Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The Crisis of Protestant Worship


Not my title.  I stole it from the title of a video conversation between Len Vander Zee and Paul VanderKlay – both ministers in the Christian Reformed Church of North America.  In other words, this isn’t a review of Catholic or Orthodox mudslinging against the Reformation (I really dislike that kind of stuff – from any of these against any of these).  It is a form of self-reflection on the part of the two participants in the Dutch Reformed Church.

This is part three of my (up to now) three-part series on the divisions within the Church.  Parts one and two are here and here, respectively.

As background for this conversation, Len Vander Zee is writing a book to address the crisis of worship that he sees in Protestant churches.  Many Protestant churches have dumbed down the worship in order to “meet the people where they are at.” 

Len: There is a crisis happening in Protestant worship of all stripes.

He describes his early life in the CRC, when there was a standard of worship. 

Len: the minister would always begin: “The Lord is in His holy temple.  Let all the earth keep silence before Him.”

The only “participation” was singing.  The basic structure of the worship service goes all the way back to the Synod of Dort.  For background, this synod, held by the Dutch Reformed Church, was called to settle the debates regarding Arminianism.  Delegates came from across Europe.  The synod also…

…set forth the Reformed doctrine on each point, namely: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement (arguing that Christ's atoning work was intended only for the elect and not for the rest of the world), irresistible (or irrevocable) grace, and the perseverance of the saints. These are sometimes referred to as the Five points of Calvinism.

An official Bible translation was also initiated.

Returning to the discussion….

Len: In the late 1960s, the Reformed Church produced a revision to the service that was quite similar to the Catholic Mass.  It ended up in the dust heap – hardly anyone used it.  It came at exactly the wrong time, when the culture was falling apart.

Paul: It sounded like they were sixty years ahead of their time.

Why does Paul say this?  What we find today is a move toward the traditional – toward the Orthodox Church, toward the Latin Mass in the Catholic Church, toward the more culturally conservative Protestant denominations.  As the West has suffered its meaning crisis, many are finding hope in the more traditional.

Len told a very funny story.  When he was younger, he taught a catechism class at his church.  He was going through the various flavors of Christianity, so he took his dozen or so students to a Catholic Church nearby, a “beautiful, big basilica.”  This was post Vatican II.

Len: We got there and sat in the back row, so we wouldn’t be too disruptive.  The church started with the procession, and the first hymn of the procession was, “believe it or not,” …

[And certain Catholic readers of this blog should cover their eyes]

… “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”

So, we automatically broke into song.  Nobody else sang.  Everyone turned around looking for the choir. 

Paul (who couldn’t stop laughing for about ten seconds): For those who aren’t aware of it, that’s a song reliably sung on Reformation Sunday as a rebel cry of rebellion against the Papists!

And, not mentioned, it was authored by (again, Catholic readers, cover your eyes) …Martin Luther.

There was a time, when Len was a pastor, that he tried to go to weekly communion with his congregation.  He could never convince the congregation to go along.

As my aside…there is something symbolically valuable about going to the priest for the bread and wine – and doing this every Sunday – that is sorely lacking in the Protestant churches that I have attended.  These have the trays, passed around by an usher through the rows of congregants.  And this is to say nothing of what, exactly, is happening at the time and what, exactly, is going down my throat.

Len describes what he sees in many Protestant churches.  Much of the mainline wants to teach people how to be good democrats – use the state to achieve what they see as God’s purpose.  He sees many Evangelical churches adapting the culture of larger society, clearly not doing it as well.  The central focal point for many of these is the sermon, usually a very long sermon.  But ultimately, this isn’t worship.

And this is what he wants to address via his book.

Len (looking to the Old Testament): Worship is a covenant meeting between God and His people.  There are always ritual actions that are included in this worship. 

My thoughts: Protestants emphasize the early, post-Pentecost examples of church, described well in the Book of Acts and written to by the Apostle Paul in many of his letters.  But there was also the temple.  Which example is proper for Christians?  Either?  Neither?  Some aspects of both?

