The Arts in Presbyterian Churches in America

Worship in the Presbyterian Church of America is marked by an accent on what are regarded as timeless principles first articulated in the earliest years of the denomination. These principles, however, are most often seen as reflecting the need for maintaining doctrinal standards rather than dictating a need for only traditional artistic expression. Thus, while psalm-singing is fostered and traditional hymns are heard, there is, especially in newer congregations, an acceptance of less formal orders of worship and newer musical styles. Most churches observe the passing liturgical year only minimally, and the use of the visual arts is sparing but on the increase.

The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) was organized in December 1973. Its 40,000 members were dispersed among 260 churches with 196 ministers. They supported eight foreign missionaries. Twenty years later, the PCA had grown to 240,000 in 1,100 churches with 2,200 ministers. Its foreign mission force currently numbers over 600 in full-time ministry, with several hundred more involved in short-term mission works. In addition, the denomination has nearly 100 military chaplains and a considerable number of people leading campus ministries and national home-mission projects. From its beginning as a regional church in the southeast, it has become truly national in character, with strong presbyteries in the Northeast, Midwest, and Pacific regions.

Virtually all of the leadership and membership of the PCA in 1973 had come out of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (which has since merged with the United Presbyterian Church). Conservatives in that denomination had, throughout the sixties, attempted to redirect the more liberal doctrinal and social trends of their church. By 1973, those liberal trends included a rejection of biblical inerrancy, support of abortion, lessening commitment to evangelism, endorsement of liberation theology, and acceptance of ministers who did not believe in the historicity of Adam, the record of biblical miracles, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, or the physical resurrection of the Savior.

The PCA was born out of that controversy, but at its first General Assembly determined not to focus on criticism of its former denominational home. Instead, an aggressive, forward-looking evangelistic spirit was consciously adopted and pursued. Primary attention was given to the support of evangelists and church planters on home and foreign fields as well as for discipling ministries in the Christian education programs of local churches. The historic constitution of American Presbyterianism was adopted. All ordained officers (teaching and ruling elders and also deacons) take vows of agreement with the system of doctrine in the seventeenth century Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms.

Matters relating to worship, music, and the arts continue to be answered not by reference to local church preference and tradition. Rather, a concerted effort is made to reach decisions on the basis of clear biblical teaching and example and by constitutional instruction. In addition to the material on worship in the Westminster Standards, the PCA also has a “Book of Church Order” (BOCO), third part of which is a “Directory for Worship.”

Both documents (WCF and BOCO’s Directory for Worship) are products of the seventeenth-century English Puritan reaction to efforts to reintroduce elements of the Roman liturgy, sacramentalism, and liturgical conformity. They have their origins in the principles of reform articulated by John Calvin in Switzerland and by John Knox in Scotland, both in the mid-1500s. But as part of the constitution of the PCA, these documents continue to be used for their statement of timeless principles in defining and regulating worship on the contemporary scene.

“The regulative principle of worship” is a phrase often heard in the PCA in discussing matters of worship, music, and the arts. It is firmly planted in WCF and in BOCO, and is familiar to all in the ministry of the PCA. The principle is that since worship is of such prominence in Scripture, it must be of first importance to God. Therefore he has spoken in Scripture (not in tradition or in church council) to define and regulate worship. All that God has said should be done in his worship must be included in our worship. And only that which God said may be done in his worship can be included in our worship.

The elements of worship that God commands in Scripture are generally viewed as being the reading of Scripture, preaching, prayer, the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), offerings, professing of faith, singing, and receiving God’s benediction (blessing). The expressions of these elements will vary according to custom and convenience and will include such issues as the time and order of worship, the architecture and design of the worship center, the style of music, and the frequency of Communion.

While the PCA is “conservative” in its traditional view of Scripture and its maintenance of historic doctrinal standards, it is generally “progressive” in applying Scripture and doctrinal standards to contemporary culture. This is true whether the “culture” is that of Old Downtown First Church, New Community Suburban Church, or one of the many ethnic missions at home or abroad. There is universal agreement as to the “elements” of worship, as defined above, but widespread diversity in implementing the varied “expressions” of those unchanging elements.

