Book: Discerning the Spirits: A Guide to Thinking About Christian Worship Today

Cornelius Plantinga Jr. and Sue A. Rozeboom. Eerdmans, 2003. 170 pp. $18.00.

“The trouble with loving the things of the Spirit . . . is that the Holy Spirit isn’t the only spirit around.” With this challenging observation, authors Cornelius Plantinga Jr. and Sue A. Rozeboom open one of the year’s most important publications on the topic of Christian worship. Discerning the Spirits masterfully bridges the gap between worship theology and practice, making it an essential resource for pastors and worship planners, and a compelling read for all those who have a vested interest in the liturgical practices of their church. This introductory quote captures the aspect of Plantinga and Rozeboom’s book that most strikingly distinguishes it from much of the current proliferation of “worship literature.” It is not a book about how to “do worship.” Rather, it is a very coherent and readable examination of the dynamics that have shaped congregational worship throughout the history of Christianity. Driving this examination is Plantinga and Rozeboom’s assertion that good worship practices must be predicated on good discernment, on atunedness to the cultural forces and practices that distract contemporary Christians and masquerade as true worship.

The book begins with a challenge by the authors for their readers to learn to appreciate the unique expression of genuine Christian worship made by each community and culture, while being vigilant about the temptation to substitute cultural practices for worship. The authors argue that although the “cultural adaptation” of Christian worship is inevitable and in many ways desirable, this adaptation must be informed by a proper biblical understanding of worship. Ensuing chapters deal with questions of Christian identity in relation to popular culture. In their final chapter, Plantinga and Rozeboom resolve the tension created by their opening challenge by providing a detailed discussion about what “Christian worship” really is. Although this discussion is neither heavy-handed nor moralistic, it presents church leaders and laypersons with a clear imperative to look past the aesthetics of their worship services and learn what it means to respond as communities in covenant relationship with the one true God.

One of the most satisfying features of Discerning the Spirits is the artful incorporation of commentary from a number of prominent Christian authors and theologians. Essays by contributors Justo L. Gonzalez, Robb Redman, Marva J. Dawn, C. Michael Hawn, John D. Witvliet, and many others augment Plantinga and Rozeboom’s treatment of such issues as the use of arts in worship, the acceptability of human expressions of worship to God, and the development of the Christian worship “industry.” The authors make special note of the collaborative process by which they and their team of contributors developed Discerning the Spirits, asserting that it is “not merely an essay but a conversation.” The finished product is a veritable encyclopedia of insights and wisdom gleaned from a diversity of sources and Christian traditions. It’s a refreshing and enlightening look at what has become an exceedingly complex area of church life.