Review: Christ-Centered Worship by Bryan Chapell

Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape our Practice. Baker Academic, 2009. 320pp. R260.

Available: Good Neighbours; Amazon; Loot

INTRODUCTION

Those aware (and critical) of the influence of Liberalism on the modern evangelical church would have a field day when it comes to the “stuff” that takes place on a Sunday gathering prior to the sermon. “Worship” has dissolved into just those thirty minutes before a message, or sometimes even less. In this time, congregants indulge in stirring up their feelings, led by the quasi-high-priest of our era, the “worship-leader”, whose presence is vital if we are to gain access to God and truly “meet with him”, as it were. How did we get here? Where even are we?

History certainly could help us, and it would seem that Bryan Chapell is of the same opinion. In his Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape our Practice, readers are at once faced with history, bible and example. It’s a three-armed attack on the contemporary church and her own three besetting sins: the obsession with consumerism, individualism, and pragmatism.

Serving as the president of Covenant Theological Seminary, a former pastor and present speaker, Chapell has written a wonderful resource for church leaders that will alert them to the rich tapestry of liturgical practices seen in both Scripture and history. If churches are to regain meaningful worship, then we need to understand that our “order of worship conveys an understanding of the gospel…our worship practices always communicate something” (18). For Chapell, this “something” necessarily ought to be the gospel we proclaim. Christ-Centered Worship investigates the many ways we can and should structure our gatherings as churches so as to best tell the gospel, not only in word but also in liturgy.

Summary

Chapell’s work can be divided into three main sections: an historical survey of worship practices, a biblical survey of worship elements, and finally a section of thorough application of the principles gleaned from the first two sections.

Concerning the historical survey, the opening six chapters begin on the premise that “structures tell stories” (15). It is this truth that fundamentally has shaped historical liturgies, which Chapel defines as “the public way a church honors God in its times of gathered praise, prayer, instruction, and commitment” (18). Chapell’s concern for the historical survey is borne out of the fact that the “order of worship conveys an understanding of the gospel” (18). As such, there is much to benefit in drinking from the historical fountain, discerning and obtaining the structures that, intentionally or not, tell us something about the gospel, for good or ill (19).

Chapell discerns two fundamental movements in the liturgies surveyed: the Word and the Upper Room (20). In each, elements serve to prepare a congregation for the proclamation of the Word and reception of the sacrament, respectively. Beginning with Rome (pre-1570), Chapell’s survey includes the liturgies as practiced by Luther (1526), Calvin (1542), Westminster (1645), and Robert G. Rayburn (1980). Each analysis is complete with a careful look at the various elements, showcasing how each part related to the whole, as well as marking the progression and internal logic of the respective liturgies. Another important part of Chapell’s survey is the helpful comparison between the various liturgies. The consistency and similarities are highlighted showing that there were shared fundamental assumptions behind the respective authors, assumptions that tied their faith and practice together as one, albeit in varying historical and social contexts.


Christ-Centered Worship investigates the many ways we can and should structure our gatherings as churches so as to best tell the gospel, not only in word but also in liturgy.


In chapter seven, Chapell’s emphasis moves from an historical survey to a more biblically directed analysis. This is not at all to question the biblical faithfulness of the liturgies as we find them in history, rather Chapell wishes to understand whether or not the gospel, as biblically defined, inherently calls for certain structures that, if absent, would render the so-called “gospel” as no gospel at all (85). It is in this section that Chapell follows the very contours of the gospel; always linking the parts back to the repeated patterns that are evidenced in the historical survey. Chapell’s thesis, as stated above, is that any order of worship ought to be a “re-presentation” of the gospel, both in Word and sacrament (99). Readers are provided with a host of examples from the Old (102–107) and New Testament (107-11), in which a familiar pattern arises. Such a pattern, for Chapell, reaches its apex in the life of Christ and the Gospel preached in his name. Worship is thus a movement from the revelation of God to sinners in which a response of awe, praise and obedience are rendered out of thanks to God’s mercy in Christ. The gospel, then, “forms its own container,” since “certain principles are always essential when communicating a complete gospel story” (110). This, for Chapell, is Christ-centered worship: worship that is constrained and directed by gospel priorities, since the “grace God provides through his Son is the thread that sews the service together” (113).

