It Was All Over before Terry Johnson Entered the PCA

It Was Already Too Late, Terry

Terry Johnson, Senior Minister of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA, is a really, really good guy. I have worshiped at Independent and experienced the worship he describes in his book which I commend to every Presbyterian minister, Leading in Worship

Sunday Dr. Johnson had a piece, Worship in the PCA in 2017published at The Aquila Report, in which he laments the worship he experienced at the PCA General Assembly in June.  He laments the loss of what he believes once was Presbyterian worship in the PCA:
When I joined the PCA nearly 40 years ago, I did so for two reasons: theology, particularly the doctrines of grace; and worship, that is, the word-filled, God-centered, gospel-driven, emotionally disciplined and reverential worship of the Reformed church. I was fleeing the revivalistic Baptist services of my childhood and the charismatic/Pentecostal influences encountered in college and seminary.
Back in 1980, in 1985, in 1990, and perhaps even in 2000, the preceding sentences describing worship would have been widely understood in the denomination. We enjoyed considerable consensus throughout those years, rooted in nearly 500 years of Reformed practice, from Calvin’s Form of Church Prayers, to the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for the Public Worship of God to the more free-form but weighty Presbyterian worship of the 18th and 19th centuries. Up to nearly the end of the 20th century our services featured substantial Bible reading, expository preaching, a full-diet of biblical prayer, the singing of biblically-rich praises, and the regular administration of the sacraments.
He laments the loss of the Presbyterian ethos of restrained emotion:
... The worship culture of Presbyterianism has included quiet reverence and emotional restraint, even among those not temperamentally given to such restraint... Emotional discipline was thought to be important, an excess of sorrow and exuberance to be avoided. Why? So that one’s focus on the word, sacraments, and prayer might be undistracted by one’s overwrought passions. It was understood that those overcome by either extreme of emotion would struggle to redirect their attention to the word read, preached, prayed and seen... A quiet solemnity has characterized Puritan and Reformed worship (Eccl 5:1; Hab 2:20). Emotions are powerfully moved, but they run deep, below the surface. We have sought to worship God with the “reverence and awe” that is, with a disposition that is compatible with bowing and kneeling, whatever our posture happens to be (Heb 12:28; Ps 95:6). It was this consciously cultivated atmosphere of disciplined reverence that many of us found deeply satisfying, and more importantly, biblically balanced and sound. It was for this that many of us became Presbyterians.
He believes that novelty in worship has overcome the old forms and ethos:
The worship services at General Assembly were quite different from what I am describing. They were novel, unlike the culture and practice of Reformed church across the centuries and across the continents. They were also quite unlike anything practiced in 95-99% of our churches today, though not unlike General Assemblies of recent years.. I found the addition of contemporary forms, plus those forms that mirrored the entertainment industry, plus forms borrowed from charismatic and Pentecostal churches, unsettling. It is clear that those who over these years have sought to remake the worship culture of the PCA to a significant degree have succeeded.
What did he experience in 2017:
I would describe the services as contemporary with a dash of Pentecostalism minus tongues. The choirs’ performances, the gestures of those leading (arms thrust skyward, hands clapping overhead, hands waving back and forth, one leader literally jumping up and down), up-front leadership of three women, non-traditional instrumentation (drums, tambourines featured prominently), plus choir-dominated and leader-dominated congregational singing, were all outside the norms of Presbyterian practice over the past 400-500 years. 
He does not object to the worship on grounds of principle:
I am not now attempting to engage in biblical argumentation. I’m not saying that anything that was done was wrong or invalid per se. There are many ways to worship God. What separates various Christian groups is their disagreement as to what is the best way to worship. Hence we divide into charismatic, high-church, free-church, and countless variations on those themes. All may be valid. All may be sincere and earnest in their forms of preaching, prayer and praise, etc. 
He argues rather on the grounds of what is best:
Yet only one can be best. We all choose to do what we think is best and alter our services when we think we can do better. What I am saying is that the services were foreign to what our tradition has considered best, and to the regular practice of the vast majority of our churches today. Yes, there was a superficial resemblance to the tradition: old words joined to new tunes on occasion; also, several souped-up versions of traditional hymns were sung. Scripture was read, the word was preached, the sacrament were administered, prayers were offered. However, the overall impact was overwhelmingly novel, from the prelude all the way to the end, when we were instructed to hold out our hands to receive the benediction. 
How might all of this liturgical chaos at PCA General Assemblies and in the churches been prevented?
I wish that 40 years ago when I joined the PCA that the denomination’s elder statesmen had raised their voices warning those of us who came into Presbyterianism from other traditions, be they Baptist (as in my case), Lutheran, Anglican, or Pentecostal, that it was not for us to remake the church in accord with our own background and preferences.... I might also have tried to import the altar calls and gospel songs of my childhood and youth. I wish that we all had been counseled to respect the regulated worship culture of international Calvinism and conform to it for at least a decade or two, so that we might learn to love its distinctive strengths. Too many of us thought we knew better and, as a result, all these years later we are drowning in the liturgical chaos we call the PCA. 

