Book Review: Worship by the Book

The following is a book review of

Carson, D. A., ed. Worship by the Book. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002. 256 pp. $16.99.

Copyright ?? 2008 by Alex S. Leung. All rights reserved.



What is worship? If worship in our daily lives means a consecrated lifestyle that aims to glorify God, how then should our corporate gatherings look like? And further, what makes our corporate gatherings any more worship than glorifying God in the other six days of the week? Worship by the Book is a compilation of essays that seeks to respond to such issues that concern today???s church. By looking back into the past to see how previous generations have done corporate worship aright, the authors look forward into the future to what biblical corporate worship should look like.Edited by D. A. Carson (research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), this book incorporates a biblical theology of worship in the opening chapter by the editor, which is then followed by three application chapters written by pastors from differing denominational backgrounds who set out to show how they have applied the principles of such a theology of worship in the practices of their local church. In unveiling the varying practices of different church traditions, what arises from the pages is a portrait of what worship by the Book looks like.


Chapter 1, ???Worship Under The Word,??? D. A. Carson attempts to provide a theology of worship, despite the fact that there are many challenges in doing so. The author admits that worship has caused much heated debate in the contemporary church (11), that there are many diverse theologies of worship available (13), and that even though the word worship itself is found in Scripture (14), it is still hard to construct a theology of worship when biblical theology and systematic theology may give us different definitions. Be that as it may, Carson endeavors to examine the English word worship (18), as well as the underlying Greek and Hebrew words (19) and then follows with a brief examination of recent scholarship that show the challenges of writing a theology of worship (19). He gives respect to the work of Andrew E. Hill, and most adamantly confesses that the work of David Peterson???s Engaging with God is the ???volume that most urgently calls for thoughtful evaluation??? (23).Sympathetic to and borrowing from much of Peterson???s biblical theology of worship, Carson then goes on to finally defining worship, and the rest of the chapter is a full explanation his definition. His attempt at a definition is a long paragraph whose opening sentence is the precursor for its expansion: ???Worship is the proper response of all moral, sentient beings to God, ascribing all honor and worth to their Creator-God precisely because he is worthy, delightfully so??? (26). Carson???s citing of Edmund Clowney???s list of corporate worship elements from the New Testament shows that he advocates for certain distinctive elements in corporate worship, though there is no biblical mandate for any particular ordering of these elements (48-52). The author concludes his chapter with some practical implications(58-63): the importance of avoiding misconceptions and hindrances of worship, authenticity for the sake of evangelism, the fact that we cannot incorporate all worship elements into one corporate gathering, and the danger of denominational hindrances to faithful worship.Chapter 2, ???Following in Cranmer???s Footsteps,??? Mark Ashton (vicar of the Round Church at St. Andrew the Great in England) provides an overview of the Church of England???s effort to remain biblical in all of its corporate worship gatherings, and yet faithful to the tradition that has been handed down through Archbishop Thomas Cranmer???s Book of Common Prayer. While this central liturgy book of the Anglicanism has kept the church biblical since the mid-sixteenth century, Ashton confesses that there is no longer just one common Prayer Book in the Anglican Church. ???There is an abundance of new liturgy, but no doctrinal consensus at its heart. This has created an identity crisis for Anglicanism??? (66). In showing that Cranmer???s Book of Common Prayer achieved a rare combination of being biblical, accessible and balanced (70-75), the author consequently calls for a renewal of such legacy and for the church to take responsibility to bring the Bible back to the center of corporate worship. Employing the standard that flowed from Cranmer???s work, Ashton exhorts readers to examine if their worship services to see if it they are biblical, accessible, and balanced (80-88). He follows this analysis by looking at various aspects of Anglican worship services (88-103): variety of services, service structure, music, prayers, drama and testimony, leading the service, notices, size of congregation, length of service, and church building, furnishings, clothing, movement, as well as the church year. Ashton then concludes with a brief overview of particular services in Anglicanism, and the need to retain faithful worship in all of them (104-107).Chapter 3, ???Free Church Worship: The Challenge of Freedom,??? R. Kent Hughes (Senior Pastor Emeritus of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois) shows the reader how he came to his Reformed convictions without any denominational ties. He argues for worship that is more than just Sunday ??? ???day-in-day-out living for Christ, the knees and heart perpetually bent in devotion and service??? (140) ??? and how a life of worship enables Christians to worship freely and authentically in the gathered setting. After providing a brief look at the seven distinctives of worship in the Free Church tradition (preaching, Scripture, prayer, singing, sacraments, simplicity, and vestments; 142-46), Ashton then argues for six distinctive aspects of Christian worship that would foster mutual edification: worship is God-centered, Christ-centered, Word-centered, is consecration, is wholehearted, and is reverent (149-166). The author concludes his chapter with a brief how-to about corporate worship music, advocating six important factors: music serves preaching, develops maturity, is everyone???s responsibility, that musical selection is important, that musicians must be prepared, and that the congregation is the chief instrument (166-172).Chapter 4, ???Reformed Worship in the Global City,??? by Timothy J. Keller (Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City) takes a detailed look at the worship wars that are plaguing much of evangelicalism today. Keller provides definitions of the two main sides at war, ???Contemporary Worship??? (194) and ???Historic Worship??? (195), and then posits that ???we forge our corporate best when we consult all three???the Bible, the cultural context of our community, and the historic tradition of our church??? (197). This three-pronged approach to worship provides the foundation for Keller???s overview of worship in the Reformed tradition, favoring John Calvin???s theology and liturgy of worship over and against the large variety of Reformed worship perspectives (199-208). The further author traces Reformed worship to its historical roots: simplicity as its voice, transcendence as its goal, and gospel reenactment as its order (208-217). Keller???s three tests of Reformed corporate worship (doxological evangelism, community building, and character of service; 217-221) aim at determining if a corporate worship gathering is well-balanced in being both contemporary and Reformed (221). He also deals with the attitude and heart of those leading corporate worship (223), weekly preparation and planning that is involved (226), and the significance of having a guideline for choosing music for worship services (236).

