Gospel-shaped worship

A review of Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape our Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009)

by David Peterson (© 2010)

Bryan Chappell is the president of Covenant Theological Seminary, a former pastor, and author of numerous books, including Christ-Centered Preaching. He has written this new work to promote God-honouring, Christ-focussed and Spirit-led corporate worship in Reformed churches.

The character and purpose of this publication is well expressed by Tim Keller in his dust-jacket commendation:

Christ-Centered Worship calls people to go beyond “contemporary worship” without being polemical in spirit. It takes historical worship traditions very seriously but uses the gospel itself as the way to critique and design orders of worship. It is full, balanced, and extremely practical.’

There are two main sections: ‘Gospel Worship’ and ‘Gospel Worship Resources’. The first section begins by aptly observing the architectural and liturgical changes brought by the Reformation to sixteenth century churches. The thesis of the book is neatly expressed in this paragraph:

‘Liturgy tells a story. We tell the gospel by the way we worship. Where a church maintains the truths of the gospel, it inevitably discovers aspects of worship that are in harmony with other faithful churches. In fact, worshiping with these aspects is one important way a church maintains fidelity with the gospel.’ (p. 19)

Three issues are highlighted here: maintaining and expressing the truths of the gospel, discovering commonality with other gospel-focussed churches, and employing common patterns of worship to maintain gospel fidelity. The issue is not specifically ‘evangelistic services’, designed to win others for Christ, but the way the gospel should shape the regular gatherings of God’s people.

Bryan Chappell develops his thesis by drawing attention to the general structures of historic liturgies: Rome (pre-1570), Luther, Calvin, Westminster, and Rayburn (Robert G. Rayburn was the founding president of Covenant Seminary, who wrote O Come, Let Us Worship: Corporate Worship in the Evangelical Church [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1980]).

At this point I should say how much I agree with his main thesis and warm to the historical and theological analysis that mostly constitutes the first twelve chapters of this book. The twelve chapters of the second main section discuss the various element of a gospel-driven and Christ-focussed order of service, giving many helpful resources under each heading. This second section should be much appreciated by those preparing and leading corporate worship.

Some critical comments

I want to mention some weaknesses before mentioning some of the real strengths of Chapell’s approach.

Firstly, it seems strange that a book on this subject does not address in any depth the theology of worship in the New Testament (there is a brief treatment in Chapter 8), nor seek to explore the theology of edification that is so central to New Testament teaching about the gathering of the church.

For example, it is highly unsatisfactory to argue that,

‘the biblical word for all that’s included in our worship is “liturgy” (latreia, see Rom. 12:1), and it simply describes the way a church honors God in its time of gathered praise, prayer, instruction, and commitment.’ (p. 18)

Failure to explore the relationship between what we do ‘in church’ and the definitive worship of Christ means that this book fails to distinguish our ‘liturgy’ from his unique ‘liturgy’, as Hebrews does. Failure to explore the relationship between what we do ‘in church’ and the worship of everyday life opens the way for a re-emergence of the sacred-secular distinction that the Reformers sought to oppose. Failure to explore New Testament teaching about edification leaves us struggling with the significance of the ‘horizontal’ aspects of our meetings in relation to the ‘vertical’.

Secondly, it is surprising that the emphasis in the early chapters of Bryan Chapell’s book is on the similarities between the Roman liturgy and the formulations of the Reformers. While there are clearly structural parallels, and even some similarities of content, the whole intention of the Roman rite is different, with its focus on eucharistic sacrifice, its reliance on the mediation of the saints, its aim to make Christ present through the consecration of the bread and wine, its prayers for the dead, and its uncertainty about acceptance before God from beginning to end.

Chapell implies that that Roman liturgy before the Council of Trent was simpler and less offensive. But such a conclusion can only be reached by failing to examine more carefully what was in the earlier liturgy and to consider why the Reformers objected so strongly to it.

Bard Thompson, in his Liturgies of the Western Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2003), is clearer in showing how radically the Reformers dealt with the Roman liturgy to express afresh the truths of the gospel. Any similarities that remained were due to the influence of liturgical patterns that predated the Roman rite. These can be found in the post-apostolic writings that received much attention from the Reformers.

Thirdly, the laudable attempt to show similarities between liturgical traditions gives the impression that there really is only one gospel structure: essentially Adoration, Confession, Assurance, Thanksgiving, Petition, Instruction, Charge and Blessing (preceded by Communion when appropriate). Rayburn’s work gives this impression and Chapell’s ‘Gospel Worship Resources’ are presented in this order.

Certain elements clearly belong together. For example, confession and assurance should come after some reminder of the character of God and how he would have us relate to him. But why can there not be an extensive praise and teaching opening to a service, followed by a confession of sin and assurance of forgiveness, and then intercession and various forms of thanksgiving and dedication? Would the gospel focus be lost if a service began with adoration, confession and assurance, continued with teaching and Communion, and concluded with prayer, thanksgiving and dedication? Would it not be possible to begin with confession, assurance, and adoration, and then move to teaching, prayer and thanksgiving?

Some of these alternative patterns have been tried in contemporary Anglican liturgical revisions, and they work well to bring gospel emphases to bear on the life of a congregation in different sequences.