Not surprising, Terry Johnson's piece got a response, Your Preferences Aren't the Point of Worship by Sam DeSosio whose background is the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, a strict regulative principle-Psalm singing without instruments denomination. Mr. DeSosio contends that he still believes in the Regulative Principle of Worship, but he believes the RPW is meant to protect freedom in worship (picture the Westminster divines turning over in their graves) not constrain it:
What makes me so frustrated is that the RPW is meant to protect our gathering from the opinions and preferences of individuals, especially those who might suggest that worship is somehow defective because that person didn’t like it. But when Dr. Johnson takes to a public platform and when this platform is named for another elder in the PCA, we are in a situation where a few are attempting to burden the church’s worship with their opinions.
What to say?

First, I cannot allow to go unchallenged a mistake made by Mr. DeSosio, who quotes C.S. Lewis to support his view that Terry Johnson is just an "old fogey" who can be dismissed because of his cultural preferences for the old rather than the new. DeSocio writes:
Dr. Johnson is free to have these opinions, he is free to share them, but I am upset at the idea of PCA minister publicly belittling any worship service based on nothing more than cultural preferences, or what C.S. Lewis might have called “Chronological Snobbery”. 
The truth is that C.S. Lewis offers support to Mr. Johnson, not Mr. DeSocio. Lewis protested not the triumph of the old over the new but the triumph of the new over the old. In other words, in Lewis' view  the burden of proof is borne by Sam DeSosio, not Terry Johnson.
..."chronological snobbery," the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also "a period," and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them. 
Second, had Mr. Johnson had his wish that the "elder statesman" would have instructed those coming into the PCA 40 years ago, it would not have prevented what is occurring in the PCA. Why? Because many of the "elder statesmen" had been affected by Second Great Awakening revivalism. More than 40 years ago William Hill was writing Reformed Seminary graduates to determine whether they gave invitations in their worship services. More than 40 years ago many of the hymn "favorites" were not Psalms and historic hymns of faith but gospel songs. Nearly, if not more than 40 years ago, at the Pensacola Theological Institute  Dr. Robert Strong gave in "invitation" to spite Al Martin who was also on the faculty that year and expositing the Parable of the Sower. The "fathers" could never have agreed to instruct those coming into the PCA in a common form of worship.

Third, the PCA gave the worship store away at the third General Assembly (1975) held at First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, MS. On Thursday, September 11, 1975, the Assembly adopted the following:
Temporary Statement to preface the Directory for Worship: The Directory for Worship is an approved guide and should be taken seriously as the mind of the Church agreeable to the Standards. However, it does not have the force of law and is not to be considered obligatory in all its parts. 
What was to be temporary became forever temporary, and the Prefatory Statement of the Directory for Worship now reads:
Temporary statement adopted by the Third General Assembly to preface the Directory for Worship: The Directory for Worship is an approved guide and should be taken seriously as the mind of the Church agreeable to the Standards. However, it does not have the force of law and is not to be considered obligatory in all its parts. BCO 56, 57 and 58 have been given full constitutional authority by the Eleventh General Assembly after being submitted to the Presbyteries and receiving the necessary two-thirds (2/3) approval of the Presbyteries. 
With the exception of chapters 56 (The Administration of Baptism), 57 (The Admission of Persons to Sealing Ordinances), and 59 (The Administration of the Lord's Supper), the PCA churches have no Directory for Worship. Every minister, session, and church is left free to do what is right in its own eyes, and that has been the case for more than 40 years.  There is no accepted authority in worship to which Terry Johnson or others may appeal. Ministers such as Mr. DeSosio can do as they please, assuming the support of their sessions and  congregations, with no fear of accountability to their presbyteries on the basis of the Directory for Worship. 

