Transforming Worship: Planning and Leading Sunday Services as if Spiritual Formation Mattered

Written by Rory Noland Reviewed By Andrew M. Lucius

Rory Noland has been a trusted voice for church musicians and worship leaders for decades. For twenty years, he served on staff at Willow Creek Community Church as the music director and has earned both a master’s and doctorate from the Webber Institute for Worship Studies. He is the founder and director of Heart of the Artist Ministries, which derives its name from his first and most popular book, now in its second edition. In total, Noland has published four books which explore various aspects of church music and worship topics.

In Transforming Worship, Noland addresses the subject of spiritual formation within the weekly worship gathering of the church. While he does not present a concise thesis statement, he does write directly about the theme and purpose of the book. Noland’s basic argument is that spiritual formation happens in gathered worship. He highlights the relevance and timeliness of this insight, stating, “I believe that transforming worship can play a pivotal role in stemming the tide of nominal Christianity” (p. 14). Therefore, Noland advocates an approach to gathered worship that cultivates spiritual formation and helps those participating to live as more faithful followers of Christ.

The book begins with a definition of transformational worship. Noland states, “I define transforming worship as ‘a communal experience that combines classical spiritual practices with a formative encounter with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit’” (p. 11). This definition is followed by a section that reflects on this idea of transformational worship from three different angles: biblical, historical, and theological. Chapter 2, “Updating the Ancient Formula for Sunday Services,” is perhaps the most important of the book, as it relates to Noland’s primary objective: to present a new worship order that leads to transforming worship. It is here that the author articulates his five-fold model—Call to Worship, Worship Set, Sermon, Table, and Sending—and compares it to three other popular worship orders: historic four-fold, revivalist three-fold, and contemporary binary (pp. 32–46).

Part 2 considers how principles of transforming worship might be applied. Specifically, the author “investigates five distinctive elements of a transforming worship service: prayer, Scripture reading, confession, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism” (p. 89). In a two-page epilogue, Noland reminds the reader of the privilege of leading worship. He finishes by stating, “What a wonderful privilege we have every Sunday to invite the people of God to join us as we behold God in Christ, worship him for who he is and all he’s done, and then open ourselves up to his transforming working in our lives. Praise God that we get to do this” (p. 176)! Although these final two pages do not advance the author’s primary arguments, they provide an encouraging way to conclude the book.

In evaluating Noland’s work, the reader can locate many strengths within its pages. The first is found in the author’s ability to take a general concept and draw out specific, practical principles so that the reader understands how his arguments apply to ministry practice. This is primarily demonstrated in the second part of the book where Noland seeks to set the five worship elements he has identified within a transforming worship context.

A second strength of the book is the author’s argument for sacramentality as a tool for spiritual formation. In chapter 5 specifically, Noland offers a helpful corrective to those who may have swung too far from Catholicism’s sacramental abuses. He especially presses this point as it relates to signs and rituals. Sacred symbols, he writes, “are visual aids or physical tools God can use to turn our attention to him, a window into divine reality, like a bridge to the spiritual reality. Sacred symbols, then, are more than merely symbolic, for they enable believers to move from the visible to the invisible world of spiritual reality” (p. 76).

Third, Noland provides a corrective for evaluating personal worship or spiritual progress that is refreshing and convicting. In the context of considering the public and private reading of Scripture, he states, “Another problem is that we’ve made daily devotions the litmus test for spiritual maturity instead of godly character or the fruits of the Spirit” (p. 122). While perhaps only related to his primary argument in an indirect way, the author here demonstrates his awareness of the heart of modern worshipers and their propensity for embracing false measurements for their faithfulness in worship.

While strengths abound, there is at least one notable weakness to mention. Noland describes his transforming worship order as the best option for allowing spiritual formation in the corporate worship service. However, I question the superiority of the author’s contribution. The similarities between the author’s five-part pattern and the four-fold historic order are significant. In light of this, it is hard to see what his five-part pattern really adds. Arguably, there are greater benefits to using an order that has historical significance. Whatever the case, Noland fails to fully convince me of the advantages of his worship pattern over those that already exist.

Nevertheless, the weaknesses of Noland’s work are easily eclipsed by the book’s strengths. Transforming Worship will be helpful and encouraging for anyone planning or leading worship services in churches with a strong liturgical tradition. It will also prove helpful for those in free churches because of how the author presses back on many liturgical weaknesses of this tradition. I would also recommend this book to those who faithfully participate in weekly worship from the pew. If you believe corporate worship matters, Noland’s book will inspire you to believe it more deeply and practice it more faithfully.

Andrew M. Lucius

Andrew M. Lucius
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina, USA

Other Articles in this Issue

J. I. Packer’s theological works have wielded remarkable influence on the landscape of North American evangelicalism...

Several modern Bible versions do a disservice to John’s use of numbers in the book of Revelation...

J. I. Packer (1926–2020) first came to the attention of the reading public with a 1953 essay in the second printing of the New Bible Commentary...

The purpose of this article is to help the reader conceptualize and imagine the Holy Spirit as a real person with a distinct and knowable personality—a person of the Trinity more accessible to our faith, reading of Scripture, and worship...

What are good sexual acts? It is not that surprising when cultural voices, without reference to God, argue for the inherent goodness of all “unharmful” sexual desires and acts...