More than 20 years ago David Peterson wrote Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship, an important resource for defining worship, for finding worship’s place among other biblical themes, and for thinking rightly about how a biblical theology of worship informs practice.
Now Peterson wants to inform our practice further with his follow-up book, Encountering God Together: Leading Worship Services That Honor God, Minister to His People, and Build His Church. This shorter volume aims to apply the biblical theology of Peterson’s first book and “help everyone involved in planning and leading church services to think more biblically and creatively about this important ministry.” From there, Peterson devotes chapters to the purpose of the church service, different service patterns, and each potential element of a service, including Scripture reading and preaching, prayer, praise, singing, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.
Encountering God Together has much to commend it. It’s a practical, accessible extension of Peterson’s years of scholarship and ministry experience from which any reader will benefit. If you help plan or lead a church service, or would like to think more carefully about what that means, this book will prove helpful. Here’s why.
1. Peterson doesn’t give all the answers.
This is good because “all the answers” don’t exist. “Nowhere in the New Testament do we find a detailed report of a Christian gathering indicating how different contributions fitted together and in what order,” writes the emeritus faculty member of Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. The New Testament does, however, present guidelines to include Bible reading and preaching, addressing the Lord and one another in song, and prayer, among others. The Old Testament gives other principles (such as in Nehemiah 8–9, which Peterson highlights in his epilogue), and church history gives evidence (for good and ill) of what churches have done through the centuries. All the evidence leads to the conclusion that there are multiple ways to gather together.
2. Peterson acknowledges the formative nature of Sunday morning.
Peterson challenges service planners and leaders to “rethink what we are doing in the light of biblical teaching.” More people recognize that the worship services they plan do more than tell people when to stand and sing and sit and listen. The corporate worship service, over time, supplies vocabulary and habits that teach people how to relate to God. If a church regularly confesses sin, its people will better know how to confess sin in their daily lives. If a church makes it a priority to read Scripture during the service, its people will more likely run to Scripture in their personal lives. With this in mind, Peterson rightly suggests that “each element in a service should express an aspect of biblical teaching about the way we relate to God and should give us the opportunity to respond together,” and that “one of the ways we learn good communication habits with God is by participating in corporate worship.” Peterson doesn’t prescribe a service order, but he does prescribe thoughtfulness and biblical evaluation.
3. Peterson highlights the horizontal focus of church gatherings.
Peterson’s book is an antidote for any who view church as a public venue for private worship or where they go to receive ministry from the professionals. Instead, Peterson encourages us to consider the role we play in the edifying other believers as we gather together (Peterson sees edification as one of the primary purposes of the corporate gathering, cf. 1 Cor. 14:26.) “God ministers to us through the fellowship of his people,” he writes, and goes on to say that the church will only grow in Christ when “his people unite in confessing the truth about him with love for one another.” He similarly highlights the horizontal nature of singing together and the Lord’s Supper, which, despite the introspective emphasis some give to it, is “clearly meant to focus the eyes of the participants on one another as well as on God” (emphasis original).
Why not “worship”?
There were a couple minor issues in the book. One is Peterson’s view that the Lord’s Supper is merely a “Christian substitute for the Passover,” but not more, neglecting that the Lord’s Supper is the fulfillment of the Passover and commemorates a greater redemption than the Exodus. But I’ll focus on Peterson’s objection to the term “worship service,” since the language is so common. He argues that “it is not helpful to use ‘worship’ as the main or exclusive term” to describe the purpose of a church service.
Peterson is right to express some caution. If using the term “worship service” causes people to think worship only happens during congregational singing, or to correlate worship with a certain kind of celebratory praise chorus, or if it causes people to think worship is limited to what happens on Sunday morning, then it might be best to avoid the term. And there are churches whose practice causes more confusion than clarity.
Peterson is also right to emphasize that worship “embraces the whole of life” (Rom. 12:1–2), but he himself confesses that “there is a special realization or expression of worship when we gather together as Christ’s people.” This “special realization or expression” in corporate worship can rightly be called a “worship service” as long as it serves as an accurate reflection of the “whole of life” nature of worship. The Christian life does not consist of celebration only, but also lament, sorrow, victory, confession, remembrance, suffering, love, repentance, joy, disappointment, thanksgiving, and all of the other dimensions of human experience (see: the Psalter). If a church’s corporate gathering provides space for expressing the breadth of experience—through reading from both testaments, corporate confession, adoration, remembrance in the Lord’s Supper, singing a range of music, giving thanks, and making petitions—and trains people to worship through the range of their experiences Monday through Saturday, then certainly we can call that gathering a “worship service,” even to describe its primary purpose. If, however, a church’s gathering gives the impression that “worship” does in fact correlate exclusively to the CCM movement, then Peterson’s critique stands.
The same goes for Peterson’s related critique of the term “worship leader.” This term is unhelpful, he says, because “it implies that worship is simply to be identified with praise, rather than being an aspect of the whole gathering and the agenda for everyday living,” and “it hands over the planning and conduct of services to people who may be theologically immature and uninstructed.” “Worship leader” isn’t a biblical office (neither is youth minister, senior pastor, usher, and so on), so I’m not concerned with preserving it, but it seems Peterson’s problem is more with the way churches use their “worship leader” than with the label. To which I say, be sure your church sings more than praise choruses, and be sure the person(s) planning your services are not doing so simply because they can play guitar. Again, there are certainly churches that need Peterson’s warning, but he seems either unaware or unwilling to acknowledge that some churches do it well.
Those minor objections aside, Encountering God Together is a rich and valuable resource, full of wisdom that grows from Peterson’s years of theological and biblical reflection and ministry experience. I hope pastors give it to their worship leaders/pastors/planners, and that it causes churches of all denominational persuasions to ponder anew how their Sunday morning gatherings might do just what the book’s subtitle says: honor God, minister to his people, and build his church.