When Ordinary is Exceptional

Reformed Protestants have a public relations problem. In their churches and worship services they lack pizzazz. In fact, the chief attributes of Reformed worship—decency and order—are lousy for appealing to seekers who want a faith that has a higher profile, one that is grand, beautiful, or simply inspiring. This predicament puts Reformed Protestants in a difficult spot within the contemporary liturgical climate. People who are looking for a church with high-octane worship generally bypass Reformed or Presbyterian congregations for Christian services at opposite ends of the spectrum. In the mass of Roman Catholicism or its Protestant high church equivalents, those looking for meaningful Christian worship find services marked by pageantry, beauty, and grandeur. In the Praise & Worship variety of worship, seekers may find conspicuous amounts of energy in up-tempo music, worshipers in various states of emotion, and throngs of ecstatic participants. As long as it has not tried to imitate either extreme of the high or low varieties of liturgy, the average Reformed worship service looks dull, unimaginative, and hollow. Indeed, the nickname for Calvinists of “God’s frozen chosen” is apt on one level in capturing the nature of worship that is hemmed in by Reformed attention to decency, order, sobriety, and reverence.

Ordinary is one way of describing Reformed worship, and it is a word that most people would prefer not to be used in describing them. To be ordinary is to be average, without distinction or notable achievement, possibly even dull. But as unappealing as ordinary is as an adjective, from a Reformed perspective on worship it is a true compliment. The reason is that when Protestants first began to reform the church, they intentionally created services that were ordinary in their effect and that were accessible to ordinary believers. By avoiding the extravagance and self-importance of extraordinary worship, Reformed Protestants conducted services that embodied the theology of the Reformation.

Vulgarity Rightly Understood

From one point of view, the assertion that Reformed worship is vulgar is an objectionable characterization, since the word vulgar is synonymous with indecency, obscenity and lewdness. If this is what someone meant by charging Reformed worship with vulgarity, then adherents of the Reformed faith should properly take offense and attempt to deny the accusation by showing how Reformed worship is just the opposite because of its reverence, its exaltation of God’s word, and its self-conscious effort to keep human pride and self-righteousness in check. But the word vulgar has another meaning, one that Reformed Christians should take as a compliment. The word can mean a characteristic of the ordinary people in society, or the vernacular language spoken by those ordinary people, or even something that is common or current. In this sense, vulgarity is different from refinement or ostentation. This sense actually gets much closer to the nature of Reformed worship since the Reformation attempted to rid Christian worship of the excessive ceremonies and rituals of Roman Catholic services that made the Mass inaccessible to the laity and exalted the work of priests over the ministry of the word.

One way to illustrate this is by comparing descriptions of Roman Catholic and Reformed churches. One website describes St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome as a space that covers 5.7 acres, has a capacity for 60,000 people, and displays “the finest Renaissance monuments and decoration money could buy, employing the talents of such greats as Michelangelo and Bernini.”  When Charles Dickens in 1846 visited Rome and saw St. Peter’s, he wrote, “The first burst of the interior, in all its expansive majesty and glory; and, most of all, the looking up into the Dome; is a sensation never to be forgotten.”  In contrast, here is how Evelyn Underhill described another St. Peter’s church, this one in Geneva: “No organ or choir was permitted in [Calvin’s] churches; no color, nor ornament but a table of the Ten Commandments on the wall. No ceremonial acts or gestures were permitted. No hymns were sung but those derived from a biblical source.”  Underhill went on to observe the distinctive character of Reformed church architecture. The walls were whitened, and the pulpit was at the center, along with the baptismal font and table. Unlike Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or Episcopalian worship, the pulpit was not on the side with an altar in the middle. Although she was writing in the 1930s and did not see Calvin’s church at the time of the Reformation, her account faithfully reflects the changes that occurred in Reformed churches at the time of the Reformation. More importantly, Underhill’s depiction points to the understated, restrained, and even vulgar character of Reformed worship in contrast to the ostentatious pomp of Roman Catholic worship.

When Ordinary is Exceptional

To say that the point of the reform of worship at the time of the Protestant Reformation was to make worship services ordinary is to capture more than a grain of truth since the commonness of Reformed piety was a crucial part of its character. The Reformers self-consciously eliminated the rituals and trappings of Roman Catholic worship that called more attention to the church and her priests than to they gave glory to God. The Reformers also sought to make worship accessible to the laity by using the vernacular language of the people, rather than Latin, and by engaging the congregation more in the elements of the service. To many these reforms destroyed the beauty and majesty of Rome’s worship. But the Reformers not only questioned the biblical justification for such visible expressions of glory; they also understood that in the Christian era of the history of redemption God’s people were called to a simpler and even vulgar form of devotion.

