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Reverence and Emotion in Reformed Worship Part 3

This is the third in a three-part series on the role of emotion in Reformed worship (part 2 is here). In these articles, I argue for the necessity and importance of emotion in worship. We must avoid the "frozen chosen" caricature of emotionless formalism. At the same time, however, outward displays of emotion should be self-controlled to prevent the opposite extreme of emotional formalism, in which believers are pressured to conform to outward acts of emotional expression.

Contemporary (1900s to Present)

In the contemporary church, several factors threaten to undermine the restrained reverence of traditional Reformed worship. The first is a tendency towards informality in public worship. Jon Payne observes that: “One searches the Scriptures in vain to find the kind of casual and easy-going worship that exists in many present-day churches. Although practically nonexistent prior to the latter part of the twentieth century, this radically informal approach to worship is so prevalent in our day that a serious and reverent posture is often regarded as unnecessarily formal and stuffy.”[1]

Another threat to reverent worship is a self-centered, emotion-oriented approach to worship. This approach stands in sharp contrast to the God-centered worship of Calvin in Geneva. The worship service becomes the worship “experience.”[2] Often, this man-centered approach goes hand in hand with a simplistic view of emotion. Joy is elevated to the exclusion of other emotions, and reverence is seen to be incompatible with joy.[3]

Reformed worship, by contrast, acknowledges that joy can be expressed differently in different contexts. Terry Johnson explains how the unrestrained joy of a sports victory becomes the restrained joy of the awards ceremony months later. “Christian joy,” he continues, “is not the joy of the ball field, the concert, the dance hall, or the pub … Ours is a reverential joy.”[4] Similarly, Darryl Hart argues that emotion should be expressed differently in a corporate context: “Many individuals come to a service expecting to express personal emotions and affections as part of their response to God. What they fail to recognize is that worship in the Church is corporate and, therefore, should be appropriate for what a people may do as a body or group.”[5]

There is a place for spontaneous expressions of praise or even an "Amen!" In fact, pastors often appreciate this kind of undisruptive engagement by the hearers. However, such expressions should be more signal than noise.

Ideal worship is not uninhibited, private, arms raised, eyes closed. It is not ecstatic and exuberant. Johnson argues from Scripture that, “emotional exuberance should not necessarily or even normally be identified with the presence of the Holy Spirit. The more typical response of a worshipper in the presence of God is a reverential quiet.”[6] He goes on to argue that, “Emotional restraint is a virtue, not a liability, of historic Reformed worship,” because it promotes the “undistracted focus upon the Word of God.”[7]

For this reason, raising hands in worship has been discouraged in Reformed churches:

Our joy is a reverential joy, and in public worship displayed with restraint. Ostentatious displays of zeal, whether by shouting, by raising hands, by leaping about, or by other physical manifestations have been restrained in Reformed circles by a sense of what is appropriate in a public worship service, as well as the desire not to draw attention to oneself or to claim too much for oneself.[8]

Calvin allowed raised hands in prayer because it was Scriptural. “But,” writes Terry Johnson, “the charismatic movement has taken what was a posture for prayer and turned it into a personal response to the excitement of the moment.”[9] Such a posture finds no warrant in the Scriptures.[10]

Application to Missions

It remains to apply the gleanings from half a millennium of Protestant history to Reformed churches in non-Western contexts. What does reverence look like in cultures where spontaneity and emotional expression are more natural? It is true, as Darryl Hart observes, that “there are a variety of ways for churches to embody reverence, depending on the culture in which they minister and worship.”[11] Nevertheless, the principles of reverent worship from the centuries since the Reformation still apply.

First, reverence is required when man comes before the presence of God in worship – it is not optional.

Second, the internal is more important than the external. The heart attitude of the worshiper is more important than the outward expression. Nevertheless, and for the same reason, there is room for grace in the discussion! Those who align with more traditional Reformed worship should remember that external decorum is secondary to matters of the heart and that it is God who judges the heart. We need not pass judgment on the hearts of others based on the external actions of others.

Third, emotion should follow, rather than lead worship. Emotional expression such as clapping or raising hands should not be used as a means of exciting or sustaining worship. Rather, the truth of God found in his word and understood by the mind should govern the emotions.

Finally, reverence implies some measure of emotional restraint. As Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 14, order is necessary for edification. It is the Word that takes precedence in Reformed worship, and where the nonverbal detracts or distracts from the verbal, the Word is displaced. Therefore, love for neighbor requires restraint for the good of the body.

Although the raised hands of indigenous churches might not necessarily reflect Charismatic tendencies, they may still be more pagan than Biblical. The exuberant expressions of indigenous churches may be so normal as to go unnoticed to the churchgoer. Nevertheless, an illustration by John Broadus may apply to these cultural forms of expression as well as to architecture. He imagines a beautiful church building which has since receded in the mind of the congregants. However, “take a man from the most ignorant rural region, utterly unused to such things, and place him in this church next Sunday morning, and his attention would be utterly distracted by the architectural beauties of the place … and he would be scarcely able to have any other thought.”[12] Likewise, the boisterous worship of a church may be relatively harmless for the people accustomed to it. Nevertheless, it may prove to be a hindrance to the worship of a visitor, or to those who are naturally more reserved, who exist in all cultures.


A reverent restraint in the worship of God, by contrast, is universal. All cultures have some idea of dignity and decorum when coming before a great king. They have only to realize that God is a great King, as well as a loving heavenly Father. The simplicity of Reformed worship is its strength. The elements, as well as the posture of worship, are not bound by any one culture. The Word, the Psalms, and the sacraments are the heritage of the church universal. Likewise, reverent worship, informed by Scripture, transcends culture and contributes to the unity of Reformed churches.

[1] Jon D. Payne, In the Splendor of Holiness: Rediscovering the Beauty of Reformed Worship for the 21st Century (Wheaton, Illinois: Tolle Lege Press, c2008), 32.

[2] Terry L. Johnson, Worshipping with Calvin: Recovering the Historic Ministry and Worship of Reformed Protestantism (Darlington, England: EP Books, c2014), 74-75.

[3] D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, c2002), 126.

[4] Terry L. Johnson, Worshipping with Calvin, 301.

[5] D. G. Hart, “Reforming Worship: Reverence, the Reformed Tradition, & the Crisis of Protestant Worship,” Touchstone 8, no. 4 (Fall 1995): 17-21.

[6] Terry L. Johnson, Worshipping with Calvin, 300.

[7] Ibid., 302.

[8] Terry L. Johnson, Reformed Worship: Worship that is According to Scripture (Greenville, South Carolina: Reformed Academic Press, c2000), 52.

[9] Ibid., 57.

[10] Psalms 28:2 and 141:2 explicitly connect lifting hands to prayer, from which we can infer that the lifting of the hands serves as a metonymy for prayer in Psalms 63:4, 134:2, and elsewhere. In the New Testament, Paul explicitly connects prayer and "lifting up holy hands" in 1 Timothy 2:8.

[11] Hart and Muether, With Reverence and Awe, 122.

[12] John A. Broadus, “Worship,” in Classic Sermons on Worship, ed. Warren W. Wiersbe (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Hendrickson Publishers, c1988), 23.

Robert Kelbe

Robert Kelbe

I am a pastor at the Manhattan Reformed Presbyterian Church in beautiful Manhattan, KS.

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