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Christian Worship: Glorifying and Enjoying God

By Ronald P. Byars
Geneva. 2000. 96 pp. Pb. $11.95.
ISBN 0-664-50136-2

Reviewed by James G. Kirk, Glen Burnie, Md.

Much to the satisfaction of those of us who serve in parishes, Geneva Press, in conjunction with the Office of Theology and Worship, has initiated a new series of books called the Foundations of Christian Faith.

Some of us remember the Layman’s Theological Library, edited by Robert McAfee Brown and published by the Westminster Press. I used those books often 30 years ago with youth and young adult study groups, and now look forward to this new series with the same anticipation of its worth in teaching youth and adults the rudiments of faith.

Ronald Byars’ book on worship is one of the first two to appear in the series, and it’s a good place for the series to begin. Approach the book from the vantage of how Byars ends the book, that is, lex orandi, lex credendi (“The way we worship shapes the way we believe”). I would then begin by reading ch. 6, “Sacrament: Am I Missing Something Here?”

In these days of the resurgence of Celtic spirituality, Byars gives good warrant for finding the incarnation in the midst of life. “From very early on, the church made use of . . . ordinary, physical things without feeling as though their use somehow betrayed a genuinely Christian spirituality. They used water, bread, wine and oil without apology or embarrassment, in the expectation that the God who had become incarnate in Christ could continue to wash, nourish and heal” (p. 86).

He goes on to justify the centrality of the sacramental in all of life when he writes, “A material thing — whether it be water, bread, wine, the printed words of Scripture or the vibration of a human voice on the ear — becomes sacramental when Christ uses it to open us to his presence” (p. 92).

It’s refreshing to read a book on worship which focuses upon the centrality of word and sacrament. Chapters on baptism and the Lord’s Supper form the backbone of the book. Byars traces our worship’s roots to the synagogue, when those assembled would begin with Scripture read and interpreted, prayers, hymns and then would move on to the meal, which formed the model for the Lord’s Day service. He takes the reader along the road the Reformers traveled as they tried to restore a weekly service of Scripture read and preached, plus Holy Communion. He yearns for the day when “There is a dynamic tension between preaching and sacrament that keeps each one true to itself” (p. 48).

Byars’ chapter on baptism faces head-on the issue many of us find in our churches — that is, the family with no particular relationship to a congregation, yet who feel obligated to have their children baptized. It seems as though he wants to fence the font, yet keeps coming back to the point that baptism is a monument not of our choosing, but God’s choice of us. If so, my session’s struggle remains a real one: does our denial of baptism to children of non-members somehow obscure the sacrament as a symbol of what has already occurred, namely the continuous outpouring of God’s grace?

Byars brings to his project a sensitivity to the strengths of the Orthodox tradition as well as the Reformed tradition. His language throughout is clear, sometimes poetic. The book does what the series intends — it provides a good study book for those who want to know the meaning of “lex orandi, lex credendi.”