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What do Presbyterians believe about worship?


Reformed worship — it’s all about God

By Paul E. Detterman | Reprinted from the June 2001 issue of Presbyterians Today

As worshipers gather at First, Second, Third or Fourth Presbyterian Church of Anywhere, it would be very interesting to ask, “Why are you here?” “What are you expecting to do in this hour?” or “What is this all about?”

The answers individual Presbyterians gave would be wide-ranging. Some would say, “I come here to be part of a caring community.” Others might muse, “I’ve been coming to church ever since I was a child. I miss it when I’m not here.” Those who are newer to the church might say, “I come because of the sermon/music/prayer/ liturgy.” While all of these answers may be honest, none of them express a Reformed understanding of why we bother to worship God at all. Each of these answers is centered on the needs, habits or expectations of individual worshipers. As Reformed Christians we believe Christian worship is all about God.

Reading the directions

The middle section of our Book of Order contains a Directory for Worship for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This part of our constitution is not at all prescriptive — it does not mandate exact prayer texts or outline unbending orders of worship. It is, however, wonderfully descriptive. It offers a clear exposition of the theology reflected in our worship and outlines possible forms and orders of service that are appropriate for Presbyterians to use.

When it comes to understanding the specific God focus of our worship, the first paragraph is a wonderful place to start (italics added for emphasis):

“Christian worship joyfully ascribes all praise and honor, glory and power to the triune God. In worship, the people of God acknowledge God present in the world and in their lives. As they respond to God’s claim and redemptive action in Jesus Christ, believers are transformed and renewed. In worship, the faithful offer themselves to God and are equipped for God’s service in the world.”

The essence of worship in the Reformed tradition can be seen in this brief paragraph. (How did the worship you participated in this past Lord’s Day compare with this?)

Joyful worship

The first phrase of the quote from the Directory is already a stumbling block for many Presbyterians whose worship may be well intentioned, well designed, well focused, but not, well, joyful.

The first question in the Westminster Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man [humans]?” The answer: “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” How joyful was your worship last Sunday? This does not in any way imply that we should be giddy, goofy or glib, but was there much true joy evident on the part of worshipers or worship leaders?

When we come to worship we are gathering with other believing Christians and entering into the presence of the Creator of all that is, offering a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Astonishing as it may be, God not only tolerates our offering, but invites us into intimate communion. If there was ever a cause for joy, no matter what the condition or circumstances of the rest of our life may be at the moment, such a God-given invitation should be it! No matter what size a congregation may be; no matter how eloquent or simple the proclamation or praise may be; no matter how old, how young, how blessed, or how oppressed a particular church may be; when Christians gather for worship, and that worship is truly focused on God, there will be joy.

Praise and glory belong to God

The very first words we utter in worship determine the focus of the service. How did your worship begin last Sunday? Were the first words spoken by the worship leader God’s Word or human words?

When hymns or choruses were sung, what did the text describe? Was it praise, prayer, thanksgiving or lament involving God — or were the words focused on the needs, feelings or condition of people?

Was the Bible front-and-center in the sermon, or was the sermon a message desperately seeking a Biblical text?

Many who lead worship feel an Emily Post-induced compulsion to hospitality, welcoming “their gathered guests” with a friendly “Good morning!” But the congregation is not there to visit with the worship leader; the people have come to worship God. Even worse than an innocent “Howdy!” are the prepackaged commercial liturgies that force those who lead worship to pose unfortunate questions such as “Why are we here?” (with an equally shallow printed response demanded of the congregation), leaving religious skeptics and the more astute believers in the congregation to think to themselves, “If you don’t know why we are here, we’re in bad shape already!”

From the call to worship to the benediction, praise, honor, glory and power belong only to God. When we are seeking the words to offer to God, God’s Word is a wonderful place to start.

God is here!

Don Hustad, a prolific writer and seasoned worship leader, has suggested, somewhat whimsically, that a banner should be displayed over the entrance to any place of Christian worship reading, “Warning: God Is Here!” Our worship as Reformed people is not only about God, it is a direct response to God. As worshipers we must always remember that God is truly present, active, and involved in our worship, and that our worship is a response to what God has done, is doing, and is about to do in our lives.

