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Posts Tagged ‘Rhythms of Grace’


Our worship has come a long way. Those who plan and play work hard and do well. I want to make sure I’m thinking and making good improvements as needed. I want our worship to be faithful and meaningful, not stale or divergent. As a result I still read books on worship from time to time. This might be my emphasis for the year since I’ve got one in my queue for vacation.

Recently I saw Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel on sale and picked up a few copies. One for me, and one for our music director. Seeing a liturgy that reflects the history of redemption is a good thing.

The book is by Michael Cosper who is worship pastor for Sojourn, which produces some music for churches. I don’t know much about the church aside from what he says about it but he comes across as a new Calvinist (baptistic, non-confessional, NCT & non-denominational) that has invested time to learn more about worship from church history. He’s read some of the books I have: particularly Bryan Chapell and Reggie Kidd. He’s also has spent time at the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship. Some of this may explain the inconsistency of the book.

In some ways it was like I was reading two different authors. The first sounded young, hip and trying to be cool (like I used to be, trying, that is). It had a Mark Driscoll-esque feel to it which I now find less appealing. The second half sounded like a mature guy, at ease with himself and how his church worships. But maybe that is just me.

The book has a forward by Bob Kauflin, and blurbs by Matt Chandler, Sandra McCracken, Al Mohler, Scotty Smith, Joe Thorn and Kevin Twit. That is a good cross section of people who are either “new Calvinists” or old school Calvinists connected with the PCA. I wonder if they felt the same thing as me. Did they overlook it in love? Am I being picky? I don’t know.

His goal is good. He’s writing because of concerns he has about church culture pertaining to worship. Many of our worship leaders have no formal training. This book is written, in part, to help them form a better theology of worship that helps the congregation grow towards maturity.

“You know,” I thought, “if the gospel is supposed to be central to the Christian life, we should craft our worship services in such a way that they rehearse that story.”

He also states that his book is not a debate about the regulative principle and normative principle. He was not going to delve into that so people interested in such a discussion should just move on. He also briefly stated what he means by worship:

“I go to some effort here to make clear that worship is both an all-of-life, “scattered” reality and a uniquely communal, “gathered” reality. I also want to make a significant effort to clarify that Jesus is our one true worship leader.”

So, with those caveats in mind, let’s press on to look at this book.

The first part of the book focuses on explaining the Story of Redemption. There is only one place to begin a book on worship that is patterned after redemptive-history: the Garden. That’s where he starts, with creation. He spends time talking about the Trinity and Adam’s role as worship leader among creation. Borrowing from G.K. Beale he writes about Adam as expanding the Garden, which is intended to be a temple for the worship of the triune God. On the next page he quotes N.T. Wright. He uses a diversity of sources reflecting his influences. There is nothing wrong with the Wright quote he uses. But the fact he favorably quotes him may put off some people. But since he’s not arguing for the Regulative Principle of Worship many of those people will be off put anyway. But his bottom line in this chapter is that we were made to worship.

When Adam sinned he continued to worship, but he worshiped the wrong things. We are incurably religious, but as a result of our fallen nature we are idolators.

“Worship is essentially about ascribing worth. … The broken worship they share with the serpent leaves them naked and humiliated.”

It is the next chapter, Worship in the Wilderness, where I begin to feel like I was reading a Driscoll book. He makes a number of good points in this chapter, particularly concerning idolatry and entertainment. My issues start with his discussion of Cain and Abel, and why one’s worship was accepted and the other’s wasn’t. While I’d just jump to Hebrews 11 and say “faith” in addition to the lack of the blood of a substitute, he seems to make it a bit more complicated. He does quote Bruce Waltke in his longer than it need be explanation. Abel, he says, recognizes God’s lordship over creation, and gives God the best. Cain, he says, “is just showing up.” Eventually Cosper gets to Abel offering the sacrifice by faith, but the problem still seems to be Cain’s “rote obligation” instead of unbelief resulting in no sacrifice for sin. He, interestingly, characterizes this as “the first of history’s many worship wars.” I thought that was a chapter earlier, in Genesis 3, but I get the point. People were fighting for the first time, even though one didn’t know there was a fight.

