the church officers to create a wholesome atmosphere of praise.5
This family focus is why Kuyper discourages clerical vestments. The priesthood of believers makes worship the work of all the saints, of equally-valued siblings in Christ. One saint should not dress differently from another. He is tolerant of those pastors who have worn vestments all their lives and feel uncomfortable wearing common clothes. But he recommends, especially for those beginning ministry, that they dress fashionably without accent or flare, so that a visitor cannot pick them out by their dress. Worship is a communal celebration, not the performance of one or a few.6
He recommends multiple leaders in worship to this end. Kuyper singled out the gospel singer Ira Sankey as a particularly negative influence, introducing a “performance” aspect to worship that was unhealthy in its influence over pastors, musicians, and churches. As leaders attempted to create more affecting performances, many congregants began choosing their place of worship according to the quality of the singers and preachers, creating pressure for churches to offer better performances and more polished leaders to attract more congregants. Worship became less a celebration of God and more an enjoyment of talented individuals.7 Multiple leaders, provided they are humble and gifted, can keep the focus off such individuals and on God, the proper object of worship.8
Kuyper reflects at length on the use of a votum and benediction to open worship as a celebration of God.9 The saints have been summoned to assemble in God's presence, their Creator and covenant Redeemer. This is an awesome and potentially fearful event, a unique public assembly. A heartfelt, ritual acknowledgment of God's gracious presence marks the start of this sacred time and calls God's family to order. The subsequent benediction, unhurried and regular, assures the assembly that this is a joyous occasion, allowing it to settle into worship in an enjoyable peace with God.
This does not exclude the realities of sin, suffering, and judgment. Kuyper observes that when a congregation grasps that it gathers in the presence of holy God, it will need time to lament its sin and brokenness. Confession and Absolution allow the saints to lament sinfulness, hear the gracious forgiveness of God in Christ, and respond in joy.10 A robust recital of the Apostles' Creed roots this thanksgiving in the historic Christian faith, centered in the Triune God. Kuyper follows Reformed tradition in placing this early in the order of worship so that the saints hear the reading and preaching of the Word in a state of gratitude. Again, for him, the resting point of worship is enjoyment, what I have termed celebration, centered on the redeeming acts of the Triune God, our Creator.
Conversely, when worship leaders rush or omit the votum and benediction, the need for lament over sin disappears. Kuyper once more finds the culprit in the pressure to entertain congregants. Instead of calling the saints to proper worship by reminding them that they stand in the presence of the Almighty and that peace comes from him alone, leaders can be tempted to rush over these traditional parts of the liturgy to get to the more “entertaining” stuff. If there are non-believers present, the missional opportunity is missed to warn them that without repentance there is no forgiveness and joyous fellowship with God. The result is an impoverished worship that can fail to define God properly, allow the celebration of the assembled saints to deteriorate into the pleasures of performances, and give space for the idolatries of modernity.11
Again, after the confession and Creed, the congregation is ready to hear the Word in a state of peaceful thanksgiving. Kuyper addresses preaching at length, a profitable but predictable discussion that I will pass over to look rather at his views on the reading of Scripture. It was a practice in the Dutch churches, as people gathered, to keep them quiet and occupied by having the Scriptures read until the pastor and church officers entered to start worship. If the minister delayed and the reader concluded the lessons, announcements could follow to kill more time before worship.
Kuyper found this a wonderful practice horribly misplaced in the order of worship. It denigrated Scripture to use it as time-killing “filler” before worship. Yet Scripture should be read, and read by skillful readers, in keeping with the instructions of Paul and the ancient practice of the church.12 Kuyper recommended these readings be moved before the sermon, as acts of worship equal in authority with the sermon. In fact, since Scripture is infallible and the words of a preacher are not, these lessons should be of primary importance in the service of the Word. He offers a few lectionary suggestions, leaving the choice of readings up to the local church. But he maintains that the reading of Scripture in worship, beyond the sermon text, would expand the knowledge of God among his people and empower their response of joyful, loving obedience.13
The Eucharist presented a challenge for Kuyper. He recognized the presence of Christ in the elements and saw Communion as the pinnacle of a service, even embracing in his earlier writings Calvin's desire to celebrate weekly.14 He was not dogmatic on the method of distribution, noting the Anglican practice of coming forward to receive the elements and the practice of the French Reformed, among others, of having elders and deacons distribute the elements to the congregation. Yet he loved the old Reformed practice of sitting around large tables and celebrating as the family of God. He felt this caught the biblical accent on enjoyable fellowship with each other and with Christ at his table.
This created logistical problems in Dutch churches that averaged anywhere from 200 to 600 congregants. Large tables and chairs needed to be stored somewhere: they could be kept in the chancels of older buildings, and they could be accommodated by the removal of the first few pews in more modern buildings.15 But time was the more difficult issue. If a congregation was divided into six groups, with each group taking ten minutes to partake, a Sunday service became nearly three hours in length with formulary and song. People were already leaving early when Communion was served – ten minutes around a table involved fifty minutes of down time for each congregant, and some thought the inconvenience outweighed the benefit. Weekly celebration was utterly impractical.
