Theological Foundations of Worship:
Biblical, Systematic, and Practical Perspectives
Khalia J. Williams and Mark A. Lamport, editors
Reviewed by Rob O’Lynn
Of all the topics that comprise practical (or pastoral) theology, the study of worship is probably the most misunderstood. It is at the very least the most subjective conceptually. The study and practice of worship in contemporary Christianity is both rigidly niche yet substantially abstract at the same time. Using the word “contemporary” in the previous line is not meant to distinguish one expression of worship from another. I hesitate using that phrase in this review because of its triggering nature among those who practice worship professionally. Some believe that one style of worship—what is commonly referred to as “contemporary Christian worship”—is not only more effective but also more theologically sound. Discussing worship can be paradoxical because discussions regarding the nature and function of worship are intertwined. And, in this era of Covid, debates rage over whether watching and participating with a virtual worship service is really engaging in worship. It is almost enough to make one yearn for the days when camp directors were questioning whether they could sing “sloppy wet kiss” at a junior high campfire devotional.
Worship is, in many respects, cultural—at least from a practical perspective. It is not lost on me that the last line in the previous paragraph may pass by some readers. To be honest, I am one. While I am a Protestant, I was raised in something of an unusual Christian tradition. And, although I teach at a university that is associated with that tradition, their understanding and my understanding of worship are significantly different. For example, I firmly believe that the preaching of God’s word is both a form of personal worship and an essential component of corporate worship. However, I have met many—including a number of teaching colleagues—who take significant issue with my position. Also, the school that I teach at is one of many that have traditionally taught worship in the music department (see the problem, as I mentioned above) rather than the ministry department. Ironically, at one time, I had more training in worship than the person who was teaching the worship program.
I do not mention this to tout myself as a worship scholar or a theological purist. I heartily recognize my shortcomings in training with worship, especially when compared to preaching colleagues who do receive specialized training in worship (what they may call liturgics—more on that in a minute). In the interest of self-disclosure, I asked for this review because worship studies is the one area that I do not read much in, do very little teaching on (except in relation to the Old Testament) and never write on. In a recent class session of my Psalms class, I attempted to connect assumed Hebrew worship practices with contemporary Christian worship practices, using more formal language like cultic and liturgy—only to be met with blank stares. It reminded me of a previous offering of the course where a student bemoaned that “real Christians don’t have a liturgy—they have set lists!” The trained actor in me cringed and wanted to ask if they thought the communion trays were stage props.
This is why Theological Foundations of Worship is so needed at this moment in time. Co-edited by Khalia J. Williams and Mark A. Lamport, this first volume of Baker Academic’s new Worship Foundation series, is nothing short of a publishing miracle. Williams teaches practical theology and serves as the assistant dean of worship at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, having also recently co-authored A Worship Workbook with Gerald Liu. Lamport is a professional academic journeyman, teaching at a number of institutions and publishing widely on both worship and education. Coming from divergent streams of Christian theology, they have assembled an eclectic team of scholars from both the Protestant and Catholic traditions, as well as conservative and progressive streams from within those traditions. The publisher—Baker Academic—holds to both Reformed and Evangelical expressions of Christianity. In short, this book should not exist. Which is exactly why we need it.
The book begins with three assertions. First, “Christians tend to experience worship more than think about it” ( xi). Second, “God is worthy of worship, and this task induces the church’s identity” (xii). And third, “there is a prevailing—albeit misconceived—idea that worship is music and music is worship” (xiii). The book then, seeks to offer “a reconciliation of the differences between the God studied by theologians and the God worshipped by churchgoers on Sunday” (xiv). Worship is where the church gathers as a community around the table and uses scripture to understand itself in light of God’s mission and call to justice and mercy. The book begins with two introductory chapters, one on worship in the Old Testament and one on worship in the New Testament. These are followed by a collection of essays that, taken together, provide the theological principles for better understanding worship. Of note are W. David O. Taylor’s chapter on creation (chapter 3), Khalia J. Williams’ chapter on pneumatology (chapter 7), and Ivana Noble’s chapter on mystery (chapter 11). The final section offers several practical essays, including Teresa Berger’s chapter on ecology (chapter 14) and James K. Wellman, Jr.’s chapter on secularization (chapter 16).
There are two critiques that I must point out, one small and one significant. First, there is almost no reference to preaching. When it is mentioned, it is in service to something else, such as communion (79-80) or in relation to contemporary voices writing on worship (222-226). I do think that worship and preaching scholars should find a way to honesty and intentionally speak about the other’s discipline in order to honor the intersection of preaching in worship. Second, while the essays are excellent, there is little to no connection between them beyond Andrew E. Hill’s essay on worship in the Old Testament (chapter 1) and Pheme Perkins essay on worship in the New Testament (chapter 2). Although the topics discussed were intended to be interconnected—such as one would understand the topics in a basic systematic theology textbook—they come off as disconnected and offering an independent lens through which worship can be understood. That being said, this book is much-needed in the ongoing conversation regarding worship. I do prefer a simple approach to worship, only because it is what resonates with my particular expression of spiritual formation and theological aesthetics. However, simple does not mean uninformed. It means what best works for the environment in which the practice of worship takes place. For, after all, worship is cultural.