On the Worship Issue in the PCA: It Was All Over Before Terry Johnson Entered the PCA

Sorry, Terry, but the worship issue was over before you ever entered the PCA.

If the guide is what is “best,” then worship becomes a matter of preference. Why must we choose what is best and by what criteria are we to judge it? If I don’t care for The Metropolitan Opera, why not allow me my preference for the Grand Old Opry? Isn’t that’s what best for me? There is no functioning so-called “Regulative Principle of Worship” in the PCA.

 

Terry Johnson, Senior Minister of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA, is a really, really good guy. I have worshiped at Independent and experienced the worship he describes in his book which I commend to every Presbyterian minister, Leading in Worship.

Sunday Dr. Johnson had a piece, Worship in the PCA in 2017, published at The Aquila Report, in which he laments the worship he experienced at the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) General Assembly in June.  He laments the loss of what he believes once was Presbyterian worship in the PCA:

When I joined the PCA nearly 40 years ago, I did so for two reasons: theology, particularly the doctrines of grace; and worship, that is, the word-filled, God-centered, gospel-driven, emotionally disciplined and reverential worship of the Reformed church. I was fleeing the revivalistic Baptist services of my childhood and the charismatic/Pentecostal influences encountered in college and seminary.

Back in 1980, in 1985, in 1990, and perhaps even in 2000, the preceding sentences describing worship would have been widely understood in the denomination. We enjoyed considerable consensus throughout those years, rooted in nearly 500 years of Reformed practice, from Calvin’s Form of Church Prayers, to the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for the Public Worship of God to the more free-form but weighty Presbyterian worship of the 18th and 19th centuries. Up to nearly the end of the 20th century our services featured substantial Bible reading, expository preaching, a full-diet of biblical prayer, the singing of biblically-rich praises, and the regular administration of the sacraments.

He laments the loss of the Presbyterian ethos of restrained emotion:

… The worship culture of Presbyterianism has included quiet reverence and emotional restraint, even among those not temperamentally given to such restraint… Emotional discipline was thought to be important, an excess of sorrow and exuberance to be avoided. Why? So that one’s focus on the word, sacraments, and prayer might be undistracted by one’s overwrought passions. It was understood that those overcome by either extreme of emotion would struggle to redirect their attention to the word read, preached, prayed and seen… A quiet solemnity has characterized Puritan and Reformed worship (Eccl 5:1; Hab 2:20). Emotions are powerfully moved, but they run deep, below the surface. We have sought to worship God with the “reverence and awe” that is, with a disposition that is compatible with bowing and kneeling, whatever our posture happens to be (Heb 12:28; Ps 95:6). It was this consciously cultivated atmosphere of disciplined reverence that many of us found deeply satisfying, and more importantly, biblically balanced and sound. It was for this that many of us became Presbyterians.

He believes that novelty in worship has overcome the old forms and ethos:

The worship services at General Assembly were quite different from what I am describing. They were novel, unlike the culture and practice of Reformed church across the centuries and across the continents. They were also quite unlike anything practiced in 95-99% of our churches today, though not unlike General Assemblies of recent years. I found the addition of contemporary forms, plus those forms that mirrored the entertainment industry, plus forms borrowed from charismatic and Pentecostal churches, unsettling. It is clear that those who over these years have sought to remake the worship culture of the PCA to a significant degree have succeeded.

What did he experience in 2017:

I would describe the services as contemporary with a dash of Pentecostalism minus tongues. The choirs’ performances, the gestures of those leading (arms thrust skyward, hands clapping overhead, hands waving back and forth, one leader literally jumping up and down), up-front leadership of three women, non-traditional instrumentation (drums, tambourines featured prominently), plus choir-dominated and leader-dominated congregational singing, were all outside the norms of Presbyterian practice over the past 400-500 years. 

He does not object to the worship on grounds of principle:

I am not now attempting to engage in biblical argumentation. I’m not saying that anything that was done was wrong or invalid per se. There are many ways to worship God. What separates various Christian groups is their disagreement as to what is the best way to worship. Hence we divide into charismatic, high-church, free-church, and countless variations on those themes. All may be valid. All may be sincere and earnest in their forms of preaching, prayer and praise, etc. 

He argues rather on the grounds of what is best:

Yet only one can be best. We all choose to do what we think is best and alter our services when we think we can do better. What I am saying is that the services were foreign to what our tradition has considered best, and to the regular practice of the vast majority of our churches today. Yes, there was a superficial resemblance to the tradition: old words joined to new tunes on occasion; also, several souped-up versions of traditional hymns were sung. Scripture was read, the word was preached, the sacrament were administered, prayers were offered. However, the overall impact was overwhelmingly novel, from the prelude all the way to the end, when we were instructed to hold out our hands to receive the benediction. 

How might all of this liturgical chaos at PCA General Assemblies and in the churches been prevented?