Kuyper did offer a solution. Communion could be celebrated four to six times a year. The liturgy should not be abbreviated nor the ceremony rushed – the Lord's Supper is on equal footing with the Word in worship, proclaiming the death of Christ and serving as a sign and seal of God's grace and our fellowship in Christ. Rather, as Communion is set aside for preaching on other Sundays, the sermon could be set aside when Communion is celebrated to keep the service at a workable length.16 This solution never gained traction, but it does bear witness to Kuyper's concern that communal worship be celebratory, and that it focus in Word and in Eucharist on the redeeming acts of God the Creator.17
The end of the service should mirror the opening. The congregation, having heard the Word of God, listens to the Ten Commandments as the gifts of God to his people, as guides to joyous fellowship with Christ in daily life.18 Pastoral prayer follows, where those individual and public aspects of life that challenge our faith and joy – the laments of the congregation – are mingled with thanksgivings for God's provision. This prayer releases the congregation to sing the praises of God in a closing hymn. The final benediction assures the church of God's abiding presence and sends it out in joy to serve God.19 Kuyper's concern is that worship starts and ends in joy, and that the elements of worship guide the congregation through prayerful lament to authentic fellowship in Christ.
It is interesting how these concerns are played out in Kuyper's comments on architecture and the use of worship space. While he is adamant that building space is of secondary importance and that the assembled saints are the living temple of God,20 he does recognize the affect a building has on worship. All should hear and see clearly, since understanding leads to joyful response. Worship leaders should be positioned in central locations, and the baptismal font and Lord's Table should be displayed as permanent signs of God's grace.21 There should be a fitting elegance to the building's décor – he berates several churches for running offensive stove pipes through the middle of their sanctuaries. Sacred space should reflect the inner beauty of the assembled saints celebrating their covenant God.22
While Kuyper affirms the traditional Reformed prohibition against paintings and sculptures, he devotes most of his thoughts to the temptation of turning the church into a performance hall. This is tricky given his concern for worship leaders to be seen and heard, but the baptismal font and the Lord's Table can focus attention beyond the pastor onto the gracious presence of God. Also helpful is the Reformed tradition of having the church officers join the pastor in facing the congregation: a bank of church officers surrounding the pastor will reinforce the collegial nature of church leadership and the communal nature of Sunday worship.23 He further recommends keeping churches smaller in size through a parish system: it is nearly impossible for extremely large churches – he references Charles Spurgeon's Metropolitan Tabernacle in London – to keep worship from deteriorating into a “mass meeting” in a large theater, prone to the cult of the preacher.24 As much as possible, the building should reinforce worship as the assembly of the saints.
Much more can be written, but hopefully enough has been to demonstrate my appreciation for Kuyper. His desire for authentic worship rooted in biblical theology is admirable. So also is his careful, intentional approach to each element of the service. His elevation of the reading of Scripture alongside preaching allows for rich content in worship. I do not share his aversion to painting and sculpture, but I cannot help but respect the sincerity of his convictions. Perhaps most refreshing is his insistence that worship be the happy exercise of God's covenant people, enjoying the presence of their Lord.
1Abraham Kuyper, Our Worship, ed. Harry Boonstra, First Edition edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 15. This is the closest he comes to an actual definition of biblical worship.
2Kuyper assumes a lot of his readers, including the authority of Scripture, a knowledge of Reformed theology, and a willingness to dialogue respectfully with the major liturgical traditions of Christianity. Further, though he never speaks of the fourfold order of worship, his thoughts divide easily into the categories of Gathering, Word, Eucharist, and Sending.
3Similar pressures could be seen at work in the American Reformed tradition. See John D. Witvliet, Worship Seeking Understanding: Windows into Christian Practice (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2003), 163–178.
4There is a close theological connection between Kuyper's concerns at the turn of the 20th century and Robert Webber's concerns over narcissistic worship at the turn of the 21st century. See “Robert E. Webber: God: The Object or Subject of Worship?,” The Institute For Worship Studies, accessed February 16, 2015, http://iws.edu/2005/09/robert-webber-god-object-or-subject/.
5Abraham Kuyper, Our Worship, 98–101.
7Ibid., 123. Kuyper states the problem was most pronounced in America.
8Ibid., 103–104. Kuyper thinks church officers are best suited to this, and adds the side benefit that multiple worship leaders will allow the pastor to focus on his primary duties of Word and Sacrament.
10This is the pattern of the Psalms, in which prayer provides a means to move through lament to celebration.
11Ibid., 136–158. Kuyper uses this occasion to discuss the use of the body in worship. His repertoire of movements is small – sitting, standing, and kneeling – but he acknowledges that actions can be powerful. Besides, he complains that the tradition of always standing in prayer can be tiresome and kneeling can relieve the monotony.
121 Timothy 4:13.
13Abraham Kuyper, Our Worship, 84–86.
14See James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2013), 189.
15Kuyper, Our Worship, 76–77.
17Kuyper's resolve to hold Communion in its rightful place alongside preaching is admirable. See the discussion of the modern preaching service in James F. White, A Brief History of Christian Worship, First edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 159–161.
18Ibid., 135. Thus, the Law becomes the “application” of the sermon to the life of the church. Calvin has the same conviction, though he places the Law after absolution as our response to grace. See his Strasburg liturgy in William D. Maxwell, An Outline of Christian Worship: Its Development and Forms (Oxford University Press, 1952), 112-120.
19Kuyper, Our Worship, 209–211.
20Ibid., 10. He speaks eloquently of distant and near past in which the church worshiped in homes and open fields.
21This is not easy in ancient buildings designed for the medieval mass, and he offers some creative solutions. Ibid., 76–79.
23Ibid., 87–89. This is the only division Kuyper recommends in the seating of the church, and he is quite against this being a division between chancel and nave. Having said that, he does recommend that families sit together, primarily to control their children, and he recognizes that expediency dictates special seating for dignitaries and the impaired.
24Ibid., 70. It is not hard to postulate what his thoughts would be on the layout of the modern megachurch.