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Worship Words

By December 1, 2009 No Comments

I am delighted that this book came to be written; I worry that it will not be read as widely as it should be.

As the authors Debra and Ron Rienstra point out in their preface, much has changed about worship in the last thirty years or so, and much attention has been paid, as they put it, to “shifting musical styles and new ways to organize the time, emotional contours, and architectural spaces of worship.” Unfortunately, they point out, “attention to words has tended to lag behind attention to other things.”

The book, then, is “a call to renewed appreciation of words in worship,” and as someone who values words, who is called to use them often in worship,
Worship Wordsand who spends a great deal of time trying to select the right words and put them in the most pleasing order, I read the book with interest and even excitement. I am glad for this book. My sense is that Worship Words has been urgently needed.

Beyond that, my sense is that Debra and Ron Rienstra were just the right choices to write this book. Debra is an assistant professor of English at Calvin College and the author of several books. Ron is an assistant professor of preaching
and worship at Western Theological Seminary and also an author.

Debra claims that the text of the book is “in my voice,” though it is ver y much the result of a collaborative effort
with her husband. I found that a pleasing resolution to an age-old problem of unevenness with multiple authors. The book is loaded with “sidebar” items that serve to illustrate or illuminate the chapter topics, and the sidebars, which are in Ron’s voice, often provide the reader with helpful resources and real-life examples of worship issues.

The authors are mostly gentle with today’s worship leaders who are, after all, among their intended readers. The authors also do their best not to make judgments about particular worship styles. The two of them, together with their children, have clearly worshiped in a variety of settings in several different states, and they offer helpful anecdotes from their church-going experiences.

What is appropriate for worship in one context, they suggest, might not be appropriate in another. “A wisely selected and beautifully read prayer from the Book of Common Prayer” might be appropriate for some settings, while “a prayer improvised in simple language” might be appropriate in another. Mostly I think this is a wisely chosen approach, and I hope it results in wide hearing for the arguments contained in the book.

And yet, unless I have missed something, the book seems directed not at those who make wise selections from the Book of Common Prayer but rather those who offer improvised prayers in simple language. The book is directed to those who believe authenticity in worship is somehow in opposition to excellence, where to value one usually means shortchanging the other, where (to put it bluntly) a read prayer is judged to be a dead prayer. The authors forcefully argue that, though authenticity and excellence are not the same thing, both should be our goals in worship.

In the rush to authenticity, transparency, and spontaneity quite a lot has been given up, and the Rienstras argue that we should get some of it back–not tradition for the sake of tradition, but tradition that is deep and rich and grounded. In a chapter on “The Puzzle of Authenticity,” I think the authors do a commendable job of describing what has happened with language in many churches today and what has been lost as a result. I thought the chapter “On Chatter and Patter”–the authors’ almost- onomatopoeic expression for the prayer language heard in some churches today –was so good I asked my own colleagues to read it with me and reflect on its implications.

In fact, each chapter ends with provocative questions and exercises, meaning that the book could be used effectively with worship teams, worship committees, and church staffs. I thought the exercises following the chapter “Naming God” were particularly
good and challenging. When worship planning becomes simply a matter of the practical–who does what and when–the exercises in this chapter will stimulate some much-needed theological conversation. I realize that there needs to be attention to the practical, but some of the best worship planning meetings I have been part of over the years included just such theological exploration.

As I mentioned at the beginning, my greatest concern with the book is that it won’t be as widely read as it should be. My sense is that most worship leaders have to deal with the same issue as most preachers–namely, the disturbing regularity of Sunday (or Saturday and Sunday). With so much to be planned and rehearsed and learned, our worship leaders might say, how can we possibly find time to study and reflect and read books?

Early on I learned that my preaching suffered noticeably when I wasn’t studying and reflecting, and my guess is that worship leadership needs some similar attention to growth and development. Worship leaders who want to be better at what they feel called to do will want to read this book and take its message to heart.

Douglas Brouwer is pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.