I’ve had many people ask why I left the church that I did for a PCA church. Usually the question comes out of confusion as to why someone would leave such a great place. I grew up there and grew in my faith in incredible ways, served as a student leader, on the worship team, and men’s ministry, and what made it the most difficult to leave were the people. And I mean it has everything we needed: a church program for every stage, great, well-produced music (of which I was a part 😉 ), dynamic speakers, small groups, large groups, it’s like a picture of the larger church in the world! And most of all, the Bible is upheld as the sole, infallible, highest source for truth and life practice, and they preach the gospel from it. So why leave?
Since there are so many aspects to why I left related to theology overall, that works itself out particularly in ecclesiology (church life and practice), over time, I’ve thought through that if I could sum it up to one topic it would be this: the means of grace. What do you believe are the means of grace that God uses to accomplish His purposes for feeding, protecting and growing His church? How do those means of grace bring Christ to the congregant? Summed up, the Reformed church says this: word, sacraments, and prayer. That’s it. And in our day and age, that’s very ordinary and to many dry and boring. But I believe it’s biblical and actually extremely refreshing and counter-cultural.
The larger mainstream evangelical church adds onto these means of grace all kinds of things that are trendy or entertaining or draws a large crowd as a part of the “means of grace,” maybe even downplays the sacraments aspect or relegates it to a mere symbol. Yet scripture is very careful to define out that those three things, word, sacraments and prayer, are the means by which God grows and nourishes His church, week in and week out. I wholeheartedly believe that if we add to these or take away from them is the degree to which we squelch the Spirit’s work to nourish and feed His people and even bring people to faith. Now I do believe the Lord can and does work in spite of us and what we implement.
Now here is where I want to be clear that this isn’t to say that God isn’t doing those things (I want to be careful). You could think of it (as I’m thinking of it) as a spectrum of light to darkness as opposed to a binary on/off paradigm. But if I could put one word on what the larger church is doing by adding to or taking away from these means of grace, it would be this: distracted. It’s just simply distracted from the goal. Entertainment, or borrowing from the entertainment industry in substantial ways for your services, whether it’s the music, theatrics or the preacher, even if it draws a crowd, hinders the work of the church in feeding, protecting and shepherding a congregation. And again, depending on how a church does this, it’s on a spectrum. Some churches aren’t that bad, some are so distracting that I can’t see how anyone is being fed (not saying that the Spirit isn’t at work, but Biblically, from my vantage point, I don’t see it).
It’s the proper use of these ordinary means of grace where God does a work that is imperceptible in our lives (that is we may not “feel” anything), but through which we “catch the wind of the Spirit in our sails” (Wilbourne, paraphrase from Union with Christ). Or put another way, we “get in the way of the Spirit’s work.” To the degree church leaders enact this vision in their congregations, and to the degree those participating in the service properly ordered attend to these means by faith, is the degree to which God’s people flourish. This is precisely why the Presbyterian church (and other denominations like Anglican, Lutheran and even Catholic, though there are certainly large scruples I have with the latter) orders it’s services the way they do, in a particular liturgy. All churches have a liturgy. The question is does it meet the ends of fulfilling the means of grace, and to what degree? The liturgy of Trinity Presbyterian Church goes like this:
- The Call to Worship
- Hymn of Praise
- Opening Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer
- Confession of Sin (Corporate and Private)
- Assurance of Forgiveness
- Hymn of Response
- The Confession (Apostle’s Creed or Heidelberg Catechism)
- Sacrament of Baptism (if there is one)
- The Offering
- The Prayers of the People (Elder-led)
- The Reading of the Word
- The Preaching of the Word
- The Celebration of Holy Communion
- Hymns for Communion
- Departing Hymn
- The Benediction
- The Sending
There is a progression in our liturgy every week that walks the congregation through the gospel. Other believers will sometimes dog on Presbyterian or other high church type services as being stoic and sterile, with no life or exuberance. I believe the opposite is true. It is this belief that God’s Spirit is really and truly at work in the means of grace properly attended to where God is at work in changing lives. Again, that does not mean the Spirit isn’t at work in other churches who don’t “do it like we do”. Of course I believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic church! The question is what has been worked through as a biblical view of what that order of a service should be? And to what degree has the larger evangelical church in America become distracted by so many captivating means and modes of worship?