The Modern Story

I found Chapter 6 most interesting and helpful. It is worth quoting the first paragraph to get a sense of the issues being addressed:

‘The search for worship that is gospel-true, heart-resonant, and culturally relevant has taken several turns over the last half century. Some movements have sought release from formalism and traditionalism; others have found renewed appreciation for ancient forms of worship that link the contemporary church to its primitive roots. Each has sought to unchain the church from cultural norms that keep the worshiper from experiencing the reality of Christ. The norms that some want to escape are what they consider anachronistic traditions that have deadened church culture. The norms that others want to escape are the secular consumer values that they think have invaded church culture.’ (p. 69)

In other words, there have been essentially two different movements, one rejecting traditional forms and the other seeking to recapture and renew them! The positive reasons for these movement are amplified, as Chappell evaluates and critiques both ‘Praise Worship Movements’ and the ‘Contemporary Classical Movement’. It is clearly important for Christians moving in apparently opposite directions to be aware of what motivates those with whom they disagree. It is also important to be more self-aware and self-critical while examining the concerns of others.

Both movements need to learn from each other, rather than being self-assured and dismissive. I have sympathy with both approaches, but think that Chappell offers a more incisive criticism of the ‘Praise Worship’ tradition than the ‘Contemporary Classical’ trend. Speaking from an Anglican point of view, I can affirm that some contemporary liturgical renewal has been a slippery slide towards a more Catholic theology, especially concerning the Lord’s Supper.

Much space is devoted to expounding Rayburn’s liturgy and its historical and theological significance. The possibility of some freedom of approach is noted: Rayburn wants ‘variety that allows the congregation to “experience” the gospel as the liturgy proceeds.’ (p. 79) At the same time, ‘there is a logical order to the gospel dialogue of the liturgy’. Rayburn encourages ministers to use ‘rubrics’ to help explain ‘how the elements of the liturgy represent the flow of grace through the service.’ He also gives advice about using Scripture, meditation, reflection and silence, to help the participants appreciate what they are doing at different stages in a service.

The Gospel Story

Chappell argues that ‘the worship structures that communicate the gospel are themselves shaped by the gospel.’ (p. 85) As already noted, he lists these as Adoration, Confession, Assurance, Thanksgiving, Petition, Instruction, Charge and Blessing. He argues that these elements have been present in different ways in different Western liturgies throughout the centuries. As well as being a liturgical sequence, this describes ‘the progress of the gospel in the life of an individual.’ (p. 99)

But does Chappell read too much continuity and common cause into the pattern of liturgies he observes? Is this sequence the only way to convey the gospel story in liturgy? Does the gospel always progress in the life of an individual like this?

Chappell goes on to argue that the same sequence can be observed in the experience of the prophet in Isaiah 6 and in the corporate pattern of worship highlighted in Deuteronomy 5 and 2 Chronicles 5-7. He rightly notes that we cannot ‘press the details too tightly into our own liturgical pattern’ (p. 106), but gives the impression that there is an Old Testament precedent for the sequence he has previously outlined.

Turning to the New Testament, he wisely suggests that lack of explicit detail about the order and style of corporate worship in the earliest churches ‘must reflect an intention to guide us by transcendent principles rather than by specific worship forms that could become culture-bound, time-locked, and superstition-invoking.’ (p. 108) Yet he argues that there is a pattern of response to God’s grace in Romans 11-15 and Revelation 4-21 that reflects the sequence observed in certain Old Testament passages and in the history of Christian liturgy. This reinforces the impression that there really is only one way to do it!

Rayburn and Chappell are working with a theologically rich and pastorally helpful pattern of corporate worship that can be defended from Scripture and church history. But in the challenging environment of many ‘liturgical’ alternatives today, I still want to ask whether theirs is the best or only way. Why not work from some other New Testament passages in which the gospel is differently expressed and various patterns of response are outlined and make these the basis for other gospel-shaped services?

For example, Colossians 1:3-23, Hebrews 10:11-25, 1 Peter 1:3-16, and 1 John 1:1 – 2:11 suggest different ways of understanding and responding to the gospel. How could such teaching be reflected in meaningful liturgical sequences? Chappell rightly suggests that we should view corporate worship as ‘nothing more, and nothing less, than a re-presentation of the gospel in the presence of God and his people for his glory and their good.’ (p. 120) But the New Testament presents the gospel in a variety of ways that should inform and influence our practice.

In his chapter on ‘The Components of Christ-Centered Worship’, Chappell is at pains to stress the variety of ways in which the key elements of corporate worship can be expressed. Moreover, he notes that ‘we do not always need to represent every aspect of worship with a separate component. The content of an opening hymn may include a confession as well as praise. A choral anthem may include acknowledgement of God’s power as well as assurance of his pardon.’ (p. 151).

In the final chapters before the resources section of the book, Chappell once more addresses the complex problems facing churches as they seek to engage with ‘worship controversies’ and seek to communicate in a variety of cultural contexts. He insists that God calls us to minister the gospel and ‘our worship should be an intentional expression of this biblical purpose.’ (p. 126)


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