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Ron Rienstra

First Things First

Teaching about worship by asking the right questions

Marva Dawn's writing about worship displays an interesting trajectory. The prolific Regent College teaching fellow has thought deeply and written widely on a number of important topics, and her books have received well-deserved acceptance and acclaim. But the seeker-sensitive baby-boomers who run the show in so many North American churches have remained resistant to her provocative word about worship's glorious worthlessness. So she keeps trying. In each published iteration—culminating in her most recent effort—her message stays essentially the same, but it becomes somewhat better enculturated: a bit more inductively argued, a bit more fairly illustrated, a bit easier to understand. She's reaching out, while trying not to dumb Dawn.

Her first book on worship, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down (Eerdmans, 1995), argued that many churches have confused worship with evangelism, to the detriment of both. But the book was widely understood—or misunderstood—as a defense of classically based music and traditional forms of worship. Her sharp criticisms of certain worship styles and patterns were perceived as polemical and élitist. (The charge of élitism could hardly be avoided, given the book's title.) She sought to correct these misunderstandings in her second book on worship, A Royal Waste of Time (Eerdmans, 1999). Slightly more accessible, this volume included study questions and a handful of topical sermons. In it, the argument from her first book—worship is not a utilitarian means to an evangelistic end—was expanded: worship is not rightly perceived as useful for any other end. The worship of God has its own inherent telos.

Dawn's most recent offering, How Shall We Worship?, shows her desire to go even further to connect with a wide spectrum of worshipers and worship leaders, and assist them in thinking more deeply about worship. The promotional copy on the back of the book promises that "within an evening's read, you'll be able to navigate through the worship debates." Indeed, at 180-odd postcard-size pages, How Shall We Worship? isn't nearly as demanding as the two previous books. That's partly because she's adjusted her prose style, which in this book is less scholarly (fewer footnotes and more exclamation points), though still rigorous. But it's also because this book self-consciously employs a helpful pedagogic strategy for provoking deep thought: asking good questions.

In fact, the book is part of a new series from Tyndale entitled Vital Questions. As Dawn herself notes:

Many of the manuals for how to do worship in the present age are dangerous, for they frequently prescribe 'successful' strategies that do not consider the local situation in which worship is conducted. … No liturgical scholar, theologian, or sociologist can designate how worship should be conducted in a particular place. Rather, each congregation must ask better questions, so that in every place our worship is faithful to the kind of God we have and the biblical guidance He has condescended to give us.

With each chapter, Dawn observes God's character and, with the help of Psalm 96, explores a particular question or series of questions about worship. The scriptural imperative to "Sing a new song unto the Lord" (Ps. 96:1) prompts a discussion about "What kinds of music should we use?" (A.: All Kinds.) "The gods of the peoples are idols" (Ps. 96:4) leads into a solid, prophetic riff on "What idols tempt us away from worshipping the only true God?" (A.: mammon, technology, power, prestige, and more.) Sometimes she works much harder to connect her Psalmic spine to the particular questions she wants to ask. For example, from verse 8 ("Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name"), through what seems a labored connection, emerges an important turn on the classic shape of the Church's liturgy.

How Shall We Worship? contains no extended argument; rather, it ranges far and wide, inquiring helpfully about how worship shapes us, about finding our place in creation's praise to God, about navigating dialectic poles (e.g., head/heart, order/freedom, joy/lament). And even though the main text

is often in the interrogative mood, an appendix offers additional questions for discussion (though sometimes these questions are less the "how might this work in your church?" sort than the "did you catch the important point I made on page 79?" variety).

Of course, you'd expect someone with 15 books under her belt to have a few answers in addition to questions. And Dawn doesn't disappoint. She offers scriptural and cultural insight in plentiful measure, and she's especially good when covering familiar territory, such as the relationship of worship to evangelism.

At the same time, this familiar territory brings with it some not unfamiliar problems. Hints of the élitism and favoritism that marred her previous work appear here, too. While she tries to be even-handed in her critique ("the traditionalists blundered … ," "the contemporaryists misjudged …"), her much sharper criticism is reserved for those whose first impulse is to baptize new cultural expressions and put them to work in worship. She does not seem to have an ear for the arguments that have been leveled against status-quo preservers. In a key passage on how worship shapes our character, she writes: "worship dare not be glib or superficial, ought not to dispense false assurances or manipulate emotions." Right on the money, as far as it goes. But to be fair, she would need to include a parallel sentence acknowledging the other side: worship dare not be timid or perfunctory, ought not dispense disconnected truths or conform to tradition for its own sake.

Moreover, her prophetic calls are sometimes muffled by the distance between her and some in her audience. Nowhere in the book do we find an appreciative anecdote about being led in prayer or praise through a guitar-driven popular worship song. But such would go a long way toward earning her credibility among the crowd at whom her critique is most appropriately aimed.

Finally, Dawn is temperamentally given to a touch of Hauerwasian harshness. So, when confronted with the common complaint, "I didn't get much out of that worship service" (maybe the complaint that got her started writing about worship in the first place), Dawn suggests the proper response is this: "So what? It wasn't you we were worshipping, was it?" Not exactly calculated to inspire a sympathetic hearing or further constructive conversation.

Inquiry-based learning is difficult to pull off in writing, and it's fair to wonder whether the inductive mode is too much of a stretch for Dawn. But she more often than not asks good questions—both pointed and pastoral. And when she's genuinely asking them, How Shall We Worship? is at its best.

Ron Rienstra is associate for Student Worship at Calvin College, where he directs the loft, a weekly worship service planned and led by students. He is the author of Ten Service Plans for Contemporary Worship (Faith Alive Resources).

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