What Happens When We Worship

What Happens When We Worship, by Jonathan Landry Cruse. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2020, 186 pages, $14.00, cloth.

The principal goal of my worship course is to prepare pastors to lead worship at their first church. To be ready on day one, they will need a biblical theology of worship, a knowledge of its elements, and an understanding of what takes place when God meets with his people in the assembly of worship. A second goal, is that they be able to take what they have learned in the classroom and use it to instruct their congregations in the basics of Christian worship and how to prepare for it.  Jonathan Landry Cruse’s What Happens When We Worship will be an asset in reaching both goals.

The book’s three parts – a (brief) theology of worship, the anatomy of a worship service, and preparing our hearts ­– ­are content rich, concise, and accessible, making it valuable for both seminary and Sunday School classroom instruction. This review will comment on each part.

Regarding the “(Brief) Theology of Worship,” Cruse’s premise is straightforward: “something is happening when we worship. Something happens to us, something happens between us and the people we worship with, and, most importantly, something happens between us and God” (1). Of all the activities we undertake, worship of the true and living God is of foremost importance (15).

Mankind was created by God with an innate desire to worship (15). Although the fall distorted that desire and directed it to sinful ends, it nonetheless remains. In the present age, God seeks worshipers (19, see John 4:23-24). This worship is not an individual pursuit, but the activity of people who have been “corporately and collectively separated from the world, and . . .  united to one another” (70).

Worship exposes our hearts, revealing what we cherish most. Worship is powerful, and molds us into the likeness of what we worship (28). We are faced with critical questions: “Do our services of worship shape us to be like the Creator or like the creation? Are we being fashioned for earth or for heaven?” (35)

For these reasons, Christian worship must be approached with care. The temptation to creature-centered worship – enlivened by entertainment, on the one hand, or by liturgical pageantry on the other – is ever present. The author designates these as aesthetics of entertainment and mysticism (2ff). Reformed worshipers must surrender to neither; God alone must be at the heart of worship.

The very simplicity of Reformed liturgy keeps the Lord at the heart of worship. Although liturgy refers to the work of the people, “the primary work of worship is done by God Himself” (65). He calls his people to assemble and meets with them corporately to renew his covenant with them through the covenantal Redeemer, Jesus Christ. He cleanses and consecrates them, communes with them, and commissions them (54).

The author is correct when he asserts that every church employs a liturgy, a structure that orders its services of worship. Liturgies must be approached thoughtfully and biblically. In chapter 6 – “We Submit to God’s Agenda” – the author makes a spirited case for worship that includes only those elements that God has commanded. Ministers and their congregations must critically evaluate their orders of worship. God cares about the way he is worshipped and prescribes in scripture its non-negotiable elements (64).

“The Anatomy of a Worship Service” takes readers to those non-negotiable elements: the call to worship, invocation, and greeting; the reading of God’s law, the confession of sin, and the declaration of God’s pardon; the ministry of the word and sacraments; and the benediction.

One of the most appealing features is way the Cruse treats these elements.  Certainly, his descriptions of the elements are lucid. But he gives us more than the content we would find in, say, a theological dictionary. His descriptions are accompanied by earnest exhortations to receive all that God has intended in true worship. I’ll provide two examples. First, on preaching:

God loves preaching. He loves it because He loves saving sinners, and this is how He saves them. We can despise preaching all we want. We can replace preaching with productions, play movies instead of opening the Bible, or do whatever we think is going to win people – and indeed it might bring in more numbers, but it won’t win more souls. So, we too should love preaching. We should love it when our pastor steps into the pulpit to deliver God’s word because it’s a moment of salvation for God’s chosen people. We should be pleased with preaching because it pleases God. (113-114)

Second, on the Lord’s Supper:

We need to know what is going on when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We are communing with Christ Himself! The Bread and wine are not quaint tokens commemorating a bygone era. . . . Trust me, you don’t want a mere memorial meal. Ultimately, that can do nothing for your soul – it cannot strengthen you, sustain you, or save you. You want Jesus. He is the all and all. (135-136)

Contemporary Christians are frequently confused about the place of singing in Christian worship. Cruse captures the true place of communal singing in worship when he reminds us that “God has gifted us with song that we might have a fitting way to praise Him for His work, pray to Him with our deepest needs, and proclaim to one another the sanctifying truths of the gospel” (150). He provides a needed corrective to the view that the benefits of music in worship are primarily entertainment, inspirational, or performative.

The many benefits of a sound theology of worship and solid grasp of its elements will be forfeited if the believer is not prepared for worship. Cruse provides this instruction in the book’s final section, “Preparing Our Hearts.”

A crucial component to preparation is proper expectations. This means embracing God’s design for worship. Its content must include only the elements God prescribes — its rhythms include weekly corporate worship in which those elements are repeated — its simplicity distinguishes it from worldly entertainment and pageantry. Such worship can correctly be designated as ordinary, but it is in ordinary worship that the extraordinary takes place: believers meet with God and are transformed.

Helpful counsel is provided on cultivating the proper attitude toward anticipating worship — joy! Habits must be cultivated that will lead to entering the worshiping assembly in the proper frame of mind: thinking ahead on Saturday about such practical details as the clothes children will wear, breakfast, and retiring early on Saturday evenings. Many churches post bulletins online earlier in the week, so why not review what will take place in worship at some point during the week? Leave time to stay after the service to enjoy conversations with fellow worshippers. All of these practical suggestions are framed within the Christian’s larger duty of honoring the Sabbath, walking closely with God in holiness, and committing to living in peace and unity with fellow believers

I trust that this book will find a wide readership.  Seminarians, congregants, and pastors will all benefit. The author’s prayer is that his book will show Christians why they should devote time and energy to the act of worship (10-11). That is my prayer, too.

Charles Wingard
Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson