Is Creativity Allowed in Presbyterian Worship?

September 27, 2014

Every fiber of my Reformed body cringed during my presbytery’s worship time two weeks ago, described in yesterday’s post. Among people who should have known better, what we did together was not worship. It certainly was an experience—I’ll grant you that—but because it dwelled on ourselves and our experience of our bodies and never even acknowledged God’s presence, it was nothing like what you would call Reformed Worship.

In the note I finally received yesterday from our executive presbyter, Jeff Hutcheson acknowledged that the service was “outside the box,” but shared his own spiritual experience through it as significant and deeply personal. I am glad for him. Perhaps he is unaware of the many filters and reinterpretations he put on elements of that service in order for him to identify it as “the presence and power of the Holy Spirit” and “Jesus’ words.” And he did not, nor can he, account for the completely opposite reading I got on what was happening. His experience and my experience…is that what this conversation is about?

No, it really isn’t. The challenging question is, When does “outside the box” go beyond the scope and acceptable limits of Reformed worship? Some took this service to be a brilliantly creative expression of faith. I took it to be outside the box not of style but of orthodoxy, a far more serious problem. Am I just a grumpy old woman who has no sense of fun, who takes worship way too seriously, and can’t imagine any church music outside of a hymnal? May it never be! Here is what I am saying:

I am not opposed to creativity, in fact I have been moved and my faith deepened by thoughtful, wonderful expressions in art, music, drama, dance, as well as the spoken word. Someone very gifted and spiritually motivated designed the flowers for Pentecost at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley a few years ago. I happened to be there because it was then-pastor Mark Labberton’s last Sunday before moving on to Fuller Seminary. The flowers were huge displays of gladiolus in fiery colors, depicting pots of flame. How can I forget the “music video” prepared for a conference: the music was the hymn “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” sung (by the congregation) while images of a potter fashioning a lump of clay into a beautiful vessel reached into our souls.

I am not opposed to worship through music, but it has its place. As a life-long professional musician who first started leading music during worship when I was twelve, I have seen, heard, and done just about everything in the musical realm for worship. But singing isn’t everything, and as Augustine said in his Confessions, “I fluctuate between peril of pleasure and approved wholesomeness; inclined rather to approve of the usage of singing in the church; that so by the delight of the ears, the weaker minds may rise to the feeling of devotion.  Yet when it befalls me to be more moved with the voice than the words sung, I confess to have sinned, and then would rather not hear music” (Confessions, XXXIII, 50). In other words, Augustine says, I love to sing in church, but as soon as I love my voice more than the content of what I am singing, it’s time to stop.

I am not opposed to enthusiasm and exuberance, or even, for that matter, body movement during worship. Gosh, I like most pastors would love to see the people show some life and belie the observation of non-church folks that we are “the frozen chosen.” The Scripture is full of references to clapping, dance, procession, and zeal for the Lord. However, as my preaching professor said in critique of an enthusiastic African American preacher in our class, “I have to press you for content.” And so we must. “Content” equals words read, sung, painted, danced, preached, and prayed. They must pass the theological test of orthodoxy and go for content that is consistent with our biblical and confessional heritage.

Let us not forget a few things inherent in the Reformed tradition of worship:

  1. God was here before we came to church and is glad we finally made it. There is no need to work up a spirit that would invite Jesus to join us. He’s already here, as host, and we are the ones responding.

  2. Because God was here first, God speaks first. This is why the Ministry of the Word is such an important part of a Presbyterian service. Priority is placed not only on reading the Word but expounding upon it for understanding and for transformation. We believe not only that the Scripture is the Word of God, but that the preaching of the Word is the Word of God (2nd Helvetic, BOC 5.004). Shocking, I know, but this is why it is not something to be proud of that “we don’t preach; we let people take away what they will . . . “

  3. Worship is a dialogue, requiring us to listen and to respond to God’s Word. This is why prayer is an indispensable part of worship in the Reformed Tradition. How rude it is to go for a self-gratifying experience when the One who has already spoken is waiting for us to address him in prayer? Can you imagine how the hosts who have invited us to dinner would feel if we came in the door, ignore them, and simply revel in the wonderful smells coming from the kitchen and the marvelous experience of moving about taking this hors d’oeuvre or that book off their shelf, and then sit to eat without conversation at their table?

Yes, there are more elements to Reformed Worship, such as prayers of intercession, a commissioning to service, and an offering (see Directory for Worship, W-2.000). Your pastor did not make it up that an offering is required (and the reason is that Christians do not come to the Table empty-handed, but rather bring a sign of our gratitude for having been invited.)

So, was Presbytery’s worship even worship? No, unless you considered it worship of self, in which case it was idolatrous worship. Was Presbytery’s worship Reformed? No, because it did not address God, proclaim God’s Word, intercede for others in prayer, or commission us for service. Was the sacrament administered faithfully? I have to say, No, because it was not proclaimed or placed in a context for its proper interpretation.

How can we heal from such a debacle? How can we “unlearn” the unchristian and unreformed aspects of this gathering? How can we protect the children who were present from the spiritual error they witnessed? How can we not repeat the same mistake? And what is a person like me to do, if and when I ever choose to join in presbytery worship again . . . I do not know. But I understand why people vow never to come back to worship at presbytery meetings.


4 Responses to “Is Creativity Allowed in Presbyterian Worship?”

  1. Jodie Says:

    All good points, Mary, but I have a question:

    Why is there a worship aspect to Presbytery meetings in the first place? Its a Church government meeting. Open with an invocation prayer, and end with benediction prayer. Have a time of community and relationship building. Perform the business of government and service in a way that enhances the conversational capacity of its members, balancing candor with curiosity, intelligence and wisdom with mutual respect and forbearing.

    Wouldn’t that in itself be an acceptable form of worship.

    • revmary Says:

      You raise an excellent question, Jodie…where *does* it say we have to have a worship service at Presbytery meetings?

  2. Jan Says:

    In the words of a contemporary worship song, “It’s all about you, Jesus.” It’s not about me or my entertainment, it’s about Him, the only one worthy of our praise and worship.

  3. Harry Slye Says:

    Dear Mary,

    Thank you so much for sharing your posts of yesterday and today. I am a retired member of New Covenant and I suspect we are not as diverse as San Francisco, but still there have been too many instances when something occurred in our worship or in our meeting that caught me by surprise and I did not or could not respond or speak up as it took place. As I realized what someone had just done or said, or what we all had been led blindly into, I became so disturbed. Sometimes we sit there wondering what is coming next or how this is playing out. I have tried in recent years to prepare myself for these off base and out of bounds moments in our gatherings so that I am able to speak up at the time. It is disturbing to interrupt and challenge something as it is happening. Everyone loves a smooth uncontested agenda. We are so divided in our denomination today that we all do our best to play nice with one another. But we have come a long way from doing things decently and in order.

    The worship “experience” at your last presbytery meeting was more than out of order. It was idolatrous worship as you stated and it was not out on the fringe of the presbytery at a “new worshiping community” but right in the heart of your presbytery’s theologically prepared and ordained leadership. The blind are once again leading the blind.

    Today’s post was very instructive. You do have the personal history of faith practice from which you can speak and should be heard. Thank you for sharing your word of correction far beyond your own presbytery.


    Harry Slye

    Katy, Texas

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