After describing some aspects of the Old Testament worship, he offers: “that’s precisely what we are NOT doing in many Protestant Churches.”  He then describes what I have personally witnessed, lived through, experienced: the Orthodox Church:

Len: Worship: we enter the kingdom.  If you can envision a typical Orthodox Church, with all of its icons, and that great central icon of Christ Pantocrator, Christ, the ruler of all, you are entering into another sphere, into the kingdom.  As Christians, we need that experience of entering into to kingdom, week by week.

Len (after describing how the incarnate Christ fulfills the Old Testament rituals): the Eucharist is THE culmination of worship.  That without the Eucharist, worship is truncated; it has no logical place to go.  We come before God; we are renewing the covenant in Christ; we confess our sins; we hear the Word; we pray.  But in the culmination, we participate in Christ Himself; we participate in His sacrifice; we are renewed in our life through the power of the Holy Spirit Who unites us to Christ. 

And that requires, just like it did in the Old Testament, ritualized action.  Because we are human: stuff matters.   As someone once said: without it, the worship service ends in a colon, not a period.  Something is missing.

Paul asks why Len thinks, in the Protestant churches, the Eucharist was replaced, in many ways, with the sermon.

Len: Calvin understood sacraments well, but he couldn’t convince the people in Geneva.  We have to remember that medieval people did the Eucharist once a year.  Protestants also emphasized the Word – just what the Catholic Church wasn’t doing.  We have the Word; what do we need the sacraments for? 

The second part was Zwingli’s influence, who said that the spiritual couldn’t be communicated by the material.  Therefore, the material used in the worship was merely show and tell.  A way of doing something rather than participating in something.  This was something different between Calvin and Luther on one side, and Zwingli on the other.

But, Protestant churches – even Reformed churches – became Zwinglian.

Which brings me back to the book Transubstantiation, by Brett Salkeld (I have written several posts on this book, to be found here).  To make a long story short, Luther and Calvin had much more in common with Aquinas on this subject than the two of them understood, and certainly more than Protestants understand today.  The Zwinglian view has held sway.

Returning to the subject conversation: Paul asked about any connection between the loss of the sacrament of confession and the frequency of communion.  Paul offers that it might be because the Reformed Church never really confronted this idea of removal of sin before taking part in the Eucharist (hence, taking it in an unworthy manner), that the sacrament is held infrequently.

Len offers that it might be driven by the Protestant (and Catholic, if you take John Strickland’s views, which I have covered extensively) focus on Christ’s sacrifice, and not as much on the entirety of the Kingdom of God (and I think back to my experience in Orthodox churches, and as also described by Len).

Len: What happens in most evangelical worship services?  “Welcome everyone.  We are glad you are here.  Thank you for coming.”

Thank you for coming?  What is this?  So, it’s not about God; it’s about you.

He then cites favorably from the Book of Common prayer, (primarily used in Anglican Churches), asking “How does the worship service begin?”: “Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and the people respond “And blessed be God’s Kingdom now and forever.”

Len comments on Justin Martyr: When we come together, we read the word and take the bread and wine, which is not ordinary food.  Len then asks: how do we just throw that away?  It’s always the Eucharist that’s there.


Paul (speaking to the Protestants): The protest needs to end at some point.

Len: one of the places the Church can come together is the Eucharist.  Can we gather around the table, instead of focusing on the doctrinal divisions?


My comment at the site:

Len: I would love people to relate their own experiences….

Sorry for coming late to the party.  I have had the exact experience Len described.  I was raised in a Protestant church, sound teaching, great Sunday schools, etc.  As an adult, I have attended an Oriental Orthodox church for many years – let’s just say the first Protestants.  More recently, I have been attending a very Scripture-focused Protestant church – let’s just say that the only churches one could find open with minimal or no restrictions over the last two years were those not under an institutional hierarchy.

