Category Archives: Book Reviews

Gospel-Shaped Worship: A Review of Recent Literature

Books reviewed: Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice, by Bryan Chapell (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009); Story-Shaped Worship: Following Patterns from the Bible and History, by Robbie F. Castleman (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013); Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel, by Mike Cosper (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2013); Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, by James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013). 

The gospel shape of Christian liturgy is receiving a decent amount of attention lately, including three volumes written in the past year. Each of these explores how the structure of Christian worship should follow (and, indeed, historically has followed) a similar outline that flows from a proper understanding of how we approach a holy God through the atonement of Christ by faith. These books follow in the tradition of other helpful treatments of the subject over the past several years, including Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice by Bryan Chapell. This short essay will review Chapell’s work and the three most recent additions to the literature.1

ChapelBryan Chapell’s book is among the earliest of these recent treatments of gospel-shaped liturgy.2 Chapell, noted homiletician, theologian, and author of the popular volume Christ-Centered Preaching (Baker, 1994), is president of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, the denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America.

Chapell opens the book with a phrase that characterizes a presupposition true of each of the books under review: “Structures tell stories.” The underlying assumption of Chapell’s work is that the structure of our liturgy carries meaning, and therefore a Christian liturgy should communicate the message of the gospel. “Whether one intends it or not,” Chapell argues, “our worship patterns always communicate something” (18). He seeks to sidestep the prevalent traditional/contemporary worship debate by urging church leaders to allow gospel purposes to shape their worship—not only the content, but also the structure.

Chapell begins in the first six chapters by comparing and contrasting the most influential Christian liturgies in the history of Christianity: pre-Trent Rome (chap. 2), Luther (chap. 3), Calvin (chap. 4), Westminster (chap. 5), and modern (specifically Robert Rayburn’s; chap. 6). While demonstrating that these various liturgies certainly differ as they reflect the specifics of the theological systems in which they operate, Chapell’s aim is to show that “where the truths of the gospel are maintained there remain commonalities of worship structure that transcend culture” (8). He shows that no matter the differences, each liturgy contains common elements: adoration, confession, assurance, thanksgiving, petition, instruction, charge, and blessing (98–99). Not only are the elements common, but their progression also remains consistent among the liturgies. Chapell argues that this is the case because each liturgy “reflects the pattern of the progress of the gospel in the heart” (99). A person recognizes the greatness of God (adoration), which leads him to see his need for confession of sin. He then receives assurance of pardon in the gospel through the merits of Christ, and he responds with thanksgiving and petition. God then gives his Word in response to the petition (instruction), leading to a charge to obey its teaching and promise of blessing. This common liturgical structure, telling the story of the gospel, “re-presents” the gospel each time God’s people worship (99).

Chapell continues in chapter seven by demonstrating that such a liturgical structure is present not only in historical liturgies but also in scriptural examples. He surveys Isaiah’s worship (Isa 6), Sinai worship (Deut 5), Solomon’s worship (2 Chr 5–7), Temple worship (Lev 9), New Testament (NT) spiritual worship (Rom 11–15), and eschatological worship (Rev 4–21) to illustrate that in each case these same common liturgical elements appear in progression. Chapell is not arguing that with each case the liturgy was consciously meant to communicate the gospel or that such liturgies are prescriptive but that “there are regular and recognizable features to God’s worship because there is continuity in his nature and the way he deals with his people” (105). Thus, even historical liturgies contain common elements, not because any one authority or tradition has controlled how all churches should worship, but because a “gospel-formed path always puts us in contact with God’s glory, our sin, his provision, our response, and his peace. By walking a worship path in step with the redemptive rhythm we simultaneously discover the pattern of our liturgy and the grace of our Savior” (115).

This then leads Chapell to insist that “where the gospel is honored, it shapes worship. No church true to the gospel will fail to have echoes of these historic liturgies” (25). He summarizes the flow of his argument:

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. We begin with adoration so that all will recognize the greatness and goodness of God. In the light of his glory, we also recognize our sin and confess our need of his grace. Assurance of his pardon produces thanksgiving. With sincere thanksgiving, we also become aware that all we have is from him and that we depend on his goodness for everything precious in our lives. Thus, we are compelled to seek him in prayer for our needs and his kingdom’s advance. His loving intercession makes us desire to walk with him and further his purposes, so our hearts are open to his instruction and long to commune with him and those he loves. This progress of the gospel in our lives is the cause of our worship and the natural course of it. We conclude a service of such worship with a Charge and Benediction because the progress of the gospel is God’s benediction on our lives. (116)

This doesn’t necessarily mean that every element will be emphasized equally (111), nor does it imply that there is never room for changing the structure (147). In fact, Chapell provides helpful examples of how “as long as its gospel purpose is fulfilled, each aspect of a Christ-centered liturgy may be expressed through a variety of worship components” (147–49). Again, the medium is something that is shaped by the message, not a structure artificially imposed upon the message.

Chapters 9–12 are dedicated to exploring how this kind of gospel-informed thinking about worship can help church leaders move beyond simply personal preferences or tradition to make decisions about their worship that will best communicate the gospel, both to believers and unbelievers alike. Chapell addresses controversial issues such as musical style, reverence vs. relevance, and seeker-sensitivity, attempting to show how in each case, an allegiance to Christ-centered worship will help those involved come to a unified consensus (130–35).

In the second half of the book (chaps. 13–24), Chapell provides helpful resources for the implementation of Christ-centered worship, including specific examples of the various components (e.g., call to worship, affirmation of faith, confession of sin), example service orders across a broad spectrum of traditions, and discussion of some of the more controversial practical matters (e.g., frequency of communion, Scripture readings, preaching styles, and musical styles). In each discussion Chapell attempts to allow the gospel to relieve the tensions.

In Christ-Centered Worship Bryan Chapell presents an engaging exploration of how the gospel should shape Christian worship. Although one may disagree in some areas of specific application, pastors especially will certainly benefit from an approach to worship that is richly conservative (e.g., an appreciation for and desire to conserve what has come before), biblical, and Christ-centered. Chapell’s work has had significant impact upon other recent writings, especially Cosper’s Rhythms of Grace.

CastlemanOne of the books that presents a helpful balance between deep insight and accessibility is Robbie F. Castleman’s Story-Shaped Worship. A professor of biblical studies and theology at John Brown University, Castleman seeks to counteract the individualism prevalent in worship today (189) by articulating a theology of worship that finds its “story” not in the individual and his preferences, but in the shape of the gospel itself “outlined in Scripture, enacted in Israel, refocused in the New Testament community of the early church, regulated and guarded by the apostolic fathers, [and] recovered in the Reformation” (14).

Toward this end, Castleman progressively builds a case for worship that is an ordered (chap. 1) reenactment of the gospel (chap. 2) in a sacred space (chap. 3) according to God’s Word (chaps. 4–5, 7) that results in obedience to God’s will (chap. 6). This particular worship pattern, she argues in Part Two, continued to be nurtured in the patristic church (chap. 8), by the Reformers (chap. 9), and still shapes worship in some traditions even today (chap. 10).

