RHYTHMS OF WORSHIP (Stevens and Waschevski) -- Review

RHYTHMS OF WORSHIP: The Planning and Purpose of LiturgyBy John G. Stevens and Michael Waschevski.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Xiii + 76 pages.

Christian worship comes in many different forms and styles. It can be rich and luxurious or austere. It can be joyful or somber. It takes on different guises in different eras. The Liturgical Renewal Movement, which burst forth from Vatican II and the ecumenical conversations of the Consultation on Church Union in the 1960s led to significant changes in both Roman Catholic and Protestant worship. On top of that the Charismatic Movement brought into the mainstream the exuberant worship of Pentecostalism. Added to that was more attentiveness to ethnic varieties. Then there is the whole discussion about music – whether we should go with praise bands or stick with the organ (as if every church had an organ a generation ago).  The result is that today there has been much cross-pollination and more diversity than ever. So, what should vital worship look and sound like? 

Those of us who are charged with planning and leading worship have a vested interest in these questions.  We must balance theological concerns with cultural ones. There are innumerable pressures on worship leaders – often between those who advocate keeping to traditional forms, which often date back to the 1950s, or embrace new forms, which date from the 1970s and 1980s.  Some churches have abandoned Christian symbols and music and focus their attention on the unchurched, while others seek to reclaim ancient forms.  As we engage in this process, we always must be aware of our own biases.   

One of the challenges churches face is education about worship.  We often don’t have accessible guides that will help us have a conversation that broaden perspectives on the topic. Many books and texts are heavily academic in tone and not accessible. What we need is a brief and thoughtful guide that is accessible and can be used to stimulate conversation about worship elements and patterns. Rhythms of Worship is just such a resource.  Brief and readable -- with discussion questions -- the authors, both Presbyterian pastors who have been actively engaged in liturgical and musical questions within the Presbyterian Church, take the readers on a tour of the basic elements present in Christian worship, starting with order, along with introduction to the liturgical seasons, and the use of music and arts.  Yes, in just a few pages, we cover all the major bases of Christian worship.

The authors understand that there is much about worship that lies beyond our control. After all, the Spirit is involved!  However, there are many things that we do control, and they require careful planning and execution. You might chalk that up to the Presbyterian mantra to do things "decently and in order," but they are correct. There is no place for sloppy, ill-planned worship. It is not appropriate to blame the Spirit for our inattention to planning and proper execution.  Vital worship is rooted in excellence, and excellence requires thought and diligence. It is important that elements fit together. Music and readings should be selected and arranged to help facilitate encounters with God.  Careful planning allows us to be more in tune with the Spirit. 

The book is laid out along fourteen brief chapters, which focus on liturgical order, liturgical elements, the role of music and arts, as well as discussions of the movement through the liturgical/church year. In the course of the conversation they show how Word and Sacrament fit together. There is a beginning and there is an ending. Attention to the lectionary and the liturgical year help worshipers engage the person of Jesus Christ.  In the conversation about music, they remind us that style and instrumentation are not the primary issues (though worship wars are fought over them). In fact, quoting from Tom Long, they note that vital congregations will be marked by their use of excellent and eclectic forms of music. Excellence is stressed -- musicians and leaders should practice and know the music. Since we have such a wonderful array of music available to us, they suggest we take advantage of it. That can be overwhelming, but also exciting (I am counted among those who enjoy an eclectic variety!). 

The book closes by asking and addressing what might be the most essential question: "Is Worship important?" Does it matter in the larger scheme of things? It's not the elements themselves that are of utmost importance, but the act of worship itself. By affirming the centrality of worship, we heed a "correction of the view that the church is just a voluntary organization for the improvement of society" (68). Whatever work or service we do, worship grounds us in the work of God. They write: "To be the church is to be formed by the church's tradition of a life of faith through things we do individually and together, such as immersing ourselves in the message and thought world of the Scriptures and participating in the sacramental life of the church" (p. 68).

I can see this little book being used in a variety of settings. Since it includes discussion questions, it could simply be used in adult education. It would be of use to worship committees and other leadership groups. While at times I found myself disagreeing with the authors, more often than not my points of disagreement weren’t philosophical or theological but in emphasis.  Coming from a different denominational tradition, my sense of order at times differs, and thus I resisted the “should.”  At the same time, I appreciate the authors speaking to the complaint that the church is full of gray-hairs.  It is true that many of our congregations have a great number of older people in them, but maybe there’s something positive about this fact that can be celebrated.

It is apparent that we need to have serious conversations about worship, and whether it has relevance for our lives. While fellowship and service and education are important elements of the Christian life, does not what we do as church center in our worship of God?  Since increasing numbers of people in our society have little or no contact with the church, many have not learned simply by participating what Christian worship looks like. They need to have opportunity to ask questions and explore what it is we’re doing.  In all of these things, this little book should prove helpful. 


Steve Kindle said…
Bob, did they offer a definition of worship? If so, what is it? Also, I'm a little concerned about the overuse of "excellence." It seems to me that "sincerity" would be more to the point.
Robert Cornwall said…
There focus is less on the definition of worship and more on the what -- the elements of worship. So, they're assuming some things. As to the issue of excellence. There is a lot of worship that is sincere, but poorly pulled off. By excellence we don't mean professional -- but it is well planned and has a sense of order and purpose.
Steve Kindle said…
The prophets tell us that "excellent" worship is connected to ethics. Jesus said not to go to the altar with something against a brother/sister. So true worship begins before the formal act itself, and is insufficient without it. I guess I have a problem with "excellence" as defined by form.
John McCauslin said…
Without sincerity and authenticity worship lacks genuine substance and will utterly fail. At the same time chaotic worship is unsustainable, no matter how righteous. The form of worship counts; it's a large part of what causes the faithful to join a community. So pleasing form and faithful substance work hand in hand to draw a community closer to God in a quality worship experience.
Steve Kindle said…
Yes, form without substance is mere show and substance without form is idiosyncratic. We do need both form and substance for excellence to emerge.

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