Review of Christ-Centered Worship, by Bryan Chapell

Zac HicksBook Reviews1 Comment

Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009.  $24.99.  320 pp.  ISBN 978-0-8010-3640-8

People in my generation and down are prone to exaggeration.  It’s part of our cultural ethos.  “That was the awesomest thing I’ve ever seen.”  “That was the nastiest thing I’ve ever tasted.”  “That was like a million times worse than anything I’ve experienced before.”  So in light of my generation’s over-indulgence in superlatives, I preface what I am about to say by pointing out that this is one of those times when my superlatives actually should be taken at face value.

Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Worship is one of the best books on worship I have ever read.  It now rests firmly in my top three (not sure what the other two are, but I’m giving myself some wiggle room).  Some may not want to read the lengthy review which follows, so I’ll start with overall bullet points that I hope will be helpful to people.

  • Pastors, worship leaders, and worshipers who cherish a robust understanding and experience of the gospel should read this book.
  • Evangelical worshipers interested in incorporating “liturgy” into their worship should start with this book.
  • Evangelical worshipers not interested at all in liturgy should still read this book because it will wake them up to something profound about their worship practice.
  • Liturgical worshipers interested in understanding the basis for their liturgy should start with this book.
  • Liturgical worshipers who think they know all the what’s and why’s of their liturgy should still read this book, because I bet you’ll be hit with at least one profound “aha” moment.
  • The book is split into two parts, and the first part (pages 1-155) is the book’s meat and potatoes. 
  • If you didn’t get much out of Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching (I’m one of those), don’t count this book out.  This book’s “Christ-centeredness” has a whole new approach.
  • The book is not angry and critical, but embracing and critical.
  • The book’s subtitle “Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice” is actually an excellent summary of the entire book.
  • Though Chapell is the President of a major Reformed seminary, the book does not express worship from a necessarily Reformed angle.  It is a book about and for Christian worship at large.

Overall Comments

Christ-Centered Worship is unifying, ecumenical, and irenic in spirit as it straddles various worship traditions.  But the remarkable thing is that it does so without going down the road of theological liberalism.  Its ecumenism arrives not by compromising theological distinctives but by observing the core of every truly Christian worship expression—the gospel.  Since the dawn of Tim Keller and like-minded gospel preachers, I have longed to see how such radical and biblical views of the gospel as the good news of God for everyone (non-Christians and Christians) informs Christian worship and practice.  I have found it in this book.  If you’re familiar with Keller’s teaching on the gospel, you will then know what I’m implying when I say that this book could easily be titled “Gospel-Centered Worship.”

Now, I am no Bryan Chapell crony.  In fact, I was hoping that his previous book, Christ-Centered Preaching would be along those same Keller-lines (i.e. preaching the gospel in every sermon).  Some believe Chapell succeeded in that former work in doing so, but I found myself disappointed.  If you’re in that same boat about Christ-Centered Preaching, trust me, don’t count out Christ-Centered Worship. 

My final overall observation is a word of appreciation for how obviously hard Chapell was trying to be peaceable.  I scoured footnotes, just waiting for him to take a jab at a tradition with which I knew he would not fully agree.  I could not find a single place.  Even in his penetrating remarks about contemporary worship, the usual traditionalist vitriol is utterly absent.  In this sense Chapell walks the talk of the gospel.  Peacableness, in general, is not all that refreshing in modern writing, as I think the “PC-ness” of modern culture has made our writing and argumentation too limp-wristed.  But from a Reformed writer like Chapell, and writing on a topic such as worship, a peaceable spirit is extremely refreshing.  Coming just off the heels of reading a 1997 article on worship by one Presbyterian ripping into another, dripping with arrogance and condescension, Chapell was a shocking contrast.  Hey, Reformed folk can be nice!  🙂

Walk-Through and Comments

The book is split into two parts.  Part 1, “Gospel Worship,” is Chapell’s building of his case.  Part 2, “Gospel Worship Resources” is Chapell’s helpful application of his case.   It’s easy to see that the 150 pages of Part 1 should be where one spends the bulk of their time, while viewing Part 2 as a resource to turn to at various later points.  Because Part 1 comprises the main material, that’s where I’ll spend my time.

Chapter 1 sets up the discussion that will follow in the next six chapters.  Chapell introduces the worship of the early church as a two-fold liturgy: (1) The Liturgy of the Word; and (2) The Liturgy of the Upper Room.  This liturgy seems to be discernible as early as the second century.  Chapell argues well that this liturgical scheme has been the pervasive paradigm of all Christian worship from that time, through the Reformation, to the present day.  He also spends time in defining “gospel-centered.”  It does not mean mere evangelism, as mainstream evangelicals might be tempted to think.  It “is not just about repeating those portions of the gospel that lead to new conversions; it is about engaging the power of the good news that God has provided his grace to save, to sanctify, and to equip his people for this day, every day, and forever” (21-22).  Chapell’s main point in this chapter is that the best liturgies of the past, present, and future are those which articulate this gospel liturgically.

Chapter 2 begin’s Chapell’s six-chapter quest in exploring and analyzing the liturgies of various streams of Christianity.  My concern is that mainstream evangelicals will check out here because it seems to get bogged down in liturgical details.  My encouragement to those folks is to press through and follow Chapell carefully, because it is in diving deep with Chapell that one will experience the gravity of the “aha” moment in Chapter 7.  This chapter analyzes the two-part liturgy as it developed in the pre-Reformational Roman church.  The evangelical reader will be surprised with how much continuity there is between what they did then and what we do now!

