Book: Participating in Worship: History, Theory, and Practice

Craig Douglas Erickson. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989, 223 pp.

Many contemporary voices are seeking to make worship more appealing—a tendency that often transforms services into performances in which the congregation is entertained. The basic thrust of this book is to counter that movement. Erickson asserts that worship needs to become more participatory through the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The opening chapters of the book construct a theory of participation built upon biblical and theological reflection. Participation is emphasized because of its ability to glorify God and to equip Christians with power to be the church of Christ. Amidst this development, the author explores the resistance people have to the participatory approach and seeks to defuse the friction of "bipolar terminology."

Such categories as high church/low church and formal/informal worship, Erickson points out, are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they can enrich and increase the beauty and participative nature of worship. Nor should our experience of worship be limited to the narrow confines of any one tradition. Erickson, a Presbyterian, has tapped the spectrum and sought to blend the contributions of charismatic, contemplative, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox worship.

Following this framework, the author defines and expands on six types of participation: Spontaneous Involvement, Silent Engagement, Interiorized Verbal Participation, Prophetic Verbal Participation, Lay Leadership, and Multisensate Participation. These somewhat bulky and academic headings provide convenient categories for discussing freedom amidst form, silence as a creative space to prepare and respond to God, music and singing, preaching and inclusive language, specific types of lay involvement (reading Scripture, acolytes, etc.), and liturgical gestures and symbolism (surprisingly, liturgical dance, drama, and banners are neglected). A final chapter summons the church to strive for "liturgical symmetry," a symmetry which seeks to wed Word and sacrament.

This book is directed towards those who have responsibility for designing and leading worship. It is appropriate for pastors, members of worship committees and ministers of music. The style is very readable, and usually the author is careful to define terms which may be new. The strengths of this work are the biblical/historical background for many practices of worship that may not be clear to us within the Reformed tradition. The book's value is enhanced by study questions that encourage its use for discussion within an adult class or worship committee. A generous collection of footnotes and helpful bibliographic suggestions provide direction for those interested in further study.

However, when the author moves to the implementation stage, he occasionally reveals a rigidity that may cause some to bristle. This is unfortunate, because this book needs to be read by Christians of all theological and liturgical persuasions.

Personally I believe this work could have been strengthened by altering its organization. Erickson builds and illustrates his case for participatory worship as he climaxes with the Eucharist. He urges a weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper. However, his brief treatment of the Supper in the final chapter seems to shortchange both the sacrament and his argument. The divine and human components that intersect in the Eucharist provide the strongest foundation and clearest challenge for participating in the worship of God.

Putting these minor objections aside, Participating in Worship can make a valuable contribution to members of the holy catholic church as we strive to understand and renew the expression of prayer and praise that we offer to God. The focus of worship needs to swing from the palatable performance to an engaging participation with each other and with God.

Tom Schwanda is a Reformed Church in America pastor whose ministry is devoted to research, writing, and offering workshops and retreats on worship and spirituality.


Reformed Worship 18 © December 1990, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.