Worship, Polity, & the PCA

By Brad Isbell | January 24, 2022

The state of worship in the Presbyterian Church in America is arguably better than it has ever been, at least as far as liturgy goes. More churches now use recognizably Reformed liturgies than at any point in the denomination’s history. These are liturgies that include the biblical elements of worship—they are not just the standard evangelical format of  “30 minutes of singing/30 minutes of preaching.” What may be lacking though are the hard-to-define (but essential) qualities of reverence and awe. What may be trending is leadership of worship that does not comport with or support presbyterian polity. And what may be chipping away at the foundations of proper worship are errant and novel practices, mostly regarding the Lord’s Supper.

Granted, most PCA churches employ liturgies that have more in common with those of the Continent rather than those of the holy presbyterian isle, Scotland. A standard PCA liturgy looks something like this, with minor variations in order and terminology:

Call to worship
Hymn or psalm
Lord’s Prayer
Confession of sin
Declaration/assurance of pardon
Confession of faith
Singing of the doxology
Prayer and offering
Pastoral prayer
Scripture reading
Hymn or psalm
Scripture reading
Sermon (with prayer before and after)
Lord’s Supper (weekly or monthly, bookended by additional prayers)
Closing hymn or psalm

This is scripturally-regulated worship made up of biblical elements. The dialogical pattern of God speaking by his Word and his people responding in prayer, praise, and confession is obvious. There are many prayers and lots of scripture. Rearrange the order, change a term or two, and you have a liturgy that is common not only to most PCA churches, but also to most of the confessional churches affiliated with the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) and, indeed, to most conservative Reformed churches the world over for the last five centuries. But otherwise-solid liturgies may be undermined by things done, left undone, or done improperly—additions, omissions, and errors.

What are some examples of tangible and intangible things which have been added to liturgies, to the detriment of simple, biblical, Spirit-and-truth Reformed worship? We would propose the following:

First, an overly horizontal, man-centered ethos may be reflected in informal or casual approaches to the service, which could include announcements or presentations that break up the dialogical-biblical flow and tone of the service. These might focus on service opportunities or might amount to promotional pitches complete with video presentations or distribution of materials. Fellowship times in the middle of the service (sometimes called “passing of the peace” or even “halftime.”) might succeed in establishing a familiar or homey feel even as they distract from the holy purpose of worship. Children’s activities or the departure of children from the service at some point may also prove disruptive. Other unwelcome additions include showy musical performances, loud or complex musical accompaniment or leadership (which may also dominate visually as a central focus),  or other inappropriate visual elements. Too often, we also find whole seasons imported to the simple, ordinary,  and biblical Reformed tradition, like Lent and Holy Week. Somewhat related are the eclectic additions of the Anglican-attracted, which includes complicated and variable clerical garb and vestments, crossings, bowing at prescribed times, or turning to face a cross, bible, or procession. Finally (and possibly most destructive) we may bring “the warfare of the world…into the house of God,” as J. Gresham Machen lamented in the 1920s. In his day the imported social and political issues included “things that divide nation from nation and race from race…human pride…the passions of war.” Little has changed in the last 100 years since Machen published Christianity and Liberalism. The battle for spiritual worship continues.

What things are sometimes omitted to the detriment of simple, biblical, Spirit-and-truth Reformed worship? We have noted that the long or “pastoral” mid-service prayer is less common than in previous decades. Its shortening or omission may be the result of other service-lengthening things like weekly communion or extended, mid-service announcements and fellowship times. In some larger, more contemporary churches extended scripture readings or confessions of faith have also fallen on hard times. Perhaps the most serious omission from the worship of PCA churches today is not merely an element, but an entire service—the evening or “second” worship service. Few newer PCA churches (and many older ones) have the second Lord’s Day service which was near ubiquitous in previous centuries. The effect of this omission (and its effect on keeping the whole Lord’s Day as a Christian sabbath) is incalculable, but many fear that it is real…and tragic.

