The following is a book review of
Owens, Ron. Return to Worship: A God-centered Approach. Nashville: B&H, 1999. 210 pp. $14.99.
Copyright ?? 2008 by Alex S. Leung. All rights reserved.
Worship is something that is hard to define, even as we try to seek out a theology of worship from the Scriptures. There are many worship leaders today who are leading churches into corporate worship even though they have spent little time trying to understand what they are doing, never mind what Scripture itself prescribes. It may be a tedious task to ask ourselves what it is we do every Sunday, and further, to ponder how our corporate gatherings of worship are any different than our daily life worship. Nevertheless, this is something that we all must do as a preliminary step before we actually do worship.Return to Worship by Ron Owens is a helpful tool for worship leaders and church leaders alike. Addressing theological and practical issues concerning worship, Owens presents an encouraging yet brief volume on God-centered worship that is organized as a series of letters addressed to the church and to worship leaders. What results is a unique book that confronts contemporary worship issues head on.
The book is divided into two sections. The first section contains 15 letters that are addressed to the church. Owens begins by declaring that worship is defined by Scripture alone and our need thus is to search God???s Word in order to rightly worship Him. He explains that worship depends on a reverent and awe-filled view of God for who He is and what He???s done. While using the illustration of God???s Word as the Christian???s ???plumb line??? or standard, the author reminds us that that our understanding of who He is affects how we think of Him in worship. As Owens writes, ???the fundamental issue today is not the ???how??? of worship, but it is the ???Who??? of worship. [???] Instead of spending all our time discussing ???how??? we worship, we need to be asking God to help us change the way we think about Him??? (14).Owens then continues with four letters that directly address the worship of God from the first four commandments of the 10 Commandments. He explains that we must never worship other gods or little idols like Mammon, but that we should rather be present a biblical image of God to the world. Our worship should honor His name, never using God???s name in vain. Furthermore, Owens reminds us of the sanctity in observing the Christian Sabbath ??? the Lord???s Day ??? as a testimony to the world about the God that we worship and as a sign of our covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ. ???How we keep that covenant will reveal what is really important to us. It will show what or Whom we truly worship??? (37).Owens suggests that worship is about a lifestyle of praise, for how we respond to God everyday of our lives reveals our true heart of worship. He also advocates that believers are born, namely re-born to worship God ??? worship that entails giving God glory rather than man???s own efforts. Hence, Owens stresses the necessity of acknowledging God???s authority and sovereignty over all things, and worshiping Him as the eternal God of not only creation but also redemption. Worship is also a matter of humility, namely giving up our rights to Jesus as Lord. For Owens concedes that ???humbling precedes the offering of prayers that are acceptable to Him??? and ???no revival in history has begun with a self-satisfied people??? (68).Consequently, such genuine worship culminates in service, as God is not worshipped if His people will not serve Him. Worship contains not only receiving but also giving. Acceptable worship requires a living sacrifice, for all sincere offering is worship.In the second section of the book, Owens addresses letters 16 through 47 to worship leaders. He begins by explaining that the gathering for corporate worship is for the purpose of going, that is, for edifying and equipping Christians to go out into the world. The Pastor of the church should be the principal worship leader in the church, giving oversight to all those involved in planning worship services. Owens rightly advocates that the worship time should be infused with times of prayer, a priority that has been lost in today???s churches. Furthermore, the author commands that prominence should be given again to the public reading of Scripture, as well as preaching. Just as Owens writes, ???As important as it is for [people] to have time to express themselves to God, it is more important that they hear God express Himself to them??? (103).Turning to the issue music???s place in the church, Owens explains that our music should glorify God and edify others while not neglecting the great heritage of hymns in favor of choruses. At the same time, silence should also be restored in our services so that people can have time to pause and think quietly about what has been expressed in the corporate gathering. Furthermore, the author suggests that giving of tithes and offerings should not be put off to the side of worship services, but rather, its should be restored as a time of meaningful worship where people can search their hearts concerning the purpose of giving to God what is already His.Owens also takes time in the book to address the ordinances of the Lord???s Supper and baptism. He suggests that the Lord???s Supper should be revived with a higher place in services, so that it can be a time of quiet reflection, honest evaluation and self-humbling in order to recall what our Lord said at the Last Supper. Similarly, baptism should never be tacked