Book Review: Worship for Vital Congregations

If we wish to engage more people in worship, we must search for fresh ways to explain what worship is and why it is essential. Christian churches have a vast penumbra of marginal members who remain unaware—or unconvinced—that Sunday worship is a fruitful use of their time. How can it be presented so that it appears in its proper aspect, as a genuine priority in life?

I am always interested to see how others rise to this challenge, whether in Catholic or Protestant settings. Worship for Vital Congregations by Talitha Arnold, although it is written primarily for Protestant pastors in the Reformed tradition, addresses the fundamental question of “Why worship?” in ways that anyone might find helpful. What is worship? Why isn’t it just as good to go out and commune with nature, or pursue spirituality on my own? These are questions that continue to arise across the board.

Arnold uses the story of a raft trip on the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon as the source of numerous analogies and illustrations with which to help people understand various aspects of worship. Here is a passage that captures the flavor of the book.

It was a pretty secular group that got into those boats in June. All of us had grown up in faith traditions—Jewish, Hispanic Presbyterian, Mormon, Hispanic Catholic, Irish Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist. The group included the daughter of a Lutheran minister, another of a Mennonite minister, and the son of a Presbyterian pastor. One woman, raised Italian Catholic, had worked in India and new Hindu meditations. But now as adults only one person besides me was a part of any faith community.

Still they knew when to stand in awe of something and how to say thanks to the universe for such beauty. They also knew they weren’t the center of that universe. For each of us, those days immersed in eternity, from the first light of every dawn through every night of stars and moon was a pretty worshipful experience.

But it wasn’t worship. Awe-inspiring, yes. An experience of the Eternal, definitely. Ritual and a sense of community, yes. In short, the journey was deeply worshipful—but it wasn’t worship. Not even those times in the rapids, when we frequently invoked the name of God or Jesus or both.

But if an experience that inspiring isn’t worship, then what is it?

The author is a UCC pastor of a church in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Influenced by Evelyn Underhill and the ecumenical liturgical movement of the late twentieth century, Arnold places emphasis on fundamental issues: the relationship between the Eternal and the creature; Trinitarian faith; baptism, eucharist, liturgical year; covenant; and worship as wellspring of mission. Her pastoral work is among people who are very diverse in their attitudes toward church. Many have fled from the more liturgical churches and are wary of traditional claims and approaches to worship. That she and her pastoral team have made liturgical flowers bloom among folks who do not put a lot of stock in liturgy is a remarkable thing.

Arnold has an oral style of writing which resembles her preaching and makes the book very accessible. Here are a couple of examples:

  • I think our need for worship began in the Garden, as soon as the first man and the first woman ate the apple and discovered they were ashamed of themselves and afraid of God. …We want to remember we were made for that Garden. We want to take off our shoes, not for airport checkpoints, but to stand on sacred ground, in silent awe and in celebration to praise and give thanks to the Source of this whole and holy life. (p. 30)
  • Worship begins in praise to remind us “we ain’t it.” Most of us come to worship from a culture that wants us to believe that we and our children are the most important thing in the world and that the world (and its resources) needs to be organized around our desires. From the opening of worship, help your congregation remember who truly “is It.” (p. 41)

Worship for Vital Congregations (The Pilgrim Press, 2007; $12.00) is an engaging little book which proved to be great fun to read. It is full of anecdotes and wisdom about worship in the life of this congregation, out in the desert of New Mexico. Not all of it will apply to everybody, but for pastoral practitioners who want to “think outside the box” it’s well worth reading.

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