Tuesday, April 23, 2013

LHP Review: Culture and Heaven


Spinks, Bryan D. The Worship Mall: Contemporary Responses to Contemporary Culture. New York: Church Publishing, 2010. 242 Pages. Paper. $28.00. www.churchpublishing.org/worshipmall (LHP)

Noland, Rory. Worship on Earth as It Is in Heaven: Exploring Worship as a Spiritual Discipline. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. 231 Pages. Paper. $16.99. www.zondervan.com (LHP)

At long last we have come to two thoughtful and information packed books on worship for your consideration.

The first is a survey of the buffet that passes for worship practice and theology in our era. The second helps the Christian rethink assumptions about worship.

Religion today is in competition with the leisure and entertainment industries. Gen Y, the postmodern generation, is open to spirituality; but most of today's young adults have not been born into faith communities where they feel any lasting allegiance. Studies suggest that for the young, belief in God is an optional matter, a virtual consumer choice. As a result, different trends in worship and worship styles are offered by different churches to suit lifestyles, attitudes, and personal taste.

In this comprehensive and lively survey, Bryan Spinks examines postmodern worship trends including hip hop, praise and worship songs, emerging worship, blended worship, the U2 Eucharist service, the Roman Catholic rethinking of Vatican II, contemporary Celtic worship, the Zaire Mass in Africa, liquid worship, Vineyard and Hillsong worship, the snake-handling holiness churches of the American south, and other emerging forms of alternative worship.

Bryan D. Spinks is a priest in the Church of England and Goddard Professor of Liturgical Studies and Pastoral Theology at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School. His numerous books on worship and liturgical history include Early and Medieval Rituals and Theologies of Baptism and Liturgy in the Age of Reason.

(Publisher's Website)

This book's strength is in exposing the reader to worship "styles" and practices he or she may never see in person. Descriptions are quite detailed. Strengths are noted. There is not as much critique (or condemnation, as the case may be) as I would prefer or provide, but a Lutheran reader would be able to responsibly respond when asked about weaknesses in theology and practice of Spinks' survey.

Lutheran-specific resources in the book are limited to a description of the Finnish Thomas Mass (3-5) and congregations moving away from traditional Lutheran liturgies and a Lutheran theology of worship (46-47, 65-66).  

The Worship Mall is appropriately titled. While not a complete resource of both survey and critique (from a confessional Lutheran perspective), Lutheran readers will find enough here to engage in conversation with those who attempt "Contemporary Responses to Contemporary Culture" as well as those like us who aim to remain faithful while resisting every wind of change in teaching and practice.

For our next title, I had the blessing of seeing the book in both paperback and kindle formats.

Rory Noland addresses the challenges of Christian worship head-on, offering practical suggestions gleaned from Scripture on understanding and experiencing vibrant worship.
The first half of Worship on Earth as It Is in Heaven explores what it means to grow as a private worshiper. The practices of the psalmist David provide insight to help people worship God on their own. Second, Noland discusses corporate worship by exploring the glorious gatherings in heaven, as described in the book of Revelation. He presents immediately applicable ideas for becoming a better corporate worshiper.

This book includes:

* Slice-of-church-life scenarios. Every chapter begins with a brief scenario that presents a worship-related issue or a conflict corresponding to the chapter topic.
* Group discussion questions. Based on the opening scenario, these questions help readers think about and discuss worship-related topics from different perspectives.
* Issue-by-issue practical guidance from a biblical perspective.
* "Ponder and Apply" application questions. Each chapter ends with a series of discussion questions and action steps to help readers identify key insights and make personal applications.


Rory Noland is the director of Heart of the Artist Ministries, an organization dedicated to serving artists in the church (www.heartoftheartist.org). A songwriter, speaker, church leader, and consultant, Rory is also the author of three books, all published by Zondervan: The Heart of the Artist: A Character-Building Guide For You and Your Ministry Team, Thriving as an Artist in the Church: Hope and Help For You and Your Ministry Team, and The Worshiping Artist: Equipping You and Your Ministry Team to Lead Others in Worship. Rory currently serves part-time as Pastor of Worship at Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, contributes regularly to Worship Leader magazine, and also leads worship for the Transforming Center, a ministry that cares for the souls of pastors and leaders. Rory graduated from the Chicago Musical College at Roosevelt University with a degree in theory and composition and served as the music director at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL

(Publisher's Website. Also available in ebook and audio formats.)

