A Primer on Christian Worship: Where We've Been, Where We Are, Where We Can Go

By William A. Dyrness
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (2009). 154 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Andrew Snider
20.2 (Fall 2009) : 261-262

This short book is a part of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies Series, edited by John Witvliet and is therefore targeted at a pastoral and lay leader audience. Dyrness, Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, seeks in this volume to give a theological and historical overview of Christian worship, yet with an eye toward the future of today’s evangelical churches.

Dyrness seeks to develop a God-centered understanding of worship by thinking of worship as God’s call and the human’s God-enabled response. Worship is Trinitarian in its God-centeredness: “[W]e are invited by God, in Christ, to respond to divine initiative in a way that is enabled by the Holy Spirit” (2). Yet this book is not technical in its theological discussions; it is a resource to help churches think carefully about their worship practices. After all, it is what a body of believers actually do in their worship that reflects what they really believe.

After introducing in chapter one his understanding of the nature of worship and giving an overview of his approach, in chapter two Dyrness turns to a summary discussion of the history of Christian worship. These two chapters of the book provide an excellent overview of the topic, particularly if the reader already has some background in the topic. Unfortunately, without that background some of the material may be a little confusing, particularly in chapter two where Dyrness is attempting to cover so much history in such a short space.

Dyrness then presents a Trinitarian understanding of worship, centered on the glory of God and the human participation in it as people respond to God’s invitation in Christ and are formed by the Holy Spirit in their acts of worship. In the scope of the book, this leads naturally into a description of worship as a retelling of the narrative of God’s love. Here is where many evangelicals, particularly in the free church traditions, will meet some significant challenge. Dyrness thinks through worship narratively from the perspective of the traditional four-step liturgy (gathering, Word, Table, sending), a pattern that many in the free-church and revivalist traditions are no t familiar with.

Chapter six alone is probably worth the price of the book. Given all the foregoing discussion, Dyrness puts forward five lessons that his vision of Trinitarian, narrative worship teaches. Some of these points will be controversial among conservative evangelicals (e.g., “in the liturgy we honor God’s material creation”), but these are important points that deserve careful consideration (especially “the liturgy allows us to lament”).

Dyrness ends with a chapter of suggestions on how evangelical Christian worship might grow and be renewed based on his discussion. Here again, some will find certain ideas difficult because of Dyrness’ self-conscious embracing of the traditional liturgy’s four-step outline. Also, it seems at times that the author does not adequately appreciate the reasons why evangelical worship is different from Roman Catholic worship. Yet with all this taken into account, this reviewer can recommend the book for any pastor or church leadership team that is thinking carefully about worship.