Normative and Regulative Practice
Christianity is as wide as it is deep when considering the variations of worship expression. Discussions focused on the observable differences often centre on the extremes such as those seen between Roman Catholic liturgy and Pentecostal worship sessions. The opposing position of the pendulum makes it easy to discuss the differences while maintaining a sense of political correctness. James White, in his book Introduction to Christian Worship (2000) states,
Christian worship, like Christian ethics, is both a descriptive and a normative subject. Specific decisions have to be made locally in terms of people, places, and times, but they should be based on the experience of the whole Christian community throughout space and time. (p. 15)
This idea of descriptive (regulative) and normative principal has developed out of the era of reformation. Bob Kauflin explains
John Calvin and others developed what has come to be known as the regulative principle of worship. This is the conviction that anything we do in a public meeting of the church must be clearly commanded or implied in Scripture…Another approach is called the normative principle…Broadly stated, the normative principle holds that whatever Scripture doesn’t forbid is allowed. (2008, p. 154)
Difficulties develop when we start to explore the impact of such thought on persuasions that are not so easily discerned. For example, the Presbyterian church of Australia comes from the regulative position. This can be seen in such practices as the conservative pedagogical approach to the reading of scripture in corporate gatherings. However, on other topics of Christian practice such as the Eucharist (communion) the Presbyterian Church is forced into a normative approach. The scriptural instruction to “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” [emphasis mine] (1 Cor 11:25b, ESV), provides a platform for interpretation. In fact, John Calvin who birthed the regulative position advocated a weekly offering of communion in corporate gatherings, but today’s Presbyterian Church practices communion every six weeks or even quarterly.
Simply, Christian worship practice for the corporate gathering is rarely defined in scripture. It is this very nuance that has lead to today’s worship wars (Dawn, 1995; Morgenthaler, 2004; Parrett, 2005).
How does the regulative/normative discussion affect the practice of the Contemporary Worship Singer? We observe the effect in simple things such as dress standards and worship posture. We also see the influence of this discussion on such things as performance and celebrity culture. Take for example Dan Lucarini’s comment on the use of microphones. Lucarini says,
Put the microphones back on the stands [emphasis in original]. Take the mikes out of the hands of the singer’s. Handheld mikes encourage a performance style that emphasizes the performer, which often leads musicians to mimic secular entertainers in style and fashion and to desire music that is performance-orientated. (2002, p. 136)
Does it? Does holding a microphone in the hand ‘emphasize the performer’? I dare say that Lucarini approaches his worship practice from the regulative stand point. I venture to add that if one is to take Dan Lucarini’s comments to their natural end, church singers should not be using microphones at all. Indeed they should not even be on stage lest they draw attention to themselves. But can we be so dismissive of Lucarini’s comments? Warren Wiersbe writes, “If the worship service is platform–centered, then we will be only spectators at a religious performance” (2000, p. 88). And herein lies the challenge facing today’s Contemporary Worship Singer; to navigate a practice which has very few scriptural markers. The bible gives no indication to the use of microphones, nor does it provide clear guidelines for performance.
Does this then set the Contemporary Worship Singer adrift on a squally sea of indifference and personal preference? I think not, but it does require the Contemporary Worship Singer to give greater consideration to their task and resulting practice. A good starting point is to enquire as to a particular churches stance; regulative or normative. A general rule of thumb…if the pastoral staff are not aware of such terminology the church is almost certainly normative. Understanding a churches stance in this regard can help position the Contemporary Worship Singer to align both thought and deed.
Dawn, M. J. (1995). Reaching out without dumbing down: A theology for worship for this urgent time. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Kauflin, B. (2008). Worship matters: Leading others to encounter the greatness of God. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books.
Lucarini, D. (2002). Why I left the contemporary christian music movement: Confessions of a former worship leader. Webster, NY: Evangelical Press.
Morgenthaler, S. (2004). Emerging worship. In P. A. Basden (Ed.), Exploring the worship spectrum: 6 views (pp. 215–230). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Parrett, G. A. (2005). 9.5 Theses on worship. Christianity Today, 49, 38–42.
White, J. F. (2000). Introduction to christian worship (3rd ed.). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Wiersbe, W. W. (2000). Real worship: Playground, battle ground, or holy ground? (2 ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.