I can appreciate the soul searching that leaders of Willow Creek have engaged in over the last decade. We at QBR reflected on a published self-study back in Eastertide 2008 (QBR 2.2):

LHP Book Review

Honestly, the Press Conference Was More Revealing…

Hawkins, Greg L. and Cally Parkinson. With Contributions from Eric Arnson. Foreword by Bill Hybels. Reveal Where Are You? The Answer will Transform Your Church. Barrington, IL: Willow Creek Resources, 2007. 112 Pages. Paper. $12.99. www.revealnow.com www.willowcreek.com(LHP)

Numbers can reveal what we can see: people at church, membership totals, and offerings given to the Lord's work, but you can't measure the human heart or growth in faith. Big numbers don't necessarily mean that a congregation is faithful to Christ and His Word, or faithful to the confession of the church body named on the sign out front.

If you don't believe me, at least believe them, the "Church Growth" so-called "seeker-sensitive" and "contemporary worship" megachurches that many in the LCMS are copying. At a press conference in connection with Reveal: Where Are You?, a startling book by the leaders of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, pastor Bill Hybels says, "Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back it wasn't helping people that much. Other things that we didn't put that much money into and didn't put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for."

In other words, their approach to doing church with large theatre-like sanctuaries, contemporary music, small group ministries, and watered-down theology, did very well at getting numbers, but failed miserably at making disciples who were taught all that Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:18-20). Pastor Hybels also admits, "We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become 'self feeders.' We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own. Incredibly, the guru of church growth now tells us that people need to be reading their bibles and taking responsibility for their spiritual growth."

Members of His congregation wanted in-depth doctrinal Bible Study. As long as people are there and Bibles are available, that's about the cheapest way to teach there is. Could it be that LCMS congregations like ours are on the cutting edge? Or, would we rather say that we've just continued to be faithful to what the Lord gave us to do?

After hearing news like this our sinful human nature wants to scream, "I told you so!" But, that would not really be helpful to our brothers and sisters inside and outside the LCMS who have fallen for this fad-driven way to do church. I was hopeful for the future direction of members of the "Willow Creek Association," a group of congregations looking to Willow Creek as a model, until I read their future plans as articulated by pastor Greg Hawkins: "Our dream is that we fundamentally change the way we do church. That we take out a clean sheet of paper and we rethink all of our old assumptions. Replace it with new insights. Insights that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture. Our dream is really to discover what God is doing and how he's asking us to transform this planet."

I commend his passion for the lost. That's something good that should rub off on us as Lutherans. But shouldn't their insights on how to do church come first and primarily from Scripture? Shouldn't research take a back seat? Isn't this a quote that could have been written when Willow Creek was starting in order to justify why they were changing the way Christians had traditionally done worship, instruction new members and all members young and old? Why not look to how the Church has done Church for 2000 years, faithful to God's Word and using His means of grace to make disciples of all nations?

Over the last ten years I've learned a lot about "doing church," from comparing my home congregation to our "Willow Creek" style LCMS campus ministry to seminary experiences and serving multiple congregations as fieldworker, vicar, or pastor.

-Much growth at congregations like Willow Creek are only recycling sheep, not making new disciples. At worst, it is "sheep stealing." At best, it appears to be sheep playing musical chairs with churches.


There is a lot of transfer growth in growing communities. In our Platte valley, Many people work, play, shop, (and worship) in "the Bluffs," Scottsbluff and Gering, even though they live in a smaller town miles away.


Thanks be to God that there are new Christians in virtually every Christian congregation that trust in Christ alone for forgiveness, life, and salvation. Unfortunately, for all of its techniques, changes (or otherwise, they say, the church will die), high-paid consultants, and untold books over the last three or so decades, "Church Growth" (CG) has not actually grownthe church.


Various factors help explain the appeal of the CG approach:

·        An area of the country with a growing (rather than declining) population

·        Novelty (Recently, members of one Church Growth congregation in Scottsbluff were complaining to me about another CG congregation stealing their members.)

·        Location, location, location. People look around their neighborhood. They don't want to walk or drive very far—even in a parking lot

·        They were invited to church.

·        Old-fashioned Christian care and concern for people in their time of need.

·        Friendliness of the members of the congregation on Sunday and during the week.

·        Availability of group ministries and people like them.

·        The chance to be lost in the number of a larger congregation and not be asked to serve.

·        Legalism is attractive. Law-based sermons where the "to do" list is watered down make the law "something I can do" in contrast to the reality, God's Ten Commandments. Only Christ can keep the Law perfectly. We need His forgiveness once we realize that even watered-down law still accuses us when we can't or won't do it. This is why pastors often hear "Boy, Pastor, you really let them have it today…"

The Revealbook is visually stunning. Great illustrations, graphs, text, sidebars, headings—you name it. After I read it, I think the press conference was more revealing than the book. This does appear to be an ongoing project. Visit www.revealnow.comfor more information.

