Book Review: Worship by the Book, by D. A. Carson


Far too many churches have been torn apart in recent years by the “worship wars.”  To be honest, I am not quite sure what to think about that term, “worship wars.”  Whoever coined it is either completely oblivious to the meaning of worship, or a genius at identifying sad ironies in the church’s life.  My guess is it’s the latter, but the term is thrown around with such abandon (and even light-hearted humor and a knowing grin) today, I wonder how many people are still able to feel the cognitive dissonance between the two words.  If there is ever a time when God’s people ought to be unified with one another and with their Lord, it must be when they meet together for corporate worship.  But somehow, corporate worship has become such a contentious and divisive experience, we have had to resort to a doleful term like “war” to describe it.

Some of the strife surely is the fault of pastors who have allowed the crowning issue regarding corporate worship to become the style of music played.  Four centuries removed now from the Reformation, questions about how corporate worship ought to be conducted and why that is important seem almost pedantic.  Why spend time thinking about whether a confession ought to follow a Scripture reading or vice-versa?  Worship by the Book is an attempt by four men to bring such questions back to the forefront, to teach pastors again how to think carefully and theologically about corporate worship.  Don Carson, Mark Ashton, Kent Hughes, and Tim Keller have each provided a chapter to the book.  Three of them-Ashton, Hughes, and Keller-are pastors, each from different traditions-Anglican, Free Church, and Presbyterian, respectively-but all committed to the authority and centrality of the Word of God in corporate worship.  The fourth, Carson, is a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois.  The four authors do not always agree with one another, but taken together, their essays are a fantastically useful re-introduction to thinking about corporate worship in a biblical and theological-not pragmatic-way.

Carson’s essay, “Worship Under the Word,” lays out the theological framework common to all the authors in this book.  Simply because of its scope and fundamentality, Carson’s is the most useful essay in the book.  It is 52 pages of extremely careful, meticulously biblical reasoning on the subject of worship.  After laying out several reasons why the subject of worship is such a difficult one to talk about, and after finally coming to a fairly lengthy definition of worship, Carson makes twelve points about worship, all based on and expounding on his definition.  All of them are eminently helpful for any pastor thinking through these issues.  In typical fashion, Carson brings a care and perspective to his work that, in my opinion, sets him apart from any other living evangelical thinker.  A friend once quipped, “When you have a question, first read everything else out there and think about it yourself.  Then go read Carson–it’s like looking at the answers in the back of the book.”  Carson’s essay brings a refreshing perspective to the discussion in several different ways.  First, he has (and uses) a grasp on the Bible’s storyline, the flow of redemptive history and the progress of God’s revelation to His people.  That allows him to avoid the trap of looking through the Old Testament to justify worship practices.  As he says,

If we use the whole Bible indiscriminately to construct our theology of worship, we may use it idiosyncratically.  For example, we note that the temple service developed choirs, so we conclude that our corporate worship must have choirs.  Perhaps it should-but somewhere along the line we have not integrated into our reflection how the Bible fits together.  We do not have a “temple” in the Old Testament sense.  On what grounds do we transfer Old Testament choirs to the New Testament and not an Old Testament temple or priests? (17)

In addition to his redemptive-historical perspective, Carson also deals carefully with the distinction between “all-of-life worship” and corporate worship.  If Christ’s coming effected a “re-sacralization” of all space, time, and food, then in what sense can Christians say their times of corporate meeting are in some special sense “worship?”  Understanding that point-which all the authors in this book take as a starting point-shows up the strangeness of using terms like “worship center” or “worship leader,” especially where the latter has the effect of limiting worship to singing.  Carson argues that under the New Covenant, all of the Christian life is worship, but that the corporate meeting of the church is also worship.  He puts it this way:

In other words, worship becomes the category under which we ordereverything in our lives.  Whatever we do, even if we are simply eating or drinking, whatever we say, in business or in the home or in church assemblies, we are to do all to the glory of God.  That is worship.  And when we come together, we engage in worship in a corporate fashion. (46)

Finally, Carson’s essay is riddled with all kinds of practical, insightful, and even amusing advice which I will not spoil for the reader by reciting here.

