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Book explores centrality of worship in the church

Why do members of Churches of Christ place such high value on the Sunday assembly, and what do we expect to happen when we meet together week after week?
In “A Gathered People” Hicks, Melton and Valentine address these questions and contrast their response to two other views of the assembly.
Inthe Five-Acts Model, faithful attendance and the performance of five —and only five — acts of worship serve as tests of obedience to God.
In the Edification Model, the assembly is simply for the mutual encouragement of believers since, ultimately, all of life is worship.
According to the authors, in both models, the emphasis is on us and what we do, either for God or each other.
The authors present an alternative vision that views worship as a divine encounter where the emphasis is on what God is doing. Their proposal can be summarized by four recurring, interrelated points.
• First, the authors follow the lead of Thomas and Alexander Campbell and view the assembly, along with the Lord’s Supper and baptism, as an ordinance or sacrament.
By “sacrament” the authors mean that these events are “divine acts of grace through which God encounters obedient believers to transform them into his image through the presence of Jesus in the power of the Spirit.” Rather than a mere legal duty (Five-Acts Model) or word of encouragement (Edification Model), the assembly is where we meet God and are transformed by God.
• Second, the authors stress the eschatological nature of the assembly. In other words, the assembly is a real participation in and anticipation of what is to come, when all the people of God will be with God in the New Creation. The assembly is truly a “foretaste of glory divine” and an opportunity for us to experience “heaven on earth.”
• Third, while a life of discipleship can be collapsed into “faithful attendance” in the Five-Acts Model, and the importance of the assembly is eclipsed by daily living in the Edification Model, the authors seek to bring together the assembly and a life of discipleship. They state, “The communion of the saints with the Triune God is a participation in the divine life which involves embracing the divine mission in the world.”
For the authors, in the assembly, worshipers meet God, commit to the kingdom reign of God and are empowered to join God’s work in creation.
• Fourth, the authors present a Trinitarian understanding of worship where Christians worship the Father through the mediating work of the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Of special importance is a recovery of the work of the Spirit in worship. Here “The Spirit initiates and enables our praise and at the same time brings to our hearts the delight and joy of God’s own communion.” Worship is a service we offer to God, but God is also dynamically at work bringing us before the presence of God and shaping us to become more like Christ.
This theology of worship as divine encounter, which I strongly endorse, is presented in the introduction and Chapters 1, 6 and 7. The middle of the book, chapters 2 to 5, carefully examines biblical and historical materials related to worship.
Unfortunately, the middle section includes some abrupt transitions and does not always advance the central thesis, most likely due to the multiple authorship of the book. Nonetheless, the middle section includes many interesting insights and can be viewed as a storehouse of resources from which the authors draw.
The centrality of Word and Table in the assembly is stressed by the authors, but little attention is given to other elements of Christian worship. Noticeably missing is a strong articulation of the role of congregational singing in worship, which undoubtedly is a central feature of worship in Churches of Christ.
“A Gathered People” is the final volume of the “Stone-Campbell sacramental trilogy” spearheaded by Hicks. Earlier volumes include “Come to the Table” and, with Greg Taylor, “Down to the River to Pray,” both from Leafwood Publishers. As in all good trilogies, this last installment is the crescendo of the entire project.
Too often discussions of worship revolve around peripheral issues that, even if important, never lead to a deeper understanding of the assembly.
Hicks, Melton and Valentine have provided a valuable service by transcending the worship wars and presenting a compelling theology of worship.
Our corporate assemblies would be richer and more spiritually forming if every minister and informed church leader would read and prayerfully meditate on the vision of worship presented in this book.

MARK POWELL is an associate professor of theology at Harding University Graduate School of Religion and a member of the Sycamore View Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn.

Filed under: Reviews Staff Reports

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