Honest Worship (Manuel Luz) -- A Review

HONEST WORSHIP: From False Self to True Praise. By Manuel Luz. Foreword by Rory Noland. Downer’s Grove: IVP Books, 2018. 192 pages.

I must confess, I'm always a bit leery about the use of the words honest and authentic when used as adjectives for things religious or spiritual. Too often these adjectives are used in ways that are more generational or matters of personal taste. What is authentic to one, might not be to another. When it comes to worship, there is this belief that free form/contemporary is authentic and liturgical/traditional is not. The guitar is considered authentic, but the organ is not. In the end, these debates have more to do with personal preference than spiritual authenticity. Thus, it was with a bit of reticence that began reading this book on worship written by Manuel Luz. Yes, I eyed the book with a bit of suspicion since it promised to distinguish between the “false self” and “true praise.” Some of my concerns were confirmed, but not all of them. Thus, the book has something to offer us as we seek to navigate the question of worship as we shift generational leadership.

It is best to begin by setting context. The book is written by a member of the ministry staff of what I’m assuming is an evangelical megachurch. For the most part it is this audience—evangelicals who are part of megachurches—that the author addresses. Much of what he addresses here relates to churches that use praise bands to lead the music. The author, himself, serves as "creative arts pastor" of Oak Hills Church, a megachurch in Folsom, California, which is essentially suburban Sacramento. Apparently, he has been in this position for more than twenty-five years. As is often true for positions like this, he was hired to this position because of his training as a musician not due to theological training (as far as I can tell he has no formal education in theology and ministry). I checked the church website for that kind of information, but it doesn't provide much relevant information about the staff’s education and background, instead informing us about his favorite movies and such. 

On to the book itself. It is written in a first person, at times autobiographic mode. He shares his own experience as a worship leader. It is from that sense of experience that he tries to navigate the importance of creativity without falling into the trap of judging everything by spectacle and technology (though he admits he is often in the spectacle business). Here is where, I think, his concern for honest worship comes in. He is concerned that instead of experiencing divine transcendence people simply experience spectacle, and then connect spectacle with authenticity. This is an important concern, as too often we judge authenticity by emotional responses, which isn’t necessarily the best way of judging something.

For the most part this is a book written for evangelicals who are seeking to create what some call contemporary worship. I know that many mainline congregations try to imitate this form of worship, usually poorly, hoping to attract the unchurched. These attempts, which generally are less than professional rarely work. Thus, I'm not sure it will be all that helpful to my community, but it is a good reminder that creativity and imagination are important elements in the worship experience. Nonetheless, there is something useful here. I do appreciate that he includes a chapter on compassion and justice (chapter 11), in which he connects what occurs on Sunday morning with life outside the congregation. He notes that biblically the prophets and Jesus connected worship with justice and compassion. This is an important message at a time when worship can be directed at making us feel happy without reminding us of God's concern for the world. 

Written with a general audience in mind, with the prospect of it being used in study groups, there is a discussion guide provided that makes this a possible conversation starter. In addition, each chapter closes with a "Worship Practice," an invitation to dive deeper into the topic at hand. I still am leery about conversations about things authentic and honest, especially when it comes to worship. If nothing else, this book serves as a warning against mistaking spectacle or entertainment for worship. Of course, it doesn’t matter what the format is, whether contemporary mega-church or traditional/liturgical we can mistake performance for worship.   


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