Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship

By Thomas G. Long
Alban. 2001. 115 pp. Pb. $16. ISBN 1-56699-240-0

— reviewed by Art Ross of Raleigh, N.C.

Because, suddenly, we live in a world at war, the title of the book is unfortunate; but so too is the spirit of the debate over worship in the life of many churches. The opening words of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Common Worship, "Worship is at the very heart of the church’s life. All that the church is and does is rooted in its worship" are true.

Therefore, if the church is at war over worship, then the church is at war over its very heart and soul. The title of Tom Long’s book may be more prophetic than we may wish to recognize.

I am fortunate to be the pastor of a congregation that debates the nature and elements of worship, but we are not at war. I am, however, part of a denomination that often does appear to be at war — war not over worship as much as over words, concepts and mysteries such as salvation, sin, redemption and ordination. We keep coming to the Table of our Lord while we are not yet reconciled to our brothers and sisters. We keep bringing sacrifices and burnt offerings before God. We advance agendas that we claim honor God and affirm the Lordship of Christ, yet we harbor in our hearts and express with our tongues attitudes of judgment and condemnation that mark us children of Cain rather than sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters in Christ.

Long’s little book may be more prophetic than instructional. For those who are familiar with Tom Troeger, Marva Dawn or any of a number of other worship gurus who help those of us in the Reformed tradition think about, talk about, pray about the ways in which we worship, this book does not tell much that is new. However, for those wishing to have a good study book for a church school class, a worship and music committee or personal reflection on central issues related to worship, this book is a good read.

Writing with clarity and movement, and offering a short but helpful bibliography, Long respects the diversity that is present in every congregation I know. He asks us to take worship very seriously, but not too seriously. Says Long, “When Christian worship is at its best, it is much like that Mother’s Day breakfast. It is always the work of amateurs, people who do this for love, kids in the kitchen overcooking the prayers, half-baking the sermons, and crashing and stumbling through the responses on the way to an act of adoration” (p. vii).

The book opens with a review of current issues: “Worship Wars: A Review from the Front Lines.” Long then uses traditional issues in worship to talk about finding a “Third Way” that leads to vital and faithful congregational life. Chapters on “Why People Come to Worship,” “The Challenge of Music,” “The Space of Worship” and “Neighborhood and Mission” revisit familiar subjects, with good insight into ways these “eternals” can be means for new maturity of faith and fellowship.

Ultimately this book, like the challenge before the church in every age, is about “seeking maturity of faith and fellowship” which brings forth worship that glorifies God, proclaims the lordship of Christ with joy and conviction and leads to servant discipleship. Long knows that when worship works, the community moves beyond division and hostility to an awareness that we “are in the presence of the living God,” which is Long’s definition of the essence of worship. Our deepest needs are met; we know that we belong to God; in response, we offer ourselves — our energies, our work, our play, our relationships — everything — to God (pp. 18-19).

The weakness of this book is also its strength: Long doesn’t say anything new, but what he does say is eternal. Drawing upon the traditions of the past that shaped our faith, and trusting the living presence of God who forever is “doing a new thing,” we are called to move beyond our past into God’s holy future. Worship is not the way we make the journey; faith is. Worship, not war, will be the sign that the journey is taking us in the right direction.