The book takes a notable shift in chapter ten with a view to applying both the historical survey and the biblical witness concerning Christ-centered worship. It is here where Chapell introduces the role of the church’s mission (126) and necessity of having gospel priorities (130). These ought to determine worship decisions in the life of the church, specifically if churches are to avoid succumbing to division along lines of musical preference. On this basis, Chapell moves to discuss the prevailing principles gleaned from the first two sections, which brings him to arrive at eight aspects of Christ-Centered Worship: adoration, confession, assurance, thanksgiving, petition and intercession, instruction, communion/fellowship, and charge and blessing (141). The rest of this section explicates and models specifically how these aspects can be utilized through various appropriate components such as prayers, readings, affirmations, testimonies, and music (146).


Chapell’s thesis is that any order of worship ought to be a “re-presentation” of the gospel, both in Word and sacrament


Critical Evaluation

A Solution to A-Historical Contemporary Worship

Christ-Centered Worship has, in my view, many strengths. Most notably is the historical research and analysis. I was struck by how Chapell’s work shows how many churches today are simply divorced from any historical Christian practices and instead resemble greater influence from the world and culture. Many reasons could be given for such a discrepancy. In my own country, evangelicalism is a largely fractured movement with not much coherency to it. But an underlying assumption among many is that the Bible is simple silent on matters regarding ecclesiology and our corporate gatherings. Chapell’s work thus presents a timeless antidote to such ignorance or arrogance (its hard to discern at times).

The gospel as celebrated throughout the historical liturgies ought to frankly embarrass many congregations today in which little to no Scripture is read, hymns and psalms of bygone eras lie in dust-covered hymnals, and we walk into auditoriums with our coffee of choice in anticipation of supporting the preaching centers we call “churches”. Readers will be challenged to consider their practices and those of the past and will have to reckon with their own attempts to be biblically faithful, if that is a conviction they hold. Indeed, I am of the belief that much of today’s worship methodology simply communicates a certain arrogance and snobbery toward what has come before: we are the age of evolution and progress, caring more about feelings and vibes than doctrine and weightiness. Surveying how centuries of churches understood themselves in light of the gospel will help us if we are to humbly stand on their shoulders.

Structural Communication

Connected to the historical survey is Chapell’s more fundamental insistence that structures inherently communicate something, whether intended or not (17-18). This, for me, is another strength of Christ-Centered Worship, and serves to undergird why a historical survey is of any worth. It is because the Reformers and other divines after them understood these structural communicative acts that liturgy was taken seriously. From wind veins (15) to the placement of the pulpit (16) there was an understanding that the “medium is the message” (17). I do not think that churches practice “non-structural” communication in their gatherings. What readers need to discern is that something is always being communicated. Singing for thirty-minutes straight with the chorus on repeat seven times may just subtly (or not so subtly) communicate that God can be heard or we can gain access to him only once we conjure up the right feelings, as if our many words somehow convince him of our worth (Jesus had something to say about this). As such, Chapell’s overall burden is one the modern evangelical church needs to embrace: an understanding that how we do things is preparing our people in a certain way. We communicate something both about our God and ourselves as we gather. Is he adored? Do we confess our sin? Do we receive his assurance? In his Word instructing us? Are we being sent out as those blessed and commissioned? All these and more are brought under the scope and shown to be of vital importance in forming our people, in discipling them to obey all that Christ has commanded.

Resources Aplenty

A final strength I wish to highlight is the obvious resource that this book is. Besides the links and lists of websites, hymnals, and other material, the examples given with a plethora of variations is a well many a pastor can drink from and practically implement in the life of the church starting tomorrow. There is enough freedom here to explore, to consider your context, as well as present a diversity of prayers, songs, varying orders, and readings that will enliven our congregations and spur them on to love and good deeds.