This is what they expected to find in their ongoing congregational research:

[If Church activity drives spiritual growth, both would increase similarly.]

What did they actually see? Take a look at the next graph.

[The connection between church activity and spiritual growth seems to be limited.]

This result actually made sense to me.

And then page 25 pulled the rug out from under me: "Is it possible to measure the heart?" It's like trying to measure one's faith. I still don't think it is possible. Unlike the Lord, surveys are not omniscient. They are fallible, just like Willow Creek's earlier survey efforts (and those of any congregation or church body. Let's be fair.) Lutherans love to make use of what we call "First Article Gifts," gifts of creation, referring to the First Article of the creed. We must be careful to use such things (science, medicine, history, sociology, etc.) as servants to the Biblical text. Reason can be a beautiful servant but a horrible ogre of a master.

Personally, I do find some value in sociological research. For example, many recent studies show a high correlation between the spiritual influence of fathers upon the spiritual activity of children. That encourages me to focus some intentional pastoral ministry upon our inactive or non-Christian heads of household. At the same time, I know the Holy Spirit can use God's Word to bring people to faith in Christ Jesus. I can give examples of this for families with active fathers and mothers, fathers or mothers, and in some cases, no family religious leadership at all! God's Word and Spirit trump sociology. Thanks be to God.

Do you see my point? I'll look at studies, and use them as servants of what I've already been called to do as a pastor, but God's Word remains the foundation.

Programs don't necessarily help people to grow. "If you build it, they will come" is not a guarantee for the church. Full parking lots are not necessarily a measure of a congregation's health. If that were true, the Mormons and Muslims would have to be acknowledged as true believers. Is our time, money, and effort really changing lives? Isn't comforting Christians the more proper function of preaching? People are running around like hypercaffeinated lemmings. The Church should lead them to be comforted by Christ and to be more like Him rather than just keeping them busy.

I commend Willow Creek for their honesty and openness. That took courage and humility for their leaders as a group as well as individuals. My prayer for them and the whole one, holy, Christian and apostolic Church is that every pastor, every Christian, and every congregation may be led into all truth, that His kingdom will spread, and that Christians may grow in faith, knowledge, and how they are comforted by Christ.

I further pray that our insights on how to do church would come first and primarily from Scripture, the only true source of teaching and practice. God's Word reveals to us a lot of things. Money can be better spent on Bibles and tables and chairs for group Bible Study under a well-taught pastor. Research should take a back seat. Turn off the calculators and open the Scriptures. Why not consider changing practice to the way Christians have historically done worship, instructed new members and all members young and old? Why not look to how the Church has done Church for nearly 2000 years, faithful to God's Word and using His means of grace to make disciples of all nations? The more radical reformers of the 16th Century tried starting from scratch, as if the previous centuries didn't happen. Well, they did. And there's been more history since.

Knowing about attitudes, motivation, and the opinions of the sheep (both past and present) is indeed helpful at times, but nothing is more important than the guidance and love of the Good Shepherd Himself.


Rory Noland has moved on from Willow Creek. His book is for "Exploring Worship as a Spiritual Discipline" as an individual or with a study group.

The ideal reader of this volume is someone who is weary of entertainment worship in an American Evangelical megachurch. I am a liturgical Lutheran who loves psalms, hymns, and the canticles of the historic worship forms (Mass and Daily Office) of western Christendom. Noland's book does lack an emphasis on what God in Christ does for us in worship and is very man-centered in that regard (what we are to do/not do). For the purpose of better reviewing bhte book, I attempted to put myself in the shoes of the intended/ideal reader Noland wrote for.

Noland reminds his readers to avoid idolatry, worship in spirit and truth, and return the focus of worship to God. I would encourage a much more Christocentric focus. He encourages the regular use of psalms and the rediscovery of hymns! The author urges his readers to understand and practice both corporate and personal/private worship of God. Ultimately, Noland turns our attention to a heavenly perspective: "So what does worship in heaven look like (Location 1236)? I find much to commend in this volume. I pray that Worship on Earth as It Is in Heaven and books like it will lead to prayerful, thoughtful, Biblically-informed reformation of worship theology and practice in congregations around our country and world.

There is always reason for hope when the Lord gathers His people around His gifts of Word and Sacrament. His Word and Spirit can reform us (personally and corporately) in spite of ourselves. As articles IV and V of the Augustana remind us:

....men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight...
....That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ's sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ's sake....

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, Yellowstone Circuit Visitor (LCMS Wyoming District), a member of the Board of Directors of The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.

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