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Entries in christ-centered worship (7)


Paul's Take on Spirit-Filled, Christ-Centered, Flesh-Killing Worship

O Paul That Will Not Let Me Go

Paul's letter to the Philippians has been haunting me lately. In a well-known section of the epistle, I was surprised afresh by some important links that the apostle compactly makes between worship, the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and the gospel. He says in Philippians 3:3 (ESV):

For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.

This is remarkable. I'd like to comment on the context and the grammar. The context is Paul's larger conversation about dealing with a group of people who seem to be infecting some of Paul's early church plants. They're poisoning the well of the gospel's pure water by demanding that true faith is "Jesus plus" something else. This something else is circumcision. With strong rhetoric, Paul calls these folks "evildoers...who mutilate the flesh" (3:2). Paul contrasts the purity of the gospel with what he calls "confidence in the flesh," which he illustrates with his own life (3:4-11). This "confidence" is boasting in what one does for God, what one brings to the table to make God pleased. Paul illustrates this confidence by rattling off a list of good deeds and favorable pedigree. 

We might say that this whole section is an explication of the not-I-but-Christ-ness displayed in Galatians 2:20 (ESV): 

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Paul is basically saying that there are two ways to live, either in Christ or in the flesh.

Paul's Connections: Spirit, Jesus, Flesh

With that in mind, we look back at the grammar of Philippians 3:3. He makes a statement ("we are the circumcision") and then strings together three qualifiers (the ones who worship, the ones who glory, and the ones who do not place confidence). These three ideas are strung together by a simple series of "and's," but that shouldn't lead us to conclude that Paul is being stream of consciousness here, simply tacking on one idea to the next. We should see a relationship between these three: what identifies us as the people of God (the true circumcision) is that we worship by the Spirit, glory in Christ, and put no confidence in the flesh. These three things mark us as Christians.

Paul's word for "worship" (latreuō) is a term most often associated with what scholars call "cultic service," or service within the liturgy. When the term is used, in other words, it tends to refer not to general "all of life" worship but to the kind of worship, the kind of "service," we typically offer when we gather with others in corporate worship. Paul is not necessarily pointing to gathered, corporate worship here (latreuō is certainly used in more broad contexts of meaning), but that image is certainly echoing as he uses the word.

What I find remarkable is how Paul connects three ideas we don't always necessarily think are connected: worship in the Spirit, Christ-centeredness, and the theology of "flesh." It's as if Paul is saying "we worship by the Spirit, which is to glory in Christ, which is to put no confidence in the flesh." If this is true, it corroborates what I've said in another post about what true Spirit-filled worship looks like: to make much of Christ. And making much of Christ stands in direct opposition to making much of ourselves. I'm thinking here of worship language in our prayers and songs which tends to place too much emphasis on what we responsively do for God--live for Him, serve Him, give it away for Him, surrender to Him, etc. (Check out how I address this in my various posts on triumphalism.) Too much of this creates a lot of room for "confidence in the flesh," which in turn minimizes "glory in Christ," moving away from what it means to "worship by the Spirit." 

Content, Structure, Grammar: New Depths of "Christ-Centered Worship"

Why do I bring all this up? Because if we are to pursue Christ-centered worship, we need to plumb new depths of meaning. Usually, the conversation on Christ-centered worship begins around content: Do our lyrics and prayers talk about Christ and his saving work of life and death? Great question. Great start. But we need to go deeper.

And when the conversation does go deeper, we thankfully get into talk of structure. Not only must we have Christ-centered content, but we must think about how the very narratival shape of the worship service must be Christocentric--approaching God through Christ. I'm thinking here of historic, trans-denominational, trans-temporal "deep structures" of Christian liturgies which include elements like Confession of Sin, Assurance/Absolution, and the like.

But even here there is still more ground to break in talks of Christocentrality. We may refer to it as "grammar." I'm using the term metaphorically. What I mean is to ask the question of how our language toward Jesus in our songs and structures actually get constructed. The reality is that we can have cross-centered songs and prayers, and we can even have a Christ-mediated superstructure to the worship service, all the while undermining the Message in those features with poorly constructed language...language which allows "confidence in the flesh" to leak in. 

