From the November, 2004 issue of Touchstone

Right Worship by Gillis J. Harp

Right Worship

A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-Centered Worship
by Michael Horton
Baker Books, 2002
(249 pages; $15.99, paperback)

reviewed by Gillis J. Harp

Despite the almost endless lists of sects that fill fat telephone directories, the options for contemporary Protestants in North America boil down to essentially two. One may either attend a theologically conservative church where members have some knowledge of the Bible and attempt to apply biblical principles in their daily lives but whose Sunday worship will be disjointed, informal, even painfully irreverent; or join a mainline congregation that may have reverent, formal, even traditional worship but also (and here’s the rub) members and a pastor who are utterly clueless theologically, if not actually opposed to orthodox Christianity.

Given the smorgasbord of American Christianity, it is striking just how limited one’s choices really are. If I were to assign one book that explains and points a way out of this depressing state of affairs, it might well be Michael Horton’s A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-Centered Worship. Although it is unlikely that liberal mainliners will read A Better Way, Horton provides a thoughtful reconsideration of recent debates about worship that would benefit both mainliners and Evangelicals willing to listen. He does so, however, by taking his readers back to first principles.

Horton, associate professor of historical theology and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in California and former president of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, has not written simply another conservative critique of contemporary worship. He rightly recognizes that current “worship wars” are rooted in a theological confusion about the larger meaning of the gospel and the nature and purpose of worship. The fruit of this insight is an ambitious and wide-ranging study rich with biblical exegesis, doctrinal reflection, and cultural analysis.

Horton’s diagnosis is that too many American Protestants have exchanged the authentic salvific story of the Bible for man-made theatricals. Protestants need “to recover the sense of redemptive drama that we not only see illustrated in Scripture but that the Word and Spirit actually bring into our communal setting.”

We gather on the first day of the week to renew our relationship with God as his covenant people and to receive the gifts he is eager to give his elect. God has established means whereby we receive his gracious gifts and these are chiefly “the preached word and the administered sacraments.” Nor are we free to substitute other means of our own devising to supplant these divinely ordained means of grace (by, for example, the altar call). Much of the contemporary confusion about worship and reaching the unchurched stems from a failure to grasp this latter point and from ill-considered efforts to improve on what God has actually provided.

The abysmal state of preaching in too many Protestant churches is a central part of this story. A fresh understanding of the ministry of the word is essential. “Preaching is not merely the minister’s talk about God but God’s talk—and not just any talk. It’s the kind of talk that produces new people. It is the encounter through which God himself takes the judge’s bench, arraigns us as sinners by the standard of perfect justice, and then finds a way, in Jesus Christ, to be both just and the justifier of the ungodly. All of this happens to us before our very ears.”

The Redemptive Drama

While many Evangelicals have opted for “practical preaching” (e.g., a sermon series on being a good parent), they need instead to tell the larger divine story clearly and then show the faithful how they are part of that rich saga. American Evangelicals actually got derailed long ago. It was the early nineteenth-century revivalist, Charles G. Finney, who first celebrated man-made techniques (“excitements,” he called them) to induce repentance and conversion. If these excitements did the job, who could argue with success? Since Finney’s time, the growth of a choice-fixated consumer culture has only bolstered this unabashed pragmatism.

Yet even preachers not tempted to follow Finney’s excitements often go astray. Once their auditors have been converted, Horton observes, their preaching descends into a kind of well-meaning moralism. The converted still need to hear the gospel. A lot of Evangelical preaching fails to maintain the balance in St. Paul’s epistles between the indicative and the imperative: “So we try to coax people into becoming better by accepting Christ or, if they are already professing Christians, to emphasize the imperatives without adequate anchoring in the indicatives [i.e., our secure status in Christ, being justified by his grace alone].”

Without this Christ-centered approach, otherwise orthodox sermons become, at best, what one of my colleagues calls “Jewish” (i.e., Christ-less) and, at worst, far-fetched allegorical interpretations that could just as easily have been based on a reading of Aesop’s Fables as on the Bible. Horton’s appraisal here is right on the mark; I have often listened to sermons in Evangelical churches that gave me helpful pointers about King David’s exemplary faith and courage but few that focused on David not as a model for believers but as a type of Christ.

Horton then provides a nuanced examination of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper that highlights their covenantal context and meaning. In line with the magisterial Reformers, he rejects a deficient understanding of the sacraments as bare signs, and stresses (as do most of the Reformation formularies) that they are effectual signs and seals. Hence, believers are “sealed in baptism [as infants] and regularly confirmed through the communion of Christ’s body and blood.”

One of the best ways to effect the incorporation of the faithful into the larger divine drama would be to move the administration of the sacraments back to the center of Protestant worship. Horton’s outline of the essential elements of corporate worship and the redemptive logic that shapes their proper order will be of especial help to those in Protestant traditions that have jettisoned written liturgies.

Contested Topics

It is not until this theological and sacramental groundwork has been laid that the book turns to a couple of the most hotly contested subjects of the current worship wars: musical styles and attracting non-Christians. In dealing with the first, Horton dispels the naïve and pervasive assumption that form may somehow be neatly divorced from substance. The trivial and commercial character of pop music is not an appropriate setting for texts of profound biblical meaning.

Nor, Horton points out, should this debate be reduced to a question of arbitrary taste; i.e., some folks just prefer the old hymns and others like modern music. There are many “traditional” hymns from the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries whose tunes are syrupy and whose texts focus primarily on the subjective feelings of the believer rather than on the saving acts of God. Fanny Crosby isn’t always better than Amy Grant.

As for reaching seekers, Horton insists that it is important to distinguish the genuine seekers from what he aptly terms the “tourists.” There is a good deal of well-documented turnover in Evangelical churches, and some of those who fill the pews of mega “seeker-sensitive” congregations are unfortunately attracted by the anonymity and the low expectations. Structuring the entire Sunday service around the felt needs of these folks would be imprudent. It is critical to “distinguish between the covenant renewal ceremony [of the saints gathered on the Lord’s Day] and outreach [to the lost].”

Certainly, some traditional congregations have not been sufficiently attuned to those outside their walls. “Both ‘contemporary’ and ‘traditional’ churches often miss the real excitement,” Horton concludes. “Both may easily fail to see where the action really is—the genuine ‘signs and wonders’ ministry that God performs each week when the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered.”

In some respects, Horton’s wise book is actually a searching critique of both the bad fruit of Pietism and revivalism and the intrusive influence of the market and of a consumerist ethic on Christianity in North America. The former led American Protestantism down a path that radically focused believers on their subjective experience and not on God’s historic redemptive acts. The latter has subtly nursed American individualism and stimulated popular tastes for endless variety and novelty.

Horton’s is a sobering assessment but one that generates considerable light rather than simply the usual heat of the worship wars. It deserves a wide audience.

Gillis J. Harp is Professor of History at Grove City College in Pennsylvania and the author of Brahmin Prophet: Phillips Brooks & the Path of Liberal Protestantism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). He and his family worship at Grace Anglican Church in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.

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