Likewise, Mr. Johnson gave away his store when he wrote:
I’m not saying that anything that was done was wrong or invalid per se. There are many ways to worship God. 
If the guide is what is "best," then worship becomes a matter of preference. Why must we choose what is best and by what criteria are we to judge it? If I don't care of The Metropolitan Opera, why not allow me my preference for the Grand Old Opry? Isn't that's what best for me?

Fourth, there is no functioning so-called "Regulative Principle of Worship" in the PCA. Maybe in the RPCNA, maybe in the OPC, but not the PCA. In one of the strictest Presbyteries in the PCA, Mississippi Valley, all who enter affirm the RPW but there is no uniformity of worship. 

Fifth, this is one reason I am happy to be an Anglican who worships according to The Book of Common Prayer. If it's a matter of preference, I much prefer directed worship to regulated worship that regulates nothing. 

Terry, I am sorry, but the worship issue was over before you ever entered the PCA.


  1. Spot on. It should read "...and 59 (The Administration of the Lord's Supper),..." Even Chapter 58 has no effective authority. The use of grape juice in the sacrament is rife. It's "loving" lawlessness.

  2. I meant "...and 58.." Mea culpa.

  3. Mr. Johnson's preference for the old rather than the new is still preference, not the RPW's "only what God commands, and that for which He provides biblical warrant."

    The "freedom" of the RPW, is the Christian liberty guaranteed that the church will not have imposed upon them that which God has not commanded. It is not a freedom to do what each thinks right in his own idolatrous heart.

    The RPW is not the Anglican Book of Common Prayer which, although it offers many commendable examples of biblical prayer (contrasted with the anemic public prayer often found in Evangelical and even Reformed and Presbyterian worship), mandates unwarranted "holy" days, a liturgical calendar, unison and responsive prayers and creeds. Presbyterians fleeing the chaos of contemporary worship often retreat to tradition and more Anglican liturgical forms (though usually not doing them very well).

    If Presbyterians would only consider and implement the guidelines found int he Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God, without consideration of tradition, taste, or pragmatism (what works?), we would have simple, reverent, word filled, God commanded and God honoring worship.

    1. Mr. Ferrell,

      Thanks you for your response.

      I am not quite so sure that Terry Johnson's (what you call) preference for the old over the new is really just a preference. He is, I think, arguing that there were about 500 yrs of general consensus about the form of Presbyterian worship, a consensus that has been lost with the introduction of new forms. The problem is that there has now arisen a generation that "knew not Presbyterianism." He is right that there is liturgical chaos in the PCA. People are faced with the problem that they may visit a church of their own denomination and find it to be such strange worship that they must walk out. Worship not only expresses theology but also inculcates theology. The form and content of much PCA worship is a contradiction of its confessional standards.

      You are right that the WCF RPW does protect freedom - freedom not to have a prescribed worship imposed. So, in strict RPW churches there is only singing, prayer, Scripture read and preached. And there are no "celebrations" such as Christmas. Where do you find that? Almost nowhere. The fact that it seems not to "work" raises questions in my mind about its validity. Also, because there is so little consensus about worship it is practically impossible to discipline a minister or session for not observing the RPW. In the PCA this is made entirely impossible because there is no Directory that expresses the mind of the church regarding the practice of the RPW expected among its churches.

      You are also right that the Anglican and Presbyterian principles of worship are different. I did not flee Presbyterianism for Anglicanism with the thought that I would now have the RPW implemented. I came to question the RPW. And I became convinced that the prescribed worship of the BCP is Biblical worship. In the PCA there is no "directed" worship, which is supposed to be the Presbyterian way. The Anglican Way when it comes to worship is worshiping in accord with the form, words, and rubrics the BCP.

      I do not agree with you that unison and responsive prayers and creeds are impositions that contradict Christian liberty. They would not have been so considered by Calvin or the first generation of Reformers. It is the radicalness of the Puritan concept of worship that led to these being excluded. The Reformed churches have for the most part included such in their liturgies. And all Presbyterian churches do say or imply, "Let us sing..." which is directing the congregation to do a certain thing together as a part or worship.

      One of thing the things I always saw as a weakness of Presbyterian worship is its disconnectedness and lack of catholicity. I never even heard of the Nicene Creed till I went to seminary, and never said it in worship till I began using it occasionally as a minister. I had no idea of the place of the Psalter in worship. At one time, before "I came out of retirement" to be an Anglican, I attend a large traditional Presbyterian church. Said Apostles' Creed only 4 times a year when Communion was celebrated. Seldom if at all even said the Lord's Prayer. Just anecdotes to illustrate the truncated worship of even churches that hold to the ordinary means of grace.



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