OutofUr.com, the blog operated by Leadership Journal included a short article on the late Robert Webber on April 30, 2007. “Webber will be remembered (and appreciated, mostly) as the man who gave a name to the quest to recover both philosophy and experience of worship that were endangered by contemporary evangelical practices in the late 20th century: He was the father of ‘ancient-future worship’” (http://blog.christianitytoday.com/outofur). Worship is a Verb, written by Robert Webber, is an engaging discussion of his idea of what Biblical worship should look like.
Major Premise of the Book
The title of this book, Worship is a Verb, might suggest that it is the major premise of the book. Indeed, in the first chapter Webber lays out his contention that worship is a verb – something we are to be doing. He continues to come back to this thought throughout the book. However, the subtitle, “Celebrating God’s Mighty Acts of Salvation”, added to this second edition of Worship is a Verb actually is a better description of the major premise of this book (Webber, 2004, p. v).
This premise is introduced and fleshed out in chapters two and three. In Chapter 2, Webber argues that worship celebrates Christ and, more specifically, that worship celebrates the Christ-event. On pages 37-38 he writes, “It is important to understand, though, that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not an event which we memorialize. Its power, like that of Exodus, reaches down through history and becomes a present reality to the people who celebrate it in faith” (Webber, 2004). In Chapter 3, Webber expands upon this thought in his argument that “worship tells and acts out the Christ-event” (2004, p. 43). He states that this primarily happens through the order of the Word and Table. He says, “There is a reason for the order of the Word and Table: It is rooted in the Gospel story, in the rhythm of the dying and rising of Christ; and it represents Christ. Consequently, Word and Table together with the rites of Preparation and Dismissal constitute the structure of Christian worship” (Webber, 2004, p. 60). Repeatedly, he states that Biblical worship re-enacts Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
Description of the Book
On page iv of Worship is a Verb we learn that this book is a new printing to complement a program titled 30 Days of Worship Discovery. The book begins with a preface in which Webber says that he is usually reticent to say “must” or “should”, but feels so strongly about the need for worship to recover biblical and historical substance that the subtitle “Celebrating God’s Mighty Acts of Salvation” is now a must (Webber, 2004, p. v). An introduction to the study guide questions at the end of each chapter follows the preface.
Chapter 1 begins the book with the author’s personal frustration with worship and his perception that there is a widespread shift in thinking concerning worship. He lists five new insights he has had concerning worship and eight principles of worship. Webber expands upon these eight principles in the next nine chapters.
Chapter 2 covers the first principle that “worship celebrates Christ” (Webber, 2004, p. 21). Webber tries to lay out the Biblical basis for worship in this chapter. This chapter is mostly theoretical, but does include one illustration of how Webber sees a proper worship time unfolding.
Chapter 3 talks about the second principle that “worship tells and acts out the Christ-Event” (Webber, 2004, p. 43). In this chapter Webber talks about the historical order of worship.
Chapter 4 talks about the third principle, “In Worship God Speaks and Acts” (Webber, 2004, p. 65). Webber says that God speaks through the Word and acts through the Bread and Wine (pp. 71-80).
Chapter 5 is on principle four – “Worship is an act of communication” (Webber, 2004, p. 85). Webber talks about the communication of the primary symbols, the Word and Table, and of the secondary symbols, which include personal preparation, the Preparation and Dismissal movements of worship, and body language.
Chapter 6 covers the fifth principle which is, “In worship we respond to God and each other” (Webber, 2004, p. 109). Webber talks about how we respond to God Himself, God’s actions, and the specific. He spends some time talking about images and their use in worship as well as giving examples of how people respond in worship.
Chapter 7 discusses Webber’s sixth principle of worship that we should return worship to the people. Webber talks about worship being a meeting between God and His people, suggesting that there is dialogue in this meeting. He also suggests the participation of every person in worship will help restore the concept of the priesthood of all believers. He also talks about the tension between order and freedom in worship. In this chapter Webber includes a large section that contains suggestions and examples of how individuals can participate in worship.
Chapters 8 and 9 both deal with the seventh principle of worship – “All creation joins in worship” (Webber, 2004, p. 156). Chapter 8 is devoted to the discussion of time as a vehicle of worship. Webber spends some time talking about the church year and its importance in worship. Chapter 9 discusses using space, sound, and the arts as vehicles of worship.
Chapter 10 covers the final principle of worship that says worship should be a way of life. This chapter is divided into sections on “worship and prayer”, “worship and the family”, “worship and work”, “worship and social action”, and “worship and evangelism” (Webber, 2004, pp. 205-213).