Castleman begins formulating this understanding by arguing that the ordered rhythm rooted in creation (48) provides “a significant bedrock aspect of liturgical development” (34) since, just as “what one does and how one does it really is indicative of who one is and what one truly believes,” similarly “how people worship . . . does reflect what they truly believe about the God they worship” (30). Thus, just as God created the cosmos in an “orderly, sequential fashion” (32), even so one who truly believes in this God will worship him in an ordered way that reflects the character of the Creator.

The worship of Israel reveals the particular shape of such ordered worship as one of reenactment. Everything about Israel’s worship, from the tabernacle construction to the sacrificial system (80–81), displays the essence of their worship as “remembering how the Lord God had delivered them and reenacting this deliverance” (43) through seven primary elements: call to worship, praise and adoration, confession, declaration of God’s good news, the Word of the Lord, responding to God’s Word, and the benediction (81–87). This kind of reenactment continues in the New Testament (58) and provides a means to “reflect the biblical story that is central to a congregation’s identity as God’s people,” to “serve as a corrective to worship which is designed mainly for the contemporary concerns of a congregation,” and to “celebrate the character of God and his redemptive work in the world” (58–59).

This requires establishing a “set apart” space and time for such reenactment (73) that “helps worshipers worship and does not distract their attention from the worship of God” (66). Castleman rejects the popular repudiation of a sacred/secular distinction in favor of “all-of-life worship,” insisting that “when ‘worship’ means anything that anyone does, it tends to mean very little in terms of what pleases God” (74). Rather, she argues that a sacred space allows the worship to “reflect, even if imperfectly, God’s holiness and character” (64).

Nevertheless, corporate worship that follows the biblical pattern also affects life outside the sacred space, for “this liturgy is a godly rhythm for the whole of life” (91). Since the pattern acts out the gospel, and since the gospel motivates godly living (Tit 2:12–14), regular reenactment of this “story” on a weekly basis will shape the worshiper by the gospel. And since this is the pattern set forth in Scripture, ordering worship according to this structure “helps God’s people steer clear of the ambiguity of using worship as a tool to fulfill their own desires” (97).

The book presents a case for gospel-shaped liturgy similar to the other recent volumes under review, but in a clear and accessible manner that does not sacrifice depth. Castleman builds her argument progressively in a way that is convincing and very easy to follow. Her clarion call to evangelical churches to abandon worship shaped by the market in favor of worship ordered by Scripture is refreshing and much needed.

The most glaring weakness of the book is the absence of Communion in Castleman’s sevenfold worship pattern. Communion with God is the essence of worship, beginning at the Garden, pictured in the Hebrew feasts, and culminating in the Lord’s Table. Indeed, it should be the climax of any gospel-shaped liturgy, for in eating at the Table of the Lord, we picture his acceptance of us through Christ by faith. The other puzzling item with how Castleman presents her case is her rejection on the one hand of the regulative principle of worship in favor of what she calls the “canonical theological approach to worship” (19), compared with her insistence on the other hand that worship must be “by the book” for “maintaining a right relationship with God and for offering worship that honors God’s character” (97). Perhaps she believes that she needs to reject the regulative principle in order to follow the gospel-shaped liturgy she proposes, not realizing that while the regulative principle protects the God-approved elements of worship, it nevertheless allows for flexibility in the order of worship.

Story-Shaped Worship strikes a healthy balance between the depth of argument in James K. A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom, which would be difficult to follow for an average layperson, and the popular accessibility of Mike Cosper’s Rhythms of Grace, which makes a good argument but doesn’t explore the issue as fully. In many ways it resembles Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Worship, but Castleman presents a more robust biblical argument than Chapell, who spends more time examining the historic liturgies. Thus, I highly recommend Castleman’s book for pastors and church musicians as a thorough but readable introduction to gospel-shaped liturgy.

RhythmsofGrace_Cover_Final_forewordCosper’s Rhythms of Grace targets a more popular audience than Castleman or Smith and evidences clear influence by Chapell and Smith’s previous work, Desiring the Kingdom. Cosper, pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, roots his discussion of Christian liturgy in the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation motif that he suggests summarizes the gospel and governs the storyline of Scripture. This biblical theme should inform Christian liturgy, Cosper argues, “because the gospel is all about worship” (26).

Cosper explores this motif in the first four chapters of the book, contrasting in Chapter 5 what he believes to be a biblical model of worship with what worship looks like in most evangelical churches today, and he explains in Chapter 7 what he considers contributed to problems in contemporary worship. Chapter 6 reveals the influence of Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom in his argument that the goal of gathering in worship is to provide habits that will aid in spiritual formation. Likewise, Cosper’s summary of the shape of historical liturgy in Chapter 8 cites Chapell’s discussion. Chapters 9 and 10 break from the primary argument of the work thus far developed to address the matters of singing in worship and the worship leader’s responsibilities as pastor.

Although Cosper clearly builds off other work in his popular presentation, his discussion of the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation biblical structure does contribute a metanarrative approach to the subject, and he offers an informative chart that moves beyond Chapell by illustrating how Chapell’s more specific liturgical shape fits in the larger structure (123).

Cosper’s description of what led to a neglect of a gospel-shaped liturgy is also very helpful, and because of the accessible nature of his writing, this portion in particular could provide a healthy corrective for churches today. He correctly identifies one of the primary roots of problems with evangelical worship with Revivalism, which he argues “transformed worship from the banquet hall to the concert hall” (111). He observes that most churches today use some form (intentionally or not) of the Wimber Temple/Tabernacle model of worship in which worship is essentially an experience of being “ushered into the presence of God.” Cosper argues that this is biblically and theologically inferior to the historic gospel-shaped liturgy that he is advocating (113).

The most puzzling part of Cosper’s work is the final two chapters. Rather than clearly fitting into the overarching argument of the book, it appears that Cosper simply appended these chapters because he felt the subjects needed to be discussed. The book would have been complete, and possibly even stronger, had he omitted these chapters. Chapter 10 is helpful on its own merits, but Cosper’s discussion of singing actually seems to contradict arguments earlier in the book. On the one hand, Cosper argues that worship creates habits that shape the believer either positively or negatively: “How we gather shapes who we are and what we believe, both explicitly (through the actual content of songs, prayers, and sermons) and implicitly (through the cultural ethos and personas)” (94). Yet in Chapter 9, even though he does acknowledge some weaknesses of contemporary songs today, he nevertheless continues to insist that musical form itself is neutral. This clearly contradicts his earlier discussion of how worship (even the “cultural ethos”) shapes us.

