Church History, Columns, Features, Theology

Charles Finney Does Not Live Here

I recently came across a thoughtful tweet (no, it’s not necessarily an oxymoron):

Did you stop and get to know those people in the churches? Did you ask them about their burdens? Is it possible there were things much bigger that you were overlooking because of a superficial need for an emotional buzz during worship? 1@machenwarrior, October 30, 2018

This is a really important consideration for our friends from the broader evangelical world as they come into contact with confessional Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) worship. There is a high likelihood that those emerging from the broad evangelical traditions are addicted to a regular, even programmed release of dopamine and/or norepinephrine. It is not your fault. You are part of a tradition that dates to the mid-19th century. That tradition (represented and perfected by Charles Finney) discovered ways of manipulating people in public worship in order to move them from point A (the pew) to point B (the anxious bench).

Today many ostensibly evangelical congregations—recent surveys show that it is not at all clear any longer how evangelical, i.e., gospel-centered, they really are—have updated Finney’s methods but they do essentially the same thing: manipulate your emotions with chord progressions. This is a very deliberate strategy worked out in the days before the Sunday morning service. This is not a conspiracy theory. This is regular practice and, in the places where it is done, it is not considered sneaky or immoral.

Such services intentionally take the worshipper on an emotional roller coaster. The effect of this approach to worship is like the effect of certain drugs. Those who have spent 10 or 20 years getting a shot of dopamine or norepinephrine every Sunday morning and leaving worship feeling great, on a high, are ill prepared for what they may find in a confessional Presbyterian and/or Reformed (hereafter P&R) congregation.

The P&R congregation is not wedded to Finney. It is not programmed to stimulate a release of brain chemicals. It is not programmed to manipulate emotions nor to send worshippers out on an emotional high. It is organized on an entirely different principle. One’s first visit to such a worship service may be a shock to the system. Not only is there no praise band—those are not standard in every service—there may be no familiar praise choruses. The message may give little “practical advice” on how to have a happy life or a successful marriage or how to raise your kids well etc. It really depends upon the passage being preached that Lord’s Day. At its best the sermon in a P&R congregation should be utterly faithful to the passage before the congregation. The message should be a carefully considered exposition of Scripture.

The congregation may recite the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. The minister may read the law and make a confession of sin on behalf of the congregation. He might pronounce forgiveness upon those who believe and even judgment on those who do not. It might get a little uncomfortable. There are likely to be pastoral prayers that are longer than those with which you are familiar. The reading of Scripture may be an entire chapter of Scripture and the sermon is likely to be at least 30 minutes. It may go into some detail as to the setting of the passage. Some of the songs may be Psalms—it is quite possible that you have never sung a Psalm before. The service may alternate between the minister and the congregation—he reads and/or preaches God’s Word and the congregation responds in song.

In short, it may be unlike any service that you have ever attended. It is not Roman, Lutheran, or even Anglican. It is not rooted in Finney. At its best, it is rooted in Scripture as confessed by the P&R churches across Europe and the British Isles for hundreds of years. Indeed, at their best, Reformed services are quite like those of the earliest post-Apostolic Christians about whose worship services we know a fair bit.

So, as you visit one of these you will need to actively exercise some empathy. Do not judge the service by those with which you are familiar. At their best, the P&R churches are not trying to imitate the evangelical services with which you may be familiar. They are trying to be faithful to Scripture as they understand and confess it. They are trying to worship God in the way that he has revealed that he will be worshiped.

Give it time. It really does take time to get used to not getting a shot of dopamine every Sunday. It is a cultural shift. In a way, it is like time traveling. Hang in there. After a time you will come to appreciate it. It is a little like the difference between a glazed doughnut and a roast. The first gives you a shot, a buzz, and then you want more, or you crash. The latter is substantial and stays with you even if it is not nearly as exciting.


1 @machenwarrior, October 30, 2018
Filed under: Church History, Columns, Features, Theology
R. Scott Clark

R. Scott Clark (D.Phil., Oxford University) is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, an ordained minister, and author of several books including, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (P&R, 2008). Follow him on Twitter: @RScottClark.