Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Of Seventh, Shadyside and Sovereign Grace (Scripture Saturation)

Okay, all those s's are cool.  I didn't plan it that way, honest!

I'm thinking on how the church worships.  My contention is:  a mature Christian ought to be able to worship anywhere, in any style, as long as the content of worship is within Biblical bounds.  I can understand why a Christian may have difficulty worshiping in the presence of mimes, for instance (I have preached in a service like that once), but within Biblical parameters and elements, style, for the mature Christian, must become decidedly secondary.

I will lay my cards on the table.  My personal preference is decidedly high Presbyterian --almost Episcoterian.  That is my preference.  I would never make an attempt to foist it on a congregation.  But, I highlight the three above experiences because they are places where I have felt I have truly worshiped --have felt most like the worship of heaven brought down to earth to me.  Part of the reason was the utter seriousness with which the worshipers undertook their task --people were invested in worshiping   Part of the reason is that each was, in its own way, Scripture saturated.  Other than that, the worship could not have been more different.

Let's start our tour with venerable old Seventh Reformed, snuggled on West Leonard Street in the old West Side of Grand Rapids Michigan, in 1996, when I arrived there as a newly-married intern.  I have never seen a church before or since that worshiped as reverently and fervently as that church.  It is the only church I have ever seen that filled its pews in both the morning and the evening.  The congregation sang four selections in the morning and six at night (counting a song-service).  Each service was at least 75 minutes long, or longer.  The sermons of my pastor and boss, J. R. de Witt were long, animated, and arresting.  Those people, drawn from across the conservative Dutch spectrum, chafed at one another in meetings, but in worship they were united.  And they sang.  They sang whatever they were given to sing.  And, they sang it well.  They sang out of the old blue Trinity Hymnal.  They heard the Law read every Sunday.  They had a creed every Sunday, and the Lord's Prayer, every Sunday (these elements divided between morning and evening).  The pastor preached regularly through the Heidelberg catechism.  The liturgy had "sursum corda's" and "salutations."  The communion and baptismal liturgies were ancient, long and thorough --the less-familiar work of the Synod of Dordt.  And my soul was lifted to heaven there like no other place.  I don't think it could be replicated even if we tried.  It was formal and long, and we loved every single minute of it.

Now let's go for a moment to steel-wealthy Pittsburgh --where the blast furnaces filled the pocketbooks of industrial titans who built churches like those seen nowhere else (East Liberty Presbyterian is probably the grandest).  Amid the old affluent Shadyside neighborhood sits the Presbyterian church of the same name.

Shadyside has a notable past.  Its famous pastor, Hugh Kerr, initiated World Communion Sunday there in 1934.  It was the first church to broadcast its services on the first radio station in the US, KDKA Pittsburgh. The broadcast was heard by Peary's company at the South Pole.  That's history.

Today, Shadyside would be pegged as an establishment PCUSA church --not notably liberal, and the gospel is still propounded by its pastor M. Craig Barnes.  The worship is about as "high" as one can get and still be Presbyterian.  And, yet, the service is saturated with Scripture.  There are responses and voluntaries and introits.  And, it is filled with Scripture the way many far more conservative churches aren't.  It doesn't hurt that they have a monstrous Reuter organ (pipe organ aficionado that I am).  What I notice, however, is the reverence, and the Scripture, and the song.  I felt lifted to Heaven --as Calvin, after Scripture, says the believer is when he communes with his God.

Then there is Sovereign Grace.  I can hear the old Sesame Street song --one of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn't belong.  Not so!  I had the privilege of attending a Sovereign Grace conference in Baltimore with a SGM pastor friend.  Bob Kauflin is the worship leader.  They are charismatic.  This is evident from how they worship.  There are hands raised and even a bit of jumping and shouting, though nothing "wild."  There are some "prophecies" given (all vetted by elders, and all edification).  But the songs --the songs are filled with Scripture.  Old hymns and new songs, deep and thoughtful and reverent and joyous.  Again, I felt lifted to Heaven.

For the mature Christian, worship must transcend preference.  The mature Christian may have preferences, but he can commune with his God among other believers of all sorts of different styles.  The thread that binds the three churches above is Scripture saturation.  Oh, that such would be true of all our churches.