Rienstra, Debra, and Ron Rienstra. Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009. $22.99. 286 pp. ISBN 978-0-8010-3616-3
(skip to the Conclusion)
The authors each bring unique contribution from their area of expertise. Debra Rienstra teaches English at Calvin College, and she therefore offers the penetrating linguistic insights. Ron Rienstra teaches preaching and worship at Western Theological Seminary. What is meant by the phrase “worship words” is clear from the stated purpose: “to help pastors and worship leaders attend carefully to the words used in prayers, songs, sermons, and other spoken elements in worship—and to use words more intentionally” (p. 19). This book, then, is an analysis of and reflection on the all the words we use in various ways worship…both as worship leaders and congregants.
It is obvious that this book comes from the minds of two very committed educators, because each chapter ends with bullet-pointed “Summary Calls to Action” and “Exercises” for groups and individuals. This is truly above and beyond. They would benefit the reader(s) immensely, but they are not essential to receiving and implementing the essence of their admonitions. Each chapter is also filled with sidebar stories and interesting illustrative tidbits, demarcated by grayed-out boxes. These, too, are the products of educators’ minds…always attempting a broad pedagogical impact.
I now have another book to highly recommend to other worship leaders and thinkers (see my recommended reading list)! Never before has a work been dedicated to the broad use of words in worship, and with this fresh perspective, many original and important insights have been offered for ongoing discussions between tensions in worship (e.g. traditional vs. contemporary, formality vs. informality, relevant vs. historical, high-church vs. low church). The angle of “worship words,” furthermore transcends discussions about merely music or merely liturgical structure or merely practical how-to’s. It really does cover it all. Overall, I also appreciate the affirming spirit of this work. It attempts to rise above stylistic, liturgical, and denominational “tribalism” that often plagues large-scale thoughtful analyses of Christian worship. Worship Words is able at once to affirm Christian worship traditions across the board and yet lovingly offer constructive criticism. The generous spirit of the authors was all the more apparent to me, having read T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns alongside it (Gordon’s work, in my opinion, has the opposite spirit—polemical and un-affirming). This book will be one that I will re-visit again and again, because its insights are fresh and dynamic, and it stirs my own creative thinking. It also provides some very helpful ideas which, when implemented, will benefit my own ministry of worship and bless the people I serve.
The first seven chapters are theoretical and considered the “foundational material” of the book off which the other chapters build (p. 22). Chapter One (“The Dimensions of Language in Worship”) reminds readers that worship is the central act of the church (p. 29) and then goes on to outline four dimensions of language: expressive, aesthetic, instructive, and memorial. This discussion was insightful to me in helping to navigate the still turbulent waters between the traditional-contemporary divide. Chapter Two (“Worship as Dialogic Encounter”) doesn’t necessarily blaze new trails in worship-thought, but affirms what Robert Webber, Marva Dawn, and countless others have said—worship should be understood as a dialogue between God and humanity. I appreciate the treatment of the individualism in much of modern worship:
We come to worship expecting a subjective, emotional, and individual experience of God’s presence. We are looking for intimacy with God, and meanwhile the other people nearby—well, they’re doing the same thing for themselves. Meanwhile, we have forgotten that worship is a place where God acts on us objectively—that is to say, divine action is happening whether we ‘feel’ it or not. We shouldn’t forget this, because there’s something very comforting about God’s objective action, particularly on those inevitable down days when worship—for whatever reason—feels blah and routine (p. 51).
Chapter Three (“On Chatter and Patter”) criticizes the “chatty” nature of much of Protestant worship these days. “The most serious problem with chattiness,” they say, “is this: we do not expect chatty language, ultimately, to transform us” (p. 63). This is an important insight that is an appropriate check to my own leadership at times. Discussed here is the glib way many evangelicals learn to pray, using “Father-God” and “Lord” almost like punctuation points rather than intentional direct-addressing of God. They offer some practical steps toward solving the chatter-problem (pp. 69-73). Chapter Four (“On Repetition”) affirms the need for repetition, both on the macro and micro levels. In line with Chapell’s big idea in Christ-Centered Worship, it is the gospel-story that needs faithful repeating in worship (pp. 76-77). The authors handle here, too, the issue of repetition of words and phrases with this helpful and pragmatic axiom: “Repetition is only meaningless when we don’t mean it.” Very simple; very true. Traditionalists who regularly criticize modern worship for its so-called “7-11 Songs” need to understand this.
Chapter Five deals with the very “in” topic of “The Puzzle of Authenticity.” They encourage worship leaders to avoid manipulation (p. 98) and to straddle the tension between overly using formal, lofty language and informal, simple language (pp. 101-104). In the end, for the authors, “the measure of authenticity is born out in who we are becoming” (p. 113). Chapter Six (“Watch Your Figures”) is an important and fresh discussion of how language communicates and includes a solid treatment of the issue of gender-inclusivity in our language, which, they argue, should flow, not from cultural or political persuasions, but from gospel principles (p. 132). Many theological conservatives would bristle here. This conservative does not. If anything, I was challenged and humbled by this chapter. Chapter Seven (“Naming God”) handles our use (or lack of use) of the rich vocabulary of the names of God, encouraging readers that worship leaders who employ a healthy, diverse diet of the names of God help keep the imagination of the people of God alive, fresh, and vital. The authors zero in on Brian Wren’s concept of KINGAFAP (King-God-Almighty-Father-Protector) as a helpful summary of how to maintain balance in how God is presented in worship. Ultimately, I found this discussion a little laborious (they seem to be hyper-sensitive to conclusions people can draw if we wrongly “name” God [p. 152]), but I grant that perhaps I am under-sensitive in this area. This chapter made me wonder whether part of the reason I value cross-denominational dialogue is because each strain of Christianity tends to emphasize a different set of “God-names,” thus helping me to keep my own theological and doxological imagination alive.
The next four chapters move perhaps to more practical outworking of the previously laid foundation. Chapter Eight (“Something Old”) encourages thoughtful and relevant engagement of tradition in worship. Here’s an insight worth chewing on: “The history of the church’s worship shows a fairly regular pattern of innovation, equilibrium, stagnation, reform, innovation…and in every age, enormous diversity of style” (p. 176). I was pleased to see that in this chapter, Kevin Twit and Indelible Grace (p. 183) was highlighted and the practice of setting old hymns to new music was encouraged. Chapter Nine (“Something New”) travels through recent innovations in Christian worship with special attention to urban and hip hop movements. Chapter Ten (“Something Borrowed”) deals creatively with the topic of worship and culture. Its summary of the Lutheran World Federation’s “Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture” was helpful in thinking through how worship and culture relate: transcultural, contextual, countercultural, and cross-cultural (pp. 203-204). (Notice the similarities and differences with H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and culture schema.) Ultimately, this chapter encourages global thinking and interaction in the context of worship. Chapter Eleven (“Something Blue”) encourages the church to re-embrace lament as a facet of the Christian worship expression. Chapter Twelve (“The Embedded Word”) summarizes and concludes the book.
Worship Words is a keeper. Though its illustration and reference points will quickly become dated, its substance will not. Its principles are thoughtful, biblical, wise, timeless, and gospel-motivated. It’s a heavier read, despite its more accessible format, content, and layout, and it requires a solid bachelor-degree-level base of knowledge to get the most out of it (thus, I won’t be recommending it to teenagers who are aspiring pastors or worship leaders). I haven’t seen many draw attention to this work, which is why I do. It deserves a place among the important works on Christian worship in the last decade.