But…back to the common experience.  Recently, I was out of town over a weekend.  Where to attend church on Sunday?  A Protestant church?  Nope.  Rolling the dice on walking into a circus.  A Catholic Church?  Not much better odds.  I attended an Eastern Orthodox Church.  Christ Pantocrator on the ceiling of the dome, perhaps a hundred beautiful icons, and at least a couple hundred in attendance.  I said “this is the Kingdom of God.”  It is vertical, through time; it isn’t horizontal, all in this time.

Matthew 16:28 only works in the vision of this Kingdom as I experienced it in this Orthodox church.

My Oriental Orthodox church didn’t offer such an experience – too small a community, perhaps, for such a structure.  As to Protestant churches?  Neither the Catholic Church nor the Orthodox Church teach the Bible as well.  But sometimes I feel as if I am in a university classroom, not a service to worship God.  Maybe Protestant pastors will be the Sunday school teachers of the one-day, to-be-unified under Christ, Church.


  1. Very much enjoying your latest journey through the denominations. There is a crisis in Protestant worship. There are some “Machen’s Warrior Children” among us. While small in number, the smallest denominations North American Presbyterian and Reformed Churches are attempting to be always Reforming. I’m in here United Reformed Church in North America, which is formed by many of the conservative churches that the CRCNA. We are striving to restore orthodox worship. I would also recommend many in the Lutheran Missouri Synod as those also taking a prophetic stance with our crumbling culture and fighting for the gospel and the historic faith. There we also Particular Baptists (they sometimes called themselves Reformed Baptists) that are surely Christ’s warriors.

    1. What appears to be the case is that it is the more traditional traditions and culturally conservative denominations that are seeing a rebirth. People are searching for meaning, and finding it in these places, not in places that are a bad imitation of the society around them.

  2. Divide and conquer.

    This is the pattern we see everywhere in the battle between good and evil, especially in politics. It seems that everyone is splintered between one version or another of some partisan form of idealistic "democracy". This is simply splitting us apart and atomizing society, all the while those holding the purse strings stay above the fray and make us dance like puppets to their tune. In politics, there is only one solution to that: forget the petty arguments, focus on the goal of individual freedom, and go after those who would infringe that liberty.

    If this is true, then we should not be surprised that the Church is experiencing the same format. After all, the leader of our enemy is Satan himself, who only lives to kill, steal, and destroy. Divide and conquer is the tactic he uses to reach his goals and over the last 500 years or so, has made pretty good progress.

    What is the solution to this? Quit the petty squabbling over some detail or another. Focus on the important--the Great Commandment, the Golden Rule, our own individual sinful nature, etc. Go after the evil which is suffused throughout the world by persuading others to change their ways and deliberately resisting those who would try to enslave us under their authoritarian rule.

    If the powers that be, including Satan, can keep us fighting among ourselves, then they only have to manipulate and steer the conflict without taking any hits themselves. The Church and the State are not far apart on that score. This needs to be changed. We need to change.

    Self-control is a gift of the Spirit of God. If you would not have others rule over you, then you MUST rule yourself.
    Today, the Church and the State are not far apart on that score.

    1. We have theological differences. But I am on board with everything you said here Roger. Amen!

    2. Roger, well said.

      "Focus on the important--the Great Commandment, the Golden Rule, our own individual sinful nature, etc."

      This comes to why I focus on natural law ethics (the Golden Rule) - this is the dividing line, both in the larger society and in the Church. This is why natural rights are the only rights I can demand others to respect - life and property.

      Man's sinful nature - it is a line that runs down the middle of each one of us. Hence, humility and respect are called for.

  3. This was a discussion we had with one of our congregants about 7 years ago. He wanted much of what you wanted included into the service. He called it "spiritual formation". But is was about how to change liturgy to more of what you are saying Bionic. More contemplational, creedal, different ambience.