Nevertheless, Rhythms of Grace does provide an important and accessible explanation of why and how Christian liturgy should be shaped by the gospel. In some ways Cosper’s book may be even an improvement over Chapell’s since it explores more of the theological and biblical logic beneath a gospel-shaped liturgy rather than getting bogged down in discussions of  historic practice.

James K. A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, the second volume in a series that began with Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009), is definitely the most philosophically dense of the books under review. A professor of philosophy at Calvin College, Smith seeks to explore in Imagining the Kingdom the nature of what worship does and argues that the repeated acts of Christian worship using appropriate forms that embody the biblical narrative shape us toward living out our mission.

SmithSmith builds from his argument in Desiring the Kingdom that humans are motivated, not primarily by what they think, but by what they desire. This realm of the affections and imagination is thus critically important for the formation of Christian virtue since knowledge is acquired more through intuition than proposition. Smith argues that this kind of shaping takes place in community through various habitual acts that orient our understanding of life, which leads to his description of human beings as “liturgical animals” (3). Thus corporate worship is significant for Christians, for it is these biblical liturgical acts that “draw the people of God into union with Christ in order to thereby shape, form, equip, and prime actors—doers of the Word” (6). Corporate worship does not target only the intellect, which Smith argues is a limited way of understanding Christian education (7); rather, worship shapes what we love, and “we do what we love” (12, emphasis original).

Smith builds on this foundation to argue that “the way to the heart is through the body, and the way into the body is through story” (14). He reasons that it is ultimately acting out story that shapes imagination (109) through metaphor (117) perceived through the senses. Liturgy is story, and “the truth of a story or poem is carried in its form, in the unique affect generated by its cadences and rhythm, in the interplay and resonances of the imaginative world it invokes, in the metaphorical inferences that I ‘get’ on a gut level” (134). In other words, for Smith the purpose of the shape of liturgy and of art within worship is not simply to express truth in an interesting way (160) but to embody an aesthetic reality that then shapes our conception of life in ways mere words cannot: “Form matters because it is the form of worship that tells the Story (or better, enacts the Story)” (168, emphasis original).

Imagination shaped by biblical story then leads us to actively live out that story, which Smith roots in the missio Dei, participating in the “cosmic redemption by which Christ is redeeming all things” (156). Thus corporate worship is the gathering in which we are sent out to participate in this mission in ways toward which we have been shaped in the act of worship itself. He summarizes his argument quite nicely:

The ultimate upshot of my argument is to suggest that educating for Christian action will require attending to the formation of our unconscious, to the priming and training of our emotions, which shape our perception of the world. And if such training happens through narratives, then education for Christian action will require an education that is framed by participation in the Christian story. Our shorthand term for such narrative practice is worship. (38, emphasis original)

Smith’s work presents an important corrective to common thinking in evangelicalism that minimizes the moral impact of liturgy and the arts as “contextual” matters that neutrally adorn central truth. Smith is quite correct when he insists that such perspective “misses the centrality and primacy of what we love” (7), or, I would add, how we love; there is a reason Scripture roots the Great Commandment in the realm of the affections (Matt 22:37). This emphasis on the affective provides the basis for Smith’s refreshing understanding of aesthetic form. Form matters for Smith; it is not amoral, for

the meaning of the work of art cannot be distinguished from its material form because such meaning is not just an ideal intellectual content that could be indiscriminately transposed from container to container. The material meaning of the work of art is bound up with its material form and is resonant with our own materiality, made sense of by our bodies. (60)

Thus that meaning shapes the imagination. For Smith, “the point isn’t that both form and content matter. The point is more radical than that: in some significant sense we need to eschew the form/content distinction” (169). The implication is that some kinds of art are incompatible with the aim of Christian worship, and thus some Christians “end up singing lyrics that confess Jesus is Lord accompanied by a tune that means something very different” (175, emphasis original). Furthermore, Smith provides a thoughtful basis for a view of common liturgy that recognizes the acting out of the gospel in worship as essentially formative in living out the gospel the rest of the week. Finally, Smith’s emphasis on a “handed down way of being shared among community” (81) is likewise a welcome corrective to contemporary repudiation of tradition and neglect of congregational participation in worship.

I find a few other of Smith’s arguments problematic, however. First, rooting Christian action in the missio Dei fails to recognize fundamental differences between God’s mission and what he has called the church to do specifically. This leads naturally to a second concern, and that is with Smith’s basis for Christian action found in cultural transformation, citizens of the kingdom of God “who act in the world as agents of renewal and redemptive culture-making” (6, emphasis original). This framework risks a neglect of the Great Commission in favor of a “cultural mandate,” which, contrary to Smith, are not equivalent (151). Smith would have been better rooting the end of worship in simply being “doers of the Word” (6) rather than the missio Dei and cultural transformation. Third, in discussing the body and emotion, Smith does not distinguish between visceral impulses and the spiritual affections. He seems to recognize a need for some sort of distinction (37, n13), but in reacting against “the rationalism born of the Enlightenment legacy,” he resorts to a “romantic” understanding of anthropology (46) rather than a biblical/pre-modern conception. Finally, although I agree wholeheartedly with Smith that imagination/affection is what motivates us to action and that action must be informed by right knowledge and beliefs, Smith seems to go too far, minimizing the critical importance of doctrine and beliefs summarized in propositional statements (173). On the contrary, the Great Commandment is predicated on the Shema—“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4); right love requires right belief.

Smith’s work is far-reaching in its implications, especially in its discussion of the importance of form for nurturing the imagination. His presentation is repetitive at times, which is sometimes helpful and other times distracting. Nevertheless, I would quickly recommend this work for pastors, church leaders, and students of worship for its important explanation of “how worship works.”

Each of these books provides welcome corrective to worship today that often has little biblical or theological structure or that is actually rooted in unbiblical philosophy. If I had to choose just one to recommend, I would choose Castleman’s book for its balance of scholarship and accessibility and its consistency in application of the underlying philosophy to issues such as musical form in worship. Nevertheless, each of these is well worth reading, and hopefully they will continue to influence and stimulate worship discourse in the days ahead.

  1. Another example of a recent volume that articulates a gospel-shaped liturgy is Constance M Cherry, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010). []
  2. This review of Christ-Centered Worship originally appeared in Themelios 34 (2009): 444–46. []

The Psalter Reclaimed by Gordon Wenham

The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms, by Gordon Wenham. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013. 205 pp. $15.99.

Whether times of praise or times of mourning, seasons of birth or seasons of death, the psalter speaks to a host of situations. Wenham, an Old Testament scholar, writes this introduction to the psalter to reorient the church with the breadth of its liturgical function. The psalms, though used in worship from the creation of the tabernacle, have seen limited usage in the present-day church. The Psalter Reclaimed attempts to recover the use of even the imprecatory psalms, and casts a vision for worship in the church that relies heavily on the psalter.

