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What Some People Are Saying About The Worship Pastor

I've been privileged to pass some advance drafts of my book, The Worship Pastor, to some thinkers, writers, scholars, and poets across all kinds of lines. I've been very grateful for the responses, feedback, and endorsements. Below is what they've said! Also, the book's site is officially up. Pre-orders really help, so please spread the word. And, there's some incentive. I've put together a study guide with discussion questions and "for further reading" recommendations. Some people will really want to dive more deeply into the topics I open up. Those helps are available for FREE for folks who pre-order!

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“The modern role of the worship leader . . . has emerged in recent years as a mission-critical position on church staffs,” writes Zac Hicks. But how do we characterize that role? With years of contemporary worship-leading experience, theological acumen, love of the church, and profound respect for the calling of leading God’s people in declaring his glory, Hicks identifies the role as pastor. Hicks explores perspectives that will inspire worship leaders and ennoble the worship practices and priorities of God’s people.”

— DR. BRYAN CHAPELL, pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church; author, Christ-centered Worship


“Zac Hicks educates and challenges us to carefully consider how we “do” our function as congregational leaders of prayer, all the while christening us with an elevated title that suits the role: the worship pastor.”

— CHUCK FROMM, founder, Worship Leader Magazine


“Not only is this book well-written, it is deeply wise and consistently scriptural. I love this book. I wish that every worship pastor (and every pastor) would read it. Read it. You will be pleasantly surprised.”

— ELYSE M. FITZPATRICK, author; Home: How Heaven and the New Earth Satisfy Our Deepest Longings


“It’s been fifty years since the first forms of contemporary worship appeared. It’s been thirty years since the position of worship leader developed. It’s been twenty years since mainline churches adopted contemporary styles. And so it’s time for a mature, multifaceted guide for those who lead God’s people in worship. Zac Hicks’ The Worship Pastor fills that need wonderfully.”

— LESTER RUTH, research professor of Christian worship, Duke Divinity School


"As worship pastor becomes a standard job title in churches across the globe, we are in dire need of a guide for this unique vocation. Zac Hicks has given us a masterpiece that is equal parts manual and manifesto. This book is pastoral theology at its very best."

—GLENN PACKIAM, pastor, New Life Downtown; author, Discover the Mystery of Faith


"This book is a welcome introduction to the multidimensional nature of worship leadership. Written for practitioners by a practitioner, Hicks brings a convincing voice to the slow-growing but much-needed plea for worship leaders to take up the pastoral duties that are so vital for successful ministry. I highly recommend it for persons in any stage of worship ministry."

—CONSTANCE M. CHERRY, professor of worship and pastoral ministry, Indiana Wesleyan University


“In The Worship Pastor, Zac Hicks holds up the diamond of worship leading and
wonderfully encourages us in its many faceted roles, reflecting the glory of the gospel with every view. This book is a must-read for pastors, worship pastors, and even worship team members.”

— STEVE AND VIKKI COOK, songwriters, teachers, worship leader/team member


“If I could choose one worship pastor to serve with for the rest of my life, it would be Zac Hicks. Marinate in his book, Worship Pastor, and you’ll understand why my words aren’t pastoral hyperbole. Get it; soak in it; share it with many.”

— DR. SCOTTY WARD SMITH, teacher-in- residence, West End Community Church


“Long has the worship community needed a guidebook for understanding that the role of the worship leader encompasses more than great music. I highly recommend The Worship Pastor to anyone seeking to follow God’s call to lead worship.”

— DR. VERNON M. WHALEY, dean, School of Music, Liberty University


“Zac Hicks has laid down some important principles for worship leaders to function beyond merely choosing songs—as pastors. Worship leaders who adapt Zac’s principles and disciplines will find that their call to ministry will be widely enhanced to the glory of God.”

— DR. EDWIN M. WILLMINGTON, director, Fred Bock Institute of Music, Fuller Theological Seminary


"Zac has thoughtfully and thoroughly addressed the many creative avenues in which worship can be pastored. And that’s so important, because techie artists like me need a better, deeper theological understanding of the influence we have over the worship space. And how we may actually be worship pastors even though it’s not in our job title."

—STEPHEN PROCTOR, visual liturgist and projection artist,


“This is book is an invitation to reenvision the identity of all of us who lead God’s people in worship. My prayer is that it will encourage and inspire both beginning and lifelong leaders of God’s people, and lead to worship of greater theological depth and Christian joy.”

— JOHN D. WITVLIET, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Calvin College and Theological Seminary


“Speaking from years of personal experience, Zac Hicks offers this winsome invitation to worship leaders to think of themselves as ministers as well as musicians. Essential reading.”

— MAGGI DAWN, associate professor of theology and literature, Yale Divinity School


The Worship Leader as Emotional Shepherd

Music is intensely emotional, and worship leaders know it.  I've read plenty of articles and books that outline how worship leading takes people on an "emotional journey."  At best, these writers are encouraging worship leaders to understand how the worship service is, in a sense, a story, and that our job is to help guide people into experiencing that story with every aspect of who we are, including our emotions.  At worst, however, they are (sometimes unabashedly and explicitly) outlining a recipe for manipulation.  

The worship leader wields an intense emotional power.  From the way they present themselves (if they are viewable by the congregation) to the contour and elements of the service they plan (especially the music), they hold the ability to help mold the hearts of the people they lead, largely through the conduit of human emotion.  The question is not whether they hold this power--this sacred trust--but whether they will respond to this trust faithfully.  It's the difference between manipulation and shepherding.