The gospel as celebrated throughout the historical liturgies ought to frankly embarrass many congregations today in which little to no Scripture is read, hymns and psalms of bygone eras lie in dust-covered hymnals, and we walk into auditoriums with our coffee of choice in anticipation of supporting the preaching centers we call “churches”.


Chapell on the Regulative Principle

There are, at least in my mind, two minor critiques that Christ-Centered Worship invites. The first is in regards to the regulative principle. Of course, the categories of the regulative and normative principle are themselves extra-biblical and are open to debate. However, Chapell does not clearly adjudicate on the matter or present his own understanding of the regulative principle. It is mentioned in passing with respects to Calvin’s liturgy and convictions (44), but for Chapell what is primary and of first importance is whether or not “formative gospel principles are embedded” in any given liturgy (44). This may not strike the reader as a major flaw, but as we shall see in my next point, the lack of clarity proves to provide somewhat of a shaky ground when applied.

A Potentially Pragmatic and Ambiguous Thesis

Chapell’s silence on the regulative principle seems to be trumped by a concern for what he calls “gospel principles” (296). This idea appears to be Chapell’s main thesis. To be sure, yes, emphasizing the gospel is grounds for establishing unity amidst a plethora of modern music tastes (297).  At the same time, Chapell is right to assert that “music communicates our values, anchors our feelings, and expresses our hearts” (296). However I am somewhat convinced that his thesis may be liable to pragmatism, especially since it is coupled with the important task of deciphering the “calling” of our churches to their “specific setting” (296). I may not inherently disagree with Chapell’s proposal here—I simply have some questions. To what degree is this “calling” of the church to minister to their given setting to determine their worship? The ambiguity here is somewhat confusing; especially given the fact that nowhere does Chapell assert the role of the regulative or normative principles. As far as I am concerned, Scripture speaks of one “calling” of the church, one mission that cannot change drastically from one culture to another.


Much of today’s worship methodology simply communicates a certain arrogance and snobbery toward what has come before.


I think this may be showcased in the small passing comments that churches could ease tension in preferences by offering services with different styles (297). Chapell admits that such a practice is simply a stopgap but seems to imply that churches could work toward creating separate churches. I find that entertaining such a thought undermines the very point Chapell is attempting to make: working toward a consensus on musical styles. What “structural message” (17) is communicated when churches are divided along musical styles? It’s also seen in the comments concerning the Lord’s Supper (293-4). Little mention is made of 1 Cor 10:16-17 which clearly teaches that the bread and cup give evidence to the oneness of the many. On this basis I think that this would (at least) imply that certain ways of administering the Table are ruled out, since what kind of message is being communicated by the structures we employ? Such observations and critiques may be deemed as unnecessary but I sense the ambiguity over the regulative principle potentially breeds some inconsistency in respects to some aspects of liturgy.

Conclusion

Our order of worship conveys an understanding of the gospel whether we intend to or not (18). What will it be? Will our churches celebrate consumerism, individualism and pragmatism? Or will they be bound by Scripture and directed by the formative pattern we see throughout its pages? A pattern that includes our adoration of the King, affirmations of his truth, confession of who we are before him, being assured that his mercy and grace in his Son provides pardon, that we in turn thank and praise him and receive further instruction on how to live as those called to be his ambassadors to a fallen, rebellious world? That such grace and mercy is displayed in our partaking of a meal and being charged with blessing and the Spirit’s empowerment. It is such churches that allow the gospel to permeate their gathering on Sundays that will inevitably arrive at a similar pattern, since history itself attests to such a reality. Chapell’s historical survey, biblical analysis, and helpful examples and rubrics for corporate worship are an invaluable resource for pastors and church leaders should they wish to be distinct from the world and let the gospel shape their practice. This is a resource I know I will again come back to and utilize for the glory of God and the good of his people.

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