Worship at a United Reformed Church

20 March 2023 by Wes Bredenhof

If you’re a member of a Canadian Reformed Church, you’re likely familiar with the United Reformed Churches in North America.  But if you’re down under in the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, the likelihood is a lot less.  Over the years, I’ve worshipped at many URC congregations in Canada and the US.  My wife and I were recently in Canada and we had the opportunity to attend the Emmanuel URC in Barrhead, Alberta.  Especially for FRCA folks, it would be helpful to describe the morning worship service we attended.  Since we’re exploring the possibility of a relationship with the URCNA, it’s good to familiarize ourselves with them.  

Before the service started, we were warmly greeted and provided with a bulletin that included the order of worship.  About five minutes before the service started, the fire alarm went off.  Off to my right I could see the reason:  a guilty-looking young boy had pulled it on his way out of the washroom.  We were all ushered outside into the -20 degree temperatures.  However, within 2 minutes we were able to come back in.  We were told that this has happened before at the Emmanuel church – it testifies to the huge numbers of children in their membership.  That bodes well for the future of this church.

The Emmanuel church is currently vacant.  However, retired pastor Rev. Joel Vander Kooi is currently providing pulpit supply.  Below is a copy of the order of worship from that morning’s service.

There are many similarities with the orders of worship commonly found in the CanRC and FRCA.  For example, the votum, salutation, and benediction are all familiar.  Rev. Vander Kooi read the Ten Commandments.  The singing was from the relatively new Trinity Psalter Hymnal and was mostly from the psalms.  The congregational singing was lively and accompanied by organ and piano.

There were some things in the worship that one will find in some CanRC and FRCA congregations, but not all.  For example:  the call to worship, the assurance of pardon, and the three-fold Amen after the Benediction.  We do all these things at our church here in Launceston, but I know that many others don’t.  Usually the confession of sin happens in prayer in our churches, but in this instance it was done via singing TPH 90A:5-7.    

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered the silent prayer at the beginning in any CanRC or FRCA congregation.  It is a common practice in the URCNA and I believe that it was inherited from their background in the Christian Reformed Church.  One might argue that it is incongruous with the nature of corporate worship, but since the Bible commands prayer for public worship without specifying it as individual or corporate, I won’t quibble.

That morning’s worship service included the baptism of a covenant child.  Here there was a noteworthy difference.  The URCNA have two forms for infant baptism.  The first lines up more closely with the traditional form that we have in our Book of Praise.  Rev. Vander Kooi used the second form, which is somewhat briefer.  You can read it here for yourself.  One thing that both URCNA forms have in common is that, in the questions to the parents, they are asked:  “Do you acknowledge that the teaching of the Old and New Testaments, summarized in the articles of the Christian faith and taught in this Christian church, is the true and complete doctrine of salvation?”  Compare that to our CanRC/FRCA form:  “Do you confess that the doctrine of the Old and New Testament, summarized in the confessions and taught here in this Christian church, is the true and complete doctrine of salvation?”  So the difference is that the URCNA forms reference the Apostles’ Creed but the CanRC/FRCA forms reference “the confessions.”  Up until 1980, the Canadian Reformed infant baptism form was exactly the same as the current URCNA forms on this point.  How and why this changed is a complicated story and you can explore it for yourself with this discussion by Rev. J. VanPopta.  Apart from the question of what should be asked of parents at baptism, I’m not convinced that proper process was followed back in the 1980s in the CanRC.  Certainly the URCNA forms are more in line with historic Reformed liturgical practice.

Rev. Vander Kooi preached on Joshua 5:1-12.  His sermon tied into the baptism just administered.  It was a solid, faithful sermon.  He preached Christ and set forth the gospel to the congregation.

There’s an old saying:  the law of praying is the law of believing – or in Latin:  lex orandi, lex credendi.  It means that you can tell a lot about a church’s theology by the way they worship.  The fact that so much of this URC congregation’s worship is familiar should tell you something about their theology too.  There are perhaps some minor differences, but there are minor differences amongst ourselves too and yet we’re together.  We clearly have a common Reformed faith with the United Reformed Churches in North America – we ought therefore to be as close together as we can.