Worship Words

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 Words
and 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 ser ve 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.