Book Review: On Worship, by H. B. Charles
H. B. Charles Jr., On Worship: A Short Guide to Understanding, Participating in, and Leading Corporate Worship. Moody Publishers, 2022. 176 pages.
What is the chief end of man? The Westminster Shorter Catechism answers: To glorify God and enjoy him forever. Worshiping the triune God, our Creator and Redeemer, is not optional or peripheral. It is the very purpose of life.
As such, worship is of the utmost importance for Christians and pastors to understand. Although I received a Master of Divinity—the standard graduate degree for those pursuing a vocation in pastoral ministry—from a well-regarded evangelical seminary, I was not required to take a class on worship. Something as vital as planning and leading the Lord’s Day meetings of God’s people was relegated to an optional class.
I fear my experience was not unusual. I have met many pastors, song leaders, elders, and deacons—not to mention laypeople—who report that they have never been taught to understand the theology of worship.
H.B. Charles Jr. seeks to remedy this situation in On Worship. Accessible, personal, and full of warm devotional insights, the volume is a useful resource for leaders and laity alike. Charles explains that his book is “not a theological treatise, biblical study, or comprehensive handbook on worship” (10). Rather, it is an introduction to the topic, a compass to point pilgrims to a God-centered definition and practice of worship. It is more like an appetizer than a main course. But it is a nutritious and tasty appetizer I would encourage all Christians to digest.
Charles excels when emphasizing how worship exists for God. “The legitimacy of worship is based on the worthiness of the object,” he argues (23). Since God is holy, just, omnipotent, and abounding in steadfast love, worship is the only appropriate response to his glory. The “ultimate priority” of worship is to “make sure the Lord is pleased” (14). Yet, none of us has pleased God as he deserves. We are idolaters by nature. There has only ever been one perfect worshiper: the Lord Jesus Christ. Charles rightly stresses that we can approach God in acceptable worship only through repentance and faith in Christ and by the indwelling of his Spirit (22).
Since worship exists for the glory of God, Charles demonstrates that God exercises his prerogative to order our worship according to his will (28–33). Although Charles does not dive into the weeds on this point nor use the term “regulative principle of corporate worship,” he clearly argues that God calls the shots for what the local church should do when it gathers. Faithfulness in worship does not hinge on man’s originality or innovation; it means following the pattern God has already graciously provided us in his Word.
Another strength of On Worship is how Charles underscores the necessity of the gathered congregation for corporate worship. Chapter 11, “Assembly Required,” is worth the price of the whole book because Charles offers twenty-five solid reasons why believers should regularly participate in public worship. In an age of streaming services and virtual ministry, we must never lose sight of the fact that the church is an assembly. Our spiritual health and our witness to the world hinge on gathering in space and time as local churches to worship the God who has saved us, and Charles’s book is a warm and irenic resource that may gently persuade those who are not convinced of this vital truth.
One of the reasons I am glad to commend On Worship is that Charles speaks to several vital issues that often do not appear in books on the topic. Here are four.
First, Charles wisely addresses the contentious intersection between culture, ethnicity, and musical style. Drawing from his own majority black church’s merger with a majority white church, he argues that we must “force corporate worship to transcend cultural preferences” (127). Of course, every congregation has a cultural background, but for the sake of our unity in diversity and our witness, Charles urges us to “lead in such a way that the biblical elements of worship are not associated with one cultural tradition” and to pick songs from a variety of sources to ensure that our congregational singing is not limited to one cultural expression (127). This is admittedly a complex conversation and Charles only scratches the surface, but his remarks provide an excellent introduction. I would love to see a whole book from Charles on this topic.
Second, Charles shows that financial giving is a “fundamental element of worship” (55). He provides a compact biblical theology of generosity and proves that corporate worship involves far more than passionate singing or heartfelt prayer. Worship means giving to God what ultimately belongs to him in the first place.
Third, Charles exhorts us to prioritize the public reading of Scripture, as Paul commands in 1 Timothy 4:13. Hearing God’s Word is deeply worshipful, and Charles argues, “The Word of God should be read as an independent element in the service” (85). It is not merely an introduction to the sermon—it is a vital moment, an event.
Fourth, Charles commends the practice of saying “amen” out loud in church. While recognizing that this is an area of wisdom, not law, he nonetheless urges us to cultivate the practice of saying “amen” at the conclusion of prayers, which is a wonderful way to increase congregational participation in the whole service. This practice “expresses unity in prayer, harmony with the petitions made, and even encouragement to the one who led the prayer” (95).
ONE DRAWBACK AND A FEW OMISSIONS
While I am glad to recommend On Worship, the main drawback of the book is its format. Arranged in thirty brief chapters, the volume sometimes feels like a smattering of devotional thoughts rather than a sustained argument. The content of each chapter is excellent, but the brevity of each chapter means that some topics are not explored in depth.
Additionally, for a book that sets out to guide us in understanding, participating in, and leading corporate worship, I noticed a few key omissions.
For example, Charles does not provide any guidelines for how to select songs for corporate worship, apart from general exhortations that our worship should be all about God and be full of the truth of Scripture (89). There are thousands of songs out there that reference God a lot, but not all of them are equally edifying or singable. Some more specific criteria would help those charged with choosing hymns each week.
Similarly, other than a persuasive chapter arguing that corporate worship should begin with a call to worship from God’s Word, Charles does not comment on the order of the service or provide any sample worship orders. For pastors who must plan a worship service each week, it would have been helpful to suggest principles for wise liturgical structure.
Finally, I would have loved to see more attention given to prayer, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper as elements of worship. Charles rightly calls us to see the whole service as worship, not just the singing, but these biblical and historic elements of worship did not receive sustained treatment.
Still, On Worship is an excellent resource. Since the chapters are short and accessible, I would encourage elder boards or music teams to use one chapter each week as a devotional during their meetings and rehearsals. Charles’s book is a welcome addition to the growing number of accessible resources on corporate worship that are focused on the priority of the local church, and I pray that many churches would be built up and strengthened by his faithful work.