The question, What are we doing singing the psalms?, is the initiation point for exploration of this study of the psalter. Wenham traces the record to their liturgical function, seeking to clarify why the psalms were sung rather than recited. He finds this clarification in the writings of church father Athanasius: “For to sing the Psalms demands such concentration of a man’s whole being on them that, in doing it, his usual disharmony of mind and corresponding bodily confusion is resolved, just as the notes of several flutes are brought to harmony by one effect” (17).

The structure of the psalter is not just for singing, but also memorization. Wenham cites Griffith’s assertion that most readers approach texts in a consumerist fashion, picking and choosing to read what they like and move on, but religious readers “see the work read as an infinite resource” (22). The speech act theory is then applied through this religious reader view. “The psalms teach us the fundamentals of the faith and instruct us too in ethics” (25). The speech act theory extends the role of the psalter: “Singing them commits us in attitudes, speech, and action” (25).

The psalter is a collection of prayers to God. Wenham urges that congregations not “miss the main point of the Psalms: they are designed to be prayed” (37). Churches are often guilty of choosing the psalms that are joyful or heartening; however, “we need to expand the scope of our prayers to take in the hurts of our world, not just its joys” (55). The church should be praying all the psalms.

In what is the strongest chapter in the book, Wenham presents the case for reading the Psalms canonically. He posits, using others’ scholarship, that not only the authors were under inspiration when writing the psalms, but that the compilers of the psalter were under divine inspiration in its organization. “If, as I think has been demonstrated, the psalms have been arranged thematically, by title, and by keywords to form a deliberate sequence, it is imperative to read one psalm in the context of the whole collection and, in particular, in relationship to its near neighbors” (77). The balance of the book considers the issues of messianic interpretation, ethics, the imprecatory psalms, and the nations in the psalms within the context of this canonical reading.

This work is of the highest scholarship and serves as an excellent introduction to the psalter, but is conceptually flawed. The book is largely a collection of articles and lectures given at different locations to groups of differing academic acumen. This publication lacks the editing necessary to allow these differing articles to speak clearly with a unified voice, making reading frustrating at times. Even though one author writes the work, it may be best thought of as a compilation of essays with a general editor.

For a work that is well supported academically, The Psalter Reclaimed lacks the original thought of the author throughout. From the beginning, Wenham carefully documents what the church fathers through present-day scholars have thought of the psalter. His presentation of their thoughts might lead one to an understanding of his own ideas; however, he never presents an original contribution other than the comparison of differing viewpoints.

The Psalter Reclaimed is a useful introduction to the psalter that would most effectively be read in individual chapters and not as a cohesive work. The book is written so that a cursory knowledge of theology is required to understand its assertions. Pastors, worship leaders, and students will find this volume useful as they grapple with understanding the psalter and its role in the worship of the church.

Robert Pendergraft
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, TX


How Then Shall We Worship? by R. C. Sproul

How Then Shall We Worship?: Biblical Principles to Guide Us Today, by R. C. Sproul. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2013.

Pastor, teacher, and speaker R. C. Sproul is well known in evangelical circles. Many churches have used his books for Sunday school curricula and small group discussions, such as his classic text The Holiness of God (Tyndale House Publishers, 1985). Sproul’s newest work, How Then Shall We Worship?, also deserves strong consideration for churches and lay people in their pursuit of biblical and theological studies.

The subtitle, “Biblical Principles to Guide Us Today,” captures the essence of this book. Sproul continually refers readers to Scripture throughout this work, demonstrating that he has no desire to depart from what he believes are objective principles that should guide churches and church leaders in their decision-making processes regarding worship. Furthermore, he affirms at the outset that this is a continual process of re-evaluation:

Our modern worship needs the philosophy of the second glance, an ongoing attempt to make sure that all we do in worship gatherings is to God’s glory, to His honor, and according to His will. (11)

Sproul demonstrates throughout the book his belief that only through Scripture can we determine how to properly bring glory and honor to God according to God’s will.

An important distinction to make before reading this text is to understand what Sproul means when he says “worship.” Contrary to how many Christians define worship as “music” or “singing,” Sproul is referring to the whole gathering of believers. In fact, there is very little said of music specifically. This tells the reader that the issue of worshiping in a way that is “according to His will” is much broader and more urgent to Sproul than simply deciding what kind of songs to sing. This is a “bigger picture” book that examines the root issues of Christian worship rather than addressing the symptoms. Because of this, readers looking for a list of what kind of music or style is acceptable will not find it in this book. Instead, they will follow Sproul on an examination of the “how” and the “why” of worship practices, beginning in the Old Testament and continuing through what churches should practice today.

“If God Himself were to design worship, what would it look like?” (15). Sproul points out that God did, indeed, provide very specific instructions to Moses and the Israelites how He was to be worshiped. However, the church cannot simply take what was prescribed and drop it into New Testament worship because the sacrificial system has been completely fulfilled in Christ. Even so, Sproul does suggest that the church need not eliminate the entirety of Old Testament influence and philosophy:

I am not interested in simply transferring Old Testament worship into the New Testament community, but what I am trying to find is whether there are principles we can glean from the Old Testament cultus of Israel that might have valid application in New Testament worship. (124)

Of particular interest in this examination of Old Testament principles is how the “whole person” was involved in worship; that is, all of the senses were engaged. The final few chapters of the book go into detail about how Old Testament worship was designed specifically for this purpose, and this is where the book becomes the most “practical” in application—the reader gets a sense of why God prescribed worship to be carried out in the very specific ways that the Pentateuch says He did.

A study guide appears at the end of this book, providing a good summary and outline of the material contained in each chapter. This study guide also contains the objectives of each chapter, questions for Bible study, a discussion guide, and points of application. This helps make the book a good resource for both group and private study.

How Then Shall We Worship contains strong material that deserves to be studied, reviewed, and discussed. The current “worship wars” have been destructive to churches and individuals, and texts like this can help the church take a step back and re-evaluate the “how” and the “why” of Christian worship, making sure that the church is, indeed, pursuing worship “to God’s glory, to His honor, and according to His will.”

R. Christopher Teichler
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, TX


Of Games & God by Kevin Schut

Of Games & God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games, by Kevin Schut. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2013. 206 pp. $16.99.

It is easy to find heavily partisan writing on the video game phenomenon that has so deeply entrenched itself into our social fabric, whether it be a crusade against video game violence and its perceived real-world effects or “techno-utopianism” (9). Author Kevin Schut, associate professor and chair of the department of media and communication at Trinity Western University, instead approaches the subject from a balanced Christian perspective. He desires to “work out the relationship between Christian faith and games,” rather than take sides on any one of numerous specific points of debate, and in this endeavor he is quite successful (4).

The book is thoughtfully constructed; the author begins with the basics and builds from there. He takes the time to define what a game is, along with other key concepts in understanding games such as medium and communication. Operating from this baseline, Schut then spends the rest of the book approaching various hot-button issues related to video games such as violence, addiction, gender stereotypes, and education. In each chapter he does his best to offer both sides of the argument to the reader, letting the reader gain some perspective on where the debate currently stands. It is only then, at the end of a chapter, that Schut offers his own opinions and views, and when he does it is always in a spirit of humility.

