Review of The Next Worship, by Sandra Van Opstal

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I currently serve in a context of tremendous diversity. In the market just two blocks from my house, I regularly hear five different languages—English, Spanish, Portuguese, Creole, and French—and more infrequently hear at least another three. The church I serve doesn’t yet look like our city, but it’s making strides. When I arrived in South Florida over three years ago, I knew that praying through how to engage worship in this diverse climate would need to be on the top of my task list.  For this reason, I wish I had Sandra Van Opstal’s marvelous new book, The Next Worship, then.

And yet, after reading the book, I have become convinced that reflecting on what it means to “glorify God in a diverse world,” as the subtitle states, is something every church should be doing, no matter how homogenous the culture. The Next Worship is for every church and every situation—not just the ones that care about “multicultural worship.” The book strikes a great balance between theory and practicality. Filled with many stories from Van Opstal’s own rich and experienced ministry, The Next Worship grounds its important principles in real-life (messy) situations.

Founded on the Future

Van Opstal makes the case that engaging diversity in worship is an eschatological imperative. In other words, what we should be about now is grounded in the what happens in the end: “This vision of the end can only be hoped for and lived into by recognizing how far we are from it, and the beauty and awe we will experience when we participate in it” (p. 35). This vision sees a day when all nations are gathered around one throne. The Next Worship is a strong, convincing case that the future “not yet” is (and should be) breaking into our “already.” I want to share those parts of the book that I’ve found most inspiring, compelling, and convicting for my own ministry, in hopes that you might see the value in picking up this unique resource.

Fresh Scriptural (even Sacramental!) Observations

I was inspired by Van Opstal’s synthesis of scholarship and exegesis of the Parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:15-24 (Chapter 3). She offered important insights into the nuances of ancient Near Eastern culture at play in the parable. For instance, many of the excuses for not attending given by those invited would have been insulting and offensive to the host (p. 57). In fact, it appears that those who desired not to come were conspiring to shut the party down. Our normal read of the parable usually interprets the master’s invitation of those on the margins as the master’s “Plan B,” but certain clues in the text indicate that the master had always intended to invite everyone. He wanted the well-to-do to be seated alongside the marginalized. The point? “The nature of the master is to extend hospitality to all, including those we wish he had not invited” (p. 56).

Van Opstal then does something that might be surprising to many who converse about “diverse” and “global” worship. She offers, through this parable, a Communion-centric vision of worship. Usually, conversations about diverse worship revolve around leadership and musical style. Van Opstal refreshingly starts not there, but at the Table (pp. 59-60). The Table is where reconciliation begins: “Reconciliation is not something we add to our worship; it is a practice in which we live out our true nature as one new humanity” (p. 61). And now we see the grounds for the conversation—this is why considering diverse worship is important for both multicultural and homogenous churches.

The Prophetic Edge

Throughout the book, there is a prophetic edge to the conversation. Van Opstal points out some of the elephants in the room that typically overshadow conversations like these. Chapter 2, “Is PB&J Ethnic Food?”, exposes some of the biases and ignorance of people like me, who have grown up with the perspective that my (white Western European culture) is the majority culture and therefore gets to constitute what’s “normal.” Her point, which is worth making early, is that we are all ethnic. There is no “normal.”

Hospitality, Mutuality, Solidarity

The trifecta—hospitality, mutuality, solidarity—is for me the biggest takeaway from The Next Worship. It was an eye-opener. Van Opstal uses these three categories to highlight the ways we go successively deeper into a biblical understanding of what it means to engage in diverse worship in our local bodies:

  • Hospitality  = “We welcome you.”
  • Solidarity = “We stand with you.”
  • Mutuality = “We need you.”

I’ve always heard diverse worship discussed mainly in the first category of “hospitality.” A church’s dominant group welcomes and makes room for members of other groups. But hospitality should move beyond providing appropriate accommodations. A powerful charge: “In a multiethnic community no members should be made to feel like perpetual guests” (p. 63). Solidarity comes “when we identify with another’s community in the practices of lament and joy” (p. 66). And mutuality exists when we can’t imagine life without one another.

This mutuality is fleshed out in what was for me the most challenging chapter, on shared leadership. Van Opstal discussed the levels/degrees of shared leadership. I found myself wrestling though what the deepest levels of shared leadership would look like in a context like mine. If I’m honest, that vision might very well be years away, but it’s always healthy to hear voices that remind you of what you should be aiming for. Listen to the challenges:

This level of leadership takes an immense amount of emptying on the part of the worship leader. There is no room for pride, fear or control. This takes more time as well; the process is much more involved and requires trust in planning and synergy and chemistry in the service. The worship leader still takes ultimate responsibility for the time. If it fails, the team leader is responsible. If the experience and practice is a success, all team members share in the celebration for having shaped it. Who wants that job? Not many people, which is why this model is rarely practiced (p. 90).

Beyond the Music, Pastoral Leadership

I’m incredibly grateful, as I said before, that the discussion about diverse worship moves in The Next Worship beyond music to the other elements of the service, especially in Chapter 6. More than that, Van Opstal points out what many miss—namely, that form itself is content, that “form is as meaningful as style” (p. 132).

