Review: The Mission of Worship

The Mission of Worship

The Mission of Worship (Urbana Onward)Sandra Van Opstal. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Summary: Worship and mission are integrally related; recognizing the greatness of God propels us into mission and mission involves inviting others across cultural boundaries to join us in worship.

Worship and mission were made to walk together, Sandra Van Opstal contends. For one thing, worship is meant to help us experience the greatness of God. And yet, our own cultural blinders often leave us missing dimensions of that experience. Worshiping with those from other cultures may open our eyes to these missing dimensions–lament, celebration, God’s power to bring freedom, to enlarge our vision of his greatness and majesty, to teach us to persevere in hope. This may lead us to personal transformation. Van Opstal writes:

“Our understanding of the church is transformed. As we worship crossculturally, we better understand our own worship as just a piece of a larger community. As we experience our differences we can more fully enjoy what it means to connect to the global church. Then we realize that we are a part of a bigger family. This helps connect us to the hearts of our brothers and sisters who live radically different lives than we live” (p. 18).

Worship rightly understood and lived out particularly transforms us into people who embrace the mission of God. Through worship, we enter a place where we may hear the call of God into the mission of God–to bring his good news through word and deed to those who in various ways are poor and oppressed (cf. Luke 4:18-19). Worship, when it is in the “heart language” of those to whom we go may itself be a powerful way of welcome and reconciliation that helps those we are seeking to reach to understand “this can be a home for me.” This is particularly compelling when it is accompanied by lives and deeds that seek justice for the marginalized people we may be trying to reach.

This brings Van Opstal to the conclusion of this short booklet. Just as we can only walk with two feet, so worship and mission must walk together. Worship sustains and empowers mission. Mission authenticates and incarnates worship.

Rarely do our churches exist in enclaves any more. They may be mono-cultural enclaves but I would suggest that one look at the community around the church would uncover great diversity in ethnic origins, religions and beliefs, economic status, and age. Even if the cultures represented on our communities are not yet in our seats, it seems a good principle that beginning to worship in some of the ways that these cultures might may both prepare us and propel us into our communities.

Van Opstal’s booklet is a concise argument for taking a look at our worship through a missional lens that a worship team, or whoever plans worship, might consider. Better yet, church leadership might read this to support the changes a worship team might introduce to move into a worship as mission mindset. The book even includes a brief appendix of further resources of songs that cross culture.

If this booklet whets your appetite for growing in crosscultural worship, Van Opstal goes into greater depth, and offers more resources in The Next Worship (reviewed here). Van Opstal draws on experiences ranging from her own congregation to leading national and international conferences to give us vision and practical help for leading worship that is not only a taste of the new creation, but that propels us into mission.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Worship in the Way of the Cross

Worship in the Way of the Cross

Worship in the Way of the CrossJohn Frederick. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Contends that worship should be “cross-shaped,” that communities who do so may be formed in service of God and each other. Addresses flawed assumptions, interpersonal relationships, and liturgical elements as these related to cross-shaped worship.

John Frederick, a musician as well as theologian, is deeply disturbed by much of what he sees on the contemporary worship scene. He argues that instead of performances that focus on a rock star worship leader, worship is about the story of Christ and his cross and needs to be shaped by that story to counter the destructive stories of our society. He believes that when this is done consistently bringing elements of music, liturgy, preaching, and Eucharist together, God’s people are formed in the character of Christ, growing in love for God, each other, and the world, expressed in service. He calls this “cruciformation.” and argues that as we encounter Christ in the elements of worship, we become more like the Christ we encounter.

As I noted, he can be critical of the ways worship is often framed. At points, he writes with tongue firmly in cheek, as when he describes the “Karoake Chapel” character of much of the contemporary Christian music scene, where one encounters the same songs sung the same ways in churches across the country. He pleads for artistic integrity and creativity within church communities, and that worship teams stop simply being “cover bands.” He touches on the monocultural worship of many of our churches, built around the homogeneous unit principle, although here, I would commend Sandra Van Opstal’s The Next Worship (reviewed here), which takes the theory of this book and incarnates it with years of praxis. Later, he is critical of “propositional” music and preaching. On this last I would agree these can be sterile, but I’ve also seen many instances, both musically and expositorily where propositions crystallize the sense of narratives, and narratives flesh out and bring to life propositional elements. I wasn’t that keen on him trotting out this hobby horse which just seems one more example of binary, either-or thinking that lacks the creativity and synergy I think Frederick actually values.

Many will find helpful the sections in which he fleshes out what cruciform relationships look like between those who lead worship, the congregation, and the larger pastoral and church leadership team. Also helpful are discussions of how liturgy, prayers, singing and preaching, and communion all help form us in Christ. He helpfully counters the resistance to written prayers and liturgy by observing that we usually do not make up songs or worship on the spot. While these can become formalized, so can “the spontaneous.”

