In the Beauty of Holiness*

*1997 scholarship essay

An increasing move is being made in our day to leave the traditional form of worship, which we know, for new, contemporary forms of worship. What are these trends? WHY are they present? Are they wrong? What does the Bible have to say on this subject? How are we to respond?

First of all, what are contemporary forms of worship? Essentially, contemporary worship is a form of worship that makes its appeal to the unchurched people who have little or no church background, or to young people who are bored with the traditional forms of worship. In an effort to draw in more people and/or to keep the old, many churches have begun to adjust their services in an effort to make them more appealing to these groups.

Having spent one year at Dordt College, I have seen this very plainly among the young people there. “Praise and Worship” services held in the chapel there on Sunday evenings became a church replacement for many of the students there. These “services” consisted solely of singing, primarily of shallow songs filled with emotion- based words and repetition. The audience spent the majority of the time clapping, waving their hands, swaying, or hugging “the friend next to them.”

Although a popular church replacement among students, those services were not officially labeled as such. Other Dordt students attended a newly revised actual church service in town to which   1/2 hour of praise and worship style music had recently been added.

Another example can be seen in Pella, Iowa. According to Rev. Mark Beach from the First Christian Reformed Church (CRC) there, a 5th CRC is organizing there with the deliberate intention of implementing a “contemporary worship style” in order to draw unchurched people to its services. He comments on that:

“You start to change things in your services. The non-religious haven’t much of a feel for the holiness of God, so you do away with silent prayer and expressions of our littleness. Secularists don’t like to confess their sins, so you remove the service of penitence. Without confession of sin, you hardly need the grace notes of assurance of pardon: out it goes. In general, you assume that the non-religious like things simple and upbeat. That’s where much of the popular culture is, after all, so away with lament, away with hard questions, expressions of anguish, dark ambiguities of any kind. While you’re at it, away with creeds and confessions, away with explicit references to Christian doctrine, or to the history of the Christian church.”

In essence what these churches are doing is trying to make church less religious to appeal to the less religious people. This of course is impossible. Making a church service non-religious is like making a basketball game non-athletic. The more it changes, the more it loses its original form.

In addition to the few examples I have given, there are many other variations of modern contemporary services. Many churches substitute “dialogue” for sermons, which can be either groups on stage discussing a topic, or else discussion between the minister and the congregation. Some churches substitute dramas for the entire service, so that “Go Down Moses,” for example, may replace a sermon on Exodus. Or we hear news about “Clowns for Christ” and their fantastic services for Christ.

The exact form of contemporary worship methods varies slightly from church to church, but all contemporary methods of “worship” have some basic characteristics.

First of all, the idea that the unbeliever needs a boost of therapeutic self-esteem is central. In other words, they believe that the unbeliever needs to be built up emotionally from church in order to enjoy it. Thus the “negative,” unpopular teachings of total depravity or our sinfulness are done away with. No mention is made of God’s holiness or justice, but only of His love, and how He can build up our lives and solve our problems. One who has attended such a service might say, “Now I understand what the Christian faith is all about: it’s not about repentance, or humbling one’s self before God—it’s got nothing to do with boring doctrines; it’s not about the hard, disciplined work of mortifying our old nature and learning to make God’s purposes our own. The Christian faith is mainly about celebration, fun, personal growth, and five ways to boost my self-esteem.”

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, they all express the attitude that man has the right to make up his own rules regarding worship. Not Scripture, not God, but man is the authority.

WHY are we seeing these trends? What reasons do people give for putting their innovations above God’s? Michael Horton, in his book, Putting Amazing Back into Grace, lists 6 reasons commonly given by advocates of contemporary worship styles. They are as follows:

1.  The Evangelistic Motivation: what is attractive to the unchurched?

2.  The Contemporary Argument: worship has to keep up with the times; the archaic turns people off.

3.  The Pragmatic Argument: we have to do what it takes to bring the people in and keep them there.

4. The Domestic Argument: children get little out of the conventional service, so let them have their own.

5.  The Emotional Argument: the services are dull! Do something to liven it up!

6.  The Ecumenical Motivation: people learn from each other.

Churches improve by sharing with other churches. The pulpit and pew both contribute. One person “up there” can’t do it all alone. One denomination can’t know it all. Old ways don’t have all the answers. Let’s share!