The characteristic components of Reformed worship reflect this twin commitment to the Bible’s sufficiency in regulating worship (sometimes known as the regulative principle) and the value of simplicity in glorifying God. On the level of congregational participation, the Reformation introduced liturgical reforms that captured the imperative for all of God’s assembly to participate in worship rather than watching priests perform the service. One indication of lay participation was congregational singing. Aside from the question of exclusive psalmody or hymnody, Protestants were unanimous in promoting the entire congregation’s singing of praise and thanksgiving. Of course, not having sung before, the laity at the time of Reformation faced a stiff challenge to participate in songs of praise. This is why the Reformers commissioned music that could be sung by the entire congregation, not simply by those gifted to sing in a choir.
Another element of worship in which the laity participated was the Lord’s Supper. Aside from the enormous reform of teaching and practice that took away the Mass and returned the sacrament to its status as a meal, the way the Reformers administered the Lord’s Supper engaged the laity in ways unheard of within the Roman Catholic Church. Not only had the laity prior to the Reformation participated in the sacrament only once a year, but when they did they received only the bread because they might spill the wine, thus desecrating what was thought to be the very blood of Christ. By introducing the observance of the Supper more frequently (at least four times a year in most Reformed churches) and by giving bread and wine to the laity, Protestant worship became more accessible than Rome’s practice for the ordinary people of God.

The ministry of the word also reflected an affirmation of the common in Reformed worship. The preaching of the word was first of all in a known language. Unlike the Roman Catholic liturgy which was in Latin and completely inaccessible to anyone outside the learned elite, Reformed worship aimed to bring all people into full participation, even when they sat and listened to the word proclaimed. At the same time, by making preaching more central in worship than the Lord’s Supper, the Reformers were following the apostle Paul’s instruction about the means that God uses to bring people to faith and sustain them on their pilgrimage. As Paul conceded to the Corinthians, preaching appeared to be a foolish way—perhaps even vulgar from the Greek’s perspective—to proclaim the truth and goodness of Christ. But its simplicity was precisely the point, because by virtue of its ordinary character preaching would not let men take credit for salvation, but showed that the power of the gospel was God alone.

Indeed, the very premise of Reformed worship—the so-called regulative principle—which taught that God should be worshiped only according to his revealed will, was a simpler or more ordinary way of glorifying him than by following the imaginations of men. God’s word was and remains a surer guide to how he should be worshiped than relying on a variety of saints’ best intentions or pious reflections. This affirmation of the Bible’s authority is particularly evident in the way the Reformed tradition rejected the use of images in worship. The Heidelberg Catechism is clear in answer 97 that making images of God is forbidden because they are a form of idolatry, that is, worshiping the image instead of God who is a spirit. But the Reformers knew that Rome countered that images were a useful way to teach the unlearned or common man who did know how to read. Answer 98 of Heidelberg responds to this line of argument by declaring that images should not be used as “teaching aids” because “we should not try to be wiser than God.”  The catechism adds, “he wants his people instructed by the living preaching of his Word—not by idols that cannot even talk”  In other words, preaching was adequate for the common man and woman, and to try to find another way than the means appointed by God was to attempt foolishly to be wiser than God himself.

The Westminster Confession of Faith captured well the ordinary element of Christian worship that the Reformation recovered in its chapter on the covenant of grace. There it teaches:

Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles. . . . (WCF 7.6)

This paradoxical relationship between the simplicity of worship after the coming of Christ and the greater fullness of the gospel has bedeviled the church through the ages. The temptation is to think that the greater reality of grace that comes through Christ is a reason to have worship that is even more majestic and elaborate than that practiced in the Old Testament temple. But the opposite is exactly the case. Because of the fuller revelation in Christ, the administration of the covenant of grace in the church depends less on outward or external means than it did in Israel. Reformed worship captured that important difference between the Old Testament saint’s desire for signs that would show God’s power and the New Testament’s abrogation of those old forms for the simpler means of grace in the church.

The Piety of the Ordinary

Of course, the Reformation did not stop with a reform of worship along the lines of the ordinary and simple. By recovering the reality of the priesthood of all believers and the related doctrine of vocation, the Reformed tradition affirmed the truth that simple people could serve God in their everyday duties and responsibilities as farmers, bakers, merchants, mothers, and maids. No longer did one need to go to a monastery or nunnery to lead a life dedicated to God. Because creation was good, because man was called to work in the created order as part of God’s provision for his creation, ordinary work in the world was not evil. And when consecrated to God through prayer, this work became a means of glorifying God even during the ordinary week days in between the Lord’s Days, the holy days set apart for public worship.

All of these reforms, both in worship services proper, and in the work-a-day world of the common man and woman, point to the Reformation as a recovery of the ordinary. This does not mean that Reformed Protestants are off the hook from charges of dullness, or that they may coast in their efforts to be faithful individually and corporately. But even when Reformed Christians are doing their best to serve God and love their neighbors, they know that the authenticity and vigor of the Christian faith cannot be measured by outward displays of pomp, enthusiasm, and power. Instead, through decent and orderly services, and in quiet and peaceful lives, Reformed Christians try not to draw attention to themselves in their worship and service because they believe that God should be worshiped only in the ways he has commanded. Reformed Christianity teaches that after the epoch-making work of Christ, the surpassing glory of redemption cannot be contained in external or outward attempts at majesty or extraordinariness, and that God uses foolish, weak, and ordinary means so that his people will boast only in him and his power.


Dr. D. G. Hart and Mr. John R. Muether are coauthors of several books, most recently Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Protestantism (P&R 2007). Both are ruling elders in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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