The bulk of every chapter is devoted less to the author’s own opinions on issues than it is devoted to helping the reader develop a discerning eye of his own. Schut provides an excellent two-page concluding statement within the last chapter (175–76). Subtitled “Toward a Healthy Christian Criticism,” this section lays out, in summary, Schut’s guidelines on how to approach games from a properly balanced Christian perspective. It is in this passage that the ultimate goal of Schut’s book is clearest; again, his purpose is not primarily to take sides on major issues, but rather it is to help readers develop a Christian framework from which to approach them.

Upon first reading, and depending on a reader’s preconceptions, the book can seem a bit weak; after all, the author doesn’t really draw a line in the sand and make a strong argument for one side or the other of the various issues he discusses. Indeed, it can be easy to walk away from the book and feel that Schut gives nothing more than the classic law student answer to any question: “It depends.”

However, such a reading of the book entirely misses the point that Schut is trying to make. Instead of taking a side, he helps the reader develop a healthy, Christian, critical framework with which to view such issues; he isn’t simply waffling out of laziness. Perhaps, at times, he does indeed imply the statement “It depends,” but always along with that stance comes a thoughtful discussion of what factors and Scriptural principles come into play for the relative topic, allowing the reader to make informed decisions of his own. In a field of study dominated by knee-jerk reactions and strong emotions, Schut’s approach is a wonderful breath of fresh air.

The foreword by Quentin Schultze interestingly states that the book “reveals that gaming is implicitly like worship liturgy” (xii). While such a statement may be stretching things, a lot of what Schut has to say does have applications in the worship world. Indeed, his discussions regarding parallels between games and Biblical perspectives on art (see 90–91) have some application in the realm of worship; becoming a “monomaniac” and letting one of the most important things in this earthly life (such as making disciples) become the only thing in life is a mistake in that it ignores all that the Bible has to say about God’s love for beauty and excellence in corporate worship and Christian life in general.

Other worship applications can be found in Schut’s writing as well, such as in chapter four. In discussing how to approach the issue of video-game violence, he argues that we should be looking less at the consequences of violent media and more at whether such media is inherently wrong (59). This applies to the worship wars in the sense that, using the same argument, we should be looking less at the personal effects different styles of music have on people (e.g. whether or not it “speaks to a person’s heart”) and more at whether certain aspects of corporate worship are inherently right or wrong according to what God’s word has to say on the issue.

Such applications, while possibly useful, are in the end ancillary to the book’s ultimate purpose, which is to help Christians approach video games in a balanced, Biblical manner. The book is not without its flaws; the author freely admits that chinks in the armor of his arguments can be found (xvi, 175), and indeed they can. But such flaws are few and far between. Schut doesn’t try to give us the final word on the morality of video games; instead, he walks the journey with the reader, attempting to apply what the Bible has to say and helping the reader build a healthy critical framework from which to approach important issues in the gaming world. Of Games & God is a great book for the inquisitive Christian, whether a parent, pastor, or “gamer.”

Andrew Morris
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, TX


A Neglected Grace by Jason Helopoulos

A Neglected Grace: Family Worship in the Christian Home, by Jason Helopoulos. Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2013. 119 pp. $10.00.

“Family worship in the Christian home” is a neglected grace according to author Jason Helopoulos. Helopoulos, Assistant Pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, laments that many Christian families have given into the perpetual struggle to maintain regular family worship, and he offers a motivational and practical guide to encourage families to recognize the joy and benefits of regular worship in the home.

Helopoulos approaches the topic humbly: “I am not an expert on family worship. My wife and kids can testify to that. My family and I continue to learn how to do family worship better, more faithfully, more consistently, and with more joy” (16). He begins by articulating the importance of family worship, maintaining that it flows out of private worship toward corporate worship. It is part of the parents’ responsibility to rear their children in the Lord and finds precedent in Scripture: “There are plenty of commands that in our homes we are to teach our children, read the Word, pray: in essence—worship” (30).

After establishing this important biblical and philosophical foundation, Helopoulos begins to offer practical helps toward the end that families not pursue worship together legalistically, but rather out of a desire for a sweet and joyful time of spiritual profit. He contends, “Family worship is not something we have to do. Our right standing before God has already accomplished all for our salvation. Rather, family worship, like other spiritual disciplines, becomes something we want to do” (16, emphasis original). He offers both positive tips and addresses potential difficulties in various situations. The book includes several appendices of resources to help families in their worship.

A Neglected Grace is a welcome and useful tool to encourage families in their worship, not only because of Helopoulos’s extremely helpful tips and resources, but also because of his deeply uplifting and understanding tone.

This is just an introduction to the topic, however. While Helopoulos does offer biblical reasoning behind the need for family worship, a far more thoroughly developed theology of the essence of worship and nature of how a child learns and grows spiritually is necessary to fully correct deeply entrenched erroneous presuppositions in these areas that permeate Christian thinking today. Christians tend to believe that worship is something that comes naturally as an “authentic” expression of a regenerate heart. Yet if the Scriptures and church history reveal anything to us about worship, it is that left to themselves, even God’s people will worship poorly; they must be taught to worship, and what better time to do so than when a child’s heart is free from so many external negative influences—when his heart is ready to be shaped. It is my fear that most Christians do not recognize that before a child can even comprehend facts, his affections and imagination are already being shaped. In other words, far before a child can comprehend his purpose to worship God, before he or she can comprehend the concept of a god at all, the child learns how to worship. Children learn to worship God acceptably primarily through participating in rightly ordered worship (both in families and in the church). If parents fail to teach their children how to worship, even before they are regenerate, they risk rearing children whose default will be to worship themselves and whose expectations for corporate worship will be shaped by that ingrained inclination. Thus, while A Neglected Grace offers a very helpful introductory basis for encouraging family worship and provides wonderful practical suggestions for parents who are already convinced of its necessity, I’m not sure it would correct enough flawed thinking in the majority of Christians today.

Nevertheless, I would highly recommend A Neglected Grace as an introduction to the importance of family worship and as a practical manual for encouraging regularity in this duty.

Scott Aniol
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, TX


Doxology and Theology edited by Matt Boswell

Doxology and Theology: How the Gospel Forms the Worship Leader, ed. by Matt Boswell. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2013. 223 pp. $14.99.

Growing out of a conference by the same name, Doxology and Theology presents the belief of editor Matt Boswell and contributing authors that “theology is not just for the academics—it is for every Christian, especially worship leaders” (2–3). Boswell, pastor of ministries and worship at Providence Church in Frisco, Texas, bemoans the fact that “many believe that worship leadership and theological aptitude are mutually exclusive” (1) and offers this volume as a corrective.