    We didn't go that route. I would also like to capture the idea of God's kingdom and actual worship of God in church service. But I can say for my church we are low of the low church. Two songs, greeting, sermon, one song, announcements, final song. We don't have the resources to make a grand show of icons and vaulted ceilings and artwork. So I don't think that is a consideration for us. We are a punk rock church, stripped down to the essentials, focusing on that without many accoutrements. Ritual for ritual sake has lead God's people astray in many eras. So we Gen Xers are doing the Gen X thing. Minimalizing to find that which is absolutely essential and sticking with that.

    But I do think Protestants need to do communion more often. We do it 1/month. Most I have been in do that. I would agree with every week. That is the gospel ritual Jesus commanded us to do, so we should do it often. But I cant' get behind priests offering the elements to us. We are all priests. We all have direct access to God. We have had elders hold the elements, kind of like presenting them. That is fine as long as it is clear that it isn't these other humans granting you access to God.

    As far as the Kingdom of God ambience in the building. That is cool. But we also need to remember that Jesus' kingdom is not in the church building. It is the whole world. Our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit now, therefore we don't need a physical temple as Christians. We should construct and decorate buildings to direct our minds to God, but I don't think we should make a law on this. I think one of the strengths of the Church is that it is so decentralized, so flexible. The Church can be relevant to all cultures and times because it can be adapted to them all. That means there is going to be a huge amount of variability in some aspects of church. That is a good thing as church tries to be all things to all people to win some to Christ. Of course doing that without compromising the central elements of the faith with sin and the world system.

    The important thing in my mind is: churches accepting the differences of other churches (as we personally accept the differences of individuals) and finding common mission around the gospel, morality, and justice.

    It's the Rothbardian coalition strategy. Combine on issues where we agree and stay separate on issues we don't. But as Christians we should find a bit more to work together on that libertarians do.

    1. RMB, I agree with the tone of your points. My point in writings such as this is to point out the value I see in each of the various traditions - not that each one can (or can afford to) or should be identical.

      One point worth considering, however: yes, in some traditions we are each priests, and the church building itself is irrelevant (in terms of architecture, etc.). Yet, images and practices shape us at least as much as propositions do - maybe more. It comes back to the idea that we live in a narrative, a story; we don't live in a world of free-floating facts.

      Again, I am not saying one is good the other bad. But these are my reflections after having experiences in the various traditions and seeing different valuable aspects in each.

    2. Good points to consider Bionic about images and practice. Image I would describe as physical space (art, texture, geometry, lighting, material, furniture). Practice I think you mean what specific activities do we do while directed to God. Part of that can be a habit of directing all of your activities to God. Most specifically things like tithing, serving in a church function, being generous or charity to people in need, etc. I grew up in a church that did responsive readings. I am not opposed to that, but I found that I said the words while tuning out the meaning. The failure there is me tuning out the meaning. But that is where I come back to, acknowledging the meaning. Another way of saying it is practicing how to worship God in everything you do.

      But back to liturgical ritual. I think it is a great idea for a church to respond verbally together in the church service to God for his goodness, truth, power, salvation, etc. I see what you are saying.

  4. Even though I was baptized Catholic, I spent much of my late 20's and early 30's in Southern Protestant churches before becoming agnostic. (back in early 2000's)

    On rare occasion I'd hear a reference to the concept of "ecumenism" in "the Church"(s)...but I always had trouble believing it based on my interactions with various Protestant members.

    Britannica does an interesting treatment on it:


    The irony of break off churches having the same thing happen to them down the road(more break offs) is duly noted.

    On one hand, polity by libertarian standards suggests "local rule" or governance at a local level as generally being good...but from a Christian worldview it's hard to adopt that as a successful strategy.....what a conundrum.

    1. Nick, I understand. Unfortunately, the desire for power is perhaps the biggest hindrance to a healthy ecumenism. Instead of seeing Christ as king, each traditions / denomination establishes their own hierarchy.

    2. Maybe Christians would be best served by a loose confederacy, as would probably be the case with small polities defending themselves against aggression.

      Certainly they have more reason than ever to do so, now that open persecution of Christians is back in fashion... one could see Archbishop Vigano's call for an Alliance as a sign that this reality is slowly dawning on the remnant.

    3. cosmic dwarf, that is the idea I support at this point, confederation and coalition.

    4. cosmic, that's how I see it - at least until Christ's return.

  5. This comment may not be posted but I believe the Protestant world is in full blown apostasy by going back to Rome. United together they are forming the Babylon of the apocalypse -- they are leading us to the national enforcement of Sunday as a national day of rest. This law will be the equivalent of making God's law void in the land in that it does away with the fourth commandment, putting in its place the papal sabbath. "Sunday is our mark of authority...the church is above the Bible, and this transference of Sabbath observance is proof of that fact." - Catholic Record of London, Ontario Sept. 1, 1923. That law will plunge the U.S. into national apostasy, a sign that the measure of our nation's iniquity is full, and that the limit of God's forbearance is reached. It is a rarity that I ever post this, don't want to put ideas into anyone's head any earlier than when it actually happens prophetically (the mark of the beast), but just letting you know some of us know where all this ecumenical stuff is TRULY headed, national ruin just before the Second Coming. It is in your own best interest to not go down this path. Didn't mean to offend a soul, just sharing what I know to be the truth.

  6. Wait, Protestants are just now realizing they worship man and not God?

    1. Weezil, this isn't helpful. Only because you comment here irregularly does it stay.

      But really, what have you accomplished with this?

  7. The review of the various traditions among Christians has been thoughtful and instructive for me. I needed to be reminded about how cerebral Calvinism is, and how the Evangelical churches's emphasis upon emotion has affinities with liberal Christianity. A friend remarked to me that there is little theological debating going on at a Salvation Army meeting, whereas, I am told, an elder may approach the preacher at a Presbyterian service for ask for evidence for something said in his sermon. I come from a hierarchical, liturgical (more precisely, Eucharistic) tradition. But, I confess, I owe my brothers and sisters from the non-hierarchical, non-liturgical independent churches churches thanks for their courageous decision to follow the Lord rather than Caesar regarding the obligation to public worship on the Lord's Day during the "pandemic". There were a few dissenting voices from the mainstream churches on this issue, but most church leaders failed to remark upon the incongruence of leaving liquor stores open but closing the religious sanctuaries. I hate to use the phrase, but "we are all in this together." Christians across denominational divides are finding more comfort in fellowship with one another than with their State accommodating denominational brethren. C.S. Lewis, hardly a liberal ecumenist, gives us in Mere Christianity a text upon which we may all profitably reflect in this dangerous time.
    As for "the Remnant", Albert Jay Nock reminded despondent lovers of liberty about Elijah's complaint to the Lord (1 Kings 19). Weary of life, persecuted by the authorities, Elijah asked "the still, small voice" to be relieved of his mission. The Voice replied that there were seven thousand souls in Israel who had never bent the knee to Baal (today, George Floyd, of course, whose "icon", showing his corpse on the lap of the God Bearer, is displayed in a chapel at Catholic University ). We are, I believe, a larger Remnant than Elijah's.

    1. Deacon Patrick, many thumbs up for this.

    2. Yes, I am amazed at the irony of weed shops and strip joints showing more "moral courage" than most mainstream churches (including my own LDS) by insisting on staying open to serve their customers, while the churches just shut down their worship and fellowship right when it was needed most to help their members deal with the "pandemic".

  8. Thanks, and Happy Thanksgiving to all!


  9. Today’s so-called “Christian world” includes several “branches” or “denominations” of Christianity who differ from each other in dogma, rite, traditions, culture, history etc. Contrary to what a lot of people like to declare, these differences are far from trivial, especially the dogmatic ones. In fact, they are huge. To the point that the that the only politically correct meaning of the word “Christian” is “anybody who claims to believe in Christ, whatever that means“. Kinda vague, no?

    That ambiguity or opacity is quite deliberate. The ideology en vogue now demands that we all nod our heads in agreement when we here the cliché about “irrelevant and obscure points of fine theology”.


    I found this article to be somewhat erratic and confusing, but you might get something of value out of it.