While these arguments may overlap, they clearly show the type of thinking which underlies the current contemporary church movement.

What must be our reaction to these attitudes? Quite plainly, we can do none other than to reject them wholeheartedly. The Bible alone must be our guide throughout this life. We must never pretend to be wiser than God by setting our own methods of worship based on what we think is best, or will draw the most people. The Heidelberg Catechism speaks concerning this in Lord’s Day 35,

“What doth God require in the 2nd Commandment? That we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded in His word.”

The Bible is plain on what is required for worship— the preaching of the Word. That must be the central part of our worship, not singing programs, lively clapping and arm-waving, emotion-centered personal growth messages, or any other form of “worship.”

I Corinthians 1:21 says, “It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” What kind of preaching? Of a buddy God who loves us all and will solve all of our problems if only we will allow Him? Verse 23 answers that question for us: “We preach Christ crucified.” The preaching of Christ crucified is the preaching of a just and holy God who hates and punishes sin. Christ’s death is the clearest example of His just hatred for, and punishment of, sin. As this passage says, to the world this is “foolishness.” “But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (vs. 27).

We can know that God does not tolerate worship which He has not commanded from a few examples given us in the Bible. The first case seen is God’s rejection of Cain’s offering. Since his offering was not what God had commanded, He had no tolerance for it. Likewise, the kingdom of Israel was torn by God from Saul because he offered the sacrifice without waiting for Samuel to do it as God had commanded.

Thus we can see, that contemporary forms of worship are wrong, first of all, because they pretend to be wiser than God who has chosen the preaching of Christ crucified to be the means of salvation.

Secondly, the contemporary forms of worship are wrong because of the view of God which they display. Man’s worship is determined by his understanding of God. Michael Horton says, “What we believe about God and salvation ultimately determines the object, focus, fervor, and direction of our worship.” Contemporary forms of worship show, through their worship, that they view God as a cream puff, or a big buddy, rather than a holy God. This is shown through their services where the focus is always on man and His welfare, rather than the great and holy God. Their worship reflects that they view God as kind and compassionate (which He certainly is), but also that He is harmless, morally insincere, and robbed of any holiness that matters. This is not the Biblical view of God which we must have. If we have the correct view of God, it will certainly become manifest in our worship to Him.

How will a proper attitude toward God become manifest in our worship to Him? John 4:24 speaks clearly concerning this: “God is a spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in Spirit and in truth.” We read in Psalm 29:2 to “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” That verse tells us what is beautiful in God’s eyes. He delights in holiness, and that is the mood He commands us to be in for worship. Psalm 95:6 records, “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our maker.” As we can see, the Bible repeatedly reveals God to us as a holy God whom we must worship with deep reverence and awe, not with the happy-go-lucky, care-free, man-centered attitude shown in the contemporary forms of worship which seek to appeal to man.

In another place in his book, Michael Horton asks the following questions:

“If Jesus Christ entered at the back of our church on Sunday morning, would we all clap our hands and dance and sing, ‘Happy days are here again’? Would we show Him our ‘God is rad, he’s my dad’ sweatshirt? Or would the room be suddenly filled with awe-stricken silence?”

The answer is obvious. Our worship must be reverent or it is not directed to the real God of the Scriptures. It must be obedient in every aspect if it is to have God’s blessing.

It is important, too, to remember that the Reformation has always stressed the principle that we are to include in worship services only what is COMMANDED by God. We may not include anything as long as the Scripture does not directly forbid it. Rather, we may include something only if God clearly introduced it. Only God has the authority to determine how He is to be worshipped.

We must not accept these new, contemporary forms of worship, but rather, let us “stand fast, and hold the traditions which we have been taught” (II Thess. 2:15). We must be sure also to teach these truths to our children so that when they are old they “will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). May our worship of God always be God-centered, based on what He commands in His Word, worshipping Him as holy God. May we always “serve God acceptably with reverence and Godly fear, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28, 29).


 Beach, Rev. Mark. The Outlook.

God—The Holy Bible (KJ Version) Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1975.

Gritters, Rev. Barry. Public Worship and the Reformed Faith. Byron Center: The Evangelism Society.

Horton, Michael. Putting Amazing Back into Grace. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996. ♦