The next chapter, The Song of Israel, focuses on Abraham, Moses and David as key figures in the worship of Israel. On the first page of this chapter I wrote “Trying to be too hip?”. He states that both Abram and Sarai were sterile (not the word I use) but since Abram actually had quite a few kids this seems to miss the point. But in light of that in correctly pointing out that Abram was a broken man, talks about him “willing to prostitute his wife, and all too eager to jump into bed with one of his slave girls”. That he did, but I’m not sure how eager he was. He’s sinful enough, we don’t need to make him out as more sinful.

In speaking about his descendants this continues: “They are a family of lushes and adulterers, liars and lunatics, chasing voices in the wilderness,…” I missed all the drunkenness, except for his nephew Lot who was seduced by his daughters after they got him drunk. I’m not sure who the lunatics are either. He overplays it. The Bible isn’t hagiography but we don’t need to add sins and problems to their ledger.

Yet, he continues, “they are broken ne’er-do wells whose significance goes to highlight that God is the one who remains faithful.” Yes, they have faults, but again I think this is an overstatement. And on the next page, “The song of the patriarchs is a song born of weeping, of too much drink …”. Why does he keep finding drunks where I find none? Is this some Baptist thing? Additionally, “It sounds far more like drunken sailors, wailing a hazy lament in a land far from home…”. Is there some apocryphal book in there I haven’t read?

He shifts to the worship of Israel after the Exodus. It was a bloody mess, and he does well to communicate this. Sin’s cost is revealed. We generally view life as cheap. We regularly see people die in movies or TV. We play all kinds of shooter games. But as Covid-19 has revealed we have a real problem with real death. We live in a fantasy world where people don’t actually die. We, who let the butcher do our dirty work, would really struggle with worship according to the Mosaic Covenant.

This chapter does have a good section on worship, wrath and holiness. “We misunderstand the wrath of God if we think it’s only emotional rage, like an angry, frustrated parent.” We worship a God who has wrath because He’s holy. He rightly notes we underestimate both God’s holiness and our sinfulness. Proper worship has to grapple with these realities. We can’t avoid sin and wrath as if they didn’t exist. When we ignore them we distort the gospel and turn worship into superficial sentimentality.

After Creation and Fall comes Redemption, or The Song of Jesus. In the midst of this otherwise good chapter there is this: “The Lord of the Sabbath breaks the Sabbath laws.” Has he been listening to Steven Furtick? Jesus did not break the Sabbath laws. He didn’t celebrate the Sabbath according to the tradition of the Pharisees, that isn’t the law. This is a huge difference and this statement is problematic to say the least. He then talks about the crazy things we do for love, sounding a bit like Francis Chan. But it does get better as he writes about Jesus as the Temple, our Priest and Worship Leader. He discusses worship as participation in the life of the Trinity.

“That’s the story of worship: God creates, sin corrupts, but Christ redeems.”

Okay, he left out the hope of the consummation. But from here he focuses on worship, and the guy trying to be hip disappears. What leads up to this is essential, but the rest is the best of the book. He briefly discusses the worship wars. People argue about instrumentation, and depth vs. contextualization. Part of the struggle is between the attractional church and the missional church. Cosper reminds us of his definition of worship and then suggests a framework for thinking through these issues: Worship One, Two, Three.

  • One object and author (God)
  • Two contexts (scattered and gathered)
  • Three audiences (God, congregation and the rest of the world)

“The gathered body teaches the Word and proclaims it together: we speak the truth in love as we sing, read the Scriptures, and remember the gospel together.”

A few words about the third. God is part of our audience. Our worship is pleasing to God due to the finished work of Christ. This doesn’t mean we can do anything in worship. We still strive to please Him with our worship. The rest of the congregation is also our audience. We remind one another of the gospel as we sing. We are there not just for our own benefit, but for the benefit of the rest of the congregation (and they are there for yours). We also worship before the world as we proclaim the gospel to them, too. I generally put this as exaltation, edification and evangelism. But Cosper has a good framework.

