Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009
This is the second book I have read by pastor, seminary president, and prolific author, Bryan Chapell. The first one was Christ-Centered Preached, by far the best book I have ever read on preaching! Having now read Christ-Centered Worship, I would have to agree with Tim Keller who wrote, “This will now be the first book I give people – or turn to myself – on the practice of understanding, planning, and leading worship.”
The subtitle, “Letting the Gospel Shape our Practice,” is the theme of the book. “Worship cannot simply be a matter of arbitrary choice, church tradition, personal preference or cultural appeal. There are foundational truths in the gospel of Christ’s redeeming work that do not change if the gospel is to remain the gospel. So, if our worship structures are to tell this story consistently, then there must be certain aspects of our worship that remain consistent.”
The first part of the book, “Gospel Worship”, includes chapters on worship in various Christian traditions throughout history. In analyzing liturgy from Rome, Luther, Calvin, Westminster, and 20th century, the author shows that despite minor differences they all follow a sequence – adoration, confession, assurance, thanksgiving, petition, instruction, charge, and blessing. Only some contemporary churches and charismatic churches do not follow this gospel pattern in worship, and that is concerning to the author who believes when the gospel is lost, worship just become a dead tradition or worse yet heresy.
Chapell contends that a general sequence for the order of service is not random. It follows the progress of “the gospel in the heart”:
The gospel first affects the heart by enabling us to recognize who God is. When we truly understand the glory of his holiness, then we recognize who we really are and confess our need of him. The gospel then assures us of the grace that he provides, and our hearts respond in both thanksgiving and humble petition for his aid so that we can give proper devotion to him. In response to our desire for his aid, God provides his Word. We heed his instruction, knowing that we are both charged to do so and have the promise of his blessing as we live for him. This common liturgy of the church through the ages reflects this sequential flow of the gospel in our hearts.
To express this in a different format the author outlines the common flow of worship: Recognition of God’s character (adoration) … Acknowledgment of our character (confession) … Affirmation of grace (assurance) … Expression of devotion (thanksgiving) … Desire for aid in living for God (petition and intercession) … Acquiring a knowledge for pleasing God (instruction from God’s Word) … Living unto God with his blessing (charge and benediction).
Of course, there are numerous variations to accomplishing this gospel flow – different calls to worship, different hymns/songs, different prayers, different Scripture passages, different challenges, different benedictions, etc.
The second part of the book, “Gospel Worship Resource”, is a gold mine of resources on each one of these aspects of the worship service. In my opinion, every pastor and worship leader could profit from consulting this section regularly. It will give him numerous ideas to enrich the worship experience within the context of the gospel.
The author believes that Christ is the center of worship, but that does not mean we never mention the other persons of the godhead. “The Father wills it all and the Spirit is the power behind it all, but the Son is the center of the story. The great theme of redemption revolves around him, and its many dimensions are designed to help us understand what he accomplishes.”
This is not a book about worship style, but rather about keeping the gospel of Jesus Christ central no matter what style is chosen. “Leaders simply must keep reminding themselves and others that their style of worship is determined by what they have agreed effectively communicates the gospel in their specific context.”
Being a missionary, I appreciate the author’s joy in speaking of ethnodoxology, which he defines as “the glorious praise of many peoples enriched by the different ways God has formed languages and cultures.”
I was enlightened by many parts of the book, but I can only touch on a few. Here’s one: the author believes that all Scripture has a redemptive purpose. The law, for example, is “our schoolmaster that leads us to Christ” (Gal. 3:24). Jesus said that all “the law and prophets” testified of him (Luke 24:27, John 5:39.) Chapell rightly reminds us that a message full of imperatives, but devoid of grace, is antithetical to the gospel.
He’s also included a helpful chapter on the Lord’s Supper, an ordinance underemphasized in many churches today. Weekly communion is his preference, but “not a mark of orthodoxy or a mandate of Scripture.”
Regarding music, the author reminds us that the Reformers were willing to borrow musical forms from secular culture to encourage congregational singing, He also reminds us that all hymns were contemporary when written.
In conclusion, one reviewer caught my attention this way: Do you remember the theme of President Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992? “It’s the economy, stupid!” If there is a single theme that undergirds Chapell’s book, it would be, “It’s the gospel…”—well, you get the point.