This review was originally published in Themelios 34 (2009): 444-446.
“Structures tell stories.” So opens Bryan Chapell’s volume, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice. Chapell, noted homiletician, theologian, and author of the popular volume, Christ-Centered Preaching (Baker, 1994), is president emeritus of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, the denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America.
The underlying assumption of Chapell’s work is that the structure of our liturgy carries meaning, and therefore a Christian liturgy should communicate the message of the gospel. “Whether one intends it or not,” Chapell argues, “our worship patterns always communicate something” (p. 18). He seeks to sidestep the prevalent traditional/contemporary worship debate by urging church leaders to allow gospel purposes to shape their worship-not only the content, but also the structure.
Chapell begins in the first six chapters by comparing and contrasting the most influential Christian liturgies in the history of Christianity: pre-Trent Rome (chap. 2), Luther (chap. 3), Calvin (chap. 4), Westminster (chap. 5), and Modern (specifically Robert Rayburn’s; chap. 6). While demonstrating that these various liturgies certainly differ as they reflect the specifics of the theological systems in which they operate, Chapell’s aim is to show that “where the truths of the gospel are maintained there remain commonalities of worship structure that transcend culture” (p. 18). He shows that no matter the differences, each liturgy contains common elements: adoration, confession, assurance, thanksgiving, petition, instruction, charge, and blessing (pp. 98-99). Not only are the elements common, but their progression also remains consistent among the liturgies. Chapell argues that this is the case because each liturgy “reflects the pattern of the progress of the gospel in the heart” (p. 99). A person recognizes the greatness of God (adoration), which leads him to see his need for confession of sin. He then receives assurance of pardon in the gospel through the merits of Christ, and he responds with thanksgiving and petition. God then gives his Word in response to the petition (instruction), leading to a charge to obey its teaching and promise of blessing. This common liturgical structure, telling the story of the gospel, “re-presents” the gospel each time God’s people worship (p. 99).
Chapell continues in chapter seven by demonstrating that such a liturgical structure is present not only in historical liturgies but also in scriptural examples. He surveys Isaiah’s worship (Isa 6), Sinai worship (Deut 5), Solomon’s worship (2 Chr 5-7), Temple worship (Lev 9), NT spiritual worship (Rom 11-15), and eschatological worship (Rev 4-21) to illustrate that in each case these same common liturgical elements appear in progression. Chapell is not arguing that with each case the liturgy was consciously meant to communicate the gospel or that such liturgies are prescriptive but that “there are regular and recognizable features to God’s worship because there is continuity in his nature and the way he deals with his people” (p. 105). Thus, even historical liturgies contain common elements, not because any one authority or tradition has controlled how all churches should worship, but because a “gospel-formed path always puts us in contact with God’s glory, our sin, his provision, our response, and his peace. By walking a worship path in step with the redemptive rhythm we simultaneously discover the pattern of our liturgy and the grace of our Savior” (p. 115).
This then leads Chapell to insist that “Where the gospel is honored, it shapes worship. No church true to the gospel will fail to have echoes of these historic liturgies” (p. 25). He summarizes the flow of his argument thus:
The liturgies of the church through the ages and the consistent message of Scripture combine to reveal a pattern for corporate worship that is both historical and helpful for our time. Christian worship is a “re-presentation” of the gospel. By our worship we extol, embrace, and share the story of the progress of the gospel in our lives. We begin with adoration so that all will recognize the greatness and goodness of God. In the light of his glory, we also recognize our sin and confess our need of his grace. Assurance of his pardon produces thanksgiving. With sincere thanksgiving, we also become aware that all we have is from him and that we depend on his goodness for everything precious in our lives. Thus, we are compelled to seek him in prayer for our needs and his kingdom’s advance. His loving intercession makes us desire to walk with him and further his purposes, so our hearts are open to his instruction and long to commune with him and those he loves. This progress of the gospel in our lives is the cause of our worship and the natural course of it. We conclude a service of such worship with a Charge and Benediction because the progress of the gospel is God’s benediction on our lives (p. 116).
This doesn’t necessarily mean that every element will be emphasized equally (p. 111), nor does it imply that there is never room for changing the structure (p. 147). In fact, Chapell provides helpful examples of how “as long as its gospel purpose is fulfilled, each aspect of a Christ-centered liturgy may be expressed through a variety of worship components” (pp. 147-49). Again, the medium is something that is shaped by the message, not a structure artificially imposed upon the message.
Chapters 9-12 are dedicated to exploring how this kind of gospel-informed thinking about worship can help church leaders move beyond simply personal preferences or tradition to make decisions about their worship that will best communicate the gospel, both to believers and unbelievers alike. Chapell addresses controversial issues such as musical style, reverence vs. relevance, and seeker-sensitivity, attempting to show how in each case, an allegiance to Christ-centered worship will help those involved come to a unified consensus (pp. 130-35).
In the second half of the book (chaps. 13-24), Chapell provides helpful resources for the implementation of Christ-Centered Worship including specific examples of the various components (e.g., call to worship, affirmation of faith, confession of sin, etc.), example service orders across a broad spectrum of traditions, and discussion of some of the more controversial practical matters (e.g., frequency of communion, Scripture readings, preaching styles, and musical styles). In each discussion Chapell attempts to allow the gospel to relieve the tensions.
In Christ-Centered Worship, Bryan Chapell presents an engaging exploration of how the gospel should shape Christian worship. Although one may disagree in some areas of specific application, pastors especially will certainly benefit from an approach to worship that is richly conservative (e.g., an appreciation for and desire to conserve what has come before), biblical, and Christ-centered.