The book is divided into fourteen separate chapters by various authors that address subjects related (more or less) to this primary thesis. Boswell begins in Chapter 1 by presenting “five marks of the worship of the church” from Psalm 96: The worship of the church is God-centered, biblically formed, gospel-wrought, congregational, and missional. He continues in Chapter 2 with qualifications of a worship leader, arguing that “the worship leader in many churches serves as a functional elder, and therefore should exhibit the qualities that the New Testament expects of elders” (24, emphasis original).

In Chapter 3 Michael Bleecher expresses concern that “our churches are filled with uninformed worshippers.” As a solution to this problem, he suggests, “where the Word of God is taught correctly, the opportunity exists for the informed worshippers to respond to God with their heart and mind, with affection and thought” (45, emphasis original).

Zac Hicks argues in Chapter 4 for a robustly Trinitarian worship that has four results: The Trinity affects the possibility and proximity of worship, protects the priority and purity of worship, affects the posture and procedure of worship, and directs the practices and propositions of worship.

In Chapter 5 Matt Papa attempts to demonstrate “how worship fuels missions (Rom. 3), and that missions rises and falls on the wings of worship” (77).

Stephen Miller insists in Chapter 6 that “the character of our hearts, good, bad, and ugly, will necessarily shape everything we do in ministry” (95).

Chapter 7, by Aaron Ivey, argues for the necessity of social justice as a church mandate and claims that “we cannot teach the idea of serving the poor and being people of justice unless we are altering our lives to actually live it out” (107). Thus, Ivey has “come to the humbling conclusion that a crucial role in the life of the worship leader is to lead the charge in seeking justice, renewal, and redemption” (111).

In Chapter 8, Bruce Benedict contends for a gospel-shaped liturgy such that “through our words and actions, we call people to stand in the glorious victory of the cross, to raise their hands in a united gesture of praise, to confess their sins with humble spirits, and bodies, to be sent out in mission filled with the confidence and assurance that the Holy Spirit is powerfully present and at word” (122–23).

Mike Cosper maintains in Chapter 9 that “pastors of worship should be attentive to how the creative gifts of the church are being nurtured and cultivated, and how opportunities to express those gifts are being stewarded” (141).

In Chapter 10, Aaron Keyes insists that a worship leader is also a disciple-maker.

Building on the premise that “the relationship you share with your pastor is crucial to the survival of the role you serve in supporting him” (161), Andi Rozier presents in Chapter 11 guidelines for nurturing the relationship between the worship leader and his pastor.

Boswell returns in Chapter 12 to address the worship leader and family worship: “We care tremendously about our churches worshipping in a biblically informed, theologically rich manner. We should be equally concerned about the worship in our homes” (174).

In Chapter 13 Matt Mason focuses attention on the act of singing itself, and Ken Boer concludes in Chapter 14 by simply connecting the gospel to the worship leader and his task.

I doubt very few astute observers of worship leadership in evangelical churches today would disagree with Boswell’s assessment that many worship leaders have little, if any, theological acumen. Indeed, since, as Boswell rightly argues, worship leaders are at very least functional elders, biblical requirements concerning sound doctrine and aptness to teach are as applicable to worship leadership as to any other ministry position. This is why at Southwestern Seminary, each of our church music and worship ministry degrees have a theological core. Thus, Doxology and Theology is a welcome corrective that targets the vast array of theologically (and even, in many cases, musically) uneducated worship leaders. Each of these chapters will stretch such a worship leader to consider more carefully his task. I’m not convinced every chapter logically flows from the book’s thesis, such as Ivey’s claims concerning the church and social justice, but most of the chapters will at very least push worship leaders to think theologically. Yet a book like this is a starting place only; hopefully it will motivate a desire to receive formal education in these important areas.

Scott Aniol
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, TX


Liturgy as a Way of Life by Bruce Ellis Benson

Liturgy as a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship, by Bruce Ellis Benson. The Church and Postmodern Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 160 pp. $17.99.

As part of The Church and Postmodern Culture series from Baker Academic, Liturgy as a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship by Bruce Benson is an attempt to recast the vision of the liturgical life of a congregation away from a particular rite or tradition of worship action into a holistic view of life in community. Benson serves as professor of philosophy at Wheaton College and as the executive director of the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology. His background and experience in these areas prove valuable in his attempt to analyze liturgical practice in light of postmodern philosophical principles.

The fundamental premise of Benson’s work is that individuals were created with the ability to respond creatively to the call of God. He connects this worship action with humanity’s ability to be artistic: “That call and response can rightly be considered artistic in that we are—in our being—God’s work of art” (25). Humanity embodies the liturgical life as it serves as God’s work of art and subsequently creates in response to God’s action. Because he grounds his argument of liturgy as a lifestyle within aesthetic and theological terms, Benson proceeds to interact with the prevailing philosophical views toward both of these fields. While he accepts some of the claims of postmodern philosophical thought, relativism with regards to the arts is a frequent target of Benson’s logic throughout the work. He painstakingly details the way in which society’s view of the arts developed through the centuries and explains how the romantic notion of the “genius artist” runs counter to the biblical view of art.

Benson builds upon this philosophical foundation by using jazz improvisation as a metaphor for the corporate liturgical action. Freed from the modern notion that art is the domain of the genius, worshipers can begin to create their art together as a community of non-professionals, each adding their particular themes to the artistic fabric of congregational worship and liturgy. He connects this concept with the Trinitarian language of perichoresis, whereby each member improvises with the other in the liturgy of life. The fourth chapter takes a somewhat unusual turn as it describes the story of a Jewish artist’s search for his voice in art and the struggle to balance faith and artistic expression. Benson uses this narrative to demonstrate that art created within the Christian community should reflect reality and therefore need not be beautiful to be an accurate response to the Creator. He concludes with a discussion of liturgy as the true “work of the people” and summarizes his previous statement that all of life is a liturgical action.

Throughout the book the author makes several perceptive insights into culture and the way in which Christians navigate ideas and concepts that are in opposition to the biblical mandates. He seeks to shake twenty-first-century believers from the self-consumed narcissism prevalent throughout society and enable them to live lives that respond to God’s gracious call to join him in his work of redemption. Benson’s best contribution lies in his stinging critique of the quasi-religious nature of the fine arts in secular society. He describes the cultural expectations and practices within the fine arts culture, including architecture and ritual, and demonstrates the way in which they echo religious activities. His deconstruction of art as religious experience opens the door for envisioning the arts as a vehicle for worship and expression of the Christian worldview.

Liturgy as a Way of Life covers much of the same ground as other works in the field of aesthetics and liturgy, but it does make interesting connections between jazz improvisation and the traditional worship metaphor of revelation and response. Worship leaders and church musicians would be served well by thinking through many of the issues and topics Benson raises in his work. The corporate action of worship finds renewal as individual believers view their entire lives as acts of worship. Benson makes the case that the greatest fulfillment of the community of faith comes when each member joins his or her individual melody and rhythm with the contributions of others to offer God a creative improvisation upon the themes of redemption, grace, and forgiveness.

