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Review: What Happens When We Worship?

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Posted by David Horrocks, 12 Mar 2021

David Horrocks reviews "What Happens When We Worship?" by Jonathan Landry Cruse (Reformation Heritage Books, 2020).

Cover of What Happens When We Worship

Turns out there’s nothing like a pandemic to force us to think hard about church, and especially about what’s going on in our Sunday services.  Are they really so important?  Does it really matter that we’re actually present in person?  Isn’t it just as good to join in on-line, or catch up with a recording later?  And what sort of things should (and shouldn’t) those Sunday services involve? 

There can’t be many churches that haven’t given these questions at least some thought over the last year.  It’s been fascinating to hear the different conclusions different pastors and churches have reached.  But a bit sobering, perhaps, to realise how reluctant we can be to engage in serious theological reflection about these things. 

Cheerful pragmatism always seems so much easier when it comes to church, doesn’t it?  After all, if something seems to keep most people in our churches generally happy, and especially if feels like it’s doing most people some good, surely it’s OK?  If members of our churches say they feel more encouraged by services over Zoom or YouTube than they do when they actually turn up (masked, socially-distancing, and only able to hum along to hymns), is there really a problem?  If, as we’re often told, church services are really only about encouraging one another in the faith, why not try something different if actually meeting together doesn’t feel particularly encouraging right now?  And why not try some fresh expressions in those services if they might help people to stay more engaged too.

‘Not so fast,’ says Jonathan Landry Cruse.  His recent book What Happens When We Worship? may not have been prompted by the pandemic, but it’s certainly very relevant to many of the questions Covid has raised. 

First, a word of warning, though.  Cruse pastors a Presbyterian church in the US.  And he clearly takes being Presbyterian very seriously indeed.  You don’t write about corporate worship and receive such warm endorsements from people like Terry Johnson and Joel Beeke unless you take the reformed heritage very seriously indeed.  So the strength of some of Cruse’s convictions may come as a bit of a shock to those of us who have been trained in the ways of modern conservative evangelical Anglicanism and/or have begun to get comfortable in gentler Church of England ways.

But I reckon that’s precisely what makes this book so worth reading.  There’s no harm in listening to someone with stronger views.  It could even be good for us, especially at a time when so many of us are being forced to think about these things. 

The first main section of Cruse’s book looks at some of the guiding principles Scripture gives for worship.  If you’re maybe feeling a little jaded or discouraged when it comes to Sunday services, this could be just the boost you need.  I can’t think of many other books that express such a clear belief that gathering for Sunday worship is the most important thing any of us ever do, and such a clear conviction that this is the supreme way in which the Lord shapes and grows us as his people today.  How glorious to be shown the Biblical evidence that we don’t just meet with one another when we gather on Sundays, but are drawn spiritually into heaven to meet with the living God himself.  And how comforting to be reminded that we gather, not mainly so we can serve God, but because week-by-week he longs to serve us, by graciously reassuring us he’s still utterly committed to us, despite our failings over the previous seven days.

Then, in the longest section of the book, Cruse walks us through the major elements that make up a standard reformed worship service, from the call to worship at the beginning, right through to the benediction at the end.  Plenty of food for thought here, in an age when we’re so quick to substitute interviews and even puppet shows for confessions of faith and sermons.

So do consider reading this book because it’s maybe a bit different.  But take comfort from the fact that it’s so deeply rooted in the same theology our Anglican churches grew from too.  Some of Cruse’s ideas may seem a little uncompromising today.  It’s hard to imagine Thomas Cranmer taking exception to many of them, though.  Of course not, given that Cranmer was also leaning so hard on Scripture when he wrote the Book of Common Prayer.

That’s the other thing that I think makes Cruse’s book so worth reading: the way he takes such trouble to ground everything he says in Scripture.  We’re quick to quote Canon A.5 in conversations about the latest hot-button issues in the Church of England, and that’s a very good thing.  But maybe we could sometimes be a little quicker to pause and consider ways in which the Holy Scriptures speak into how we should approach and shape our church meetings too. 

You might not be persuaded by everything Cruse says.  And if you are, you might well take the view that it would be best not to make too many changes to your services immediately.  If even Martin Luther recognized the need to move slowly when it came to reforming worship services, I suspect we’d do well to recognize that too. 

But at least What Happens When We Worship? might give us some nudges in the right direction.  As Cruse reminds us in his opening chapter, the one thing we’re told God the Father seeks is worshippers, who will worship him ‘in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:23-24).  And while, of course, that worship involves the whole of life, there are compelling Biblical arguments that it is particularly focused in our Sunday meetings.  So surely we will want to think carefully about how we do these meetings, both in Covid times and also when things get back to normal too?  Here is a very engaging book that will help us in that.

David Horrocks is Associate Minister at St James’ Church, Barkham

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