Review: Perspectives on Christian Worship, pt. 2 – Traditional Worship

This is part 2 of a series of blog posts on Perspective on Christian Worship:5 views. The first post was on Liturgical Worship, and now our attention turns to “Traditional Evangelical Worship” as described by Lignon Duncan.

Again, this synopsis in no way should replace careful reading of this important book.

Duncan begins by defining worship: “. . . worship is declaring — with our lips and our lives — that God is ore important than anything else to us, that He is our deepest desire, that His inherent worth is beyond everything else that we hold dear” (101, original emphasis).  He contrasts this meaning with the commonly held notion of “experiencing worship” as an emotional catharsis. Duncan argues the main reason to worship is for God’s glory.Interestingly, Duncan eschews the Old Testament vs. New Testament paradigm so important to the essay on liturgical (Lutheran) worship in a single paragraph. He also gives lengthy quotes from Jerry Bridges, “Lou” Giglio, and Hughes Old.

The goal and meaning of public worship, Duncan continues, “is to glorify and enjoy God, in accordance with his written word. That is . . .  to give to the Lord the glory due His name and to enjoy the blessing of His promised special presence with His own people, in obedience to His instructions set forth in the Bible” (104).  “The great concern of traditional evangelical worship is for the heart, form, and content of congregational worship to be biblical” (104). And, again, “. . . the great distinctive of the traditional evangelical approach to public worship is that we aim for both the form and substance of our corporate worship to be suffused with Scripture and scriptural theology” (105).

Duncan then elaborates on this theme by providing the following implications for services.

  1. We will read the Bible in our public worship.
  2. We will preach the Bible in our public worship.
  3. We will pray the Bible in our worship. “Christians ought to view the public prayer of the pulpit as no less a means of grace than the preaching of God’s Word and the administration of the sacraments” (107).
  4. We will sing the Bible in our worship.
  5. We will “see” the Bible in our Public worship. “That is, we are to observe the appointed visible ordinances or sacraments in public worship”  (108).

In a very brief but important paragraph, Duncan delineates three distinctions within public worship.

  • Elements: like singing, praying, reading Scripture, preaching, administering the sacraments, making solemn vows, confessing the faith, and giving offerings.
  • Forms: how one goes about singing, etc.
  • Circumstances: incidentals like whether you sit in pews or chairs or stand, whether you meet in a church building or a storefront, what time you meet, how long you meet.

Duncan proceeds to list two common errors. “The first error is thinking that circumstances are more important than the elements and content of our gathered worship. The second error is thinking that circumstances are neutral.” (I [Matthew] could not find a further discussion of Forms.)

For Duncan, labeling a service as “contemporary” over-emphasizes the musical style of the service and creates a consumer mentality in the attendees. Styles, says Duncan, are not neutral, and “the more consistent this strategy of deploying the musical ‘style’ of a commercial pop subculture in a given worship service, the more barriers are erected to divide the communion sanctorum” (111 – original emphasis).

Traditional evangelicals, says Duncan, “are against culture-driven worship (though we readily admit that there is no human worship that is not culturally situated) . . . . One cannot conceive of a situation more ripe for the exploitation of our perennial, innate human tendency toward idolatry than one in which the ‘style preferences’ of an individual or group become a significant factor (or the significant factor) in dictating the shape of our public worship. (113)”

Duncan then gives twelve qualities for traditional evangelical worship services.

  1. Scriptural
  2. Simple – “Everything that is claimed to be essential or key or important to thriving Christian congregational worship (whether it be sound and lighting, instruments, clerical vestments, or prescribed liturgy based on some fixed form of the past) must pass the test of the catacombs: Is this essential to the faithful corporate worship of persecuted Christians huddled away in some hole worshiping God together in spirit and truth?” (115).
  3. Spiritual – “It is God the Holy Spirit who creates, enables, and energizes our desire and capacity to worship.” (115)
  4. God-centered
  5. Historic. “. . . we believe that the  historic evangelical worship of the last half millennium is more biblical than its evangelical counterpart of the last forty years.” (117)
  6. Reverent and Joyful “. . . true Christian worship springs from the heart and is characterized by the whole range of godly affections and sanctified emotional responses of the soul to the truth and glory of the living God.” (118)
  7. Mediated. (or Christ-based).
  8. Corporate. Worship is “. . . the covenant community engaging with God, gathering with His people to seek the face of God, to glorify and enjoy Him, to hear His Word, to revel in the glory of union and communion with Him, to respond to His Word, to render praise back to Him, to give to Him the glory due His name.” (119)
  9. Evangelistic. “. . . worship is not evangelism . . . . Nevertheless, evangelism is one important by-product of true worship.” (120)
  10. Delightful. Quoting Edwards, “Indeed, the saints rejoice in their interest in God, and that Christ is theirs, and so they have great reason, but this is not the first spring of their joy. They first rejoice in God as glorious and excellent in Himself, and then secondarily rejoice in the fact that so glorious a God is theirs.” (121, quoting Religious Affections)
  11. Active and passive. “We come to bless and to receive God’s blessing (Ps 134), to give and to receive.”
  12. Lord’s Day. “. . . regular and faithful congregational Sunday morning and evening worship (even in a culture where the latter, especially, is disappearing) ought to be a major emphasis in any healthy church.”