Chapter 7 offers a wonderful vision of what long-term leadership looks like, how culture-change in a congregation takes place. Van Opstal encourages leaders to embrace discomfort, to honor legacy (a wonderful counteracting of so much ageism that is a part of the culture of worship conversations today). It really is at this point that I felt The Next Worship moved from being prophetic to being pastoral. It’s here that the process is highlighted—the need for constant interpretation of experiences, the reception of feedback, creating a style and worship sensibility that fits one’s local context (p. 152).

Finally, Chapter 8 gives some marvelous helps for actually training and equipping worship leaders. I’ll particularly highlight the discussion on emotional intelligence and self-awareness (characteristics we often lack as worship leaders!).

One Desire and Lingering Questions

As I mentioned above, The Next Worship is helpfully predicated on an eschatological vision. I think the conversation about diverse worship and reconciliation, though, is further bolstered when we set these things more in their soteriological context. To put it more plainly, I’m so convinced by the aim of this book that I had longed to hear it more explicitly and fully set in the context of the Gospel: because God has reconciled Himself to us, we can be reconciled to one another. This is hinted at in places like p. 62, where Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson are quoted, saying, “Worship is the power that opens us up to the possibility of reconciliation.” What, precisely, is that power in worship? It is the gospel—the “power of God unto salvation” (Rom 1:19).

How might this be fleshed out? In the brilliant discussion on hospitality, solidarity, and mutuality, the gospel tells us that before we offer these three things to others, we are first given these things in Christ. In His incarnation, Christ became more than a visitor; He became “an actual stakeholder in the community” (p. 63). Christ identified with us in our lamentation and joy. And in being united with Him in death and resurrection, we are given a seat at the Trinitarian table. Though Van Opstal hasn’t done this, sometimes discussions about justice and reconciliation highlight Christ as example of these things rather than provider of these things. The former has the tendency to reduce discussions of justice to moralism—a list of “shoulds.” The latter, I believe, is the only way reconciliation can be achieved. This is why the soteriological vision of reconciliation is just as important as the eschatological one. In fact, the eschatology of justice is inseparable from the gospel: Paul’s big surprise in Romans 3 is that the day of future justice/justification (all the same word group in Greek) has broken in to the “now” (Rom 3:21).

Some lingering questions I have pertain particularly to Chapter 6, on the components/elements of diverse worship. Are there, in fact, some trans-cultural elements and forms that all cultures are inspired and compelled to engage? For instance, Van Opstal quoted Russell Yee: “There is not one complete service even described in any detail in the New Testament, let alone prescribed” (p. 121). While this is true, there really is more to be said when it comes to unpacking the biblical vision for worship’s elements and form. I’ve been challenged by Michael Farley’s article highlighting the ways evangelicals tend to interpret what “biblical worship” is and is not. There, Farley points out that there may be biblical warrant for more elements and (especially) structure than we typically think when we simply look at the New Testament for explicitly prescribed forms. If Farley is right (and I think he is), this has some implications for Van Opstal’s discussion on forms and practices (for instance, in her chart highlighting the difference between a Latino church’s order of service and a White church’s, p. 98). Appendix E (pp. 193-194) does list some of these things, but I’d love to see this discussion fleshed out.

Where the Discussion Might Go From Here

Therefore, I think next steps for “diverse worship” discussions involve honest wrestling through the enculturation of historic, trans-temporal, trans-cultural forms and liturgies, which, according to Farley’s helpful exegetical tips, actually stem from God’s work in the (non-white, non-Western) ancient Near Eastern culture of the Old Testament. If we began this honest wrestling, I believe that every culture would have something (perhaps even highly cherished) in our particular worship experiences in need of revision and sharpening. I guess this is a counter-balance to Van Opstal’s important pastoral advice: “Christians must practice the discipline of acknowledging differences while suspending judgment” (p. 99). Yes, and at the same time (and I know Van Opstal would agree), Christians must also be willing to bring the discussion back around to theological reflection on our cultural practices. Diverse worship, in form and practice, needs to be a constant, Spirit-filled, and ongoing dialogue between cultural practices and the Scriptural authority that gives them shape and credence.

* * * * *

In conclusion, I confess to being a semi-active listener to the discussion on multicultural issues in worship, but I still discern that The Next Worship actually pushes the conversation forward rather than rehearsing the same talking points (as good as they have been).  Furthermore, it’s an incredibly useful text. It doesn’t float in the clouds but offers manual-like strategies, tips, and plans that actually help us on the ground level of ministry. Finally, Van Opstal has convinced me that I can no longer be “semi-active” in these discussions, for diverse worship is our shared context now, and the grace of God compels us so.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough, and I encourage every one of you to go out and get it! I need it. You need it. If part of our job as worship pastors is to prepare the people of God for eternity, I can’t think of a more balanced, helpful, prophetic, and pastoral text than this one.

Purchase The Next Worship on Amazon.

 

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