Mark Ashton is vicar of the Round Church at St. Andrew the Great in Cambridge, England.  His essay, “Following in Cranmer’s Footsteps” is aptly titled.  Ashton takes his starting point from Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, lamenting that most of the Anglican church has “spent too much time praising the wonderful language” in it, and “given too little attention to the real source of its spiritual power” (69).  Ashton is theologically astute; he has clearly thought carefully about every aspect of his service, from the Lord’s table to the vestments Anglican priests traditionally wear.  He structures his essay around three characteristics he sees in Cranmer’s work:  A service for a corporate gathering ought to be biblical, accessible, and balanced.  These three points are certainly useful in their own right, but it seems to me they would not suffice for an entire theology of worship.  “Balanced,” for example, is not easily defined, which Ashton himself recognizes (74).  And the other authors bring characteristics of Christian corporate worship which are just as crucial to a full understanding of it.  Strangely also, Ashton doesn’t give a great prominence in his chapter to preaching.  What he does say is good (99-100), but preaching is not given the prominence in his essay that it is in the others.  And of course, there are other Anglican emphases with which Baptists will disagree-the assumption, for example, that a child of Christian parents is a Christian until he proves otherwise (105).  All that said, the real value of Ashton’s essay is its practicality.  He comments on many individual elements of his services, including music, prayer, drama, service leading, announcements and others, giving practical advice on how and when they should be done.  Especially helpful is Ashton’s critique of his own services at the end of the chapter.  What a marvelous care he shows in thinking through how the various elements fit together, how the words and tunes of songs will affect the service, and even how his movements and specific terms of art will instruct the congregation.

Kent Hughes, pastor of the College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, begins his essay with a series of critiques Puritans and Free Church leaders made against the Anglican church.  Having just read Ashton’s essay and noticed the relatively little space he gave to preaching, it was interesting to see the Puritans’ first critique of Anglicanism:  “At the heart of the critique,” Hughes writes, “was the nature of preaching.  The Anglican preference for Prayer Book homilies was countered by the Puritan insistence on weighty exposition of Scripture” (143).  (To be fair, Ashton also is committed to “weighty exposition,” but it is interesting, isn’t it, to see how the Anglican focuses most of his essay on the liturgy, while the Free Church pastor sets preaching unmistakably at the very center of his?)  Hughes also has an instructive section explaining why Scripture reading and lengthy prayers have all but disappeared from non-liturgical services.  With the revivalist practices of men like Charles Finney, everything prior to the sermon and especially the “invitation” became known as “preliminaries.”  Therefore, “Scripture reading was reduced so as not to prolong the “preliminaries.”  Prayers were shortened or deleted for the same reason” (148).  One wonders if that was a wise decision; one concludes it was not.  Hughes’s six distinctives of Christian worship together form the heart of his essay.  Worship must be God-centered, Christ-centered, Word-centered, concerned with consecration to holy living, whole-hearted, and reverent.  My critique of these is essentially the same as it was for Ashton’s.  They are all helpful, but the last three especially seem somewhat arbitrary.  Why consecration, whole-heartedness and reverence, instead of relevance, tradition, and eschatological?  For all their use in their own right, Hughes’s six distinctives need the rest of the book to keep them from being myopic.  Hughes has a refreshing and praise-worthy concern for reading Scripture well.  One of his appendices is a meditation from John Blanchard that is worthy of a morning quiet time reading for anyone who reads Scripture publicly (190-191).  For his own part, Hughes says he and his staff periodically set aside a couple of hours to practice reading Scripture publicly under the instruction and critique of a speech professor from Wheaton College (176).  What a wonderful testimony to Hughes’ reverence and love for the Word of God!  What could be more important than presenting the Scriptures to a congregation with the utmost care and diligence?

