Book Review: Rhythms of Grace, by Mike Cosper
Cosper, Mike. Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013. 223 pp. $15.99.
Liturgy. Habits. Story. Formation. These are the words all the cool kids are using these days. In the hands of some, they reach full buzzword status, where the lingo carries currency, but we know not what it means. And we dare not ask, of course, so we’re left like those sitting in an ancient worship service, fairly sure important things are happening, but left out by the language.
Thankfully, this is not the case with all writers. Some know the importance of words and the realities they represent. So it is with Mike Cosper and his book, Rhythms of Grace.
Cosper is the director of the Harbor Institute for Faith and Culture, which is connected to Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Ky., the church Cosper helped begin, and where he served as the pastor of worship arts until early this year. His experience at Sojourn plays an important role in the book. He recalls a moment early in his ministry when he began to ask questions about why Christians gather, why they sing, and more: “Asking why about worship sent me on a long journey,” he writes. The answer, Cosper realized, is the gospel, the story of which “is the defining fact for all of our past, present, and future, and we needed to live and worship with that in mind.”
In Rhythms of Grace, Cosper shares the spoils of his quest, hoping his readers agree that “worship, too, [is] all about the gospel, rehearsing the story and allowing it to shape the lives of the worshiping church.”
Cosper spends the first four chapters charting the Bible’s terrain. He begins with Adam’s uninhibited worship, and then moves to the misguided and idolatrous worship that came through the Fall. From there, he charts God’s merciful restoration of relationship through Old Testament sacrifices and systems, and finally takes us to the redemptive role of Christ in saving a sinful people and enabling them to worship the Father in spirit and truth. There are many valuable biblical insights along the way.
He uses the next two chapters to explain what worship is, whom it’s for, and what it does, before giving a brief survey of music and church gatherings through church history. The final three chapters address the purpose of gathering and of liturgy, as well as why and how the church sings, and the role of the worship pastor and leader. It’s in chapters 5–10 where Cosper makes his most distinct contributions.
I’ll get to the point: this book is really good. Helpful and substantive in its content, and enjoyable in style, Rhythms of Grace is an excellent, popular level resource for pastors, worship pastors and leaders, and laypeople who want help evaluating what’s happening at their church.
One standout chapter is “Worship as Spiritual Formation.” In it, Cosper draws heavily on the work of James K.A. Smith, whose books Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom undergird Cosper’s argument that our lives are “habit-formed.” For the church, this means the way “we gather shapes who we are and what we believe.” This is a truth worship pastors and leaders would do well to contemplate, and to ask how it might change their weekly services.
I could see it helping in a couple ways. First, the repetitive (habitual?) nature of Sunday-by-Sunday ministry can distract us from the goal of each gathering. Worship leaders can lose focus and allow goals of creativity, novelty, expression, or excellence to supersede the primary goals of worship, edification, and faithfulness. Cosper’s call for worship services to be Word-centered wars against idolatry should sober those who feel the pull to make decisions according to tempos and key signatures and “flow.”
Second, forming anything takes time. For Christians, the task of forming into the image of Christ will end only when we see him face to face. For those who plan and lead services, then, it can be tempting to try to create or manufacture “experiences” for our people. Viewing our gatherings as spiritually formative, however, frees us to take the long view. Years of thoughtfully planned services with Word-centered content will bear more fruit than sporadic highs. We want our services to aid in the endurance of God’s people, and endurance is more about putting one foot in front of the other than jumping from one climactic moment to the next. People may very well have such “moments” in our services, but we need not try to produce them.
Another of the book’s highlights is the chapter “Liturgy and the Rhythms of Grace,” where Cosper explores different service elements and different ways to structure our services. One such example is to use the creation-fall-redemption-consummation model to inform song selection, the choice of prayers and Scripture readings, and so on. The chapter is full of practical wisdom, and I would love to see many churches heed Cosper’s suggestions. Some of the elements he highlights—e.g., confession, lament, petition, assurance—just don’t happen in many churches. Not in the songs, prayers, or readings. For each Sunday that a church only expresses thanksgiving, adoration, and praise—all necessary things!—there’s a missed opportunity.
For those who don’t think discussions of liturgy have any meaning for their church, Cosper provides a worthy reminder that “to talk about liturgy in its most basic sense is to talk about what the congregation is gathering to do.” Liturgy is simply the structure of corporate worship. Every church, then, has a liturgy, whether a detailed script or a loose flow of songs and speaking. Not all liturgies are created equal, however.
Cosper argues, rightly, that our services are to be a rehearsal of the gospel, a sort of covenant renewal. Our gatherings should instruct people—both explicitly and implicitly—how to relate to God. If we want to teach people to view all of life as worship, then we should model it by giving space in our services for confession, lament, petition, and all the rest. If our services are an hour long, then we ought to use that hour as an opportunity to teach our people how to live faithfully during the other 167 hours of the week.
As far as scruples I have with the book, I don’t have many, and the ones I have aren’t significant. One question I often have when discussions of liturgy comes up is why such a significant portion of the historically liturgical churches and denominations are heterodox. If liturgy is important, and it is, then why is it that so many churches go through historic liturgies every week—liturgies full of prayers, Scripture readings, the Lord’s Supper, and creeds—all lead to a 12-minute homily wholly devoid of Scripture? How can so many of these churches with such rich history race full-speed down the road of progressivism, completely unmoored from their tradition?
Cosper doesn’t address the causes for this or express the danger, probably because it’s outside the scope of his book. And he most certainly doesn’t advocate for structures and forms apart from reflection. Even so, when considering the formational nature of liturgy, we cannot let the form of our services get in front of content, even while acknowledging the form itself carries meaning. As so many churches and denominations prove, good form alone does not preserve orthodoxy.
Rhythms of Grace is excellent. It’s on my short-list of books to recommend to worship leaders and pastors, or anyone interested in these matters. I hope the book continues to find a wide reading, and that it encourages greater thoughtfulness in those responsible for the weekly gatherings at their church.