Bob Kauflin. Crossway, Wheaton, 2008. 304 pages.
Bryan Chapell. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2009. 320 pages.
In recent decades, the fights that many churches have had over musical styles have been termed the ‘worship wars’—typically cast as a battle between traditionalists on one side, who wish to retain the noble beauty and heritage of historic church practice, particularly in music; and modernizers on the other, who want church services to be contemporary, relevant, engaging, and so on.
In most places, that war is largely over. The peace that has been forged often consists of an agreed (if sometimes uneasy) separation, where a church might run different services with different musical styles to please different groups; in other places, a compromise has been reached, in which some ancient songs are still sung (sometimes with updated lyrics or music) alongside more contemporary numbers.
However, over the past 20 years or so, a ‘worship’ war of a different sort has been bubbling along—not so much about musical style as about ‘worship’ itself; in particular, about whether ‘worship’ is the right word or category with which to think about our singing, or our church meetings more generally.
Without really planning to, I have become one of the combatants in this little skirmish, having written some Briefing articles and engaged in various dialogues on the subject. Admittedly ‘war’ is too strong a word for this discussion—it has hardly rent the church apart. But the ongoing debate about ‘worship’ and music and church has been quite strong at times, and good friends have found themselves on different sides.
For the benefit of those who might be late to this debate, the two positions are basically as follows: one side wishes to use ‘worship’ as the normal word to describe what we do in church. When Christians gather on Sundays, they do so to worship; the meeting or ‘service’ is a service of gathered or corporate worship; and when we discuss what sort of things we do in church, we are discussing the church’s worship. Within this camp, or perhaps alongside it, there are some who particularly attach ‘worship’ to singing, such that the song-leader is called the ‘worship leader’, and so on.
The other side of the argument is a smaller group who regards the designation of church (or singing) as ‘worship’ as unhelpful in the light of the Bible’s teaching. They point out that ‘worship’ is just not the language or category of thought in which the apostles taught about church. And when the apostles do discuss ‘worship’, they apply it more generally to Christian discipleship and ministry, as part of the radical fulfilment and transformation of Old Testament priest, temple and worship language that takes in Christ. Is it too much, this side of the debate asks, that we seek to be more apostolic in this—particularly when there is so much confusion and bad practice attached to the ‘worship’ category?
And so the debate has proceeded, with some degree of bafflement on each side. Being something of a conflict-avoider by nature, I have more than once thought of throwing in the towel, especially when I have found myself on the opposite side of a debate with friends (and luminaries) like Don Carson and Mark Dever. I have found myself thinking: “Does it really matter? Why quibble over what word you use to describe this or that? It’s just too hard, and too many people and churches are used to thinking and talking this way. It’s just a label after all. And aren’t there more important things to be talking about?”
These hoist-the-white-flag-and-move-on thoughts became even stronger when I went to hear Bob Kauflin last year speak at a TWIST music conference in Sydney. Mr Kauflin is a delightful, gracious, godly man who said more sensible, biblical, and helpful things about singing in church than I’d heard in a long time. And he’s without doubt a ‘worship’ guy. His title is Director of Worship Development; his conference is called WorshipGod; and his book (which this article will eventually be a review of) is called Worship Matters. If I find myself in agreement with much of what Mr Kauflin is saying about singing and music, should I really care that he uses the ‘worship’ language?
I will return to discuss Worship Matters below, but it was the other book to feature in this review, Christ-Centered Worship, that persuaded me afresh of the importance of church-as-worship debate.
Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Worship is a well-written, thoroughly-researched and insightful book, with an abundance of excellent resources and ideas for conducting our Sunday gatherings. In it, Dr Chapell argues that when we examine the liturgies of the Christian church, starting with the ancient Roman liturgy (pre-Reformation), and then proceeding through to Luther, Calvin, Westminster, and on to modern Reformed-evangelical liturgies, we find a great deal of common ground. In fact, despite the important theological differences (especially between the Roman liturgies and the post-Reformation ones that followed), there is a basic ‘gospel shape’ to these liturgies that is not only expressed in history but stems ultimately from God’s revelation in Scripture:
The liturgies of the church through the ages and the consistent message of Scripture combine to reveal a pattern for corporate worship that is both historical and helpful for our time. Christian worship is a ‘re-presentation’ of the gospel. By our worship we extol, embrace, and share the story of the progress of the gospel in our lives. (p. 116)
This basic pattern or shape is as follows:
- Recognition of God’s character (Adoration)
- Acknowledgement of our character (Confession)
- Affirmation of grace (Assurance)
- Expression of devotion (Thanksgiving)
- Desire for aid in living for God (Petition and Intercession)
- Acquiring knowledge for pleasing God (Instruction from God’s Word)
- Communing with God and his people (Communion)
- Living unto God with his blessing (Charge and Benediction)
For Dr Chapell, this movement or flow is not accidental or arbitrary; it reflects something basic and theological about the gospel, or more particularly “the progress of the gospel in our lives”. He sees it not only in historic liturgy, but in Isaiah’s encounter with God in the temple in Isaiah 6, in Solomon’s dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8, and even in the structure of NT epistles like Ephesians. He acknowledges that some may argue with the way he has analysed some of these passages (and I would at points), but he suggests that this basic Christ-centred gospel shape or trajectory should guide all our liturgies—not rigidly or legalistically, but as a persistent grace-oriented pattern or template or direction that we centre around and constantly return to.
This is important, Dr Chapell argues, because if we follow this sort of basic pattern, our church gatherings will not only have gospel content within them (as we read and teach and so on), but the very shape and architecture of the liturgy will be a “re-presentation of the gospel”. He makes the excellent point (in his opening chapter) that the physical architecture of our church buildings speaks volumes about what we believe church is about. This is why Luther and the other Reformers were so insistent on using new and different church buildings when they got the chance; because the old buildings were based on Roman theology, and communicated that theology to every person who entered them. And just as the architecture of our buildings says something about us, so does the architecture of our Sunday services. If our church gatherings are ‘gospel-shaped’, then participation in them will have the effect of not only edifying Christian believers and continuing to bring them back to the gospel, but will function as a form of ‘doxological evangelism’, whereby the very order and conduct of our worship will function as a witness to visitors and outsiders who attend.
Dr Chapell is entirely right on this point. The way we conduct and order and structure our church gatherings is very important, and ought to reflect the Christ-centred gospel that binds us together (more on this below). The problem is I’m just not convinced by Dr Chapell’s presentation of what that shape should be.
For one thing, the pattern he discerns and outlines is arguably not so much a gospel-pattern as a sanctification-pattern. It reflects, as above, “the progress of the gospel in our lives” (p. 116). But the progress of the gospel in our lives is not itself the gospel. In fact, it is one of the errors of Roman Catholicism to confuse the two. I am very aware that Dr Chapell himself does not hold to Roman theology—in fact, he wants his liturgical pattern to be a reminder that “worship is a response to God’s grace, not an infusion or conjuring of it” (p. 143). But it does raise the issue: should the shape or structure of our liturgy re-present the gospel itself—the proclamation of Jesus saving lordship, followed by a response of repentance and faith—or should it more reflect the shape of ongoing Christian experience and sanctification? Dr Chapell’s pattern is more based on the latter.
Secondly, it seemed to me that Dr Chapell was more successful in arguing that the historic Christian liturgies shared this broad pattern than in trying to show that it stemmed from Scripture. Once you start with a pattern and look for it in the Bible, it is easy to see it in various places—but just as easy to provide counter-examples. For example, take a classic gospel occasion like Pentecost—where people are gathered and evangelized and converted under the power of the Spirit. It is very difficult to find Dr Chapell’s gospel pattern in evidence. In fact, you could argue that in Acts 2 the pattern is rather different:
- Prophecy (proclaiming the great deeds of God by the Spirit’s power)
- Expository gospel sermon
- Confession and call to repentance.
- Repentance and forgiveness (expressed in baptism)
- Fellowship/breaking of bread
Now I am not insisting, for example, that a confession of sin must follow the sermon, but merely pointing out that it makes very good ‘gospel’ sense for it to do so—certainly as much sense as placing it earlier in our meetings. This is why I am uncomfortable with locking ourselves into one gospel pattern (even if the one that Dr Chapell has discerned were the true one). There is a variety of ways to preach the one true gospel, and thus a variety of forms or structures that might reflect it. If we look, for example, at the gospel speeches in Acts and the gospel summaries in the epistles, we find a range of presentations, with the the same cluster of ideas ordered and presented in a variety of ways and patterns—sometimes with some elements missed out altogether. Which of these ‘gospel shapes’ should determine our liturgical shape? Should it be the Pentecost order (mentioned above), or Paul in Acts 17 (where he starts with creation and ends with a call to repentance), or Paul in Acts 13 (where he starts with God’s work among Israel and ends with Jesus and the offer of forgiveness in his name)? Should it be the structure of Ephesians or the structure of John’s Gospel or the structure of Revelation? If we want our church meetings to communicate the gospel by their very structure and shape, then there are numerous patterns, orders or structures we might profitably use. These could be shaped by the particular aspect or presentation of the gospel on which we are focusing in this particular meeting, as well as by the context or circumstances of our gathering—just as Paul’s gospel presentations were strikingly different in shape when he was addressing Gentiles rather than Jews.