He argues that many of our disputes in worship have to do with confusing categories. For instance, if we think we sing for an audience of one our worship doesn’t need to be comprehensible. But we also have 2 other audiences who need to understand our songs, prayers, litanies and sermons. Keeping the world in mind we keep our language simple and understandable. We can over-emphasize one context over the other instead of realizing that each reinforces and facilitates the other. He notes we can also overemphasize particular audiences. Ingrown churches emphasize edification. Churches that emphasize evangelism quickly become too superficial for growing Christians.

He then moves into Worship as Spiritual Formation. In the live CD from the Ryman, Kevin Twit notes that “worship is formative.” Cosper gets this. We are formed by the habits of worship. They should reflect and communicate the gospel to us so we learn how to pray, confess our sins and faith as Christians. He begins to explain worship as forming the spiritual community through story-telling and covenant renewal. Here he develops the difference between worship as concert hall and worship as banquet hall. The concert hall is a performance, though some in the audience sing along. But it becomes about the “show”. In a banquet hall there is community around a table, so to speak, as we tell stories and the Story so we are nourished and encouraged to face the realities of life after we leave.

He also sees worship as spiritual warfare. We turn from our idols to the living God each week. We declare that Christ is supreme and sufficient, while they are empty and worthless.

From there, he spends some time discussing the shifts in Christian worship over time. His focus is on the Western church. This is overly brief and at times seems a bit reductionistic. I’d say his grasp of English church history is a bit lacking. For instance, Presbyterianism existed long before Independency. Just saying.

After the Reformation he talks about revivalism. From this revivalistic emphasis on emotions, John Wimber developed the Temple Model of worship where the goal is not the gospel but “moving into the presence of God”. Yes, the goal of the gospel is to bring us into the presence of God, but through the gospel sung, preached, read and prayed. The Temple Model focuses more on mood and style to create the feeling or experience of personal encounter with God. He compares it to Roman Catholicism with the worship leader as a new priest paving the way into the holy of holies.

Cosper then talks about liturgy. This subtly gets us back to spiritual formation. Liturgy is the habits of worship that form our community. He argues for a gospel-shaped liturgy similar to Bryan Chapell. This is Bryan Chapell for non-Presbyterians. He structures the worship by redemptive history (Creation, Curse, Cross, Consummation). In light of the Curse we should sing laments, and pray them too. Worship isn’t about being happy. It is about seeing life from God’s perspective and being honest about where we are. As he works through the liturgy he provides some practical suggestions.

He then moves the discussion to singing. This is a common command in the Scriptures. He gets into the issues of what to sing; preference and deference. He spends time unpacking Colossians 3. We are wise to sing songs for a variety of time periods in church history.

“Our faith is a sung faith.”

The body of the book finishes with The Pastoral Worship Leader. He moves from the liturgy to the leader. This is an important chapter. He mines the life of Isaac Watts to discuss healthy contextualization in songs. We want the songs to be understandable, to clearly convey gospel themes to people utilizing metaphors they understand. In this he discusses the Psalms and some criticisms of exclusive Psalmody.

In thinking about contextualization he asks: Who’s here? Who was here before us? and Who’s not here but we’d like to see here? You have to minister to the people you have because they’ve been entrusted to you. You also need to consider who you’d like to see there. He’s not advocating faking it. He wants you to identify your stylistic center, the place you gravitate toward naturally. But you can’t stay there all the time. At times you sing songs outside of the center to address the smaller demographic groups in your congregation.

The appendices have some helpful information with sample liturgies, resources and some technical advice regarding sound.

Overall this was a helpful book. In my opinion there were some factual errors, mis-statements and attempts to be hip that just distracted me. Those shouldn’t keep you from benefiting from the book. You could possibly have benefited more, but there is much that is helpful here.

As a result of this book I’m hoping to:

  • Make our implicit redemptive-historical pattern explicit.
  • Regularly explain elements of our worship.
  • Talk with our music director about our stylistic center. We struggled with this but in the last year I think we’ve gotten there. Now we can venture out for songs. Before it seemed we were struggling between two centers.

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