The book ends with a short epilogue in which Webber includes practical suggestions on how to implement the principles and suggestions of his book into one’s church. He advocates a slow process of changing worship practices so that the congregation will see the benefits instead of rejecting the changes without understanding why there might be need for a change. A bibliography includes a number of sources about worship that would be beneficial to the person wanting to study more about worship.
Webber begins this book by discussing his personal frustration with worship that can be easily understood by those who have also felt they don’t really worship in the worship service. Webber’s personal tone throughout the book is engaging and makes you feel at times like you are sitting in a living room having a heart-to-heart discussion with the author.
The reader, however, must read a significant amount of the book before finding very practical suggestions or tips on how to organize worship according to the model that Webber suggests. The chapters on the first two principles are especially theoretical and at times unclear. Chapter three does include a list of eight elements that are part of the Preparation phase of worship. This list on page 46 provides a good outline of how the Preparation phase might be conducted for the person wishing to follow Webber’s model of worship. However, Webber states at the end of this chapter his reticence in telling the reader how to act out the three or four parts of worship (2004, p. 61).
As one who comes from a tradition in which Communion is observed infrequently, I did find Webber’s discussion on this aspect of worship on pages 75 through 80 to be helpful in my understanding of this important Christian sacrament. Webber becomes extremely practical in chapter 5 as he offers a number of suggestions about how to make the Word and Table aspects of the worship service to be more meaningful.
Throughout the book, but especially in the latter part, Webber gives illustrations of how churches have worshiped or might worship according to the pattern he lays out. He argues that this pattern allows for freedom and can be adapted to wide variety of worship styles. Despite this assertion, it appears that Webber is basically advocating a certain style of worship. While I found several thoughts concerning different aspects of worship to be helpful, Webber’s basic thesis is quite restrictive, requiring that true or Biblical worship re-enacts Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
The major thesis of Worship is a Verb is that Biblical worship is a re-enactment of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Therefore, this primary assertion must be true for the rest of the book to hold together. Webber says that “the content of Old Testament worship is determined by the Exodus-event, while the content of New Testament worship is determined by the Christ-event” (2004, p. 28).
Webber then notes three parallels between the Exodus and the Christ-event. He points that Christ reveals himself as God revealed Himself to the Israelites through Moses’ message of deliverance. He talks about how Exodus was a redemption of Israel from the oppression of her enemies and was commemorated by the yearly Passover. Similarly, Christ’s death on the Cross provides us redemption from sin. After the Exodus, God created himself a people as He and the Israelites entered a covenantal agreement at Mt. Sinai. Similarly, Jesus, who is the New Covenant, has created himself a people, the Church of God.
The problem, however, is that Webber fails to prove that Old Testament worship actually recreated the Exodus-event. Yes, the Israelites celebrated the Passover yearly, but there is nothing to suggest they did so on a weekly basis. Furthermore, while Webber says that the worship of early church re-enacted Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, he does not demonstrate that they actually did. This failure creates an uncertainty in the reader as to how much he can trust the writer, regardless of the fact of how well respected as an authority on worship he may have been considered.
One of Webber’s main New Testament references to the Biblical pattern for worship is Acts 2:42, which talks about the early church’s devotion to teaching and preaching, as well as the “breaking of bread.” Webber draws from this scripture the orders of the Word and Table. He states that the Preparation and Dismissal were added over time. Unfortunately, he does not include any kind of documentation. It is also unclear how these orders of Word and Table necessarily reenact Christ’s life, death, and resurrection in the worship service. Yes, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection were remembered in the observance of the Lord’s Supper, yet it is a supposition to say that the early church re-enacted Christ’s life, death, and resurrection either through their observance of the Lord’s Supper or throughout the order of the service.
Another problematic element in this book is Webber’s use of his personal, subjective feelings and experiences to give validity to what he taught as Biblical worship that must be recovered by the Church today. In a discussion with Jim Young, Young said that worship without sequence and order had the effect that “my life and relationship to God seem unresolved” (Webber, 2004, p. 58). Webber then relates the thoughts of art professor Art Sheelsey and his own experience. He then states, “The shape of worship that is faithful to God’s revelation and redemption is a medium through which truth is communicated” (Webber, 2004, p. 58). Webber relates a question he asked of Pastor Bob Harvey, “Does the worshiper experience Christ through the structure?” (2004, pp. 58-59). With the affirmation of this pastor, the question is then answered. In fact, the conclusion seems to be derived by very subjective means.
Can such subjective means be the basis of a trusted theology of worship? I have worshipped God deeply in services that did not necessarily follow Webber’s pattern. Was my worship false? Or should I insist that the pattern of the deeply moving worship services I attended is the proper method of Biblical worship?
