The PCA is a land of liturgical anarchy driven by a Trotyskesque philosophy of perpetual liturgical revolution and accelerated by the rapid mutations of popular culture to which it is pegged and with which our ecclesiastical trendsetters feel duty-bound to keep pace.
One summer when our children were young our family was doing our usual summer ritual of attending out-of-town PCA churches. Frankly, our children rarely enjoyed these visits to unfamiliar places filled with unfamiliar people doing unfamiliar things. One particularly unfamiliar moment featured a female soloist – not quite sequined but trending in that direction – making quite a production of herself all the while wearing a countenance of utmost earnestness. One of my children turned to me and asked, “Dad, should she be doing that?” Not a bad question for an 8-year-old. Stuffy Presbyterian churches like ours don’t place soloists on stages, up front, mic in hand, dressed-to-the-nines. The sight was jarring to his tender eyes. “Should she be doing that?”
I want to ask that question of the PCA. I used to write an annual review of the worship services at the General Assembly for the PCA News. Typically I found a lot to be unhappy about. Then one year the powers-that-be decided not to post those articles any more. I don’t know why. It was never explained. Behind my series of articles was the same question asked by my 8-year-old: should we be doing that? Or, why are we doing that? Our family continues to travel during the summer. We continue to attend PCA churches.
Occasionally we enjoy our visits. Yet we continue to be surprised – or shall I say dismayed – by the liturgical chaos of the PCA. You’d think we’d learn. One memorable Sunday we sang the refrain, “I’ll exalt You, I’ll exalt You, I’ll exalt You, O Lord” at least a dozen times. We tried the PCUSA the next week. Nice service, except for all the ladies leading. We’ve contemplated attending an Episcopal church on occasion. Instead we dutifully return to the PCA, only to have our hopes dashed again and again.
Here’s my basic observation: the PCA is first and foremost a land of liturgical mediocrity. It is Vanillaville; a jar of mayonnaise. Some of us are doing the praise band thing, but not nearly so well as the mega-churches. Others are doing the high-church thing, but without the historic continuity and liturgical excellence of the Anglicans. Others are looking an awful lot like charismatics, but without the uninhibited exuberance of neo-pentecostalism. Still others are blending in a bit of this and a bit of that, but without the creativity of the Emergents.
Blending seems to be the predominant mode, which all but guarantees that no two of our churches will look alike. Most of us are oafishly aping traditions whose strengths we are incompetent to duplicate. While aiming to look like the latest everything that’s hip our mediocrity guarantees that we look like nothing that is excellent, distinctive, or worthwhile. Is it any wonder that we languish?
Here’s my question: Why? Why look for models everywhere but Geneva and Westminster? Why is so little respect shown for the liturgical traditions of Reformed Protestantism? Is it just a matter of ignorance? We are not anabaptists, the charismatics of the Reformation era. We’re not Episcopalians. We’re not historically rootless Emergents. Why, then, are so many of us, on the one hand, adopting the introductory 20-minute song set, the raised hands, the closed eyes, the gentle swaying, the emotionalism of the neo-pentecostalism; and on the other hand, dolling up the service by expanding the number of congregational responses (e.g. sanctus, gloria, sursum corda, etc.) removed by Reformed Protestants nearly 500 years ago?
Does anyone out there in PCA land still do the regular Reformed thing of reading the word, preaching the word, singing the word, praying the word, and administering the visible word? Does anyone still feature lectio continua reading and preaching, a “full diet” of free prayer, biblical psalmody and hymnody, and the covenantal administration of the sacraments?
I’ve not yet raised the question of preaching, our strong-suit, right? Why has so much of it deteriorated into topical sermons addressing felt needs? As for the sacraments, lots of the cool, hipster-led churches are having their members come forward for communion and even kneeling (!) to receive communion. Didn’t we settle that one about 450 years ago? Speaking of which, intinction? Really? What are we doing, and why?
The PCA is a land of liturgical anarchy driven by a Trotyskesque philosophy of perpetual liturgical revolution and accelerated by the rapid mutations of popular culture to which
it is pegged and with which our ecclesiastical trendsetters feel duty-bound to keep pace. Stir that witches’ brew in a broth of a “Saddleback Sam” philosophy of ministry (minister to a type of person, meet his style-preferences, and ignore all the rest), seasoned with theological and liturgical ignorance of the Reformed liturgical heritage, and you have all you need to know to explain our family’s out-of-town summers, Vacation-land PCA, liturgical vanilla, Mayonnaise from Marthasville.
Terry Johnson is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and is serving as Senior Minister at Independent Presbyterian church (IND) in Savannah, Georgia