This and subsequent chapters analyze liturgy and liturgical flow roughly around the following progression:

  • Adoration
  • Confession and Assurance
  • Thanksgiving
  • Petition
  • Instruction
  • Response

These titles may seem unclear at the present, given that the liturgies analyzed don’t necessarily use that nomenclature, but again, the payoff is sweet if you stick with it.

Chapter 3 focuses in on Luther’s innovations and renovations of the Roman rite.  This analysis brings to the fore certain Reformational emphases that shaped some liturgical distinctives in Luther’s liturgy.

Chapter 4 moves to Calvin’s molding of Christian worship, rightly reminding us that Reformed worship actually begins in Strasbourg with Martin Bucer and not in Geneva with Calvin (Bucer goes under-appreciated in Reformed worship).  It seems that Calvin was most interested in simplification and getting back to the Acts 2:42 early church model.  But, unlike the typical sentiment of modern emergents, Calvin didn’t disparage the liturgy handed him by the “established church,” rather he did what Luther did…he renovated. 

Chapter 5 commences with the worship innovations of the 17th century Westminster Assembly.  Though I agree with Chapell that the Westminster Assembly is critically important to study as a preface to almost every strain of the church in America, I think some readers will feel that Chapell is pulling out his Presbyterian card here and spending a little too much time in the Reformed side of Christianity.  I resonate with those sentiments, given that Chapell is trying to write a book to span all of Western Christendom.  Regardless, Chapell makes a good case for the relevance of the work of Westminster for all worshipers, if the non-Reformed reader has the patience to continue to walk with Chapell’s line of thinking.  With each chapter, Chapell provides more analysis that helps us to slowly but systematically wrap our minds around the concept of “Christ-centered” and “gospel-centered” worship that he will soon unveil.

Chapter 6 is a fast-forward to “The Modern Story,” in light of all that has preceded.  He argues well that we should pay attention to Robert Rayburn and his attempt at liturgical synthesis of gospel-centered ideas, but I ultimately found this part of the book the least informative or helpful (maybe a later date will bring me back to a greater appreciation of this section).  However, one should not neglect the opening pages of the chapter (pp. 69-72), which offer some penetrating analysis of modern worship in light of the gospel paradigms being established.  These are must-read comments.

Chapter 7, “The Gospel Story,” is the heart of the book—the culmination of the mounting argument which preceded and the bedrock on which all subsequent discussion stands.  Chapell ties all the preceding liturgies together around a broad metanarrative of themes.  The “aha” moment begins at page 97:

Despite their obvious differences, all these Liturgies of the Word have a sequence in common…  But, if we did not know this sequence was describing a liturgical pattern, we would probably think it was describing something else: the progress of the gospel in the life of an individual. 

Brilliant!  Perhaps it doesn’t seem as extraordinary in this review, but having traveled through the previous six chapters, one suddenly realizes THE unifying factor throughout the history of Christian worship—the gospel.  If the church’s worship is fueled by the gospel, then her liturgy will inevitably take that shape.  The implications for worship planning are remarkable and profound.

Chapter 8 walks through Scriptural texts which, though they do not prove or command that the church’s worship should take a gospel shape, stack on mightily to Chapell’s cumulative case.  In a sense, then, this chapter functions as Chapell’s “Scriptural defense” for a gospel-centered liturgy.

Chapter 9 further applies the gospel principles in worship.  The section I found most helpful began on page 122, addressing how the gospel informs the whole issue of “personal preference.”  Any worship leader or pastor actually desiring to pastor their people through the tough issues of how the church’s worship relates to their personal preferences and styles needs to understand this section.

Chapters 10 and 11 are the most practical, applicable chapters in the book.  In Chapter 10, Chapell argues that the gospel is the solution to all the worship wars and then explains why.  The thinking in here is golden.  In Chapter 11, Chapell walks through the various polarizations that worship wars often vocalize when discussing worship philosophy.  For example:

  • Structured vs. free
  • Traditional vs. relevant
  • Transcendent vs. accessible
  • Common vs. excellent
  • Emotional vs. cognitive
  • Saved- vs. seeker-sensitive

He explains these and other polarizations as false “either-or’s” whose middle-ground tensions are best addressed by the gospel.  This chapter, too, is powerful.

Wrapping up Part 1 is Chapter 12, which prepares for Part 2 by outlining how various components can fit in the general gospel flow, from Adoration all the way to the closing Blessing.  This introduces the pragmatic side of Chapell’s book, comprising pages 159-307. 

Chapters 12-24 are filled with great reflection and suggestions for each of the major liturgical areas outline in the gospel-paradigm.  The book closes with some helpful resources for varying musical styles (Chapter 24).  I wish Chapell had waited to publish this book for two more years, and then perhaps I might have had a noteworthy website and body of online resources to receive a little shout-out in this great chapter :).

For pastors, worship leaders, and worshipers who care, I hope this walk-through review is encouragement enough to get and read the book.  I’ll leave you with a slice of Keller’s endorsement on the back, in case you’re still not convinced that it’s worth the price tag in the bookstore:

“This will now be the first book I give people—or turn to myself—on the practice of understanding, planning, and leading in corporate worship.”  

Tim Keller has spoken.  Selah.


One Comment on “Review of Christ-Centered Worship, by Bryan Chapell”

  1. Zac,
    Thank you for this thoughtful and helpful review. This book has been sitting on my shelf for a few months, and I think your review has bumped it up on my reading list. I appreciate your blog’s content and your music!

    Josh Hughes

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