Manipulation vs. Shepherding

The analogy of shepherding will be helpful in parsing out the difference between manipulation and faithful leading.  A good shepherd leads their sheep to places because he or she has a purpose in mind for the destination (away from predators or dangerous terrain, toward food and shelter, etc.), whose end is for the good health of the sheep.  Emotional manipulation in a worship service is like a shepherd leading people to certain pastures without knowing why.  Not all those pastures are necessarily the wrong place to go, but they have not fully investigated the purpose of going to that pasture.  Manipulation, at its best is "purposeless shepherding," or "partial shepherding."  A sheep-person waking up from the fog of manipulation will often first exclaim, "Wait, why am I here?"  It may be important to arrive in a worship service at the pastures of, say, joy and sorrow, but the question of why is often absent from the (most likely unintentional) manipulator.  This is one of the reasons that worship services, especially to postmodern, skeptic, young-adult Americans, feel like all hype and no substance.  

But the answer, contrary to many reactors to the emotional hype of certain forms and styles of worship, is not to get rid of the emotional journey but to rightly orient it on a faithful, well-worn path--the "ruts of righteousness" of Psalm 23.  Manipulation is about being forced.  Shepherding is about being led and guided, sometimes with an enticing, wooing voice, and sometimes with a gentle but firm rod.  Unfortunately, there are times where people mistake the rod as the forceful blow of a manipulator, as I've experienced.

Burned by Manipulation

In my short time as a worship pastor, I've encountered many people who have been burned by manipulative worship leading.  It often gets exposed when I attempt to more faithfully shepherd their emotions in the context of worship.  They respond with a lengthy, fiery email or an angry phone call.  Or, worse yet, I hear second-hand from someone else how put off they are by something I did or said in worship.  The defensive, idolatrous side of me wants to rail against them with a host of philosophical and theological arguments (a biblical theology of emotion in worship) about why they're wrong and I'm right.  But the best of me--the pastor God is forming in me--tells me that they need to be heard.  When we do get to that place of hearing (either at a coffee shop, or in my home or theirs), and the back-story of their emotional scarring is told, I am again reminded of the gravity of my job as a worship pastor in faithfully shepherding people's emotions in public worship.

Instead of expending negative energy exposing and crucifying what unhealthy emotional manipulation looks like in a worship service, I want to talk about how a worship leader guides people to experience and be nurtured in "faithful feelings" (as Matthew Elliott puts it in the title of his book).  It's all about what they are feeling and the content behind what made them feel that way.  In short, my job as a worship pastor, with regard to people's feelings, is that they experience the emotional contours of the gospel--the overwhelming glory of God, the crushing gravity of sin, and the greatness of grace.

The Emotional Contours of the Gospel

THE GLORY OF GOD.  The Psalms are full of faithful feelings responding to God's glory and power.  "Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth" (Psalm 100:1) displays one right emotional response to the glory of God--typified in the raucous act of shouting.  When I lead worship, my hope is not only that people know that God is glorious or believe that God is majestic.  I hope that they would feel it, too.  Music, as a servant of the text we sing, has the ability to engender and summon those feelings.  Certain rhythms, certain sonic colors, "describe" that glory and tap into our appropriate emotional response to that glory.  And as a pastor, knowing that music has this power, I want to shepherd people's feelings to rightly respond in that moment in body and soul, head and heart.  Some people consider this manipulation, but the difference here is that the aim of the emotional "content" is matching the aim of the propositional content.  Again, the difference between manipulation and shepherding is not about whether something led is summoning one's emotions; it is about whether something led is summoning the proper and appropriate emotions for the content of that portion of the service.  I don't want to "pump people up" at the beginning of the service.  I don't want to do some "high energy stuff" so that people "get excited." I don't want to just "warm people up" to be receptive to the sermon.  I want people to faithfully feel the glory of God, so they can, in turn, take the next step.

THE GRAVITY OF SIN.  When the glory of God is felt, the very next natural response is sorrow, and sometimes nearly panic.  When the thresholds shook, Isaiah's first response was to cry "Woe to me!...for I am a man of unclean lips" (Isa 6:5).  Feeling the glory of God, the next step was experiencing the gravity of His sin.  In a worship service, I desperately want to not only know it; I want to feel it.  And I want God's people to feel it, too.  I want them to experience the full-orbed, holistic sorrow of being a sinner in the sight of a perfect and just God.  I don't want to make people cry so that their hearts are soft and open for the go-for-the-jugular sermon.  I don't want to "get people into a certain emotional state" so that they're vulnerable for us to go in for the kill.  But I do want us to weep over our sin and feel deeply the anguish of human brokenness, so that the greatness of grace can germinate in fertile soil.

THE GREATNESS OF GRACE.  The reason we ought to be brought so low is so that we can look up to see (and feel) just how high and wide the grace of God is.  What descriptors bring out the emotions of grace?  Relief.  Joy.  Gratefulness.  Willing submission.  I don't want people to have an ecstatic experience for the sake of an ecstatic experience.  I want them to have an ecstatic experience so that they are brought to a deeper place of knowing the truth and effectual power of the gospel--and that "knowing" includes the emotions.  When you feel the gospel, you "know" and "understand" it more fully than you do when you just assent to the proposition that "Jesus died for me." 

The End Game of Faithful Emotional Shepherding

The result of a gospel-shaped emotional contour in worship is that people's feelings are rightly formed to travel a certain path, a gospel path.  And as these paths are repeatedly trodden, a Christian, in times of thirst and need, finds themselves going back to that path with instinctual swiftness, the way a deer that pants for water follows the familiar grooves in the ground toward the stream.  This is the formative power of worship's story.  The effectiveness of the Christian finding that path is at least partially related to how holistically they are engaged in the worship service, which is why it is important for the emotions to be engaged.  Metaphorically, a path becomes more well worn not only be how many times it is trodden, but by the heaviness of the one doing the treading.  So, as I'm treading, I want as much of me on that path as possible, so that the grooves get worn deeper.  I am "heavier" when my emotions are with me.  I didn't want to leave them by the side of the road several miles back because I'm scared of them getting abused.  I need all of me for this journey.  And the end game is that all of me becomes more familiar with walking the gospel path, so that in times of need, every part of me knows just where to go.  



Is Christ-Centered Worship Anti-Trinitarian?

An Irish Trinitarian Shamrock Cross

I was recently blessed to lead a breakout session at the Doxology & Theology Conference in Frisco, TX, on “The Worship Leader and the Trinity.”  If you’d like to grab my notes for that, go here.

In some of my closest worship leader circles, where the cross is lifted high and the gospel is seen as the shaping paradigm for the Christian life, much is made of the concept of “Christ-centered worship”—worship that focuses on Jesus, especially the imputation of the merits of his life and the atonement of his death onto believers.  Yet, as orthodox Christians, we profess that our God is Triune—one God, eternally existing in Three persons.  And while each Person might have unique roles, we’re careful to point out that Their oneness encourages our worshiping the Three by neither excluding nor neglecting any one Person.  In the words of the Nicene Creed, around which all Christians should be able to rally, we rightly adore “the Spirit, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.”  So is “Christ-centered worship” challenged by this notion?  Bryan Chapell helps answer the question:

The redemptive flow of biblical worship inevitably makes our liturgy Christ-centered.  This does not mean that Christian worship diminishes the honor of any other member of the Trinity.  God the Father makes our worship Christ-centered by redeeming us through the work of his Son, and giving the Spirit to testify of him.  Because worship is a response to this witness of redemption, the grace God provides through his Son is the thread that sews the service together.*

So, in other words, Christ-centered worship and Trinitarian worship are one and the same.  To speak of Christ-centered worship is to make explicit what Trinitarian worship is—approaching the Trinity through Christ, who is applied to us by the Spirit.  Christ, the only mediator between the Godhead and humanity (1 Tim 2:5), is the door through which we walk to enter the blessings of the mutual, self-giving love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Even more profoundly, and certainly more mysteriously, the Spirit unites us with Christ—we are one with Him—such that we somehow are experiencing the Trinitarian life as we are in Christ.  This is getting at what Scripture means when it says that our life is “now hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3) and why we in some sense here and now have “died with Christ” (Col 2:20) and are “raised with Christ” (Col 3:1).  This is what John the apostle is meaning when he says that “our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:4), and it is what Peter is pointing to when he says that we “participate in the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4).  In the words of John Piper, “God is the gospel.”  The good news is that in Christ, through what He has done for us in His life and death, we’re invited to experience the joy and life shared by the Magnificent Three.  So gospel-centered is Christ-centered is Trinitarian.  The three are one.

*Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 113.  

Worship as Gospel Target Practice

I continue to slowly read through James K. A. Smith's book, Desiring the Kingdom.  It has fast become one of the three most important books on worship I have read in the last decade.  The book's central point is pictured through a hundred different metaphors and explored from a hundred different angles.  I would like to tease out just one metaphor.  Smith says, 

The liturgy is a "hearts and minds" strategy, a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and "aim" our love toward the kingdom of God.*

In other words, worship is like target practice for our hearts.  What is the function of target practice?  Whether you're a rifleman, a basketball player, or Katniss Everdeen, target practice serves one primary purpose: to train your muscles and senses through repeated action to hit bullseye, so that when you're in real life, the real game--when it counts--you are able to hit true with almost instinctual, subconscious automaticity.  A basketball player will shoot free throw shots in the practice gym over and over again so that, when they're on the line in the game, they almost can't miss because, from the tips of their toes to the top of their head, they've so trained their body that it is as if they can only make the shot.

Worship "rituals," thoughtfully planned, purposefully led, and intentionally engaged, have a very similar effect on the "aim" of one's soul.  Smith frames this aim in terms of the "kingdom," hence his book's title reveals that worship causes us to "desire the kingdom."  Complementary to that idea, I'd like to testify that good worship causes us to be a people patterned according to the gospel.   

I have been a participant in gospel-shaped worship services for over a decade now.  This means that I've been worshiping in service contexts where, either through song, scripture, spoken elements, sacrament/ordinance, or some combination of the four, there are explicit moments in the service where we're walking through the pattern of:

(a) God's glory, power, and holiness
(b) our sin, rebellion, brokenness, and unworthiness
(c) God's provision of a Mediator to bridge the vast chasm between (a) and (b)

In more formal (high church) contexts, this is often called (a) the Call to Worship / Praise; (b) the Confession of Sin; (c) Assurance of Pardon / Absolution.  It is the "gospel shape" that Bryan Chapell (in Christ-Centered Worship) observes is a part of all the major Christian worship traditions from the earliest times.  It is the core of the "Great Tradition" that Jim Belcher (in Deep Church) identifies as the common river from which the various tributaries of Christianity branch.  

Walking through this gospel-shape week in and week out for over ten years now has made me a creature of habit the other six days of the week.  When I stumble into sin daily, when I walk with my wife and my kids through their sin daily, an instinct quickly emerges and my heart starts raining gospel free throws.  I find the crushing power of God's glory over me, and I am brought low.  I cry "uncle" and admit my sin before my Maker.  And God ministers His good news of Christ, through the Spirit, to my heart.  I have just acted out and performed what I "rehearse" every Sunday.  I have just hit bullseye because of each Sunday's relentless target practice drills.

As worship leaders, pastors, planners, and worshipers, it behooves us to think long and hard about what our worship services aim us toward in both content and form.  Thoughtful worship leaders most often think about content: What is the theology of the songs, the spoken elements, the prayers?  And we should ask quite clearly, "Is the gospel there?"  But we also need to probe the question of form: Does the flow and rhythm of the worship service walk through the gospel story?  Is the gospel not only proclaimed in the content of the songs, but do we actually progress through the steps of glory, sin, and grace?  

In many ways, the more I plan worship services, the more I boil it down to one fundamental evaluative question: "In how many different ways are we proclaiming the gospel this Sunday?"  I certainly expect to hear it in the preaching, but I want it to saturate our prayers, songs, responses, readings, and celebrations of baptism and the Lord's Supper, too.  And I also want it proclaimed in form.  I hope that the gospel story has been "remembered" (in the robust, Koine sense of anamnesis) in at least three different ways each Sunday.

So the question is before us: If the gospel is not the target for your services, what is? 


*James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 33.

Open Our Eyes: A Worship Song Based on Luke 24

Emmaus Road (Stained Glass)The Story

Ever since my conversion to a more sacramental understanding of the Lord's Supper, and upon reading Henri Nouwen's, With Burning Hearts, I've been captivated by that odd encounter that Jesus had with two downcast sojourners on the Emmaus Road after Christ's crucifixion, recorded in Luke 24.  

Several things about that encounter keep fascinating me:

  • The sojourners "were kept from recognizing" Jesus for a long time (v 16)
  • Part of what began lifting their spirits was when Jesus, "beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (v 27); so Jesus "preached Himself" from the Old Testament!
  • While Jesus preached, their "hearts burned" (v 32)
  • God allowed them to recognize Jesus only after He broke the bread (vv 31-32)

Good exegetes who look for "authorial intent" would notice that Luke's description of this whole encounter is loaded with early Christian worship language.  Emmaus Road is an encounter of Word and sacrament, the two main pillars of Christian worship from the beginning (read Bryan Chapell's Christ-Centered Worship for more on this).

When I heard that the Gospel Coalition was summoning submissions for worship songs based on the book of Luke, I felt a nearly immediate summons to figure out how to capture chapter 24 in music.  I also knew that my good friend over at Cardiphonia, Bruce Benedict, would be the perfect songwriting partner, (1) because he shares my passion for this understanding of Luke 24, and (2) because many of his songwriting strengths shine where mine are weakest.  (Read his post on the song.)  Bruce emailed me, in short order, the anchor verses, and then I added a few more verses and a chorus and set those things to a simple tune.  Bruce tweaked the tune, tweaked my verses...then we went back and forth on some finer points of precision about theology and themes...and then Bruce passed on the words and music for the bridge, and voila, we had a song.

What I Love

Here's what I love about this song:

  • Musically, it's singable, fairly simple, and has a good dynamic and melodic contour
  • Textually, it's dense with both experience and Truth, and it's loaded with the doctrine of the sufficiency of Christ and the theological vision of the book of Hebrews
  • Experientially, it makes corporate the individuals' experiences in Luke 24--burning hearts, opening eyes
  • Theologically, it embodies the Greek concept of remembrance/anamnesis with a strong emphasis on the Trinitarian causality of that remembrance (the Trinity causes us to remember Himself in Word and sacrament)

The Song

In my opinion, this song works great alongside celebration of the Lord's Supper or as an Offertory or song of preparation leading into the preaching of the Word.  It works equally well at the top of a service as the call to worship or song of gathering.  It's quite flexible, I think.  

I recorded a simple demo with piano and guitars, and afterward Bruce and I received some great constructive feedback from our friend and gifted author, musician, worship leader, and songwriter, Greg Scheer.  The recording doesn't reflect some of the subtle melodic changes from Scheer's comments, but the below text reflects those minor revisions in the lyrics that post-date the demo.  Bruce and I hope you enjoy it and maybe even utilize it in your worship.

Listen to it

(Download/listen to the mp3


When we see the risen Savior
In the bread that He has blessed,
He becomes the living Servant, 
Heavenly food for holy rest.

Stay with us, for day is fading,
Feast with us, O secret King;
Show to us how Scripture's story
Speaks of You in everything.

Do not our hearts burn brightly now?
For You're here among us now. 

Jesus, show Yourself the author 
And perfecter of our faith;
In Your living and Your dying,
Consummation of God's grace.

From creation to the exile,
Incarnation to the grave,
Resurrection to ascension,
Come, Lord Jesus, come to save!

Do not our hearts burn brightly now?
For You're here among us now. 

Open our eyes to see You, Christ,
Risen, ascended, reigning high;
Open our eyes, open our eyes to You.

Feed us with living bread above;
Bind us in union with Your love;
Open our eyes, open our eyes to You. 

You're the Word that spoke creation;
You're the End of Moses' law;
You're the Goal of Abra'am's blessing;
You're the King whom David saw.

You're the Day the prophets longed for;
You're the covenant of grace;
You're the hero of the Scriptures;
Now we see You face to face.

(Pre-Chorus & Chorus)

You remember God the Father,
You remember God the Son,
You remember God the Spirit
In the hearts of those You've won. 

(Pre-Chorus & Chorus)

So Jesus, show Yourself the Prophet,
Jesus, show Yourself the King,
Jesus, show Yourself the Priest,
All in all, and everything. 

Words & Music: Bruce Benedict & Zac Hicks, 2012
(c) 2012 Cardiphonia Music & Unbudding Fig Music 

The Theology

A final set of thoughts, if you care to read on.  Here are the doctrines and theological ideas explored in this song. See if you can find them in the text (some of them I've already pointed out).

  • anamnesis / remembrance
  • Trinity
  • the three-fold office of Christ
  • union with Christ
  • covenant theology
  • typology
  • active and passive obedience of Christ
  • eschatology
  • sabbath
  • eucharist as festal celebration
  • soteriology - significance of not only the crucifixion, but the resurrection, ascension, and second coming
  • heavenly session of Christ at the Father's right hand

Review of Worship Words, by Debra Rienstra and Ron Rienstra

Rienstra, Debra, and Ron Rienstra. Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009.  $22.99.  286 pp.  ISBN 978-0-8010-3616-3

(skip to the Conclusion)

The authors each bring unique contribution from their area of expertise.  Debra Rienstra teaches English at Calvin College, and she therefore offers the penetrating linguistic insights.  Ron Rienstra teaches preaching and worship at Western Theological Seminary.  What is meant by the phrase “worship words” is clear from the stated purpose: “to help pastors and worship leaders attend carefully to the words used in prayers, songs, sermons, and other spoken elements in worship—and to use words more intentionally” (p. 19).  This book, then, is an analysis of and reflection on the all the words we use in various ways worship…both as worship leaders and congregants.

It is obvious that this book comes from the minds of two very committed educators, because each chapter ends with bullet-pointed “Summary Calls to Action” and “Exercises” for groups and individuals.  This is truly above and beyond.  They would benefit the reader(s) immensely, but they are not essential to receiving and implementing the essence of their admonitions.  Each chapter is also filled with sidebar stories and interesting illustrative tidbits, demarcated by grayed-out boxes.  These, too, are the products of educators’ minds…always attempting a broad pedagogical impact.


I now have another book to highly recommend to other worship leaders and thinkers (see my recommended reading list)!  Never before has a work been dedicated to the broad use of words in worship, and with this fresh perspective, many original and important insights have been offered for ongoing discussions between tensions in worship (e.g. traditional vs. contemporary, formality vs. informality, relevant vs. historical, high-church vs. low church).  The angle of “worship words,” furthermore transcends discussions about merely music or merely liturgical structure or merely practical how-to’s.  It really does cover it all.  Overall, I also appreciate the affirming spirit of this work.  It attempts to rise above stylistic, liturgical, and denominational “tribalism” that often plagues large-scale thoughtful analyses of Christian worship.  Worship Words is able at once to affirm Christian worship traditions across the board and yet lovingly offer constructive criticism.  The generous spirit of the authors was all the more apparent to me, having read T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns alongside it (Gordon’s work, in my opinion, has the opposite spirit—polemical and un-affirming).  This book will be one that I will re-visit again and again, because its insights are fresh and dynamic, and it stirs my own creative thinking.  It also provides some very helpful ideas which, when implemented, will benefit my own ministry of worship and bless the people I serve.


Chapters 1-7

The first seven chapters are theoretical and considered the “foundational material” of the book off which the other chapters build (p. 22).  Chapter One (“The Dimensions of Language in Worship”) reminds readers that worship is the central act of the church (p. 29) and then goes on to outline four dimensions of language: expressive, aesthetic, instructive, and memorial.  This discussion was insightful to me in helping to navigate the still turbulent waters between the traditional-contemporary divide.  Chapter Two (“Worship as Dialogic Encounter”) doesn’t necessarily blaze new trails in worship-thought, but affirms what Robert Webber, Marva Dawn, and countless others have said—worship should be understood as a dialogue between God and humanity.  I appreciate the treatment of the individualism in much of modern worship:

We come to worship expecting a subjective, emotional, and individual experience of God’s presence.  We are looking for intimacy with God, and meanwhile the other people nearby—well, they’re doing the same thing for themselves.  Meanwhile, we have forgotten that worship is a place where God acts on us objectively—that is to say, divine action is happening whether we ‘feel’ it or not.  We shouldn’t forget this, because there’s something very comforting about God’s objective action, particularly on those inevitable down days when worship—for whatever reason—feels blah and routine (p. 51).

Chapter Three (“On Chatter and Patter”) criticizes the “chatty” nature of much of Protestant worship these days.  “The most serious problem with chattiness,” they say, “is this: we do not expect chatty language, ultimately, to transform us” (p. 63).  This is an important insight that is an appropriate check to my own leadership at times.  Discussed here is the glib way many evangelicals learn to pray, using “Father-God” and “Lord” almost like punctuation points rather than intentional direct-addressing of God.  They offer some practical steps toward solving the chatter-problem (pp. 69-73).  Chapter Four (“On Repetition”) affirms the need for repetition, both on the macro and micro levels.  In line with Chapell’s big idea in Christ-Centered Worship, it is the gospel-story that needs faithful repeating in worship (pp. 76-77).  The authors handle here, too, the issue of repetition of words and phrases with this helpful and pragmatic axiom: “Repetition is only meaningless when we don’t mean it.”  Very simple; very true.  Traditionalists who regularly criticize modern worship for its so-called “7-11 Songs” need to understand this.

Chapter Five deals with the very “in” topic of “The Puzzle of Authenticity.”  They encourage worship leaders to avoid manipulation (p. 98) and to straddle the tension between overly using formal, lofty language and informal, simple language (pp. 101-104).  In the end, for the authors, “the measure of authenticity is born out in who we are becoming” (p. 113).  Chapter Six (“Watch Your Figures”) is an important and fresh discussion of how language communicates and includes a solid treatment of the issue of gender-inclusivity in our language, which, they argue, should flow, not from cultural or political persuasions, but from gospel principles (p. 132).  Many theological conservatives would bristle here.  This conservative does not.  If anything, I was challenged and humbled by this chapter.  Chapter Seven (“Naming God”) handles our use (or lack of use) of the rich vocabulary of the names of God, encouraging readers that worship leaders who employ a healthy, diverse diet of the names of God help keep the imagination of the people of God alive, fresh, and vital.  The authors zero in on Brian Wren’s concept of KINGAFAP (King-God-Almighty-Father-Protector) as a helpful summary of how to maintain balance in how God is presented in worship.  Ultimately, I found this discussion a little laborious (they seem to be hyper-sensitive to conclusions people can draw if we wrongly “name” God [p. 152]), but I grant that perhaps I am under-sensitive in this area.  This chapter made me wonder whether part of the reason I value cross-denominational dialogue is because each strain of Christianity tends to emphasize a different set of “God-names,” thus helping me to keep my own theological and doxological imagination alive.

Chapters 8-12

The next four chapters move perhaps to more practical outworking of the previously laid foundation.  Chapter Eight (“Something Old”) encourages thoughtful and relevant engagement of tradition in worship.  Here’s an insight worth chewing on: “The history of the church’s worship shows a fairly regular pattern of innovation, equilibrium, stagnation, reform, innovation…and in every age, enormous diversity of style” (p. 176).  I was pleased to see that in this chapter, Kevin Twit and Indelible Grace (p. 183) was highlighted and the practice of setting old hymns to new music was encouraged.  Chapter Nine (“Something New”) travels through recent innovations in Christian worship with special attention to urban and hip hop movements.  Chapter Ten (“Something Borrowed”) deals creatively with the topic of worship and culture.  Its summary of the Lutheran World Federation’s “Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture” was helpful in thinking through how worship and culture relate: transcultural, contextual, countercultural, and cross-cultural (pp. 203-204).  (Notice the similarities and differences with H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and culture schema.)  Ultimately, this chapter encourages global thinking and interaction in the context of worship.  Chapter Eleven (“Something Blue”) encourages the church to re-embrace lament as a facet of the Christian worship expression. Chapter Twelve (“The Embedded Word”) summarizes and concludes the book.


Worship Words is a keeper.  Though its illustration and reference points will quickly become dated, its substance will not.  Its principles are thoughtful, biblical, wise, timeless, and gospel-motivated.  It’s a heavier read, despite its more accessible format, content, and layout, and it requires a solid bachelor-degree-level base of knowledge to get the most out of it (thus, I won’t be recommending it to teenagers who are aspiring pastors or worship leaders).  I haven’t seen many draw attention to this work, which is why I do.  It deserves a place among the important works on Christian worship in the last decade.


Reformation Sunday…wishing more worship leaders were equipped to celebrate it

This Sunday is Reformation Sunday—a time when Protestants thank God for how He refined and revived the Church in the sixteenth century.  Being Presbyterian, we’re wedding the celebration of the Reformation with the 500th anniversary year of the birthday of John Calvin.  Our unique slant on acknowledging Calvin is by stepping back several centuries and worshiping with a liturgy straight out of Calvin’s Geneva.  We’re going instrument-less and hymn-less.  We’re singing a capella psalms.  We’re comparing the Genevan liturgy to its preceding backdrop—the medieval Roman mass.  I’m hopeful that our people will emerge from the worship time more devoted followers of Jesus, having seen how theology affects worship (and vice versa).  Perhaps they might think more critically about worship, engage more deeply in worship, and appreciate God more fully through worship.

However, I say all this with a bit of lamentation.  My lament is for churches which aren’t equipped to celebrate God’s movement throughout salvation history because we’ve become so thoroughly “modern.”  My lament is for the “worship arts” tracks and programs at Christian universities and seminaries which have done much to train worship leaders in the pragmatics of modern worship-leading, but little to train them in history, hymnody, liturgics, and the theology of worship (and yes, I do believe that even if you’re leading in a thoroughly modern worship context, you should strive to have this training…formal or informal).  My lament is for churches which settle for a strong singer/guitar-player without any pre-requisite or subsequent training or knowledge in the above areas.  How will modern worship leaders in Protestant evangelical churches lead their congregations in remembering and celebrating one of the great revivals in Church history?  Do they know enough about the reformation—its ideas, theology, and music—to infuse some creative, thoughtful reflection into Sunday morning?

The irony in all of this is that, if it weren’t for the Reformation, modern worship would probably look very different.  Almost singularly from the influence of Martin Luther, the church after the Reformation became a singing church.  If you’re in a church on Sunday where a choir isn’t doing most or all of the singing, or where you’re not merely a bystander to what the pastors are doing “up there on stage,” you’re an heir of the Reformation. 

The drum that I beat whenever I teach on worship and the Reformation, and the drum I will beat on Sunday, is that the Protestant Reformation was just as much a biblical reforming of worship as it was of belief.  Check out Bryan Chapell’s new book, Christ-Centered Worship, if you want a compact yet thorough treatment. 

Wake up, worship leaders!  You have a job because of the Reformation!  Don’t forget it! 


Review of Christ-Centered Worship, by Bryan Chapell

Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009.  $24.99.  320 pp.  ISBN 978-0-8010-3640-8

People in my generation and down are prone to exaggeration.  It’s part of our cultural ethos.  “That was the awesomest thing I’ve ever seen.”  “That was the nastiest thing I’ve ever tasted.”  “That was like a million times worse than anything I’ve experienced before.”  So in light of my generation’s over-indulgence in superlatives, I preface what I am about to say by pointing out that this is one of those times when my superlatives actually should be taken at face value.

Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Worship is one of the best books on worship I have ever read.  It now rests firmly in my top three (not sure what the other two are, but I’m giving myself some wiggle room).  Some may not want to read the lengthy review which follows, so I’ll start with overall bullet points that I hope will be helpful to people.

  • Pastors, worship leaders, and worshipers who cherish a robust understanding and experience of the gospel should read this book.
  • Evangelical worshipers interested in incorporating “liturgy” into their worship should start with this book.
  • Evangelical worshipers not interested at all in liturgy should still read this book because it will wake them up to something profound about their worship practice.
  • Liturgical worshipers interested in understanding the basis for their liturgy should start with this book.
  • Liturgical worshipers who think they know all the what’s and why’s of their liturgy should still read this book, because I bet you’ll be hit with at least one profound “aha” moment.
  • The book is split into two parts, and the first part (pages 1-155) is the book’s meat and potatoes. 
  • If you didn’t get much out of Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching (I’m one of those), don’t count this book out.  This book’s “Christ-centeredness” has a whole new approach.
  • The book is not angry and critical, but embracing and critical.
  • The book’s subtitle “Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice” is actually an excellent summary of the entire book.
  • Though Chapell is the President of a major Reformed seminary, the book does not express worship from a necessarily Reformed angle.  It is a book about and for Christian worship at large.

Overall Comments

Christ-Centered Worship is unifying, ecumenical, and irenic in spirit as it straddles various worship traditions.  But the remarkable thing is that it does so without going down the road of theological liberalism.  Its ecumenism arrives not by compromising theological distinctives but by observing the core of every truly Christian worship expression—the gospel.  Since the dawn of Tim Keller and like-minded gospel preachers, I have longed to see how such radical and biblical views of the gospel as the good news of God for everyone (non-Christians and Christians) informs Christian worship and practice.  I have found it in this book.  If you’re familiar with Keller’s teaching on the gospel, you will then know what I’m implying when I say that this book could easily be titled “Gospel-Centered Worship.”

Now, I am no Bryan Chapell crony.  In fact, I was hoping that his previous book, Christ-Centered Preaching would be along those same Keller-lines (i.e. preaching the gospel in every sermon).  Some believe Chapell succeeded in that former work in doing so, but I found myself disappointed.  If you’re in that same boat about Christ-Centered Preaching, trust me, don’t count out Christ-Centered Worship. 

My final overall observation is a word of appreciation for how obviously hard Chapell was trying to be peaceable.  I scoured footnotes, just waiting for him to take a jab at a tradition with which I knew he would not fully agree.  I could not find a single place.  Even in his penetrating remarks about contemporary worship, the usual traditionalist vitriol is utterly absent.  In this sense Chapell walks the talk of the gospel.  Peacableness, in general, is not all that refreshing in modern writing, as I think the “PC-ness” of modern culture has made our writing and argumentation too limp-wristed.  But from a Reformed writer like Chapell, and writing on a topic such as worship, a peaceable spirit is extremely refreshing.  Coming just off the heels of reading a 1997 article on worship by one Presbyterian ripping into another, dripping with arrogance and condescension, Chapell was a shocking contrast.  Hey, Reformed folk can be nice!  :)

Walk-Through and Comments

The book is split into two parts.  Part 1, “Gospel Worship,” is Chapell’s building of his case.  Part 2, “Gospel Worship Resources” is Chapell’s helpful application of his case.   It’s easy to see that the 150 pages of Part 1 should be where one spends the bulk of their time, while viewing Part 2 as a resource to turn to at various later points.  Because Part 1 comprises the main material, that’s where I’ll spend my time.

Chapter 1 sets up the discussion that will follow in the next six chapters.  Chapell introduces the worship of the early church as a two-fold liturgy: (1) The Liturgy of the Word; and (2) The Liturgy of the Upper Room.  This liturgy seems to be discernible as early as the second century.  Chapell argues well that this liturgical scheme has been the pervasive paradigm of all Christian worship from that time, through the Reformation, to the present day.  He also spends time in defining “gospel-centered.”  It does not mean mere evangelism, as mainstream evangelicals might be tempted to think.  It “is not just about repeating those portions of the gospel that lead to new conversions; it is about engaging the power of the good news that God has provided his grace to save, to sanctify, and to equip his people for this day, every day, and forever” (21-22).  Chapell’s main point in this chapter is that the best liturgies of the past, present, and future are those which articulate this gospel liturgically.

Chapter 2 begin’s Chapell’s six-chapter quest in exploring and analyzing the liturgies of various streams of Christianity.  My concern is that mainstream evangelicals will check out here because it seems to get bogged down in liturgical details.  My encouragement to those folks is to press through and follow Chapell carefully, because it is in diving deep with Chapell that one will experience the gravity of the “aha” moment in Chapter 7.  This chapter analyzes the two-part liturgy as it developed in the pre-Reformational Roman church.  The evangelical reader will be surprised with how much continuity there is between what they did then and what we do now!

This and subsequent chapters analyze liturgy and liturgical flow roughly around the following progression:

  • Adoration
  • Confession and Assurance
  • Thanksgiving
  • Petition
  • Instruction
  • Response

These titles may seem unclear at the present, given that the liturgies analyzed don’t necessarily use that nomenclature, but again, the payoff is sweet if you stick with it.

Chapter 3 focuses in on Luther’s innovations and renovations of the Roman rite.  This analysis brings to the fore certain Reformational emphases that shaped some liturgical distinctives in Luther’s liturgy.

Chapter 4 moves to Calvin’s molding of Christian worship, rightly reminding us that Reformed worship actually begins in Strasbourg with Martin Bucer and not in Geneva with Calvin (Bucer goes under-appreciated in Reformed worship).  It seems that Calvin was most interested in simplification and getting back to the Acts 2:42 early church model.  But, unlike the typical sentiment of modern emergents, Calvin didn’t disparage the liturgy handed him by the “established church,” rather he did what Luther did…he renovated. 

Chapter 5 commences with the worship innovations of the 17th century Westminster Assembly.  Though I agree with Chapell that the Westminster Assembly is critically important to study as a preface to almost every strain of the church in America, I think some readers will feel that Chapell is pulling out his Presbyterian card here and spending a little too much time in the Reformed side of Christianity.  I resonate with those sentiments, given that Chapell is trying to write a book to span all of Western Christendom.  Regardless, Chapell makes a good case for the relevance of the work of Westminster for all worshipers, if the non-Reformed reader has the patience to continue to walk with Chapell’s line of thinking.  With each chapter, Chapell provides more analysis that helps us to slowly but systematically wrap our minds around the concept of “Christ-centered” and “gospel-centered” worship that he will soon unveil.

Chapter 6 is a fast-forward to “The Modern Story,” in light of all that has preceded.  He argues well that we should pay attention to Robert Rayburn and his attempt at liturgical synthesis of gospel-centered ideas, but I ultimately found this part of the book the least informative or helpful (maybe a later date will bring me back to a greater appreciation of this section).  However, one should not neglect the opening pages of the chapter (pp. 69-72), which offer some penetrating analysis of modern worship in light of the gospel paradigms being established.  These are must-read comments.

Chapter 7, “The Gospel Story,” is the heart of the book—the culmination of the mounting argument which preceded and the bedrock on which all subsequent discussion stands.  Chapell ties all the preceding liturgies together around a broad metanarrative of themes.  The “aha” moment begins at page 97:

Despite their obvious differences, all these Liturgies of the Word have a sequence in common…  But, if we did not know this sequence was describing a liturgical pattern, we would probably think it was describing something else: the progress of the gospel in the life of an individual. 

Brilliant!  Perhaps it doesn’t seem as extraordinary in this review, but having traveled through the previous six chapters, one suddenly realizes THE unifying factor throughout the history of Christian worship—the gospel.  If the church’s worship is fueled by the gospel, then her liturgy will inevitably take that shape.  The implications for worship planning are remarkable and profound.

Chapter 8 walks through Scriptural texts which, though they do not prove or command that the church’s worship should take a gospel shape, stack on mightily to Chapell’s cumulative case.  In a sense, then, this chapter functions as Chapell’s “Scriptural defense” for a gospel-centered liturgy.

Chapter 9 further applies the gospel principles in worship.  The section I found most helpful began on page 122, addressing how the gospel informs the whole issue of “personal preference.”  Any worship leader or pastor actually desiring to pastor their people through the tough issues of how the church's worship relates to their personal preferences and styles needs to understand this section.

Chapters 10 and 11 are the most practical, applicable chapters in the book.  In Chapter 10, Chapell argues that the gospel is the solution to all the worship wars and then explains why.  The thinking in here is golden.  In Chapter 11, Chapell walks through the various polarizations that worship wars often vocalize when discussing worship philosophy.  For example:

  • Structured vs. free
  • Traditional vs. relevant
  • Transcendent vs. accessible
  • Common vs. excellent
  • Emotional vs. cognitive
  • Saved- vs. seeker-sensitive

He explains these and other polarizations as false “either-or’s” whose middle-ground tensions are best addressed by the gospel.  This chapter, too, is powerful.

Wrapping up Part 1 is Chapter 12, which prepares for Part 2 by outlining how various components can fit in the general gospel flow, from Adoration all the way to the closing Blessing.  This introduces the pragmatic side of Chapell’s book, comprising pages 159-307. 

Chapters 12-24 are filled with great reflection and suggestions for each of the major liturgical areas outline in the gospel-paradigm.  The book closes with some helpful resources for varying musical styles (Chapter 24).  I wish Chapell had waited to publish this book for two more years, and then perhaps I might have had a noteworthy website and body of online resources to receive a little shout-out in this great chapter :).

For pastors, worship leaders, and worshipers who care, I hope this walk-through review is encouragement enough to get and read the book.  I’ll leave you with a slice of Keller’s endorsement on the back, in case you’re still not convinced that it’s worth the price tag in the bookstore:

“This will now be the first book I give people—or turn to myself—on the practice of understanding, planning, and leading in corporate worship.”  

Tim Keller has spoken.  Selah.