All is not well in the way worship is conducted in the PCA. Even as observance of the Lord’s Supper becomes more frequent in our churches, it seems that errors in its conduct multiply. These include the bizarre and biblically-unfounded practice of intinction (where the bread is dipped in wine and the two actions of the supper become confused), distribution of elements by unordained persons and even children, and so-called “young child communion” where some churches regularly admit children as young as four years old to the table. Church members who visit PCA churches across the country often come home stunned and confused by the variations they see. Less obvious to many is the perfunctory and inadequate “fencing” of the communion table, which is often less than compliant with the Book of Church Order’s clear and specific instructions for ministers.

So far, the errors listed have concerned what or how, but the most glaring disorderly trend in PCA worship is a matter of who—who leads worship. There are PCA churches across the denomination where nearly every portion of the worship service (except for the sermon* and benediction) is led by unordained persons—men, women, children, and young people who are not officers of the church. For some reason, these unordained persons are usually women. One assumes that many officers in the PCA have decided that women in the churches suffer from a lack of regard, visibility, and inclusion. And these officers and ministers have decided that assigning large portions of worship leadership to them is a way to remedy their oppression and exclusion.

What is lost when presbyterian worship is no longer led by presbyters (elders)? Well, in a word, what is lost is presbyterianism, or—at the very least—any form of presbyterianism known before the 20th century. Presbyters are not simply preachers and teachers or members of an administrative board. They are shepherds who lead the flock in worship, not as coordinators, directors, or curators of the order of worship, but as true leaders who lead from the front…the front of the church’s worship space! Why is it important that ordained, examined, approved men lead worship? Because in many of the word-based elements of worship the leader is speaking, as it were, for God. How God’s word is read and the biblical and theological understanding of the reader/leader matter. The PCA’s Directory of Worship** emphasizes this principle, in this case with reference to the public reading of the scripture:

The public reading of the Holy Scriptures is performed by the minister as God’s servant. Through it God speaks most directly to the congregation, even more directly than through the sermon. (BCO 50-1)

The church’s readings, confessions, and prayers are more important than we imagine. God’s servants, his ministers and elders, ought to lead them. This had been obvious to previous generations of the church. What has changed? It must be modern egalitarian concerns and desires for inclusion, visibility, representation, and participation of all church members. The irony is that members are already included in every element of the service as participants or as active hearers, as worshipers or recipients! Modern inclusivism only serves to deprive God’s people as it excludes the elders of the church from their appointed role as shepherd-leaders of the congregation’s most important weekly activity—gathered worship.

Literal and figurative platforms mean a great deal today. Blame the zeitgeist, celebrity culture, educational philosophy, the leveling effects of social media, or intersectional concerns for “justice,” if you will. Whatever the reason, moderns are intensely sensitive to who is  “up front,” on the program, or in the spotlight. The spotlight in worship, of course, ought to be on word and sacrament as means of grace, not on who happens to have been given a turn at “leadership” from week to week.

Finally, confusion and chaos in the public worship in PCA churches cannot help but harm two things we profess to hold dear: the primary leadership role of presbyters (alluded to above)  and real unity in a connectional church. A church with congregationally led worship may soon become a de facto congregational church. The freedom and diversity of practice that congregationalism affords may be attractive, but we cannot be presbyterian and congregational. Congregationalism and independency go together, but independent is the very thing presbyterians cannot be. Independency understandably breeds variety; no one expects independent churches to be uniform in doctrine, order, or worship. Connected churches, though,  must speak a common language to be united and truly connected. Liturgy is the grammar of worship; reverence and modesty are its essential tone. And how the words of worship are spoken (and who speaks them) is critical. To be united, to understand one another, and to remain recognizably presbyterian, the PCA must worship in a manner that is coherent and recognizably presbyterian.

*There have been a few documented instances of females preaching sermons in the Lord’s Day worship services of PCA congregations in the last two years. Some of these instances have prompted complaints and investigations at the presbytery level.

**Much of the PCA Directory for Worship (found in the Book of Church Order) is not “binding,” meaning many of the practices described in this article are unlikely to become matters of discipline. What we appeal for is modest submission to the letter and spirit of the PCA’s standards. Regardless of what portions of the Directory for Worship are “binding,” we find this in the introduction to the Directory: “The Directory for Worship is an approved guide and should be taken seriously as the mind of the Church agreeable to the Standards.”

Brad Isbell is a PCA Ruling Elder serving on the session of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, TN.