Duncan presents two main points that move the discussion forward: (1) biblical basis, and (2) the bias (or un-neutrality) of forms.  Everyone (so far) agrees that the Bible is authoritative for worship of the living God. Duncan argues that the styles that we pick carry baggage with them that affects our churches in many (often unintentional) ways. However, I am not sure the Duncan has applied this rubric to traditional evangelical practices to the same degree that he applies it to contemporary practices. Surely, traditional evangelical churches are are not “style-less” — surely, there is a “style” within traditional evangelical churches, and this style also has baggage that affects those churches in many (often unintentional) ways. It would have been helpful for Duncan to discuss the ways in which the style of traditional evangelical churches endangers the Evangel itself.


All the responses began with words of affirmation.  This synopsis will highlight areas of disagreement or distinction.

Timothy Quill takes issue with Duncan’s starting point of worship. He insists it  “is not with man’s acknowledgment of the sovereignty and glory of God but with the grace of God in Christ” (125).  I [Matthew] see nothing in Duncan’s essay that would suggest that Duncan would disagree. Next, Quill writes that “Duncan’s order sees worship as primarily and foremost what man does. The last thing on the list is receiving God’s favor. Finally God gets something to do” (126). However, Duncan would surely see the Lord as actively involved during the preaching of the Word, providing illumination, understanding, and faith to the hearers of the Word.

Dan Wilt cringes at an evangelical “subculture” which, in the name of the Bible,  is far less inclusive of the diversity in the world than the God of the Bible is. He wonders if Duncan’s paradigm minimizes the human aspect of the divine-human relationship, and is reductionistic of God’s view (and love) of variety. He wants to connect the worship ways instituted by God in the Scriptures with ‘contemporary’ (my word) “human contribution, imagination and even innovation. . . .” (133)  Wilt’s points are real and well-said, but leave the feeling that he may be referring to more than Duncan’s essay proper. Wilt’s point might be better stated by pointing the biblical nature of his claim: i.e., ethnic diversity in heaven, purchased at the cost of Christ’s blood (Rev 5:9), or ways that worship changed throughout biblical times (alter, tabernacle, temple, exile, and temple). For all it’s emphasis on being “biblical,” Duncan’s essay focused down on the New Testament almost exclusively, thus missing some of the variety that three-thousand years of God’s people had brought to worship.

Mark Dever and Michael Lawrance agree with much of Duncan’s proposal. And by “much” I mean all. It may have simpler for the editor to allow Dever and Lawrance type “Amen!” directly into the text of Duncan’s essay :-). They do, however, briefly discuss a slight nuance of understanding (though not of practice) of the Lord’s Day. For all the good-natured ribbing I [Matthew] am giving, Dever and Lawrance do seem to be the respondents who most interact with Duncan’s essay itself.

Dan Kimball writes that singing 17th-century European songs while sitting in pews is just as “contrived” as Duncan’s examples of Americans using Celtic music. Kimball argues (per Duncan) that because the medium may overwhelm  and change the message,  “if we become stuck in the cultural traditions of certain time periods, then we actually can reverse what we hope to do.” (141).

NEXT TIME: Contemporary Worship with Dan Wilt.


2 thoughts on “Review: Perspectives on Christian Worship, pt. 2 – Traditional Worship

  1. Hey Matt! It was great meeting you in Grand Rapids when I was there and I am enjoying reading your perspectives here! Hope all is well!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s