However, having said what I think might be wrong with Dr Chapell’s thesis, it’s worth returning to the important premise on which his argument is built. And it is exactly right—the way we run church ‘says’ something, and what it ‘says’ ought to proclaim and reinforce our Christ-centred gospel theology. The order and structure of the different activities or elements sends a strong message to those who are participating, just as the architecture of our church buildings screams out to people what we stand for.
This is sometimes called ‘meta-communication’—the communication that takes place above or beyond or around the words we use. It not only goes for architecture and liturgy, but for other aspects of our gatherings. If we dress our minister up as a sacrificial priest, for example, and have him perform elaborate rituals on behalf of the people, then something is very powerfully communicated—often far more powerfully than the actual words that are used. (Those readers who, like me, grew up in Anglo-Catholicism may understand this point: how the very biblical, reformational content of the Book of Common Prayer can be so submerged under Anglo-Catholic meta-communication that you can sit there for years and never ‘hear’ the gospel.)
Those who agree with this premise, and want to do better at structuring their church meetings along gospel lines, will find much in Dr Chapell’s book to stimulate and help them, even if (like me) they cannot quite go with him on his ‘one liturgical pattern to rule them all’. In particular, there is a treasure trove of resources in the second half of the book, providing enough examples, ideas and links to keep you going for some time.
However, Dr Chapell’s powerful argument for the importance of meta-communication also persuaded me afresh of the importance of the ‘church-as-worship’ debate, and (somewhat ironically) revealed the most significant flaw in Christ-Centred Worship. By conducting his entire discussion of what we do in church under the rubric of ‘worship’, Dr Chapell undercuts the Christ-centred gospel emphasis he wants our gatherings to display. This is because ‘worship’ is essentially a response word—it means to submit, to honour, to serve, to make a worthy offering. Theologically, worship is what we do in response to God’s sovereign gracious initiative in addressing us in the gospel.
Thus, by drawing a circle around our church gatherings and typing the label ‘worship’ above it, the meta-communication shouts that we are coming to church in order to offer something to God, to serve him, to honour him. The ‘architecture’ says that the direction is God-ward. But the gospel architecture is quite different; quite the opposite, in fact. It is us-ward—God graciously coming to us in his Son, dead in sin as we are, and speaking us back to life through his Spirit. This gospel theology should shape our ecclesiology. As Phillip Jensen has written: “the distinctively Christian gathering or assembly, that historically has come to be called ‘church’, is made up of those whom God has saved and redeemed in Christ, and who now in repentance and trust gather around him to listen to his word, so that they may persevere and grow in holiness and righteousness…”.1 Or to put it in apostolic language, the gathering is a body with Christ as its head, in which his word dwells richly as we speak and sing the truth in love to one another, so that we might grow up into maturity in him (see e.g. Col 3:15-17; Eph 4:15-16; 1 Cor 12-14).
Just as the gospel is about God coming to us in his gracious word, so church is primarily about us gathering to hear God’s word, and to respond to him together in repentance and faith. To label or categorize church as ‘worship’ is to bring only one side of this dynamic to the fore, and to emphasize our contribution and response rather than God’s grace. It would be like describing our meetings as ‘corporate repentance services’. We’d want to say, “Well yes, there is repentance involved, but that’s not how you’d summarize the whole thing!”
Is this why the apostles never labelled or categorized their church gatherings as ‘worship’ (or even ‘corporate worship’)? It was certainly not the theological ‘architecture’ in which they wanted church to be thought about or discussed or practised. Perhaps they realized that to do so was to engage in a meta-communication that just pushes us in the wrong direction.