Remembering God in the past

A poster text from several years ago read, “All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all that I have not seen.” Therein lies the truth of our initial response to God in worship. Every Christian knows that God has played an essential role in his or her life, shaping, forming, guiding and directing them to the place they find themselves on the day of worship. The liturgy itself calls us to actively remember God’s faithfulness, individually and collectively, as we offer ourselves in praise.

We know this Biblical God through the events outlined in Scripture, the stories we have read of the lives of Christians from other times and places, and the testimonies we have heard of God’s activity in the lives of those around us. As we come to worship, we trust God with our today based on our knowledge of God throughout all those yesterdays.

Christian worship is where we remember God’s salvation most vividly. “Do this, remembering me.” Whether or not worship includes Christ’s invitation to the Table, when we worship, we remember.

Trusting God in the present

Equally important in our worship is the act of trusting the living God with the complexities of our present.

In response to God’s faithfulness, and in response to the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, true Christian worship is punctuated with vivid reality. We earnestly confess our ever-present sin, an essential part of worship for Reformed Christians, and we hear God’s assurance of forgiveness and peace. We actively listen for the contemporary relevance of God’s Word by praying for the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, also a hallmark of Reformed theology shaping worship. After the Word has been proclaimed, we gather the prayers of the church for the very present and very real needs of the world around us, seeking God’s will, Christ’s peace, and the Holy Spirit’s power.

Following God into the future

Finally, we offer our most radical act of worship when we allow God to lead us out of the sanctuary and back into God’s world.

Like the disciples who followed Jesus off the transfiguration mountain into a village where a child lay dying, we Reformed Christians believe that our final act of worship is found, not in the pews or even in the vestibule, but in the streets, the malls, the offices and the schools throughout God’s world, where the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ is simultaneously scrutinized, confronted, maligned and eagerly sought.

Transformed and sent forth

In the final portion of the Directory for Worship, in the section titled “Ministry of the Church in the World,” we find these words, including Philippians 2:9-11: “In worship the church is transformed and renewed, equipped and sent to serve God’s reign in the world. The church looks for the day ‘when every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.’ ”

As we plan, lead, and participate in the worship of Reformed Christians, may this always be so.

Paul E. Detterman, pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Louisville, is a church musician and composer and a frequent conference speaker and worship leader.

Elements of Reformed Worship


As God’s people gather for worship, through Scripture or song, we focus our attention on God and away from ourselves.


Worshipers today, like the prophet Isaiah, cannot come into the presence of our holy God without realizing our own sinfulness. When we confess, we do so for ourselves and for the church as a whole.


Scripture calls us to confession; Scripture also assures us of God’s inestimable love.


Before attempting to listen for the Word of God, we pray for the assistance of the Holy Spirit to open our ears to hear and our hearts to receive what God is saying to us through Scripture and interpretation.


The Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, comes from the pages of Scripture. Interpretation of God’s Word comes through Spirit-inspired speech, drama, music, dance or other forms of communication.


Part of our response to the living Word is Spirit-prompted prayer, possible in many varied forms and formats.


Our greatest rejoicing can come only around the Table of the Lord as we share in communion with Christ and with God’s people. When that is not possible, offering of ourselves and of our tangible gifts can be a beginning response to the Word.

True Worship

When the liturgy of the church is concluded, our true worship begins. Everything we know about God teaches us that true worship, lifestyle evangelism, is an intentional living of each day in prayer and mission, in our home, our work, our study, our recreation: glorifying and enjoying God forever.

The words we sing

Almost any worshiper would agree that the most memorable words from any liturgy are the words we sing. No matter if a congregation’s preferred style of music is classical or classic rock, good and bad examples of God-centered worship music abound. A simple test for evaluating the texts of worship music involves four brief questions:

  • Who is speaking in the text?
  • To whom are they speaking?
  • About what/whom are they speaking?
  • What are they saying?

If some name or attribute related to God is not the answer to at least one of these four questions, there is probably a far better text available for God’s worshiping people to sing.