The author has two different voices in this book. One is rather “hip,” witty, and often quite engaging, for example when he interviews a former pastoral team on which he worked about how they worked together, or when he is characterizing the “Karaoke Chapel.”  The other voice feels to me a bit like that of the seminary student displaying facility with the theological jargon of the guild. Yet my sense was that this was not written for academics but for those who lead worship in the church. Consider this short paragraph toward the conclusion:

“Thus the paradigm of redemption by which the cruciformed church is called to bring about the cruciformation of the cosmos is a guiding principle and pattern, rather than a particular application or approach for the renewal of all things. The particular applications of cruciformissional ideation rely on the pneumatic discerning of the Spirit from the heart of the local community and the local church rather than on a pragmatic dictating of successful ministry strategies.” (p. 177)

I found myself wondering how many worship teams would have the inclination to wrap their minds around writing like this (no criticism of the intellectual capacities of worship teams intended!). In addition to a fondness for making up new words (cruciformation, cruciformissional), the language felt abstract and obscure. Another example in the section on liturgy is “the ecclesio-pneumatic ideation of Jesus Christ.” He even invokes the cool-sounding name and work of a German scholar, Wolfgang Iser. He actually is making quite an important point in this in talking about how the church (“ecclesio-“), through engaging the texts of liturgy, music, and scripture (ideation), by the power of the Spirit (pneumatic), encounters and is shaped by Christ. I’m hoping that others will make it through the thicket of language to get the point he is making.

I make this criticism because I think Frederick has a contribution to make in moving worship beyond the banal sameness of much of contemporary Christian music and the cult of the superstar worship leader. He wants us to focus in all the elements of worship on Christ and he is passionate about this because he is convinced it will transform people to be more like the Christ they worship together. I hope that he will work on writing in the way of the cross, which may mean putting to death some scholarly prose to make these important ideas more accessible to those who lead worship in our churches.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: The Next Worship

The Next Worship

The Next WorshipSandra Maria Van Opstal (foreword by Mark Labberton). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Using the language of an international table, this book gives both theological basis and practical help in leading Christian communities into multi-cultural and multi-lingual worship led by empowered multi-ethnic worship teams.

It does not seem so long ago when we were hearing of “worship wars” that consisted of conflicts between those who favored traditional (i.e. hymns) worship with choirs, piano and organ and those who favored contemporary music with guitars, keyboards, and percussion. While some churches are still wrestling with these different styles, the culture has moved on as the world has come to our neighborhoods. South Asians, Chinese and Koreans, African Americans, Latinos, and people from Middle Eastern countries all live in my neighborhood, have restaurants in our community, and at least sometimes turn up in our church.

Sandra Van Opstal uses the analogy of food to help us understand that our forms of worship are just as “ethnic” as those of other groups. We may consider PB & J to just be “food” but for many it is “American” food. For those who are from Mexico, what we consider Mexican food is just “food.” Similarly “normal” worship looks very different in very different cultural contexts. If our hope is that our churches begin to look like our communities, it means that we begin to worship in ways that are more “normal” for others, that say, “this is your table, too.”

She tells the stories of churches who have made these transitions. For those from Columbus, she features my good friend Katelin Hansen, and the multi-cultural worship she leads at The Church for All Peoples on the south side of Columbus. Many know Katelin for her blog, By Their Strange Fruitwhich focuses on racial reconciliation and issues of justice. Sandra features the work Katelin and many other worship leaders are doing in bringing together leaders from different cultural backgrounds and intentionally leading their churches into solidarity in worship with the different cultures in their neighborhood, and around the world.

Transitioning to this style of worship isn’t easy. Van Opstal charts the process from the first steps of reconciliation to hospitality (“we welcome you”), to solidarity (“we stand with you”), to mutuality (“we need you”). She traces the different options in worship that may be pursued. She discusses different types of worship teams, from monocultural teams with a strong leader who does all the planning  to multi-cultural teams with shared planning and leadership. She outlines four models of multi-ethnic worship from Acknowledgement (a dominant style with hints of others) to Blended (the equal representation of two or more styles) to Fusion (mixing styles or creating original music) and Collaborative Rotation (where leaders and teams are rotated and host worship in their own cultural style).

Van Opstal, who herself has led worship in a variety of settings from Urbana Missions Conferences and the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students World Assembly (where I’ve seen her in action) to mainline churches talks about the different elements that go into a worship service and how she works with teams in planning. More than this, she talks about the challenging work of culture change and discerning how to work sensitively with different groups. She writes helpfully about avoiding “whiplash” where so many styles and languages are introduced at once that people are bewildered.

What I appreciated throughout was the model Van Opstal gives of honesty, vulnerability, and self-understanding. She writes at one point in chapter two:

Let’s face it, my Mandarin stinks! I’d rather sing in Spanish. I’d prefer to pray in English. I really like to move during worship, which would likely be a distraction in many of the churches or college chapels I visit. Crosscultural worship is just what it sounds like: we are crossing over (a bridge) to another way of doing things, which creatures of habit rarely like to do. As Spencer Perkins, the late reconciliation leader and coauthor of More Than Equals, used to say, “Bridge building hurts!” Not only are we crossing a bridge, we are also acting as a bridge for other people to cross, which means we are always getting stepped on. It takes commitment and intentionality; it’s a decision to act. . . .”

I would commend this book for any Christian community from student fellowships to established congregations (particularly in neighborhoods of changing demographics). It offers very practical help for those who lead worship (and be prepared for challenges to the Cult of the Worship Leader!) but should also be read by pastoral teams and church leadership preparing to wade in these waters. For such groups, each chapter includes discussion questions. There are also nine appendices at the end covering everything from worship movements and artists to various order of service examples to practical help in teaching a language song.

This book is real. It is inspiring. And it is tremendously practical, reflecting the author’s wide ranging experience in leading and coaching others to lead multi-ethnic worship. Some of the experiences I’ve had when I’ve observed her leadership have been “foretastes of heaven” as one begins to see what it will be like to worship with the nations of the earth. I can’t help but think that such foretastes are one of most compelling testimonies of the greatness and grace of our global God. My hope is that through this book, the nations will rejoice!