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Book: Gathered Before God: Worship-Centered Church Renewal

Jane Rogers Vann. Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004. 192 pp. $19.95.

Here is yet another book on worship, but one that stays clear of the “contemporary versus traditional” debate. In Gathered Before God, Jane Rogers Vann encourages church renewal, not through programs but through worship. She then offers an educator’s perspective on how liturgy might accomplish that goal.

Vann bases her work on two sources. First, she studied the liturgies of eleven congregations scattered throughout the United States, nine of which were Presbyterian, and all of which had “benefited from strong pastoral and educational leadership over an extended period of time.” More importantly for Vann’s study, each of the surveyed congregations intentionally “centered their congregational life around the word of God” and gave “abundant attention to the communal, personal, and social implications of that Divine-human encounter.”

Second, Vann, professor of Christian education at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia, bridges the disciplines of education and liturgics by applying educational theories to the experience of worship. In so doing, she describes the multifaceted but integrated and transformative power of the liturgy.

I especially enjoyed the chapter “Experiential Learning in Congregational Life.” Here Vann describes basic experiential learning theory, such as the cycle of action and reflection which includes a move from concrete experience to reflective observation to abstract conceptualization, and to active experimentation.

In the chapter “How Congregations Worship” Vann describes how worship engages each of the worshipers’ experiential domains: physical/sensory, affective, narrative, cognitive, social, relational, and imaginative. Although I concurred with Vann’s conviction that “liturgy elicits from God’s people a broad sweep of emotion” and that this emotion runs deeper than “shallow sentiments,” I was left wondering how the affections play out in the liturgy of mainline Presbyterians.

This book can help pastors and congregational leaders in several ways. Congregations that exclude children from worship will receive encouragement to reconsider that practice. Those considering different liturgies at different times in the same place will discover that the transformative power of the liturgies will produce different congregations. Those that view discipleship apart from worship will be challenged to reexamine that presupposition. Those toying with their liturgies will be warned that a distorted liturgy will produce a distorted disciple. Those seeking to build a new culture of faith will come to understand that the starting gate for such change must be worship—for it “sets the pattern for the Christian life and for congregational life.”

Vann will be discussing this book and her ideas at the next Calvin Symposium on Worship.