So again, I'll beat this drum. Too much language about my commitment, my response, my works--they begin to shape our "spiritual grammar." I've pointed out in the past that reformers like Thomas Cranmer were keenly aware of worship's grammar and the necessity that justification by faith alone and not by works affect the very "sentence-construction" of our worship. 

Therefore, I want to sound the call again, this time not merely engaging with important theological connections, but actual biblical statments which lend aid to what we're saying here. We've connected these ideas many times theologically, and I think Paul provides us ample warrant here in Philippians 3.


If You're Interested in Deeply Studying Gospel Centered Worship

If you're like me, thinking about furthering your education in the area of worship studies, you're less interested in flashy admissions campaigns and impressive campus acreage. I want two things: A handful of great professors zeroing in on excellent subject matter.

There's a lot of talk out there about "gospel-centered" this and that, and a lot of people have spilled a lot of digital ink explaining how diluted and convoluted that discussion has become. Such is the fate of "gospel-centered worship." Nevertheless, if I myself were to put flesh on the bones of that phrase, I'd want to do it in a similar spirit to the theology and worship of a particular time and place in history. This time and place has gone under-appreciated, under-mentioned, and under-studied in our typical "gospel-centered worship" discussions. I'm talking about the English Reformation. 

Something special occurred in England in the 1500s as the Reformational streams from Calvin and Luther converged in those Western isles. Two things were happening in the lives and hearts of some key movers and shakers. First, the doctrine of justification by faith alone was rocking their world and radically reorienting the way they saw and thought about everything, from theology to farming. Second, those movers and shakers were in the process of reforming worship around this doctrine, rewriting liturgies through the lens of grace.

In short, sixteenth century England was a distillery for a kind of 200 proof gospel-centered worship. Honestly, the more I read and think about it, the more I want to read and think more about it. 

And this is why I'm going to be switching my doctoral emphasis to the newly-created Theology and Worship of the English Reformation track at Knox Seminary in their modular Doctor of Ministry program. Full disclosure: Knox sits across the street from the church I serve here in Ft. Lauderdale, and many of the professors are now my good friends. That said, I have not been asked, coerced, or bribed into this post. :) It's not propaganda. I believe in the subject-matter. I believe that studying it could unleash a fresh doxological reformation in the church. And I would love it if some of my friends and readers, who may be ready for something like this, would join me in this program.  Here's the track description:

The Theology and Worship of the English Reformation Track is designed to equip those in ministry to understand the doctrinal and liturgical reforms of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The received traditions of Catholic faith and practice were rethought in 16th century Britain along the “evangelical” lines of the Reformation, resulting in a consistent though broad Protestantism lived and expressed through the Book of Common Prayer. The early English evangelicals did find a middle-way of sorts, but not as is often imagined a via media between the Reformation and Rome. Rather, the English Reformation listened to and learned from both the Lutheran and Reformed traditions and attempted to express and embody a Protestantism that could include both (or at least not exclude either).

This track encourages an understanding of the mutuality of theology and worship and considers the complexity of contextualization, as well as the process of learning from the past for the sake of the present.

That last part is what I've found most intriguing about the worship revolution happening during the English Reformation. It was a project in contextualization. And that is so much of what good worship leaders do--wrestle with contextualizing timeless, Spirit-filled truths and traditions for new generations of worshipers.

The four scholars heading up the track are thinkers I can vouch for. I've sat under the teaching of all of them in one way, shape, or form: Ashley Null (the world's leading Thomas Cranmer scholar), Gerald Bray (a walking encyclopedia of church history, but particularly the Reformation), Jonathan Linebaugh (one of the most integrative thinkers I've ever met), and Justin Holcomb (just plain coolness).

So...if any of this is intriguing, take the next step and check out this amazing, one-of-a-kind program. It's built for full-time practitioners (like me) to jump in and out of intensive studies. It's not a "worship degree." I think it might actually be better than that. 


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.

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.