Another notable reformation of new covenant worship occurred with the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The gospel having been eclipsed by humanly devised doctrines and practices, the Reformers knew that the power was in the preaching of the gospel— not only in the sermon but in the entire service. The service, they recognized, was not primarily about human action but centered on divine action. God was not only central as an object of worship but also as a subject— an actor, who reconstitutes strangers and aliens as his own redeemed people each week.
As at Pentecost, the encounter with God was seen by the Reformers to occur only because God had descended— in the incarnation, obedience, death, and resurrection of Christ, and in the descent of the Spirit. The apostles did not program a “revival” but were led by the direct commands of the ascended Christ, who gave them not only salvation as a free gift but also the gift of being made witnesses to Christ.
The medieval church had accumulated many innovations in both doctrine and worship, and the average layperson knew little about the Scriptures. Worship services introduced morality plays, stirring music to excite a sense of mystery and majesty, and relied on images, “the ‘books’ for the unlearned,” as the saying went. The Heidelberg Catechism of the Reformed Churches thundered back, “No, we should not try to be wiser than God. He wants his people instructed by the living preaching of his Word— not by idols that cannot even talk.”[ 8] If the people were not up to speed in their biblical maturity, the answer was to get them up to speed, not to accommodate to a degenerating condition. Calvin called worship, as he called creation and redemption, “the marvelous theater” in which God descends to act before a watching world. As many writers have observed, this stands in contrast to much of worship today, whether it takes its cue from high culture or popular culture. It is that presence of the Spirit through his ordained means that makes the worship service a theater of grace in which Christ and all his benefits are communicated to those who were once “not a people”— living aimlessly without any definable plot to make sense of or give a sense of significance to their fragmented lives.
As our age, commonly labeled “postmodern,” furthers and even celebrates this fragmentation and the loss of any stabilizing identity, our response must be neither one of mindless conservatism nor an equally mindless accommodation. Scottish minister P. T. Forsyth issued the following warning just after the turn of the twentieth century:
“There are few dangers threatening the religious future more serious than the slow shallowing of the religious mind. . . . Our safety is in the deep. The lazy cry for simplicity is a great danger. It indicates a frame of mind which is only appalled at the great things of God, and a senility of faith which fears that which is high. Men complain that they are jaded and cannot rise to such matters. That may mean that the matters of the world absorb all the energies of the great side of the soul, that Divine things are no more than a comfort. And, if so, it means much for the future of religion, and much which is ominous. And the poverty of our worship amid its very refinements, its lack of solemnity . . . is the fatal index of the peril.[ 9]”
Part of this peril, of course, is due to a changing view of the church’s relationship to the world. It was once the conviction of most churches, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, that the church was a mother who cared for her children. Now, it is increasingly the case that churches across the denominational landscape regard themselves as department stores in a shopping mall that must sell a product to choice-obsessed consumers.