I wish that 40 years ago when I joined the PCA that the denomination’s elder statesmen had raised their voices warning those of us who came into Presbyterianism from other traditions, be they Baptist (as in my case), Lutheran, Anglican, or Pentecostal, that it was not for us to remake the church in accord with our own background and preferences…. I might also have tried to import the altar calls and gospel songs of my childhood and youth. I wish that we all had been counseled to respect the regulated worship culture of international Calvinism and conform to it for at least a decade or two, so that we might learn to love its distinctive strengths. Too many of us thought we knew better and, as a result, all these years later we are drowning in the liturgical chaos we call the PCA. 

Not surprising, Terry Johnson’s piece got a response, Your Preferences Aren’t the Point of Worship by Sam DeSocio whose background is the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA), a strict regulative principle-Psalm-singing without instruments denomination. Mr. DeSocio contends that he still believes in the Regulative Principle of Worship, but he believes the RPW is meant to protect freedom in worship (picture the Westminster divines turning over in their graves) not constrain it:

What makes me so frustrated is that the RPW is meant to protect our gathering from the opinions and preferences of individuals, especially those who might suggest that worship is somehow defective because that person didn’t like it. But when Dr. Johnson takes to a public platform and when this platform is named for another elder in the PCA, we are in a situation where a few are attempting to burden the church’s worship with their opinions.

What to say?

First, I cannot allow to go unchallenged a mistake made by Mr. DeSocio, who quotes C.S. Lewis to support his view that Terry Johnson is just an “old fogey” who can be dismissed because of his cultural preferences for the old rather than the new. DeSocio writes:

Dr. Johnson is free to have these opinions, he is free to share them, but I am upset at the idea of PCA minister publicly belittling any worship service based on nothing more than cultural preferences, or what C.S. Lewis might have called “Chronological Snobbery”. 

The truth is that C.S. Lewis offers support to Mr. Johnson, not Mr. DeSocio. Lewis protested not the triumph of the old over the new but the triumph of the new over the old. In other words, in Lewis’ view the burden of proof is borne by Sam DeSocio, not Terry Johnson.

…”chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them. 

Second, had Mr. Johnson had his wish that the “elder statesman” would have instructed those coming into the PCA 40 years ago, it would not have prevented what is occurring in the PCA. Why? Because many of the “elder statesmen” had been affected by Second Great Awakening revivalism. More than 40 years ago William Hill was writing Reformed Seminary graduates to determine whether they gave invitations in their worship services. More than 40 years ago many of the hymn “favorites” were not Psalms and historic hymns of faith but gospel songs. Nearly, if not more than 40 years ago, at the Pensacola Theological Institute  Dr. Robert Strong gave in “invitation” to spite Al Martin who was also on the faculty that year and expositing the Parable of the Sower. The “fathers” could never have agreed to instruct those coming into the PCA in a common form of worship.

Third, the PCA gave the worship store away at the third General Assembly (1975) held at First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, MS. On Thursday, September 11, 1975, the Assembly adopted the following:

Temporary Statement to preface the Directory for Worship: The Directory for Worship is an approved guide and should be taken seriously as the mind of the Church agreeable to the Standards. However, it does not have the force of law and is not to be considered obligatory in all its parts. 

What was to be temporary became forever temporary, and the Prefatory Statement of the Directory for Worship now reads:

Temporary statement adopted by the Third General Assembly to preface the Directory for Worship: The Directory for Worship is an approved guide and should be taken seriously as the mind of the Church agreeable to the Standards. However, it does not have the force of law and is not to be considered obligatory in all its parts. BCO 56, 57 and 58 have been given full constitutional authority by the Eleventh General Assembly after being submitted to the Presbyteries and receiving the necessary two-thirds (2/3) approval of the Presbyteries. 

With the exception of chapters 56 (The Administration of Baptism), 57 (The Admission of Persons to Sealing Ordinances), and 58 (The Administration of the Lord’s Supper), the PCA churches have no Directory for Worship. Every minister, session, and church is left free to do what is right in their own eyes, and that has been the case for more than 40 years.  There is no accepted authority in worship to which Terry Johnson or others may appeal. Ministers such as Mr. DeSocio can do as they please, assuming the support of their sessions and congregations, with no fear of accountability to their presbyteries on the basis of the Directory for Worship.

Likewise, Mr. Johnson gave away his store when he wrote:

I’m not saying that anything that was done was wrong or invalid per se. There are many ways to worship God. 

If the guide is what is “best,” then worship becomes a matter of preference. Why must we choose what is best and by what criteria are we to judge it? If I don’t care for The Metropolitan Opera, why not allow me my preference for the Grand Old Opry? Isn’t that’s what best for me?

Fourth, there is no functioning so-called “Regulative Principle of Worship” in the PCA. Maybe in the RPCNA, maybe in the OPC, but not the PCA. In one of the strictest Presbyteries in the PCA, Mississippi Valley, all who enter affirm the RPW but there is no uniformity of worship.

Fifth, this is one reason I am happy to be an Anglican who worships according to The Book of Common Prayer. If it’s a matter of preference, I much prefer directed worship to regulated worship that regulates nothing.

Terry, I am sorry, but the worship issue was over before you ever entered the PCA.

Bill Smith is a minister in the Reformed Episcopal Church. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.

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