Book: Introduction to Christian Worship

Revised ed. James F. White. Nashville: Abingdon, 1990. 317 pages.

There are revisions, and there are revisions. Some publishers will add a new preface, update the bibliography, and trot out a book as a NEW, REVISED, IMPROVED, ENRICHED EDITION. White's book, even though appearing only ten years after the first edition, is a genuine revision. Although much of the earlier edition is left intact, both additions (such as a section on worship and justice) and numerous minor changes make this an honest "Revised Edition."

A brief overview of the chapters will help to delineate the coverage of White's book:

Chapter 1, "What Do We Mean by 'Christian Worship,'" examines various definitions for worship as well as scriptural and historical liturgical terms.
Chapter 2, "The Language of Time," traces the development of Sunday worship and, in considerable detail, of the Christian Year.
Chapter 3, "The Language of Space," deals with church architecture and art, including good advice for building committees.
Chapter 4, "Daily Public Prayer," a much-neglected topic in Protestant writings on worship, deals with both the history and theology of that tradition.
Chapter 5, "The Service of the Word," covers the role of Scripture reading and preaching.
Chapter 6, "God's Love Made Visible," is strong on the history of sacraments (for White, the number of sacraments is "indeterminate," p. 187), which are discussed in detail in the following chapters.
Chapter 7, "Christian Initiation," covers baptism and several other rites of initiation, such as confirmation and profession of faith.
Chapter 8, "The Eucharist," is heavily historical, but also includes theological and pastoral concerns.
Chapter 9, "Journeys and Passages," discusses reconciliation, ministry to the sick, marriage, ordination, commissioning, and burials.

This outline demonstrates both the strength of the book and its limitations. The breadth of coverage is admirable, and most worship issues are dealt with competently. But White himself alludes to the limitation when he writes about the Lord's Supper: "There is much to cover so we may not linger long over any topic, however important, but must sketch only the bare outlines of historical, theological, and practical matters" (p. 220). This sketchiness plagues the rest of the book as well, but is probably unavoidable in an "introduction" to a vast subject.

White typically begins his discussion of a topic by providing a historical sketch. Readers will differ on how helpful such historical excursions are; I usually found them enlightening. For example, his demonstration that Reformed worship was often heavily didactic and penitential because it inherited this mode from the late Middle Ages helps us to put such worship in perspective.

White is more ready with evaluations and judgments in this text than in Protestant Worship. His orientation as a Methodist is notable, since he refers to Wesley much more frequently than most other authors on worship. He also writes with more attention to the high(er) church than the low(er) church traditions. But he is not committed to any narrow heritage and is free to praise and critique worship practices from various traditions. For example, he lauds the Reformation in that "the Reformers did contribute greatly in advancing preaching, congregational song, and vernacular rites" (pp. 149-150). But he is critical of much of its architecture and clericism: "Try to teach the priesthood of all believers with a deep gothic chancel never occupied by any but ordained clergy" (p. 89).

If one comes to the book with proper expectations, it will prove to be an excellent guide. It is an introduction, fairly academic, a book that covers many issues in a clear manner. The text may not help a worship committee quickly put together next Sundays's service. But it will help us to answer the questions we ask about why we do what we do in worship, and how we can better worship God.

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.