Category Archives: Book notes

Aiming to Please — Now on Kindle

Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship is now available from Amazon on Kindle.

$9.99 at Amazon.ca

$11.99 at Amazon.com

$15.65 at Amazon.com.au


The Accompanist as Prophet? — Excerpt from Aiming to Please

Jan Zwart

The following is an excerpt from Aiming to Please, chapter 16.  Aiming to Please:  A Guide to Reformed Worship can be purchased from Amazon and many other online retailers around the world.

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The Accompanist as Prophet?

If we have accompaniment, the accompanist has an important role in our worship service.  As just intimated, poor accompaniment is worse than no accompaniment.  We want our accompanists to aim to please the LORD along with the entire congregation.  There has to be a pursuit of excellence in the craft of accompaniment.  When this is done, we should be thankful and encourage our accompanists.

Regrettably, in our tradition there has sometimes been inordinate language when it comes to accompanists, and especially organists.  Sometimes the organist has been described as a “prophet” and his playing as “prophesying from the organ bench.”  It seems that this rhetoric traces back to the famous Dutch organist Jan Zwart.  According to Deddens, Zwart spoke of “prophesying during the worship service, before and after the sermon, in a language the people can understand.”  Reformed theologian Klaas Schilder took over this language in describing Zwart posthumously:  “His life’s work was to prophesy from the organ bench, and when we say that we give true expression to what motivated this man.”  Deddens appreciated this rhetoric and took it over as well.

The major problem with this description of the accompanist is that it does not stand up to biblical scrutiny.  In the Bible, prophecy is almost always about words.  A prophet without words is unheard of.  There are instances where prophets performed prophetic acts, but these were exceptional, and even these acts never occurred in isolation from their words.  Both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, prophecy is verbal.  When Lord’s Day 12 of the Catechism says we are anointed to be prophets who confess the name of Christ, it is referring to a verbal activity.  During and after the Reformation, preaching was sometimes called “prophesying” – because it had to do with words.  The idea of a musical instrument being a means of prophecy is unheard of, biblically and historically.

While certainly appreciating the work of accompanists (more on that in a moment), let us also be modest about what they are doing.  If one wants to employ the language of the three-fold office of all believers to describe accompanists, then it would be better to refer to them in priestly terms.  With their accompaniment, they are offering a sacrifice of thanksgiving with the rest of the congregation.  That is something which can be done both with and without words.

Proper Honour for Accompanists

If an accompanist takes his or her work seriously, there can be quite a bit of preparation involved with each service.  Moreover, a serious accompanist might even be a professional musician with years of training.  A lot of time and money may have been invested in honing their musical craft.  This ought to be honoured and recognized.

That can be done in different ways, of course.  One way would be for the pastor regularly to pray for the accompanist(s) in his congregation.  Another would be for there to be occasional acknowledgement of the accompanist in the church bulletin or perhaps at a congregational meeting.  Still another way would be to ask the accompanist to help the congregation in understanding music in worship.  Accompanists have the musical understanding and skills that many of us do not, and asking them to share their insights also shows respect for them and their craft.  Let them teach us.

It is also appropriate to show our gratitude to our accompanists with an honorarium.  This recognizes the time, energy, and financial commitment they have made to pursue excellence in accompanying our singing.  Churches that do not offer an honorarium to their accompanists can sometimes struggle to find accompaniment, especially if there are other churches nearby which do offer honorariums.

Now someone might object and say, “A lot of us do volunteer work in the church and we don’t get paid for it.  So why should the accompanist get paid?”  There are two things to say in response.  First, the accompanist is not being “paid” for their labours.  He or she is not an employee of the church, at least not typically.  The accompanist is a volunteer, offering his or her services for the glory of God.  Second, unlike most other volunteer work in the church, the accompanist has spent a lot of his or her time, energy, and money on learning to play well.  Continuing to play well also requires investments, including the purchase of sheet music.  Accompaniment is different than the other volunteer work done in the church.  A modest honorarium recognizes this.


What’s in Aiming to Please?

Before I wrote Aiming to Please, I asked my Facebook friends what sorts of questions they’d like to see addressed in a book on Reformed worship.  Many responded.  I noted all the questions and tried to work them in.  Here’s a list of almost all the questions you’ll find answered:

  • What difference does covenant theology make for Reformed worship?
  • Do we hold to the Regulative Principle of Worship?
  • What do our confessions say about worship?
  • Do our children belong in the worship service?
  • When and how does the worship service begin?
  • Can someone other than a minister say “you” with the salutation and benediction?
  • Why do we read the Ten Commandments every Sunday?
  • Is there a biblical warrant for singing hymns?
  • Can we sing all the psalms?
  • Should we sing whole psalms or just selected stanzas?
  • Should we pray with uplifted hands?
  • Should the congregation say the votum?
  • Does the pastor lift one hand or two for the salutation?
  • Should the congregation say the “Amen”?
  • Does a sermon need to use words?
  • Can a woman lead in the reading of Scripture in the worship service?
  • Why do we have collection bags?
  • How can we do the offertory in an increasingly cash-less society?
  • Do we need to read the liturgical forms exactly as written?
  • If my neighbour becomes a Christian, can I baptize him in my swimming pool?
  • With baptism, should the sprinkling be done once or three times?
  • Should baptism be done before or after the sermon?
  • How often ought we to celebrate the Lord’s Supper?
  • Should we celebrate the Lord’s Supper at tables or in the pew?
  • Why do we have a supervised Lord’s Supper?
  • Do you need an attestation from a sister church to attend the Lord’s Supper as a guest?
  • Can we use non-alcoholic wine or grape juice for the Lord’s Supper?
  • Can we administer the Lord’s Supper to shut-ins?
  • Why do we worship twice on the Lord’s Day?
  • Is catechism preaching biblical?
  • What is the best way to do catechism preaching?
  • Does church architecture matter?
  • Should the elders sit at the front?
  • Can we use a projector in worship?
  • Doesn’t the Regulative Principle of Worship forbid instruments in worship?
  • Is the organist “a prophet on the organ bench”?
  • Should accompanists receive an honorarium?
  • What about drums in our musical accompaniment?
  • Doesn’t the Regulative Principle of Worship forbid holy days like Christmas?
  • Can we celebrate Christ’s birth on a day other than December 25?
  • Should we have liturgical seasons of Advent or Lent?
  • Does it make sense to have offerings in a church plant or other mission setting?

If you’re in Canada, you can buy Aiming to Please direct from the publisher here.  If you’re elsewhere in the world, it’s available via Amazon and other online retailers.


Christ-Centered Preaching

I read the first edition of this book in 1999, when I was still a seminary student.  It was probably the single most powerful influence on my development as a preacher.  One of Chapell’s emphases is the Fallen Condition Focus:  “the mutual human condition that contemporary persons share with those to or about whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage for God’s people to glorify and enjoy him.”  More than once, the FCF has gotten me out of a homiletical pickle — you know, when you’re stumped about how to preach the passage before you.  This third edition is considerably larger than the first.  It contains a lot more nuance and takes into account further developments in homiletics.  For example, chapter 10 on “A Redemptive Approach to Preaching” has been expanded significantly.  I especially appreciated Chapell’s discussion of various redemptive-historical methods and how they ought all to be accorded a place in the preacher’s toolbox.  I can hardly imagine there being any Reformed preachers who’ve never read Chapell — especially since it’s now a widely-used seminary text.  But, like me, you may have read the first edition many years ago.  If that’s you, let me say it’s worth a few clams to pick up the third and give it another go.


“Go to sleep” Says the Sermon

In his Lectures to My Students, Spurgeon has this little ditty which has always amused me:

It is an ill case when the preacher

“Leaves his hearers perplex’d —

Twixt the two to determine:

‘Watch and pray,’ says the text,

‘Go to sleep,’ says the sermon.

I couldn’t help but think of that as I was re-reading Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ great classic, Preaching & Preachers.  He notes that a preacher who appears untouched by the truth he’s preaching is not really a preacher at all.  He goes on:

I came across a notable example of what I am condemning recently when I was convalescing after an illness.  I was staying in a village in a certain part of England and went to the local church just across the road from where I was staying.  I found that the preacher was preaching that evening on the prophet Jeremiah.  He told us that he was starting a series of sermons on the prophet.  So he was starting with that great text where Jeremiah said he could not refrain any longer, but that the Word of God was like a fire in his bones.  That was the text he took.  What happened?  I left the service feeling that I had witnessed something quite extraordinary, for the one big thing that was entirely missing in that service was ‘fire.’  The good man was talking about fire as if he were sitting on an iceberg.  He was actually dealing with the theme of fire in a detached and cold manner; he was a living denial of the very thing that he was saying, or perhaps I should say a dead denial.  It was a good sermon from the standpoint of construction and preparation.  He had obviously taken considerable care over this, and had obviously written out every word, because he was reading it; but that one thing that was absent was fire.  There was no zeal, no enthusiasm, no apparent concern for us as members of the congregation.  His whole attitude seemed to be detached and academic and formal.  (p.88)

Sad, no?  It reminds me of a time I visited a Presbyterian church somewhere.  This church had a seminary and their homiletics professor was on the pulpit that Sunday morning.  The poor man had just flown in the day before and was dealing with a bad case of jet lag.  He yawned his way through the whole sermon.  Maybe it was just a bad day for that brother…