In most PCA churches (typically under 150 members), the local pastor has the primary (almost sole) influence on the style of worship. As the church grows, it is typical for staff musicians (usually part-time, often volunteer) to participate in some of the planning. It is unusual to find a music and worship committee of the session (the ruling body of elders) that includes some lay members.

Generally, worship order is traditional and unchanging. Hymns, prayer, an offering, and special music precede Scripture and sermon, which is usually twenty-five to thirty minutes in length. Increasingly, PCA churches, especially newer congregations organized within the last ten years, are adopting a less formal and more flexible order and style of worship. Along with efforts to reach ahead for the new are also efforts to reach back for the old. A concerted effort (with wide support) is underway to encourage the singing of more Psalms than just the twenty-third and one hundredth. Increasing numbers are drawn to this as being not only biblical but also historical. Reformed churches in Switzerland, Holland, England, and Scotland originally sang only the Psalms, not hymns.

Victorian hymns and gospel songs (both nineteenth-century products) were the standard fares in PCA churches in 1973. Only larger churches had pipe organs. Few had paid musicians on staff. Today, many of the newer congregations add a full-time minister of music and worship before adding a youth minister, and even before moving out of rented facilities and into their own building. Increasingly, a more contemporary worship style is being viewed as a primary means of attracting the unchurched. While this has not resulted in the widespread adoption of the Willow Creek model (with its tendency to appeal more to entertainment qualities than to worship), it has resulted in even well-established churches using accompaniment tapes, electric keyboards, and praise choruses on overhead projectors along with traditional hymns, anthems, pianos, and organs.

Still, very traditional small churches continued to play piano-accompanied gospel songs as their primary worship music (although they may add selections in the “pop” style of John W. Peterson or the Gaithers). Then there are very traditional large churches that maintain an excellent “high church” style of worship and music, from anthems to hymnody, with magnificent pipe organs and occasionally even orchestras. But the greater number of churches in the PCA are increasingly using an eclectic approach to style, always within the bounds of the “regulative principle of worship.” As would be expected from their “free church” background, PCA churches do not customarily take note of the seasons of the church year. However, most churches do observe an Advent season (sometimes including an Advent candle ceremony) leading up to Christmas Eve candlelight services (frequently with Communion) and Christmas Sunday celebrations. Similarly, one will generally find Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, and Easter Sunday services. Rare will be the PCA church with a full Lenten season observance. Liturgical colors, lectionaries, vestments (other than a simple black robe), chants, and antiphons are relatively unknown entities.

Use of the arts (besides music) is spare but on the increase. Most church buildings reflect a very traditional and functional design that emphasizes simplicity and conforms to budgetary restraints. Decoration in newer buildings is more likely to consist of thematic banners than of stained glass windows. Drama and dance are beginning to find a place in a relatively small number of congregations, but not without objection. Often, these are performed by visiting professional teams, as in a concert series. Where they are utilized “in-house,” it is with a careful definition that these are not additional “elements” in worship (certainly not to replace others, such as the sermon), but rather as varied “expressions” of those elements. For example, a skit may serve as an illustration of a point to be made in the sermon, or dance might accompany an anthem or solo. These uses of the arts are generally more likely to be found in newly established congregations than in those predating the denomination’s 1973 organization. Where they have found a place, drama and dance teams meet regularly as another ministry option alongside rehearsals for handbells, instrumentalists, and choirs. These churches have developed a reputation for a very high standard of excellence in all of the arts.

While there is not a denominational office dealing with worship and music, the subject is one of increased discussion at many levels. In 1991 a denominational hymnal was published through Great Commission Publications, the PCA publishing agency (Horsham, Pennsylvania). The Trinity Hymnal contains seven hundred forty-five selections, including settings of most of the Psalms. Musical styles range from traditional and gospel to folk and contemporary. A number of the hymns give chords for guitar accompaniment. The responsive Psalm readings use the New International Version translation. The full text of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Shorter Catechism, along with very extensive Scripture and topical indexes are included. Two denominational studies are currently underway. A large committee is preparing an extensive manual to define principles and recommend practices in the fields of music, worship, and the arts to assist church planters in the formative stages of a new congregation’s life. And another committee is studying ways to encourage more singing of psalms in the church’s worship.

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