If you were to tell me 10 years ago that I would be a member of a Presbyterian church and love it, I would have told you that you were nuts. Especially back in my Charismatic days, I drew the typical caricature of the “frozen chosen” as Presbyterians were commonly called – dry, non-spiritual, deadpan, etc. Even my transition into the baptistic/Bible church circle in 2006, I still carried some of that unfortunate mischaracterization in my mind.
It was not until I started seminary in 2008 that my perspective began to change. One of the main questions I started asking early on is what is the church and what is her purpose. The more I dove into Scripture and historical theology to formulate an answer, the more I learned of the Reformed church and the more attractive it became. In the context of Jesus command to make disciples, I began to see how what we do internally is just as important, if not more important than what we do externally. What we do internally must forge our identity in Christ, provoke worship to him and remind us of our covenantal relationship to one another, as the body of Christ. But most importantly, what we do corporately must remind us of our need for Him.
Carl Trueman has written a rather lengthy piece on First Things, A Church for Exiles. He indicates that Reformed worship is a good place to get grounded in Christ in recognition of the fact that Christians are sojourners and exiles in the world. While I disagree with him on some points related to the Reformed church having no engagement with the public square, I do agree with him on his main point. Much of what he writes related to church itself that resonates with me on why I find the Reformed church so refreshing.
Reformed worship places the Word at the center because the declaration of the truth of the Gospel is central. Ideally, this truth shapes the liturgical actions of the Reformed community. For example, in the church service, the minister reads the Decalogue and brings words of judgment down on God’s people, reminding them of their death in Adam. He leads them in a corporate confession of sin and then reads words from Scripture, pointing toward the promise in Christ of comfort, forgiveness, and the final resurrection to come. Fall, death, forgiveness, resurrection: The basic elements of the Christian message find concise and precise expression in Reformed liturgical practice.
The congregation responds with a hymn of praise to God for his goodness. Here, the beauty and the distinctiveness of the Reformed faith become evident. The congregation, reminded of who they are—sinners who stand before God condemned for their unrighteousness and uncleanness—receive the promise in Christ that, grasped by faith, seals forgiveness upon their hearts and moves them to praise and thanksgiving.
This singular focus—the drama of sin and redemption inwardly known—is a great boon in times of exile. To retain an identity in the face of a hostile culture, one must belong to a vibrant community of people who know who they are. This is the New Testament pattern of Christianity. When we hear, in clear and unequivocal words, who we are declared to us in the sermon each week and when we participate in liturgical action embodying that identity, we are well prepared for the hostile liturgies and gospels of the world we encounter from Monday to Saturday.
What I love about the Reformed church is the central focus of Christ, his word and his body. As Trueman notes, the gospel shapes the liturgy. It is liturgy that enforces my identity in Christ and my need for him. More also liturgy that reminds me I’m part of a covenant body. While the call and response and corporate recitation of confessions and creeds might seem “unspiritual” to some, it’s actually one of the most spiritual things we can do. I love that fact that the Reformed church is rooted in confessions that are systematized expressions of Scripture.There’s something about the whole body reciting together what we believe that enforces who we are.
In the Reformed church, I escape from the innovative techniques that church leaders think they need to attract people or otherwise be “culturally relevant”, or worse, engage in emotional manipulation. The main relevancy we should be concerned about is faithfulness to Christ and to each other. This is the heartbeat of the visible church under the greatest command in Scripture to love God and neighbor. Our life application flows from that.
In the Reformed church, we are not adverse to the public reading of Scripture, as commanded by Paul to Timothy (and to us!), “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” (1 Timothy 4:13).
In the Reformed church, I escape sermons that turn Scripture into a springboard for some pet agenda of the pastor based on what he wants to see happen, most likely imposing more requirements than Scripture commands. Or I escape what I call “narcegesis”, a-theological preaching that turns the narrative into life principles to live by instead of what the passage means in relation to the fall and redemption. Rather, I get Christ-centered sermons that infuse my faith with worship and hope because it places Christ front and center, instead of at the end like some kind of punch line or waving from the periphery while the pastor preaches moralism. Christ-centered preaching reminds me of God’s work to reconcile his creation no matter what text is preached. This is what my thirsty soul needs that to rest in the completed work of Christ amid the chaos of a busy and crazy world.
Please understand that I write this from my perspective and journey, which has been quite diverse. While I am ever mindful that the body of Christ transcends denominational lines, I can’t help but consider Trueman’s points as having some validity, at least based on my experience. I also don’t negate that some of these expressions cannot be found in some non-denominational or non-Reformed churches. There are many faithful pastors and good teachers who love the Lord and want people to grow in Christ. I know that some in the body will not agree with my thoughts on the Reformed church and that’s ok. But my refreshed soul speaks volumes.