David M. Toledo
First Baptist Church
Keller, TX


The Creedal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman

The Creedal Imperative, by Carl R. Trueman. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012. 208 pp. $16.99.

Carl Trueman is the Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary and serves as pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania. These two positions make him eminently qualified to discuss the topic of the role of confessions and creeds in the life of the church. The Creedal Imperative is a keenly written work that seeks to provide the rationale for the normative use of creeds within the worshiping community and proactively address many of the traditional arguments against such practices.

The primary target of Trueman’s ire is the frequent cry of many evangelical pastors and ministers, “We have no creed but the Bible.” He addresses this argument on numerous levels, including an exegesis of several biblical texts that imply the early church had a common core of belief statements that were propagated throughout the church. Trueman purports that those who hold to “no creed but the Bible” do in fact hold to an unwritten creed, and through denying its existence, do not allow for it to openly guide ecclesiastical practice and withstand public scrutiny. Trueman attempts to connect the aversion to the use of creeds by some in the church with such secular cultural ideals as consumerism and the strong influence that evolution holds throughout society—most notably in the preference for the new over the old.  He particularly addresses churches that reject historical patterns of worship in an attempt to convey relevance to contemporary society.

In the second chapter the focus shifts away from the cultural reasons for the rejection of creedalism and attempts to demonstrate the biblical and traditional foundations for the use of creeds in Christian life and worship. While the author makes numerous salient points concerning the value of the creeds, perhaps his strongest justification is that “an established, conventional vocabulary for orthodox teaching is . . . of great help to the church in her task of educating her members and of establishing helpful and normative signposts of what is and is not orthodox” (75). Although his arguments from biblical exegesis may not be overwhelmingly convincing, he succeeds in justifying the use of creeds through a layering of several types of evidence and benefits.

Trueman proceeds to supply a historical survey of the historic creeds of Christianity beginning with the Apostles Creed, through Nicea and Chalcedon, and finally highlighting the major Reformed doctrinal statements, including the Heidelberg Catechism and Westminster Confession. It is within this discussion that his historical and pastoral experience is most evident. He believes the pastor’s identity and calling is inextricably connected to the orthodox statement of faith the person identifies with at his or her call to ministry. Trueman goes so far to say that the authority of any pastor is intimately connected with a formalized belief system.

The role of the creeds and corporate confessional statements as acts of worship serves as the primary emphasis of the fifth chapter. The author demonstrates that all theological development derives from the reflection upon the doxological statement that “Jesus is Lord!” and is therefore related to worship (135). The public confession of Christ’s lordship and the liturgical action of baptism form an experience whereby the individual joins belief with belonging in the Christian community. The public rehearsal of statements of beliefs, creeds, and confession serves as a vehicle for spiritual formation and church renewal.

Carl Trueman has offered a volume that is worthy of study and application for individual believers, worship leaders, and congregations. While he at times can come across as dismissive toward those who hold differing attitudes, Trueman’s arguments for the use of creeds and confession within the doxological life of the congregation are compelling. The resurgence of traditional forms and elements of worship such as liturgies and confessional statements necessitates careful theological and historical reflection on their continued usefulness to the worshiping community. The author argues that the cry of “No creed but the Bible” be replaced with the adherence to the “faith once handed down to the saints.” These traditional formulations of belief statements serve as a source of identity, unity, praise to God, and an enduring foundation throughout tumultuous societal change and theological discourse.

David M. Toledo
First Baptist Church
Keller, TX


Personal Jesus by Clive Marsh and Vaughan S. Roberts

Personal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our Souls, by Clive Marsh and Vaughan S. Roberts. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012. 234 pp. $22.99.

Popular music is more than just a form of entertainment. In their book, Personal Jesus, Clive Marsh and Vaughan Roberts, both British scholars in the fields of theology and culture, seek to explore the cultural significance of popular music. “Ensuring the critical study of religion in relation to how people listen to contemporary popular music will foster appropriate understanding of the music itself. It will help us understand how religions do (and must) work in society today” (xv). It is this interplay between popular music and religion that is explored, examined, and evaluated in the three sections of this book.

Music and Religion seeks to explore the contemporary relationship of religion and popular culture. The authors then introduce the Magisteria-Ibiza Spectrum as a tool for comparing the influences of religion and popular culture on an individual’s affective space. “In the everyday world, and in the everyday life of listeners of music, whether those listeners be religious or not, it is the affective space they inhabit in their listening where their explorations of such issues and questions are in part being worked out” (27). Having examined the outside influences through the Magisteria–Ibiza Spectrum, the attention shifts to the role of popular music in the writings of contemporary theologians David Brown, Tom Beaudoin, and James K. A. Smith.

Living by Pop Music is an examination, largely using case studies of popular music songs, of popular music in contemporary society. Popular music has become a commodity: that which is bought and sold. “Religion and spirituality have themselves become consumer items” (43). This consumer culture is reflected in the church and the church’s music. “Some manifestations, such as the megachurch and the rise of praise and worship music, seem to be in direct response to (and even as a reflection of) consumer culture” (53). Since both religion and popular music are intertwined in this consumer culture, it further can be stated “commerce, faith, and pop are not discrete and disconnected elements in Western culture” (54).

Pop music and religion are linked not only through commerce but also through the body, transcendence, and the canon of song. Pop Music and the Body examines “how the visceral body, language, and social institutions interact in the specific areas of music and faith” (75). Tangentially related to the body, The Tingle Factor explores transcendent ecstasy, revealing that “music ‘was the most frequently mentioned trigger among the arts’ for evoking such experiences” (78). The “tingle factor” plays an important role in both pop music and religion. “The tingle factor puts us in touch with that which we cannot quite identify, but which is vitally important for human life, and which is very much the subject of theology” (89). Just as the Bible is a canon that speaks to a wide range of emotions, each person has a playlist representative of their life that speaks to an equally wide range of emotion. Though it may be easy for a song to enter one’s playlist, it is the music that stays on the playlist that shapes who we are. “In a clear sense, we are our playlists” (111).

The final section, Pop Music and Theology, brings together the roles of popular music and religion. Although the authors stop shy of calling music a religious experience, they do suggest it is a spiritual experience. From this posture, they suggest, “Many listeners may not be actively expecting their music practices to be a form of ‘edutainment’ (being educated while being entertained, or entertained while being educated)” (183). This failure to actively realize the role music is playing does not prevent it from shaping us, but allows us to be shaped without exerting control over that shaping. It is in this area that more work must be done not only in institutions but in the local church as well.

The cover and title of the book are misleading. Upon first encounter, it would appear that this book is a popular level treatment of the interplay between religion and popular music. Looks however are very deceiving. In actuality, this book is only understood by the scholar, and even the scholar in religion may need to seek external resources in culture to fully grasp the argument as it is presented.