It certainly has done so historically. The ‘worship’ paradigm has led to church being seen as the place where we approach God, and make contact with him through our activity—whether in charismatic praise-and-worship or in high church sacramental mysticism. In Protestant circles, it has led to a legalistic formalism, where the important thing is for us to turn up to the ‘house of God’ in order to conduct the ‘right’ religious activities in honour of God, and feel that we have done our bit for the week.
‘Worship’ just isn’t the right ‘architecture’ for an evangelical church. Why retain it?
Those who do wish to retain it—and I am thinking at this point of the thoughtful arguments of Don Carson and Tim Keller in Worship by the Book—seem concerned that the loss of the ‘worship’ label may lead to the loss of something important, such as a draining away of a sense of God’s transcendent presence amongst us in Christ (see pp. 204-5). But there is no reason this should be the case, as the New Testament itself demonstrates. If New Testament churches had a strong sense of God’s presence among them in Christ as they met, they did so without any ‘worship’ language or conceptual architecture to sustain it. Why may not we?
Dr Carson does acknowledge that there is potential for confusion or ambiguity in continuing with ‘worship’ language, but is reluctant to dispense with the language all the same. He judges that the risks can be obviated by adding the word ‘corporate’ in front of ‘worship’.2 I must confess, I struggle to see how this changes the meta-communication in any significant way.
In Worship Matters Bob Kauflin is similarly reluctant to dispense with worship language when it comes to singing. Interestingly, he quotes Dr Carson about the dangers of calling song leaders ‘worship leaders’ (from a Briefing interview back in 2000), but then says:
…while I agree with Dr Carson’s perspective, I don’t think we have to lose the term worship leader. It succinctly communicates that our goal is to lead others in praising God. But neither should we exaggerate the significance of the phrase or attach a biblical authority to it. (pp. 52-53)
This decision simply to press on with the ‘worship’ category is a real shame, because the content of Worship Matters is otherwise very good (with some quibbles here and there). Mr Kauflin has read and thought deeply about his subject, and brought a strong biblical understanding to bear. His roots are in Pentecostalism, but (like the Sovereign Grace movement more generally), the trajectory of his thought over the past 15 years has clearly been towards Reformed-evangelicalism. And it shows. He wants singing to be word-centred, to be Christ-centred, and to fit within a theological framework where Jesus is the true ‘worship leader’ who gives us access to God by his blood. He has many sensible, biblical and helpful things to say about choosing songs, leading a music team, and managing the ‘healthy tensions’ that exist in music—for example, between transcendence and immanence, and between head and heart.
However, Mr Kauflin’s ‘architecture’ for singing is still ‘worship’ in the charismatic tradition—a tradition which views singing as a means of encountering God, offering him praise, and experiencing his presence in a special way. In other words, singing is primarily God-ward in this paradigm. It is a way (the primary way in most charismatic churches) for us to approach God, to please him, to experience him, to honour him, to glorify him, and to make an offering of our praise to him.
This residual architecture leads Mr Kauflin into doubtful territory at a few points. Within a paradigm in which singing is primarily directed towards God, as an act of worship, and where our hearts are moved to pour out our passionate devotion towards God, then shouldn’t God-honouring bodily movements (like raising arms) be a natural and normal expression of that worship? As always, Mr Kauflin is moderate and careful as he discusses this, and seeks to anchor what he says about bodily expressiveness in Scripture. But the issue is a minefield, and it’s hard to see why we would need to wander into it if not for the language and category of ‘worship’.
Mr Kauflin’s underlying problem is that while so much of his material is clear, biblical and helpful, the ‘worship’ paradigm keeps undercutting his point. ‘Worship’ is just not the right-shaped container for many of his insights. It cuts in a different direction. While we continue to frame our singing as worship, and understand our song-leaders as ‘worship leaders’, we will continue to communicate loudly to our people that singing is fundamentally about us approaching God to offer something to him.
Singing is so much more than this. It is speech—emotive, supercharged speech, but basically speech all the same. It is a wonderful means to do all kinds of things—to declare God’s greatness (i.e. to ‘praise’ him), to teach God’s word, to give him thanks, to exhort one another, to rejoice and exult in God’s goodness, to pray in lamentation of our sin, and more besides.
It’s a means, in other words, for us to hear God’s gracious gospel word, and to respond in repentance, and in faith, hope and love.
With singing, as with church, this is what really matters.