As illustrations, Webber used only a few churches to demonstrate the positives of using the pattern he espoused or the negatives of not doing so. Again, the evaluation was typically very subjective and non-scientific. One could probably find a church with uninspiring worship that is not following Webber’s pattern any given Sunday. Yet there may be ten other churches not following his pattern that are experiencing vibrant worship of God. Who knows?
Another question that must be asked is what will the worship of a church that adopts this pattern look like in a couple of decades. Throughout history there have been a number of calls back to more biblical worship or doctrine. There have been various calls to revival. Yet after awhile, most seem to have become dead ritual forms. For example, Wesley and the Methodist church had a great impact on the world through its Biblical teaching on entire sanctification. But in time, the Methodist church became very formal and opposed to the teaching of entire sanctification (Cowen, 1948, pp. 11-13).
There are two statements Webber makes that I believe are Biblical errors, yet may be minor problems in relation to the main thesis. First, quoting 1 Corinthians 10:17 he says, “the single loaf of bread is a symbol of the universal church of Jesus Christ” (Webber, 2004, p. 50). The bread of Communion is rather a symbol of Christ’s body that was broken for us. We don’t eat the bread because it represents the Church, but because it represents Christ’s crucified body through which we became part of the Church of God. Second, Webber writes, “When I am thoroughly involved in worship I not only hear and see, but I become. I am to become God’s Word and God’s Bread to the world” (Webber, 2004, p. 105). Nowhere in the Bible am I aware of anything that supports such a statement. We are to share God’s Word with the world, but we are not the Word of God. The only person who is the Word is Jesus Christ, the eternal Word (John 1:1-5, 14). Similarly, Jesus is God’s Bread; we are not (John 6:53-58).
Webber described a powerful worship service he attended at Plymouth Brethren Church. He noted how he slipped into the service, bowed his head in prayer and read Scripture as he prepared for worship. Then, in this free form worship style, the church followed the pattern he suggests is of Biblical worship (Webber, 2004, pp. 120-122). A question that must be asked, however, is if one of the primary reasons why this worship service impacted him so powerfully was due to his own preparation for worship. It must be admitted that the typical church could do more to help the congregation to prepare for worship. On the other hand, the individual bears much responsibility for being prepared to worship. If the average individual does not prepare himself, is it the fault of the worship service sequence or the individual that he fails to meet God?
Interestingly, it could also be argued that a traditional church service follows much the same pattern as that which Webber describes. For example, the Preparation might include the welcome, congregational singing, pastoral prayer, offering, announcements, and special song. The Word would be the sermon. Many churches might not include the Table, but Webber himself indicated that not every service must include the Table (2004, p. 59). Finally, the Dismissal would include the altar call and closing prayer. Of course, it might be easy to argue that the typical church is not nearly as intentional in its worship order as Webber suggests and may not have any stated intention to re-enact Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. If it cannot be proved that Biblical worship must include this re-enactment, one must wonder what is the vital difference between Webber’s pattern and the typical worship service.
Yet it is at this point that I find Worship is a Verb most helpful. While it might be argued that Webber’s pattern of worship is not too different from most churches, Webber’s pattern reflects an intentionality that is often missing. For example, many churches take an offering partly due to the idea that giving to God is part of worship, but mostly due to the need for funds. In Webber’s model, however, the offering is intentional. After having heard from God, the offering is part of our response to God.
Furthermore, while I have raised many issues with this book, I believe Worship is a Verb is a valuable resource. Webber’s various discussions on Communion are helpful, especially for those whose churches rarely celebrate the Lord’s Supper. I believe his emphasis on using more scripture in a worship service is good also.
I do not know if the use of symbols, art, and dance are really that important to worship. In fact, I might be more inclined to think these helps could cause distractions or lead to idolatry. The church might benefit, however, from the use of more visual aids in worship. Webber’s discussion gives a church who has shunned such things a new perspective. Furthermore, Webber’s discussion on the liturgical year is intriguing and could almost convince me to use it in the future. I especially appreciate his discussion of how secularism has affected the church in the use of time.
For the person who would like to learn more about worship, I believe Worship is a Verb is a good resource. I would caution the reader from becoming overcome with Webber’s insistence that worship must re-enact Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. However, I believe the reader would be helped by Webber’s stress on worshiping with intention. I may have disagreements with some of Webber’s conclusions, but I believe all Christians would be helped if they could hear the passion for worship that filled Webber’s heart. Thank God for the contribution Robert Webber made in our understanding of worship during his lifetime!
Cowen, Clarence Eugene (1948). A History of the Church of God (Holiness). Overland Park, KS: Herald and Banner Press.
Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Journey Was Our Journey (2007, April 30). Retrieved May 19, 2007, from http://blog.christianitytoday.com/outofur/archives/2007/04/robert_webbers.html
Webber, Robert E. (2004). Worship is a Verb. Washington, DC: Hendrickson Publishers.