What We Believe

The Psalter and the Church's Personality

Stephen J. Oharek

New Horizons: March 2009

What Makes a Great Hymn?

Also in this issue

What Makes a Great Hymn?

Since Christ Is Lord of Heaven and Earth

Irresistible Grace

How many times have you heard this comment: "The community church down the road seems so happy and joyous, whereas your church seems so serious and somber"? Many Orthodox Presbyterians have heard such comments—comments that address the "personality" of a given congregation.

In our defense, we do take God seriously, we do take the Bible seriously, and we do take our worship seriously. These are all indispensable hallmarks of Reformed churches that reflect our theology. But is it true that we lack joy? Must a congregation be either joyful or serious?

Many churches do take on a one-dimensional personality. Yet the complexities of the Bible show us what it means to have more mature, less one-sided church personalities. And, as we will see, the maturation of our churches depends in no small part upon our willingness to allow the complexities of the Word of God to shape our worship, thereby shaping the personality of our churches.

The Multidimensional Psalter

The book of Psalms is a marvelous book for many reasons, not the least of which is the diversity of its contents. Among the 150 psalms, some are full of praise, some are full of sorrow, some focus on confidence in God, and others focus on God's wisdom. Still others deal with such matters as kingship, thanksgiving, and remembrance. The Psalter is not a set of praise choruses. It is truly multidimensional.

Those varied themes of the Psalter are the varied themes of our existence. They display for us the many facets of the Christian experience. Who are we in Christ? How does our identity in Christ enable us to make sense of the sorrow we feel one day and the joy we feel the next? As those who have been adopted as sons of the living God, how are we to face our final days in this world, and how are we to deal with the frustration of a sin-stained world in the meantime?

While all of these questions are addressed elsewhere in the Bible, no single book in it addresses more of these dimensions than does the Psalter. That is why Athanasius called the Psalter "an epitome of the whole Scriptures." When rightly interpreted in light of the fuller revelation found in the New Testament, the Psalter gives us samples of the whole package of Christian identity and experience.

This complexity tells us something about our individual Christian personalities, as well as the corporate personalities of our churches. Only the most immature reading of the Psalter could ever lead one to draw the conclusion that joy (or seriousness) is the only appropriate attitude for God's people. The Psalter forces us to recognize that the mature Christian will not only be joyous and filled with praise at times, but will at other times experience great sorrow or spend time contemplating wisdom or remembering God's goodness. In short, the mature Christian should be as complex as the Psalter, and the mature church should be similarly complex. It is as immature for a congregation to be dominated by seriousness as it is for a congregation to be dominated by joy. The church already tastes the joys of heaven, but she still endures the pain of this present evil age. Joy, grief, and everything else that the Psalter has to offer should be part of the church's personality. But how does a church get that way?

Corporate Worship and Christian Maturity

If we truly believe that the Word, prayer, and the sacraments are the outward and ordinary means by which God nourishes and strengthens his people (Shorter Catechism 88 and following), and if the Word, prayer, and the sacraments are used by God in this way most powerfully during corporate worship services, "where two or three are gathered in [his] name" (Matt. 18:20), then shouldn't a given congregation's worship services have a profound influence in shaping its personality?

If every worship service in Congregation A were characterized by joy and praise, it might be reasonable to expect that such a congregation would have a generally cheerful and sunny personality as a whole. On the other hand, if every worship service in Congregation B were characterized by seriousness and contemplation, we might reasonably expect that congregation to be generally serious and studious. But should our congregations have such one-dimensional personalities? Doesn't the complex nature of the Psalter suggest that the more mature Christian will have a broader range of emotions, and that the more mature congregation will not be simply joyful or serious?

All of this agrees well with the "reverence and awe" commended to us in Hebrews 12:28. "Reverence and awe" are not a one-dimensional orientation of personality for God's people. Rather, these are foundational components that shape the wider variety of attitudes in worship. In worship, we should have reverential joy, reverential sorrow, reverential thanksgiving, and so forth. Worship services in which the wisdom of God or his kingship are prominently on display ought to be services that inspire awe in God's worshipers. "With reverence and awe" we are to embrace the full and complex range of emotions and personality set forth in the Psalter and elsewhere in Scripture.

Liturgically Following the Psalter's Lead

So how can the worship services of the church be used to promote such biblical maturity? Many Reformed liturgies already have such variety built into them. We begin with praise and joy in the call to worship and the opening hymn. We then move to humility and sobriety in our confession of sin and reading of the law. Next we promote attitudes of thanksgiving and contemplation of God's deeds with the assurance of pardon and hymns of thanksgiving. We then contemplate God's wisdom and fatherly instruction in the more lengthy prayer of the service, the sermon, and the sacraments. Finally, we rejoice in and respond to God's goodness in the concluding hymn, the collection of tithes and offerings, and the benediction. If the leaders and participants of worship services would be more attuned to this complexity built right into Reformed liturgies, it would go a long way toward encouraging greater maturity in the personality of each congregation.

There is another strategy that may be employed to promote a more thorough and sustained appreciation of the complexities of Christian maturity. Perhaps it would be profitable to allow the sermon text for each worship service to dictate the general attitude of worship for that service. After all, since the preaching of the Word is the chief means of grace, it would appear fitting to coordinate the entire service with it. Many who prepare worship services do this kind of coordination when it comes to sermon content, but do we do it enough when it comes to sermon disposition?

If a sermon text is oriented toward contemplating the depths of wisdom, then there are ways to have the call to worship, the opening hymn, the reading of the law, and so forth, contain pieces of contemplative wisdom. If a sermon text is oriented toward suffering and lament, there are ways to appropriately enter God's courts with thanksgiving and praise that are mindful of our suffering and lament. We have a rich collection of hymns and psalms that contain these complexities. Prayers and Scripture readings during the service can also be selected accordingly. In all of this coordination with each service's sermon text, we are not simply aiming for an intellectual consistency throughout the service, but also an emotional and attitudinal consistency throughout all phases of the worship service.

From Public Worship to Church Personality

The liturgical suggestions outlined briefly above are by no means simple or easy to implement. However, there are many worshipers and worship leaders who are saddened and discouraged by the apparent shallowness and one-dimensional character of so many Christian congregations—including some of our own churches!

Often in our circles, the frustration and accusation is that we are too intellectual and serious, while the community church down the road is much more vibrant and joyous. But to put the matter in such simple terms is to betray the shallowness and lack of sophistication with which we have become accustomed to evaluating worship in the first place. Our goal should not be to "become more joyful" or "shift from serious to vibrant." Instead, as we allow the Psalter and the rest of the Bible to give us a kind of blueprint for spiritual maturity, we will realize that we need to be both serious and vibrant, both joyful and somber— and all the rest!

Do we trust that God can use our worship services to cultivate more mature personalities for our churches? Are we willing to avail ourselves of the rich spiritual resources that are at our disposal? If so, then worshipers and worship leaders will reflect upon these things weekly. They will allow themselves to be guided by the disposition of the various portions of God's Word more and more each Lord's Day. In doing that, let us see if God does not expand and mature our congregations and their personalities.

The author is pastor of Reformation OPC in Oviedo, Fla. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2009.

New Horizons: March 2009

What Makes a Great Hymn?

Also in this issue

What Makes a Great Hymn?

Since Christ Is Lord of Heaven and Earth

Irresistible Grace

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