by John M. Frame
One of the happiest developments in recent evangelical theologies of worship is the emphasis on gospel-centeredness. If the Great Commission is the distinctive task of the church, then the gospel must suffuse all aspects of the church’s life and ministry, including worship. In our services, we need to hear and speak much more about how far we have fallen and how great has been God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ. Traditions and contemporary practices that hinder the centrality of grace must be rooted out, and we need to do more careful thought on how each element of the service can proclaim the good news.
Paxson Jeancake’s book is a great help in that regard. It began as an integrative paper under my supervision for Reformed Theological Seminary, and it really does integrate many areas of theological study: exegesis, church history, systematics, epistemology, practical theology. Jeancake achieves this integration, to some extent, with the help of a scheme of three perspectives that I have expounded in my own writing and teaching. The applications to worship are Paxson’s own: the theology of worship, the community of worship, and the leaders of worship. Theology sets forth the biblical norm. Community is the context, the “situational perspective” to which the norm is applied. The focus on leaders is an “existential perspective,” a discussion on how God transforms people by his grace to lead the worship of his people.
We can see all of this as a description of how the gospel works on us. It comes as a divine message (norm) into a communal context, to specific people, so that those people, by grace, gain a passion for praising and sharing the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Through them, in turn, God communicates this love and praise to the people in the congregation, and all lift up their hearts and voices in praise of God’s grace.
The existential focus here is on leaders, though, more than on the congregation as a whole. Jeancake’s specific interest is to encourage churches to recognize the arts as a legitimate divine vocation, indeed a church vocation. In the process of bringing the gospel to bear upon people, Jeancake argues, art plays a major role. We see that in the biblical tabernacle and temple, in the poetry of the Psalms, the object lessons of the prophets, the parables of Jesus, the vivid symbolism of apocalyptic. Jeancake fights an uphill battle contending for the arts in a Presbyterian-Reformed environment, with its tradition of artistic minimalism. But he is on solidly biblical ground, and he makes a good case for encouraging the gifts of Christian artists in the ministry of the church.
Besides his broad vision, he helps us here with many of the nuts and bolts of worship, commenting on different orders of worship, assembling and training worship teams, mentoring, dealing with problems. In all of this, he maintains his basic focus on God’s grace and shows us how to relate the nuts and bolts to this larger vision.
I am very grateful for this book. My own writing in this area is more narrowly focused. Worship in Spirit and Truth (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1996) is largely a normative perspective, setting forth biblical principles. Contemporary Worship Music (P&R, 1997) is situational, interacting with the debate at the time over the content of worship, especially music. My colleague Reggie Kidd’s recent With One Voice (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005) supplies an existential perspective, asking us to experience worship through the eyes and hearts of different kinds of worshipers. Jeancake’s book, however, brings these perspectives all together, giving a bird’s eye view of how they relate to one another and interact.
Further, amid all our talk about “gospel-centered” worship, Jeancake shows us what it actually looks like and feels like, and how it can become a practical reality. He expounds well the richness of the different elements of worship: the many different types of hymns, creeds, and prayers, the depth of the symbolism of the sacraments, the power of the word in preaching, and how these can be enhanced by the arts. His discussions of hot-button issues in this regard like drama and multi-media are balanced and cogent.
He suggests many ways in which we may vary these elements week to week, in order better to bring out different aspects of their biblical meaning. He quotes and refers to many sources that worship leaders can use in preparing worship, including confessions and creeds, sample orders of worship and prayers drawn from different traditions. He urges us to be aware of the ethnic and cultural contexts of our congregations, including the particular kinds of idols that oppose the gospel in those neighborhoods. He has much to say about making use of the diversity of gifts that God gives to each congregation. I appreciated especially his advice on helping people “navigate through change,” including ways of distinguishing between good change and bad change. He introduces readers to a great deal of really helpful literature on worship.
I could say much more, but in doing so I would virtually have to go through the book page by page. Suffice it to say that I’m delighted that this book will now be available to God’s people. May God use it to raise up leaders with vocations in the arts, and to enrich the worship of God’s people to the glory of Jesus and his gospel.