WORSHIP FOR THE WHOLE PEOPLE OF GOD: Vital Worship for the 21st Century (Ruth Duck): A Review

WORSHIP FOR THE WHOLE PEOPLE OF GOD: Vital Worship for the 21st Century.  By Ruth C. Duck.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2013.  Xxii + 334 pages.

I recognize that not every Christian would agree with me, but as for me, the worship of God is the heart of Christianity.  According to Jesus there are two commandments that should define our identity as his followers.  First we are to love God with our entire being and that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  The second emerges out of the first, and the first command, to love God is defined by the act of worship.  There are many forms that worship takes, but it is in the midst of giving praise and thanksgiving (and even a lament or two) that we encounter the living God, who is revealed to us in the person of Jesus and by the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.  While worship doesn’t always take corporate form, corporate worship plays a central role in Christian life.  It is, I would suggest, the heart of the church.  Without a vibrant and vital relationship with God, our work as Christians easily becomes drudgery and lifeless. 

Worship should be, though often isn’t vital and vibrant.  It should have roots in traditions passed on from generation to generation, even as it is born anew in each generation.  What we need, in each generation is wise guidance from those who have thought deeply, studied broadly, and who have experienced worship in fresh and vital ways.  Such a wise guide is Ruth Duck, the author of Worship for the Whole People of God.  The author is professor of worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (a United Methodist seminary) and an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ.  Whether everyone recognizes her name or not, one might know her from her hymns, including: “Womb of Life, and Source of Being,” “Diverse in Culture, Nation, Race,” and “Lead On, O Cloud of Presence.” 

Worship for the Whole People of God was written as a seminary textbook for classes in worship.  As such, it must cover theology, history, and practice. It does all of this masterfully.  In this day and age, a textbook on worship must also address issues that might have been brushed to the side a generation or two ago, but that is no longer true.  A suitable textbook must take into consideration the fact that the global nature of the church is being felt in ways never acknowledged previously. Gender is also something that must be engaged.  There is also the matter of the arts and media that have made their presence felt.  Again, Duck addresses all of these topics with grace and wisdom.  

Although this is written as a textbook, I came to believe that it should be a required refresher for every member of the clergy, so that we might be empowered and inspired to facilitate vital, vibrant, life-giving, and participatory worship in our churches.  As one who takes worship preparation seriously, I found the author refreshingly blunt about the serious problems facing the church today regarding our worship practices including the lack of true participation in worship.  Many of these issues have theological roots, which she addresses as well.  One of the areas that I greatly appreciated was her attention to the sacraments, both baptism and the Eucharist.  The discussion of the Eucharist, including the way in which we word our prayers and share it with one another, needs to be read with great attention.  Duck is an advocate for frequent reception, but if we are to share in this meal, we need to make sure our practice is theologically sound and vibrant.  This is, as she reminds us, a meal of thanksgiving, not a funeral service.  Remembrance is part of the Eucharistic service, but we the one we remember is alive and present with us.

  Throughout the book she counsels us to be creative, to take that which we receive an inheritance from history and from our denominations and let them become new.  One of the items that stuck out for me was the encouragement to engage in hymn-writing, even if that is simply paraphrasing a psalm or a traditional hymn.  I have heard the challenge and plan to work with my minister of music to create a response to the reading of the Scripture and a new version of the Gloria – and I don’t consider myself a poet.  Regarding tradition and change and creativity, she writes:
The church must hand on tradition in new ways that address the challenges of being faithful in each new day and context.  “Tradition” is not an unchanging heritage but a never-ending process of passing on faith in ever-changing ways (p. 265).         
The book is comprised of fourteen chapters that begins with theological foundations and then moves on to the importance of worship being participatory, deals with diversity, planning and leading of worship, the arts, words (vivid words), prayer, Scripture and Preaching, sacraments (three chapters), varieties of pastoral liturgies (weddings, funerals, life-related rituals), and liturgies of healing and reconciliation.  The concluding chapter is entitled “Vital Worship for the Twenty-first Century,” and in this chapter she brings the entirety of her discussion to a fitting conclusion. 

In her final chapter, Duck offers up four theological norms that she says are inspired by Don Saliers.  The first norm is that “Christian worship aspires to praise and thank God and to transform humanity and all creation through communion with God.”  With this norm she lifts up the importance of recognizing that transformation occurs because of communion with God, but too often our “worship” is taken up with humans addressing humans – even in prayer (prayers become sermons).  The second norm states that “Christian worship locates us in the whole story of God with us in Jesus Christ through the Spirit.”  In worship we tell the story of God and God’s relation with creation in Christ and through the Spirit.  Third, “Christian worship invites the wholehearted participation of the congregation in worship and in life with God in the world.”  In other words, worship should be participatory – beyond simply singing a hymn or two and shaking hands.  Finally, “Christian worship draws on the language, symbols, and art forms of local culture to glorify God, transform humanity, tell the story, and engage heartfelt participation, while at the same time remaining in tension with elements of culture.”  Worship must be inculturated, but it can’t simply become enmeshed with culture (pp. 265-269).  These are the norms that guide the course of the discussions in this book. In reading this book we won’t find one-size-fits all quick fixes, we might not agree with her on every point, but we will find the resources we need to facilitate the kind of vital worship that will connect us with the living God, resulting in transformation of our lives and our relationships.     

Over the years I have read widely in the field of liturgical studies.  My own thinking has been heavily influenced by Keith Watkins and Robert Webber -- one a liberal Protestant of my own denomination and the other an evangelical Episcopalian (now deceased).  Now I can add to this mix this work of Ruth Duck.  While I've known her hymns and prayers, now I've had the opportunity to experience the full wisdom that she brings not only to her students at Garrett Evangelical Seminary, but to the church at large.  If you believe that worship that transforms begins in full communion with God, and you wish to engage in this ministry with creativity, then my advice is to pick up the book and devour it.  If you’re a pastor, read it closely and then share its contents with anyone involved worship leadership from ministers of music to worship committees.  If you’re not a member of the clergy, but are in worship leadership – get this book, devour it, and of course share it with the pastor.  You will all be blessed as a result.


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