Critical Evaluation

Engaging With God is a unique book on Christian worship in that it presents a well-organized analysis of how three different church traditions have sought to put the principles of a biblical worship theology into practice. Each of the three extensive chapters that follows Carson???s chapter on worship theology include appendices that give the reader a behind-the-scenes look at how the author???s church has planned their corporate worship services, as well as additional articles that are incorporated within the corporate worship gathering. This allows the reader to not only see theology in practice, but it gives worship leaders and music ministers examples of biblically faithful worship liturgies to incorporate into their own church setting.For example, Keller includes liturgies within his chapter that his church has used in the past, ones for classical and contemporary worship services, ones that are more Calvinian in manner and ones that are less; his appendices include a full worship service outline (240-248) and prayers his church has used for leading those not taking the Lord???s Supper (249). Hughes??? appendices should also be very helpful to readers, as they not only include his Free Church???s liturgy and worship service outlines from morning and evening services, but also detailed commentary for each, and three helpful articles on the wonders of worship (189), reading the Word (190-191), and the danger of equating music to worship (192). Mark Ashton???s appendices similarly provide extensive commentary to the worship service outlines that he includes (109-135), but from the Anglican church he oversees.While these appendices are the muscles that allow this book to stand out from amongst the plethora of books on worship available today, it would have been more helpful to see a wider range of church traditions represented, like churches from the Baptist tradition, the flourishing Reformed Charismatic family of churches from Sovereign Grace Ministries, or the third-wave Pentecostal Hillsong Church from Australia. Such may extend the length of the book to be too long for one volume, but it would be greatly beneficial to see Carson???s theology of worship at work in other diverse church traditions.Of a minor note, Mark Ashton???s chapter employed some archaic vocabulary that may be unknown to non-Anglican or lay readers, and British idioms that would be unfamiliar to an American audience. For example: hobby-horses (84), interlopers (86), emendation (91), vetted (94), vestry (96). It would have been beneficial to see those terms edited out or explained, especially Anglican Church terms like ???collects??? and ???notices??? which are termed differently in North America.


In spite of these minor faux pas, Worship by the Book is both convicting and uplifting. It is a book that will convict senior pastors, music ministers, and worship leaders alike to evaluate and re-examine their corporate worship services for their biblical faithfulness, evangelistic effectiveness and mutually edifying abilities. By providing a theological framework of worship and practical examples of churches that worship by the Book, it uplifts the reader to find hope in and through corporate worship gatherings that center around the Word that became flesh, Jesus Christ. Churches in need of worship recovery, as well as those simply looking to refresh their service liturgies, will find plenty of biblical insight here to sustain them into the twenty-first century.

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