A Review of
Worship in the Way of the Cross: Leading Worship for the Sake of Others
One day, while driving with my wife in the mountains of southern New Mexico, I had a moment of inspiration. My grandfather was famous for taking off down roads he had never seen before, eager to discover some homey restaurant or uncrowded woodlands. On a whim, I decided to emulate him. I turned off the main highway onto a road that seemed to go more-or-less the direction we needed. In those pre-GPS days, we were taking a risk, but for a short while, my spontaneous move worked wonderfully—we passed several gorgeous waterfalls we would have never glimpsed from the highway. But then the road turned the wrong direction. Pavement turned to gravel, then dirt, then mud. My little pickup bogged down, then stopped. As I opened the door and stepped out to assess the situation, Sandy asked, “What do we do now?” “All I know,” I said, “is that we are spinning our tires and home is somewhere off that direction. I don’t know how to get there from here.”
Church leaders who are aware of the current trends in theology and ministry know that frustration. We have inherited an age-divided religious educational system, but fear we are missing important opportunities for intergenerational formation. We have inherited an emphasis on cognitive information but we want toward spiritual formation. We have inherited denominational emphases and structures but want to be authentically missional—rooted in our own, particular communities. We know where we are stuck, and have a vague idea of where we want to be. What we are missing is a map. As Frederick puts it: “The Christian is called to…[live] into the tension created by the reconciling narrative of the new creation in Christ Jesus. The question remains, however, what does any of this have to do with worship?” (27).
Frederick, a worship pastor and professor, would seem to be the ideal person to answer that question. And he promises an answer, of sorts. “The aim of this book is to highlight the way in which worship forms worshipers through love into the image of the God who is love” (27). He opens by summarizing the now-familiar themes of narrative theology, communal formation, and missional ecclesiology. Readers who are already familiar with those theological trajectories may find the first two sections of the book tedious. They are largely an overview of what has been more fully described elsewhere. Frederick’s most unique contribution to the discussion is his exegesis of Colossians 3:16, where he argues that singing is “a mechanism by which the power and person of Christ is made ecclesially present” (65). The music ministry, in his view, is “co-equal to preaching” because through singing we make Christ present in the assembly, experiencing him through each other.
The book’s pointed critique of contemporary worship builds on this view. In part three, “Cruciform Counterculture,” Frederick paints a familiar picture of congregations weekly repeating the latest “Top 40” hits of Christian worship: assembling a playlist of music drawn from the evangelical worship industry, singing the same songs as other churches across the nation. In so doing, they become “the local disseminator of highly effective content crafted by somebody else, somewhere else, for someone else” (84). In his most striking line, Frederick writes that this “subculture of sameness” across the evangelical world cannot conform us to the image of Christ because true love requires difference: “Love for those who are like us requires no sacrifice and thus does not even qualify as genuine love” (85). Here, Worship in the Way of the Cross makes its most insistent demand upon the reader. The music we sing should be invoking the presence of Christ among us. It should be forming us into loving, self-sacrificing disciples. But a diet of Christian hits from outside our community cannot do that.
Here readers should temper their expectations. Worship in the Way of the Cross is better at raising these concerns than addressing them. The remainder of the book is weaker than the impassioned argument of chapters seven and eight, and I was frustrated by Frederick’s tendency to give abstract advice too disconnected from the practical work of crafting worship. He calls church leaders to move away from “one-size-fits-all” approach as see worship as “a collection of vintage records, ancient sheet music, locally produced new songs, and demo-tapes of songs in the making” (95) but he never tells us what variables we use to assess the appropriateness of those songs for transformative worship. How do we choose? And if we don’t have song-writing talent in the congregation, aren’t we stuck with songs somebody else wrote somewhere else? It isn’t clear how adding “in another era” improves the situation. Worse, it is clear that Frederick’s target audience is only large well-resourced churches with the ability to hire a full-time music minister. He calls for churches to expect the same rigorous theological preparation from their music ministers as they do from their preaching ministers, and is insistent that this is no job for amateurs. In fact, much of chapter twelve is devoted to the relationship between the preaching minister and the music minister. But the reality is that most churches do not have and cannot afford a music minister, nor will they be writing songs in-house. If the music service is going to be carefully crafted for spiritual formation, it is going to be done by the pastor and a team of dedicated volunteers.
There are only so many theologically-trained worship arts pastors in the world. John Frederick is one of them. I wish he had give us more guidance about exactly how to go about this work rather than just asking us to hire someone like himself. Frederick knows we are stuck, but he isn’t interested in giving us a map. What makes this doubly frustrating is that I am certain he could provide it, if he wished. But he doesn’t. Perhaps in his next book he will tell us more about how he goes about this critical work.