The phrase semper reformanda has been translated to mean “always changing” and hijacked in the interests of change for the sake of change. To many, this means that everything—from what we believe to how we conduct ourselves in a fast-changing culture to the way we “do church”—is subject to review and reinvention in every generation. It used to be liberal Christians who used the phrase to justify their adjustment of the message to the times, but now evangelicals argue that it is essential to the survival of Christianity that we keep up with the changing culture if we are to save the church from extinction.
We have seen this notion gain traction in the last few decades. Church leaders and members agitate for “change” as a sign of “integrity” or an essential element in being “relevant” in today’s generation. There are pleas for new forms, methods, and structures for the church. Most calls for innovation are driven by the godless culture around us and by our rebellious hearts within us. We want to modify the message to appeal to society; we want to make church more “user friendly” for the outsider, rather than see it as the solemn assembly of God’s covenant people.
We see this spirit at work in the revision of key biblical doctrines. Urgent voices want us to reinterpret core teaching to accommodate the hegemony of evolutionary theory. The abandonment of a historical Adam (or, where that is admitted, the denial that Adam was the first man) is driven by people in the pew who daily confront the uncomfortable challenges of their non-Christian colleagues and neighbors.
This clamor for change lies behind the redrawing of the boundaries of Christian discipleship. Whether it is encouraging a “covert or silent discipleship” among converts from Islam, the acceptance of new definitions of marriage to appease the spirit of the age, or the tolerance of openly sinful lifestyles in the interests of being nonjudgmental, it seems our view of discipleship is succumbing to the outside pressure on the church.
This has also affected the use of the word worship. In some circles, it is applied only to music—whether of the classical or contemporary variety—and it has created with it a new role in the church—“worship leader.” Others want to drop the word worship altogether, arguing that worship applies to “all of life” and not to the assemblies of God’s people. So the Lord’s Day is like any other day; liturgy is replaced by “user-friendly events”; sermons become “Bible talks”; and the focus of Sunday “meetings” becomes fellowship or evangelism rather than a covenant assembly and corporate worship.
These innovations run counter to the example of the Reformers, who denied that they were change-mongers who were interested in change for change’s sake. In the strict sense, they were pushing for a return to the radix, the “root” of biblical Christianity. They were accused of fostering change by their opponents, but their defense was that, in fact, they wanted to drive the church back to the Word of God. They envisioned reformation not as our doing the changes (active) but as our being changed (passive). In other words, when we talk about reformation, we think of the Lord who reforms us and the Scripture that is His means of reformation.
What happens when we apply Scripture and our confessions to the issue of worship? The New Testament picks up Old Testament language in calling for the assembly of the people of God. Early Christians met on the Lord’s Day with the Lord’s people to hear His Word and offer prayers. Peter describes how we come to God when we come together like living stones in a temple—God is present in a special way where His people meet. Public worship with its proclamation of the Word is for God and His covenant people and leads to their being built up in the most holy faith (1 Cor. 14). Unbelievers may be present and come under conviction as they see the work of the Word in the lives of the saints.
From the earliest days, Christians sang as well as said prayers. The Old Testament even encourages God’s people to use instruments in worship (Ps. 33:2-3). Instruments of all kinds certainly contribute to Christian singing, and music is a unique and beautiful gift from God. However, the use of instruments may have a negative impact at times: they may wrongly manipulate the emotions of the people, they may drown out the praises of God’s gathered people, or they may inhibit congregational participation in worship. The musical experience in itself may be worshiped as an idol. Thus, we must be careful not to take what is worthy, useful, and helpful—music—and make it absolute. We must be careful that music does not take the place of God in our worship.
These examples illustrate the need to be constantly asking whether inherited traditions or novel practices are biblical. We need to consider whether our practices are helping or inhibiting our worship of God. Where our practices contribute something, we have to be careful lest we ascribe too much to them and thereby sacrifice the ordinary means of grace: the Word, prayer, and sacraments.