With Reservations: a Review of Three Influential Books on the Praise and Worship Movement

Learning to Worship: As a Way of Life. Graham Kendrick. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Pub., 1985. 214 pages.

Let Us Worship: The Believer's Response to God. Judson Cornwall. Plainfield, NJ: Bridge Pub., 1983. xi, 177 pages.

Worship His Majesty. Jack W. Hay-ford. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987. 238 pages.

Praise and Worship is "in." But where does it come from?

Many churches adopt P&W after experiencing it in other churches or after attending praise conferences. But it may be helpful to reflect a bit more on its origins by surveying three influential books that explain and promote P&W.

The three books under review are often quoted and consulted, and although P&W is a living and dynamic tradition, and no congregation follows any text slavishly, there are enough common strands to justify a number of generalizations. Where the books diverge from each other, I will so indicate.

Patterned after Scripture

The major strength of these books is their close attention to Scripture. They carefully mine the Bible for examples and patterns of worship. As one would expect, several familiar texts are found here: John 4 (Jesus and the Samaritan woman), 1 Corinthians 14, Revelation 5, and other classic passages are cited. But the authors also survey the story of Abraham, the book of Exodus, 2 Chronicles 5, and a host of other passages. Such surveying is extremely important, since most of us tend to be selective when we appeal to Scripture to defend a favorite worship custom.

Of course, just because a worship pattern is described in Scripture does not mean that it has to be practiced by Christians today. The authors therefore struggle with the issue of norma-tivity—how does biblical worship rule our worship?—and they offer many helpful directions. We also find occasional missteps. Hayford's suggestion that one of the men transporting the ark, Ahio (which means "friendly), might symbolize the church's inflated public relations is hokey, and, I trust, will not be taken too seriously by anyone. Cornwall has a fanciful interpretation of the tabernacle furniture keyed to church history: the altar is reflected in Luther's emphasis on the cross; Wesley's revival portrays the laver; the Pentecostal tradition embodies the candlestick, the charismatic movement the shewbread, and a new movement of revival in worship the altar of incense. Happily, such exegeti-cal gymnastics are few.

One motif that arises out of this study is that worship as described or mandated in Scripture tends to be more active than Protestant worship has generally been. The notion of bowing or prostration, which is contained in the Hebrew and Greek words for worship, suggests that worship in Scripture is more physical than we often allow. The body can (must?) be more actively involved in worship. Secondly, the motif of praise is very dominant in biblical worship, and such praise is often loud and exuberant, involving the whole congregation. Again, if our tradition is too oriented toward instruction, we must recapture the biblical exuberance of adoration and praise.

Searching the Psalms

But here I come to my first quarrel with the authors—the insistence that "praise" and "worship" should be rather strongly distinguished. Praise, they say, tends to happen early in the adoration experience. Here we thank God especially for what he does; here our souls are involved; here we have exuberant singing. Then, as we "get into" the praise more, we shift to worship. Now we become focused on who God is; our spirits are engaged, and we may end in silent wonder. "Worship occurs when our spirit contacts God's spirit.. .; something sparks between God and us and SNAP! We're involved in a worship experience ...; as the soloist began to sing unto the Lord, that mystical snap! occurred" (Cornwall, p. 63).

I must demur. First, the authors seek to make a case for this progression from praise to worship on the basis of the psalms. But that won't work. They quote Psalm 95, where "praise" happens to be mentioned in verse 2 and "worship" in verse 6. "See? Praise comes before worship!" But then I point to Psalm 66 where praise and worship are used interchangeably, and there's no neat separation of God's being, deeds, or name. (See also Psalm 99.) I find the distinctions artificial and find no support for them in the psalms. Also, the notion that praising God for what he is, is a higher expression than thanking God for what he does, is foreign to the psalms.

And what about the idea that worship is to be dominated by praise, because the psalms show us that pattern? Again, the authors read the psalms selectively. About one-third of the psalms are taken up with lament— appeals to God to help his people. To imply that petition and lament are an inferior mode of communication with God does injustice to the psalms and ignores a major motif in Scripture.

Fundamentally Out of This World

Hayford, moreover, wishes to combine praise and worship with a "dominion" motif which is seen in terms of health and wealth. With the right kind of worship, "a person's ability to succeed in work and advance in his financial situation is verifiable time and again ..." (p. 37). This is not the place to chase down that heresy, but let me merely point out that the notion of taking up our crosses, which is fundamental in the New Testament, is short-circuited by such a view.

The related issue of the height of worship being the communing of our spirit with God's Spirit also requires scrutiny. Don't we find a non-biblical escapism here? The most pure worship, the authors say, is that which removes us from the world, which makes us ignore our bodies, which elevates us to a realm of pure spirit. Again, I do not find this kind of "spirituality" in the psalms. There we find a rootedness in the created order, an acknowledgement of body, enemies, pains, fear of death, which the psalmist continues to be aware of— even in the midst of praise. Psalm 103 reaches a height of "worship"—not because it escapes from life, but because it can praise God in the midst of this life. Cornwall may disclaim a tendency toward "mysticism" (p. 68), but his view certainly is a close cousin.

Yet another related issue. Hayford and Cornwall quote copious Scripture, but Amos 5 is not mentioned. Remember the verses? "Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harp I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (vv. 23-24 rsv). I find it telling that among all the verses quoted from Scripture, this pivotal passage (or similar ones) is not there. Why not? Because worship for these authors is an other-worldly experience, and in that other world there's no room for street people, for abused spouses, or for hungry children. Here the authors betray that they have not escaped from American fundamentalism, which has so often ignored questions of social involvement and justice. Hayford, besides counting how many parishioners of the Van Nuys Church spoke in tongues or had ecstatic experiences last Sunday, ought to count how many members are involved in staffing a food pantry or how many serve on the council for fair housing. Praise becomes tinny if not rooted in righteousness and justice. Kendrick (who, significantly, is from Great Britain) avoids this escapism as he does hold forth the need for social involvement.

Enough said to indicate my disquiet about some of the theology underlying the P&W tradition. One may also note some other tendencies in the books which bespeak a charismatic flavor. All the authors favor and record speaking in tongues and "prophecy" as desired worship expression. Cornwall apparently is also privy to God's plans, since he received a personal revelation that the new revival in worship will first take place in America and Australia (p. 176). Stay tuned to Cornwall as he stays tuned to God.

Prudent Borrowing

This review is weighted toward my reservations about these authors— although I raise these questions in the context of much appreciation of the P&W tradition and these books. Kendrick's book, especially, is rich and wise.

However, it seems to me that the borrowing done by many in Reformed churches ought to be done more circumspectly. I'm not opposed to using other worship traditions. Such appropriation can be enriching and can open us up to biblical motifs that we have ignored. But the borrowing always ought to be discerning. I wouldn't want us to embrace a skewed theology and lifestyle with our worship borrowing. Besides bathing our worship in prayer (a favorite expression in these books) we must also filter P&W through our biblical and Reformed colanders.

Ending up with a kitcheny image is probably a good reminder to keep our worship planted in this life.

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.