Timothy Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  His essay is a study of John Calvin’s theology of corporate worship.  Besides Carson’s, his is probably the most comprehensive as a theology of worship.  Keller identifies two major streams of thought in the “worship wars,” both of which take the Bible as their primary source, but diverge from there.  First is contemporary worship, which begins with the Bible and then “plugs in” to contemporary culture as its second source.  Second is historical worship, which also begins with the Bible but then hearkens back to older forms of worship.  Drawing on both these streams of thought, Keller advocates using three sources for corporate worship:  the Bible, tradition, and culture.  This, he argues, is exactly what Calvin did in planning his own corporate services.  Reformed worship, Keller says, should be characterized by three things:  simplicity in its voice, transcendence as its goal, and Gospel reenactment as its order.  The focus on transcendence is especially helpful, I think.  It seems to me Keller is right in saying that in a post-modern culture, especially perhaps in the particular part of America in which Keller ministers, people’s hunger is for “transcendence and experience,” not the “cognition-heavy” services characteristic of many churches in the Puritan tradition or the “informal and breezy” atmosphere of “seeker services” (201).   The point, of course, is not to adapt to post-modern culture, he says, but to take postmodernism’s valid critiques of modernism (individualism, sentimentality, rationalism) and incorporate those insights into our corporate gatherings.  And how to achieve this sense of transcendence and still maintain a simplicity in our corporate gatherings?  It is dependent on two things:  first, “the quality of speaking, reading, praying, and singing.  Sloppiness drains the vertical dimension out of gathered worship immediately.”  And second, transcendence with simplicity is dependent on “the demeanor or heart attitude of those leading in the gathered worship” (213).  One very useful part of Keller’s essay, especially for a pastor who is thinking through how to plan his corporate services, is Keller’s explanation of the basic form of his church’s liturgy.  It is based on a call-and-response formula-God’s Word is proclaimed, and the people respond.  Keller plans his services in three “cycles.”  The Praise Cycle begins with a call to worship and ends with the congregation responding with a doxology.  The Renewal Cycle begins with a searching call to renewal from the Scripture, progresses to a confession of sin, and ends with thanks for God’s merciful pardon of sins.  Finally, the Commitment Cycle begins with the sermon and ends with the congregation’s commitment to live their lives according to the word they have heard.  I cannot imagine a more careful, Biblically-literate way to plan a service.

For all the good Reformed wisdom in Keller’s piece, there is a strange departure in the last few pages.  He writes:  “We often include non-Christian musicians in our services who have wonderful gifts and talent.  We do not use them as soloists, but we incorporate them into our ensembles” (239).  His reasoning is really on two levels.  First, he argues that “God’s natural gifts in creation are as much a work of grace as God’s gifts are in salvation,” so the church is therefore justified in allowing non-Christians to “bring their ‘peculiar honors’ and gifts to praise their Creator.”  Second, Keller says he and his leaders “pray that the gathered worship itself will have an impact on them.”  While I certainly agree that musical talent is a gift from God and that Christians should pray for gathered worship to have an effect on non-Christians, I do not think it follows from these that we ought to allow non-Christians to lead the gathered church.  Both for their own souls’ sake and the sake of those Christians who are gathered to worship, wouldn’t it be better for non-Christians to be in the congregation, and not on the stage?  Kent Hughes’s practice seems to make much more theological sense:

Musicians must see themselves as fellow laborers in the Word and must lead with understanding and an engaged heart.  Those who minister in worship services must be healthy Christians who have confessed their sins and by God’s grace are living their lives consistently with the music they lead.  The sobering fact is that over time the congregation tends to become like those who lead (171).

 Worship by the Book will be a dog-eared and threadbare favorite of any pastor serious about planning his church’s corporate gatherings with deep theological and biblical roots.  Its whole-Bible perspective, historical awareness, and cultural sensitivity is a potent combination.  One can only hope Carson will expand his chapter into a book.

Greg Gilbert

Greg Gilbert is the Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find him on Twitter at @greggilbert.

9Marks articles are made possible by readers like you. Donate Today.