Worship by the Book

A review of D. A. Carson (ed.), Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002) by David Peterson (© 2010)

After a preliminary chapter on the biblical theology of worship by Professor Carson, this book shows how an Anglican, a Baptist and a Presbyterian pastor might move from theological reflection to practical implementation of patterns of corporate worship in the local churches they serve.

In the Preface, Carson says:

What unites us is our strong commitment to the ministry of the Word; our respect for historical rootedness; and our deep commitment, nevertheless, to contemporaneity and solid engagement with unconverted, unchurched people.’(p. 7)

Worship under the Word

Carson first observes the diversity of current approaches to the topic of worship and the difficulties involved in using the Bible to clarify issues and unite believers. Instead of the ‘pick-and-choose’ method of constructing a theology of worship from the Bible, he argues that the discipline of Biblical Theology offers the best way forward. In so doing, he warmly commends the approach that I have taken in Engaging with God.[1]

Carson rightly observes that worship in the Bible is a whole-of-life response to God as Creator and Redeemer, giving a fuller and more comprehensive definition of such worship (p. 26) than I do. His definition provides ‘a useful set of pegs on which to hang a brief exposition of the essentials of worship.’ I would therefore describe his approach as more systematic and topical than my own. Nevertheless, it helpfully proceeds from an understanding of the progressive and developing revelation of this theme in Scripture. Christian worship is Trinitarian in the sense that Father, Son and Holy Spirit make it possible. Its expression involves both adoration and action, individually and corporately.

Writing about corporate expressions of worship, Carson takes issue with those who deny that our purpose in coming together is for worship (pp. 25, 46-7). He rightly suggests that ‘the people of God should worship him in their individual lives and in their family lives and then, when they come together, worship him corporately’. He notes my emphasis that when the people of God gather together the distinctive element from a New Testament perspective is not worship but edification. But he challenges the rather legalistic aversion to the use of worship terminology by some who have contributed to this discussion.[2]

Carson notes the various elements of corporate worship mentioned in the New Testament and goes on to argue that,

an approach to corporate worship that thinks of only some of the activities of assembled Christians, such as singing and praying as worship, but not the ministry of the Word itself, is badly off base. (p. 50)

Although there is no explicit mandate or model of a particular order or arrangement of the elements of corporate worship in the New Testament, ‘one might try to establish [a] liturgical order that reflects the theology of conversion, or at least of general approach to God: confession of sin before assurance of grace, for instance.’ (p. 51)[3]

Carson concludes his essay with seven practical conclusions, dealing with common misunderstandings of worship, hindrances to effective corporate worship, worship and evangelism, the need for different sorts of meetings, the need for good planning and leadership of services, dealing with differences of terminology and tradition, and communicating biblical teaching about worship to children. His chapter thus forms a helpful basis for evaluating the articles that follow.

Following in Cranmer’s Footsteps

Mark Ashton, with the help of C. J. Davis, writes about the ministry of the Round Church at St. Andrew the Great in Cambridge, England, with particular reference to the way it has been influenced by the Book of Common Prayer. The theological and liturgical work of the sixteenth-century Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, ultimately enshrined in the 1662 Prayer Book, played a central role in defining Anglicanism until the twentieth-century. In fact, this liturgy kept the Bible and its teaching at the heart of church services wherever Anglicanism spread.

Ashton rightly mourns the loss of doctrinal clarity and biblical theology in recent revisions of the Prayer Book, but he aptly observes that,

it would never have been Cranmer’s wish to freeze Anglican liturgy for centuries to come so that it lost its cultural relevance and reintroduced into church services the obscurity that he labored so hard to remove. (p. 65)

Mark Ashton’s brief review of New Testament teaching about worship includes a careful statement about the interplay between edification, evangelism and worship. This leads to a summary of what Cranmer’s Prayer Book achieved for Anglicans, as he sought to revise the complex, obscure and sometimes doctrinally misleading liturgy of the medieval Western church.