onto a service, but we must make appropriate time for it, ensuring that candidates are certain of the meaning of such an important sacrament. For the baptism of new believers is a very appropriate time ???to ritualize His victory over death and the grave, to bow before the Savior in humble adoration, to thank Him for His incomparable gift??? (131).Speaking directly to music leaders, Owens gives a timely reminder that they are not to be entertainers, but instead be ministers of the gospel who use their talents to display God. The author then shows that music itself is a language that has great psychological, learning-reasoning, emotional and behavioral effects; music that matches biblical text should thus be chosen with careful discernment. Because of the adrenaline high that can be had from repetitive singing, worship leaders must employ spiritual discernment to see how necessary it is to repeat certain lines in songs. Owen warns us of the dangers of playing with peoples emotions through music: ???The tragedy is that they have been led to believe that what they are experiencing is the Holy Spirit, when it is nothing more than an intense emotional response??? (147). For those who lead worship, Owens advocates that no unbelievers should be invited to such a ministry, for such would be defiling the holy and making it common. Applause in our services should be reserved for God, and he suggests that pastors and worship leaders much teach the congregation appropriate ways of responding to music presentations.Further, Owens emphasizes the importance of preparing for the worship time, for both those who lead and for those coming to the service, providing a description of numerous ways that churches can help worshippers prepare their hearts during the pre-service time (162-163). Building continuity in worship is also important and must not be neglected so that there may be a good flow to the service.Owens concludes with exhortations to specific people involved with music ministry. He calls for all those involved in the ministry to serve and worship with grateful hearts, boasting only in the cross. Even AV technicians are exhorted for their important, behind-the-scenes role. Owens appropriately ends the book by stressing that returning to worship involves removing things that aren???t honoring to God, restoring the alter of prayer, and leading people to covenant with God. Such a change in the church must begin with the leaders, not the congregation.
I found this book to be thought-provoking and heart-warming. At least three strong points distinguish this book from others in the field of worship. Firstly, the book is unique in its format. Just like the epistles that the Apostle Paul wrote to the New Testament churches, Owens organized this book in the format of letters to both the congregation and to pastors/worship leaders. This format allowed the author to be frank and honest with each group of people, and further extends the intended audience of this book. To the congregation member who knows little about worship theology and the things that go on into planning worship services, this book gives them a glimpse into the world behind the curtain and on the stage. To pastors and worship leaders, such worship planners are given explicit reminders of the follies in modern church worship. Owens is confrontational and yet humbly so, convicting church leaders of various areas of failure, but at the same time convincing them of the grace of God that is available to them also. He provides helpful suggestions in the planning and preparation of worship services (e.g. 162-163), as well as pointers in recovering the ordinances of the Lord???s Supper (letter 24) and Baptism (letter 25).Secondly, this book is stellar in its applicability. While there are letters that do address the theology of worship, Owens is also very helpful in giving practical suggestions to music directors and pastors. This shows Owens own theology of worship at work ??? after addressing Who it is that we are to worship, Owens then address how we ought to worship God in the church. As Owens wrote, ???worship is and always has been a matter of the heart??? (67). What is to be conducted in corporate worship is addressed in letters 18 through 25 (prayer, 92; Scripture reading, 99; preaching, 102; music, 105; silence, 112; offering, 115; Lord???s Supper, 118; baptism, 126). Furthermore, Owens also writes directly to specific people who serve on the musical side of things (choir, 168; soloist, 178; audiovisual ministers, 182).Lastly, Owens??? Appendix contains four additional resources that will be tremendously helpful for worship leaders and worshippers themselves. Owens provides: an example of a Choir Covenant (189) that can be a template for further use; a Checklist for Worship Leaders (191) to remind pastors and directors of music of their own need for self-examination before getting on stage; a list of twenty-four questions to examine ourselves with before partaking in the Lord???s Supper (193); and a fascination article about consumerism and the entertainment mindset that has infiltrated the church (196). All together, these appendices add even greater prowess to an already fascinating book.
In Return to Worship, Owens addresses key issues in regard to the practical aspects of worship that are applicable to pastors, worship leaders, as well as worshippers in the pew. While not a complete biblical theology of worship, it is an easy yet challenging read for those in music ministry. It is a worthwhile book for those looking to revive worship in their hearts and in the church.