Thursday, May 23, 2013

Worship by the Book, edited by D. A. Carson

I can't remember who or what put me on to it, but a short while ago I read an interview with Don Carson on Is the Church a House of Worship? I found it thought-provoking and helpful, focussed as it was on the intersection between the 'whole of life worship' of the believer and the 'gathered worship' of the church. The interview was kind of Hors d'oeuvre for the Carson-edited title, Worship by the Book. So, having enjoyed the starter, I ordered the main course. 

In many ways, Carson's introductory essay is the best thing about the book, as he attempts to develop a biblical theology of worship. Once more he gives attention to relationship between 'whole of life worship' and the 'gathered worship' of the local church. Rightly he rejects the view that if the whole of life involves worship, then what the gathered church does when it meets on the Lord's Day is not worship in any special sense. There is such a thing as the worship of the gathered church. But collective worship should not be understood in simply in terms of a 'worship time' during the service, when people sing hymns, songs and psalms, egged on by a guitar strumming 'worship leader'. Prayer, listening to the reading and preaching of God's Word, the administration of Baptism and the Lord's Supper are all acts of worship, as well as congregational singing. As they gather to worship, the people of God seek to extol the worth of God the Father, in the name of God the Son, in the presence of God the Holy Spirit, in all that they do and say.

The other three contributors agree with Carson's basic stance, but each has a different angle on the best way to approach the 'gathered worship' of the church. Mark Ashton Prayer urges a recovery of the Scripture-enriched liturgy of Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer. Not that he wants Anglican Churches to use the Book of Common Prayer slavishly, but that, following Cranmer, Ashton argues that the worship of the gathered church should be biblical, accessible and balanced. Whatever reservations some of us may have concerning written liturgies, if would be hard to disagree that collective worship should include all three of those features. R. Kent Hughes has a chapter on Free Church Worship. He  reflects on some unhelpful modern trends and sets out a comprehensive vision of 'gathered worship' that is God centred, Christ centred, Word centred,  consecrated, wholehearted and reverent. Last up is  Timothy Keller, who tries to forge a 'third way' between Contemporary Worship and Traditional Worship, drawing on Calvin's practice in Geneva. Although (I know this point is anachronistic) I wonder what the old Reformer would have thought of jazz-accompanied worship?More seriously, what on earth does Keller think he's doing including the words of Mother Theresa in a Protestant worship service? Strange. 

Whatever their points of difference, all the writers envisage 'gathered worship' to be a living encounter between the triune God and his redeemed people. They emphasise the importance of  careful thought, preparation and prayer on the part of those who lead or take part in the 'gathered worship' of the local church. Sample orders of service are provided. But I wonder whether there is sometimes a tendency to overcomplicate things, with choirs, instrumental groups, written prayers and confessions, creedal recitations and other bits and pieces thrown into the mix. The 'gathered worship' of the church is best kept as simple and uncluttered as possible, a living dialogue between the God who draws near and speaks and  his people who respond to the Word of the gospel with faith, hope and love. 

Anyway, plenty of food for thought here and although no reader (unless very muddle-headed) will agree with everything that every contributor has to say, this book certainly helps us to reflect on what it means to worship our great God according to the Book. 

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