1.           Biblical

‘Cranmer made sure that the texts of his services did not just avoid conflict with the Bible, but that they positively expressed the ideas of the Bible, often in the very language of the Bible.’ (p. 70) Even the structures of services reflect Cranmer’s biblical theology, and he put the systematic reading of the Bible at the centre of every event.

2.           Accessible

Cranmer provided services in English for the first time, and sought to write prayers and exhortations that ‘expressed Bible truths in language and thought forms appropriate to his own age and culture.’ (p. 73) There was a simplification of content and structure and a corporateness that is often lacking in informal services today (where many individuals make their own contribution, but people do less together).[4]

3.           Balanced

Cranmer combined traditional elements with new ones, using ‘anything that was edifying in the light of the biblical insights of the Reformation.’ (p. 75) His approach provided a natural context for the development of the ‘Hooker Principle’ that,

where the Bible is silent (for example, on the precise pattern for a church service), the church is free to regulate its life for the sake of good order. (p. 75)

Ashton acknowledges the difficulties involved in using Cranmer’s Prayer Book today. He also highlights the struggle of many Evangelical Anglican churches to use some revised forms of liturgy authorised by the General Synod of the Church of England (this applies also to many other provinces in the Anglican Communion, including Australia). If local churches want to follow in Cranmer’s footsteps, they need to apply his principles creatively to the situation in which they find themselves.

Ashton talks about the value of a set liturgy, as long as it does not stifle creativity and innovation. Good services require careful planning and wise leadership. Unfortunately, he promotes the idea that the theme of the sermon should significantly influence the content of a service. In practice, this cuts across the Cranmerian principle of systematically reading through a chapter of the Old and New Testament at each service, and responding appropriately to each one. Many Anglican churches now only read the short passage that is the basis of the sermon. However, there is no reason why a local lectionary cannot be constructed to make one of the lessons the sermon passage and the other a related reading from another part of Scripture.

Ashton is keen that Anglicans services should be biblical, accessible and balanced. In applying these Cranmerian principles, he gives much good practical advice, reflecting on the way concerns for edification and evangelism can be addressed together. Under ‘balanced’, he considers the balance of music, emotional and spiritual impact, relevance to the converted and the unconverted, as well as the balance of old and new liturgical content. Special attention is given to the choice of service structure, music, prayers, drama and testimony, leading the service, notices, size of congregation, length of service, furnishings, clothing, movement, the Church Year and special services such as Holy Communion and Baptism.

Three sample services are provided with commentary. The first is a Communion Service, with a corporate Confession of Sins, Prayer of Preparation for Communion, Prayer of Thanksgiving for the bread and wine, and a final prayer, all taken from the Church of England’s Alternate Service Book 1980. The rest of the service consists of songs, intercessions, one Bible reading and a sermon. The second service is mainly hymns and prayers, with a single Bible reading and a corporate confession of sin borrowed from a contemporary writer. Apart from the broad structure, there is nothing particularly Anglican about this order. The third is a carol service for Christmas, with no traditional liturgical content.

Apart from the first order, it is disappointing to see little of the ‘balance’ of which Mark Ashton writes. There are no creeds or alternative confessions of faith. No psalms are used and there is consistently only one Bible reading. Apart from the Communion Service, there is little use of traditional forms of prayer, even in modern English. In practice, Cranmer’s influence appears to be minimal in this pattern of services!

Evangelical Anglicans need to do more serious work on liturgy, looking closely at what can be learned from Cranmer, but also examining contemporary Anglican revisions and other Reformed patterns of service (such as those in this book), to get fresh ideas. We need to be more critical of what we are doing and work together to construct new orders of service that allow for flexibility and variety within agreed structures. The challenge remains to let the Bible truly set the agenda for us.[5]

Free Church Worship: the Challenge of Freedom

R. Kent Hughes writes as the pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, revealing that he came to Reformed convictions about worship apart from a defined denominational tradition. He is convinced that New Testament worship encompasses all of life and that it is ‘misleading to imagine it as only a corporate activity of the assembled church.’ (p. 139)[6] He is happy with the terms ‘corporate worship or ‘gathered worship’, but warns about the danger of identifying only certain aspects of what we do together as ‘worship’. He agrees with my emphasis on edification as the hallmark of corporate worship. Although he does not explore the interplay between these two aspects of our gatherings very closely, he argues that ‘the intensifying effect of corporate worship enhances edification.’ (p. 142)

In a survey of Puritan and Free Church critiques of the Book of Common Prayer, he highlights seven points of difference that emerged historically: ‘weighty exposition of Scripture’, rather than prescribed homilies; objections to certain aspects of the official lectionaries; lengthy extemporaneous prayers, rather than short collects and responsive prayers; congregational singing, rather than choir-led music; changes with regard to the administration of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; overall simplification in corporate worship; rejection of any form of vestment. It is interesting to reflect that Evangelical Anglicans around the world have taken on many of these criticisms in recent times and have adapted their use of official and unofficial liturgies accordingly!

However, Hughes outlines the way biblicism deteriorated into pragmatism in Free Church circles, with an accompanying slide into anthropocentrism. Indeed, he argues that the contemporary ‘seeker-sensitive’ movement ‘has consciously cultivated anthropocentrism and pragmatism.’ (p. 149) Here is an important warning for Evangelical churches that simply ‘do their own thing’. Hughes proposes six distinctives of Christian worship that should shape our gatherings as well as the life of worship: authentic Christian worship is God-centred, Christ-centred, Word-centred, demanding consecration, and being wholehearted and reverent.

Hughes gives special attention to the role that music should have in corporate worship. With reference to this much-debated subject, he proposes that music should be the servant of preaching, develop maturity, be everyone’s responsibility, be selected on the basis of text, tune and fit, be ministered by those who are godly and competent, and be congregational (‘the congregation is the chief instrument of praise, the one indispensable choir’, p. 171)

Hughes then provides three morning services with commentary, following two broad outlines, the second involving more elements and therefore being longer. Special points of interest include the use of silence after the welcome, to help people prepare themselves for what follows; weekly use of the Apostles’ Creed; provision for testimonies, mission focus or baptisms in a ‘God at work’ slot; a single Bible reading, which is the preaching text; and the use of some formal liturgy such as the Lord’s Prayer (said together), an affirmation after the Bible reading (‘This is God’s Word. Amen’) and the ‘Gloria Patri’ (‘Glory be to the Father…’).

Despite the variation allowed, these orders are fairly fixed and predictable. There is considerable reliance on choral or instrumental contributions and, apart from hymns, creed and the few items noted above, there is not much apparent congregational involvement. No provision is made for the use of psalms or other scriptural passages as expressions of worship.

Two versions of the evening service in College Church follow. Both follow a simple bipartite structure: a ‘song service’, containing between four and six songs sung sequentially, followed by an expository sermon, set within the context of an offertory, another song and a benediction. It is strange that there is no specification for a Bible reading in this order, though doubtless the passage is read by the preacher, and there is no provision for intercession or for affirmations of faith apart from songs. Again, there is no specified ministry time, such as in the ‘God at work’ slot in the mornings.  Is it the presumption that people will come twice on Sunday and experience these other elements in the morning services?

Reformed Worship in the Global City

Timothy J. Keller is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church on Madison Avenue in New York. He notes that in the ‘worship wars’ that currently divide churches and denominations there are two broad categories of approach, which he identifies as ‘contemporary worship’ and ‘historic worship’.

Assessing ‘contemporary worship’, he observes the limitations of some popular music for corporate worship and the danger of breaking our solidarity with Christians of the past and abandoning the riches of our ecclesial inheritance. He warns that any corporate worship that is strictly contemporary will become dated very quickly and that ‘worship that is not rooted in any particular historic tradition will often lack the critical distance necessary to critique and avoid the excesses and distorted sinful elements of the particular surrounding culture.’ (p. 195)

But Keller believes that the advocates of ‘historic worship’ cannot really dodge the charge of cultural elitism when it comes to the selection of music. Although he acknowledges the need for historic roots, he rightly questions ‘Whose history?’ and points to the sixteenth-century northern European roots of most Protestant traditions. Advocates of these traditions must remember that ‘sin and fallenness taints every tradition and society.’ (p. 196) Not everything we have inherited is pure, biblical and untainted by culture!

The ‘third way’ that is often called ‘blended worship’ can be little more than a political compromise: an attempt to keep everyone happy by joining traditional and contemporary elements without much theological or cultural reflection. Keller’s third way involves consulting the Bible, the cultural context of the community, and the historic tradition of a church to forge new forms of corporate worship. This approach allows for variety and flexibility, encouraging both contemporary relevance and fruitful links with the past.[7] Keller illustrates what he means with reference to the Reformed tradition in which he was nurtured.

Zwingli and Calvin are said to be responsible for the development of two different worship traditions within the Reformed community: Zwingli focussed almost completely on the preacher’s teaching and praying, whereas Calvin advocated more fixed liturgical forms, more music, and more congregational participation.[8] Keller thinks Calvin consulted Bible, culture and tradition more effectively than any other Reformer. He bravely asserts that,

Calvin’s corporate worship tradition resonates with many of the concerns of postmodern people. They have a hunger for ancient roots and a common history; Calvin emphasizes this through liturgy in a way that neither traditional Free Church worship nor contemporary praise worship does. They have a hunger for transcendence and experience; Calvin provides an awe and wonder better than the cognition-heavy Free Church services in the Zwinglian-Puritan tradition and better than the breezy ‘seeker services’. Postmodern people are much more ignorant of basic Christian truth than their forebears and need a place to come to learn it, yet they are also more distrustful of “hype” and sentimentality than older generations. Calvin’s worship tradition avoids the emotional manipulation that so frightens secular people about charismatic services, even though they desire the transcendence that contemporary-praise worship appears to offer. (p. 201)

Calvin consulted the Bible and early Christian writings to construct a liturgy that refused to choose between transcendence and accessibility. Surprisingly, the considerable influence of Martin Bucer on his work is not acknowledged. Keller enters into the debate about worship and edification, acknowledging the dangers of applying either category too exclusively to what we do when we gather together. He argues that Calvin ‘rode out a “middle” way in this issue.’ (p. 206)[9]

Compared with the medieval Mass, Calvin’s liturgy was simpler, contained more Bible reading and preaching, and encouraged more congregational participation, rather than observation of what the priests did. There were theological reasons for these changes, arising from the rediscovery of the biblical gospel: ‘God’s grace comes to us as a word to believe, rather than as a deed to be performed.’ (p. 208) Keller observes that,

Reformed gathered worship does not have as many prescribed forms, fixed parts, and historical references (e.g., creeds) as ‘higher’ churches (Anglican and Lutheran), but it has more than the Free Church or the charismatic churches. The mild liturgy means that it is not as dependent on casual and spontaneous remarks by the pastor and other leaders. (p. 210)

Calvin believed that the goal of gathered worship was to bring people face to face with God and that every aspect was to be for the glory of God. Keller suggests that a sense of transcendence in corporate worship is ‘dependent on the quality of speaking, reading, praying, and singing’ (p. 211), but surely it is pre-eminently based on what is said or sung about God, with the manner being of secondary importance. On the issue of music, Calvin encouraged the metrical adaptation of psalms and sought to turn the congregation into ‘a well trained choir under trained “singing masters”.’ (p. 212)

Calvin’s service involved a ‘rhythm’ of reception and response, of receiving grace and thankful action. Keller calls this process ‘gospel reenactment’ (p. 214) and believes it is missing from both the Catholic and Zwinglian approaches, where the people are more passive. Calvin’s desire to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week follows from his ‘hear-and-respond’ theology, though Keller shows that the rhythm of reception and response is built into every stage of his liturgy.

I personally found Keller’s article the most helpful of the three church-based contributions, because it sought to relate biblical theology more explicitly to the structure and flow of corporate worship. It was also stimulating to be reminded of Calvin’s liturgical thinking and practice.

Two sample services are provided from the same day, one morning and one evening. There is a similar introduction to both in the ‘reflection’ time, but the first service has mainly traditional hymns and the second more contemporary songs. There is a responsive reading of a portion of Psalm 98 in the morning service, the Lord’ s Prayer is said together at the conclusion of a prayer of adoration, and the congregation then joins the minister in saying a prayer of confession. None of these responsive or corporate expressions of prayer appear to be present in the evening service, which makes me wonder why many people today seem to think that such practices are inappropriate when a service has a more contemporary feel. Have we simply failed to teach younger Christians the value of reading and praying together in this fashion?

[1] I am surprised that Carson (pp. 24-5) is critical of my apparent attachment to the Book of Common Prayer and suggests a ‘disconnect’ from the close exegesis of Scripture when I share my ‘fervently held personal opinion’ on the Prayer Book. I can only conclude that he is commenting on the Epilogue in Engaging with God, which talks about a contemporary service that happily combines a set ‘liturgical form’ with informal and spontaneous elements. The Book of Common Prayer is deliberately not mentioned, although a liturgical structure is highlighted (adoration, confession, assurance of forgiveness, teaching, mutual ministry with prayer and thanksgiving) that is somewhat reminiscent of the Prayer Book. Interestingly, Bryan Chappell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape our Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009) has shown that there is broadly such a shape in a number of Western liturgies since the Reformation. Chappell also argues for the theological strength of such a structure from the Bible, doing what I could not do within the confines of my Epilogue.


[2] For example, since the writing of Worship by the Book, a series of articles by Tony Payne in The Briefing argued at length that it is inappropriate and unhelpful to speak of corporate worship. I have critiqued this approach in Worship, Edification and Theological Method.

[3] See now Chappell, Christ-Centered Worship, and my response to this in Gospel-shaped Worship. Carson, pp. 54-5, comments on the different ways in which the so-called Regulative Principle has been understood and applied. He also notes different understanding of the approach of Richard Hooker.

[4] I agree that the issue of corporateness is a very important one. Many Anglican churches have abandoned the laudable practice of reciting psalms and other biblical passages or creeds together, praying together or praying responsively, and even of saying ‘Amen’ with any conviction! What is thought to be culturally strange is excluded because it is not longer considered edifying. So many congregations are passive and only contribute to the singing.

[5] See the discussion of these issues and some practical suggestions regarding the structure and content of services at bettergatherings.com.

[6] Although I agree with his broad conclusion, it is misleading to suggest that this is the essential difference between Old and New Testaments on this subject. Worship under the Old Covenant included everyday service and devotion to God, enabled by and inspired by the corporate experience demanded by the law of Moses. Cf. Engaging with God, 42-9, 64-74.

[7] Keller (p. 197 note 11) points to the complexity of the situation by noting that there are at least nine worship traditions in Protestantism alone. We could add to this the observation that each of the historic expressions of Protestantism has also engaged in more recent patterns of reform and revision. These too need to be considered as part of the developing tradition of a given church or denomination.

[8] Keller (p. 198 note 12, p. 200) has helpful things to say about the inadequacy of the so-called Regulative Principle.

[9] Keller, 204-5, misunderstands me to argue that edification alone is the category for describing the purpose of Christian gatherings. However, in Engaging with God, 219-21, I talk about about corporate worship and seek to relate this to the concept of edification. See also Worship, Edification and Theological Method.


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