Tag Archives: Aiming to Please

What About Advent and Lent? Excerpt from Aiming to Please

The following is an excerpt from chapter 17 of Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship (available from Amazon and other retailers). The chapter begins with a consideration of the so-called Days of Commemoration (Christmas, Easter, etc.). I argue that there is liberty for Reformed churches to worship on these days.

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What About Advent and Lent?

Some churches follow not only the practice of commemorating occasions like Christmas and Easter, but also the special seasons of Advent and Lent.  Advent is the four weeks leading up to December 25.  Lent consists of the forty days leading up to Easter – it includes Palm Sunday, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday.  This liturgical calendar (which includes far more dates and seasons) is observed in Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, but has also made some inroads into Reformed churches as well. 

We noted above that John Calvin did not practice Advent or Lent.  There were services every day in Geneva and, in the week leading up to Easter, Calvin did preach on the suffering of Christ.[1]  However, that is not at all the same as forty days of Lent observance or four weeks of Advent. 

By the time of Abraham Kuyper, there was a diversity of practice in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands.  Kuyper noted that quite a few ministers in his time did follow the liturgical calendar, including Advent and Lent.[2]  He was opposed to prescribing anything on this score, and himself expressed some reservations about it.       

There are a few objections one could bring to following the liturgical calendar more broadly.  To start, I appreciate what Hughes Oliphant Old wrote about this:

The recent effort to bring back the celebration of the old liturgical calendar has suspicious similarities to a revival of the nature religions, natural theology, a cyclical interpretation of life, and the resurgence of the religions of fortune and fertility.  One does penance in Advent, when winter sets in, and then one rejoices at Easter, when the flowers reappear in the spring.  It is all quite natural, but this fascination with liturgical seasons sometimes seems not much more than a revival of Canaanitism.  The primary emphasis of any Reformed liturgical calendar should be the weekly observance of the Lord’s Day.[3]

 Moreover, the observance of these seasons gives the impression that we are somehow reliving all these events in redemptive history.  It is as if we are spending four weeks waiting for Jesus to be born – when he was already born 2000 years ago.  Or, with Lent, it seems that we are spending forty days preparing ourselves for the crucifixion on Good Friday.  These events have happened and it is one thing to commemorate them, it is quite another to spend several weeks almost pretending we are waiting for them.

Related to this are the practices which usually accompany these seasons and especially Lent.  I am thinking especially of the practice of fasting for Lent.  This is done not only by Roman Catholics, but also by Lutherans and growing numbers of evangelical Christians.  Now there is definitely much to commend fasting from a biblical perspective.[4]  The problem is not with fasting as such.  The problem is connecting fasting to a man-made liturgical season.  Biblical fasting is voluntary and secret.  Lenten fasting is sometimes mandated (as with the Roman Catholic Church) and sometimes merely encouraged.  But it is always with the idea that this fasting is a preparation for observing Christ’s suffering – something he has already endured in our place.  By adopting the practice of observing Lent in our churches, we could be giving the impression that the practices associated with Lent are commended for our use as well.   

There is also another objection – one to which I have alluded several times already.  We have agreed to go each year through the 52 Lord’s Days of the Heidelberg Catechism.  As we do that, we are already covering the important events of redemptive history.  If we follow the season of Advent, we spend one Sunday on Lord’s Day 14, one Christmas sermon, plus four more Advent sermons.  Each year, believers in such a church would hear six sermons on Christ’s incarnation.  The situation is similar with Christ’s suffering:  two Lord’s Days (15 and 16) on his suffering, plus a Good Friday sermon, and then six Sundays of Lenten preaching.  Is it necessary or helpful to dedicate this much of the preaching schedule to these topics?  Moreover, if a preacher wishes to follow the model of serial expository preaching, these seasons of Lent and Advent are not going to allow him to make much progress through a book.  After all, 10 of 52 Sundays are dealing with Christ’s incarnation and suffering.

All things considered, a good case can be made for observing the days of commemoration.  But seasons of Lent and Advent are better left to the side.  I will certainly respect the liberty of the church or the colleague who follows this, but it should also work the other way around.  If a minister is not comfortable with the practice, no church ought to force him.  When it comes to Lent and Advent, Kuyper was right:  there should be no prescription.  As the Belgic Confession puts it in article 32, let us be careful about having “laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”            


[1] Elsie Anne McKee, “Reformed Worship in the Sixteenth Century,” 17-18.

[2] Kuyper, Our Worship, 180.

[3] Old, Worship Reformed According to Scripture, 164.

[4] See my article “The Value of Fasting,” in Clarion 45.13 (June 28, 1996), 300.


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.


Focal Point Interview on Aiming to Please

Chris deBoer recently had me on Focal Point for an interview on my latest book, Aiming to Please.