Personal Jesus is a thoughtful, although highly technical, consideration of the role pop music and religion play in forming the individual. In building a strong argument, the authors often lose sight of intelligibility to the reader. Thankfully, the signposts used within the chapters allow the reader to reorient himself to the argument of the authors. The scholarship is outstanding, but even outstanding scholarship did not prevent this book from being a slow and frustrating reading experience.

Robert Pendergraft
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, TX


Lessons Learned by Randy Edwards

Lessons Learned: Practical Insights into Developing an Effective Adult or Student Choir Ministry, by Randy Edwards. St. Louis, MO: Morningstar Music Publishers, 2012. 92 pp. $15.00.

Randy Edwards is the founder and president of YouthCUE, an organization whose goal is to equip student choir directors with the tools and resources to develop healthy, vibrant, Christ-centered student choirs in the communities they serve. YouthCUE provides yearly conferences for student choir directors, aiding in their professional, artistic, and ministerial growth. The organization also hosts yearly choir festivals around the country where students from varying churches and choirs combine together during one weekend to rehearse as a mass choir and prepare a full length concert with an orchestra for a public concert. Edwards serves as the artistic and creative leadership for the organization and often serves as the conductor for the YouthCUE choral festivals. He received musical training at Howard Payne University and Houston Baptist University and earned the Master of Church Music degree in conducting from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Edwards currently resides in San Antonio, Texas.

Edwards’s first text, Revealing Riches and Building Lives: Youth Choir Ministry in the New Millennium, was published in 2001 and is a seminal work in the area of philosophy and practice of youth choir ministry. In this most recent work, Edwards returns to evaluate some of the lessons he has learned through directing the YouthCUE network.

Lesson 1: Beauty – Directors are encouraged to know beauty and teach students to know, love, and experience beauty. Beauty can only be known through its creator and sustainer—Almighty God.

Lesson 2: Passion – When entering student choir ministry, we are encouraged to count the costs of ministry in a holistic and long-term manner. Meeting the true needs of students means overcoming obstacles. If the student choir director lacks passion, these obstacles will never be conquered.

Lesson 3: A Real Person – The student choir director should strive to be genuine, using the skills, abilities, personality, and love that God has given to shape students for God and make beautiful music.

Lesson 4: Time – It is the most precious of life’s commodities. Edwards asks us to consider how we use our time. Should we be meticulous time managers in rehearsal or is choir rehearsal about having fun all the time? The answer is balance. In order to minister to millennial students, directors must balance the use of time and attention to students.

Lesson 5: Organization – Strong, excellent organization can help any program to better focus its efforts and more effectively utilize its available resources. Strong organization helps to move the program toward longevity and consistency, and immediately gives the benefit of allowing the director to have more free time to devote to building relationships with students.

Lesson 6: Buzzwords – Edwards mentions several buzzwords that pertain to choral ministry. Relevant – Your ministry may not always seem relevant for every situation, but ensure that it is always revolutionary, facilitating change in students, and that it is reusable, creating principles upon which students can build in every stage of their lives. Millennials – We will do well and minister more effectively if we realize that each student, regardless of his or her generational designation, is a unique and beautiful person in the eyes of the Creator. Legacy – The tradition that we hope to leave should be planned and it should not be all about programming but all about purpose.

Lesson 7: Text – Texts serve as the nourishment for the souls of the singer. Time-honored texts should be the foundation for the lyric material of student-choir anthems. The use of scriptural texts aids the student’s growth in spiritual formation; these texts are memorized and are embedded in the life of the student.

Lesson 8: Road-Trip Momentum – Choir tours and mission trips provide the opportunity for students to minister and build relationships during the week, but equally as important, they provide the director the opportunity to build relationships with students that will blossom into further ministry and deeper connections in the future. The choir mission trip will give the director the occasion to gain valuable raw information about students’ lives in order to minister to them and with them in a greater way for the coming year of student music ministry. The bus ride, breakfast, or park-bench chats allow the director to get a glimpse into the student’s life, helping the director know how best to minister to the student and allowing him to assess the leadership possibilities that lie within each student.

Lesson 9: Compassion – Student music ministry allows the director to be taught by God through His word and experience the beauty of compassion. Student music ministry calls the director to impart the heart and the art of compassion to the students.

Lesson 10: Entrepreneurial Spirit – Entrepreneurial student choir ministry has to be willing to take risks and move beyond simply guarding and maintaining an established ministry. Risk-taking in Christian ministry is synonymous with expressing visceral faith in an ever-faithful God, who not only calls people to do special tasks but also empowers them with everything they need to get the job done.

Edwards opens the work by explaining that his goal for this text is not to provide a comprehensive addendum to his first book. His aim, to provide insights into student choir ministry not previously addressed, is accomplished by means of brief chapters that are written in a more conversational manner. Although each chapter is independent in its focus, throughout the work Edwards retains a theme of efficient artistic ministry to students. In his first text, Edwards uses statistics and a more formal writing style. In this work, he frequently employs quotations from world leaders, lyricists, various artists, noted authors, and anthropologists as launching points for his conversational writings about the lessons he has learned. At the end of each chapter, the author asks several questions to encourage interaction on the part of the reader with the thoughts presented in the previous chapter. Following the chapters on the ten lessons learned, he includes ten sections of personal diagnostics for the reader to employ for personal growth. In these diagnostic sections Edwards provides helpful, practical insights on how to improve in each of the ten areas that he mentions in the lessons learned.

Edwards’s newest text would prove particularly useful for those currently serving in music ministry and those training for music ministry. The work is well suited both for staff musicians as well as the lay members of the faith community who serve in student music ministry. Edwards does not shy away from more technical jargon as it arises in the course of writing; however, as stated earlier, the overall style of writing is more familiar and does not lend itself to elevated language. This text would work especially well as a text for discussion among the student choir director and parent volunteers as well as personal reading by the director. It would also prove profitable for the music ministry student on the undergraduate or graduate level to spark class discussion and to provide insight to the budding minister.

Lessons Learned is a distinguished addition to the ongoing conversation about student music ministry. Although the volume is not scholarly in style, Edwards does continue with the insightful thoughts on practical music ministry that he began in his previous work. The area of student music ministry is continually evolving in the second decade of the twenty-first century and this work continues to pose questions and give practical suggestions for ministering to students through artistic ministry. The work could benefit from a bit more cohesion in the flow of each chapter. Occasionally, Edwards uses block quotations that are stylistically interruptive, though each is relevant to the topic at hand.

Randy Edwards’s newest volume is a fresh interaction with current topics in youth choir ministry and aids directors of all skill levels and professional status. It is certainly worth the brief reading time to continue to hone the skills of ministering artistically to this critical age of congregants in America.

Aaron M. Rice
Chowan University
Murfreesboro, NC