Come and go with me
To my fathers house

Its a big big house
With lots and lots a room
A big big table
With lots and lots of food
A big big yard
Where we can play football
A big big house
Its my fathers house

-Audio Adrenaline

The questions, ‘What is worship?’ and ‘What is appropriate for worship?’ is a topic that is often discussed by Christians. Many in the church lament the lack of depth in worship and yearn for more substance and less flash in modern worship. As we continue our discussion of the Reformation and the Black church, chapter 4 of Experiencing the Truth, titled “Biblical Worship: Experiencing the Presence of God,” takes us right into the heart of this debate. Space does not allow for a detailed analysis of this chapter but it is my hope that this brief overview will be both stimulating and encouraging.

Anthony Carter starts chapter 4 by quoting lyrics from a popular gospel song as an illustration of how modern worship has “degenerated in our time.” After this initial illustration the chapter can be roughly divided into three main parts: The first section is a discussion of worship from a Biblical perspective, spelling out what worship is and what it is not. The second section discusses worship experientially and outlines what happens spiritually when we worship. Finally, the third section is prescriptive, highlighting how we should worship and what we should do in worship.

As others have previously stated of Experiencing the Truth, it must also be noted here that there is much that can and should be commended in chapter 4. Carter’s definition of worship is a faithful presentation of what Reformed worship should be that will be valuable to many who have never studied theology or given worship much thought as a theological construct. The idea that worship should be God-centered and not man-centered is a much-needed corrective for Evangelicalism in our consumer driven age. In this chapter, Carter reminds us that we worship what we value most. Worship is not limited to what we do in church but is our service to God in all areas of life, and that we do not worship God by ourselves but are joined by Christ, the angels, and all the saints that have gone on before us. These ageless Biblical truths have universal applications in all times and cultures and Carter should be commended for his commitment and faithfulness to them.

While we can commend this work on many grounds, there are several issues in the book that appear consistently and chapter 4 is no exception. The first is that the problems presented as being in need of reforming are not distinct or indigenous to the African-American church in particular, but are present in American evangelicalism at large. Some examples of this include the widespread degeneration of worship in our time to the lowest common denominator, the interest in a consumer religion that serves us and not the other way around, the blurring of the lines between worship and entertainment, a general lack of respect for God, and the absence of the use of the Bible in worship. While all of these challenges need to be addressed as serious issues in both the wider church at large and the African-American church in particular, the fact that they are not issues specific to the Black church could be perceived as a problem by the very people whom the writers are trying to bring the Reformation to (as seen in the above quote from Audio Adrenaline). This chapter confirms how important it is for us as pastors and students of theology to, “be careful to avoid the methodological tendency to collapse the problems with the Black church into the Black church becoming the problem”. Malcolm X said in his autobiography that “this religion taught the ‘Negro’ that black was a curse. It taught him to hate everything black, including himself. It taught him that everything white was good, to be admired, respected, and loved. It brainwashed this ‘Negro’ (page 163).” In arguing for more Reformed sensibility, we must be careful that we do not make the same mistake.

Chapter 4 also discusses the problems of the church and culture and challenges us to respond to these issues in a more Biblical way. This is an admirable and worthy charge because the church today is shallow, consumer driven and prone to the cult of personality. However, this is true not because of inherent flaws in the Black church, but because our society today is shallow, consumer driven, and prone to the cult of personality. The problem of Church and culture is one that needs to be addressed, but I felt that Carter offered little as a solution to this dilemma other than the typical Reformed directive to learn more theology. He writes, “If we were more aware of these spiritual realities, how we prepare for worship and how we engage in worship would be transformed” (page 88).

We are told that the reality that God has called us to meet with him in worship should change our approach and how we worship (page 90). Yes God calls us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, but this is not the only method we are given for spiritual transformation. There seem to be larger questions that go unmentioned during this discussion that have a direct impact on our worship. What is true community in a culture that is narcissistic, driven by materialism, and fragmented? What does discipleship look like today and how does it impact our worship? Does experiencing the presence of God require that the church speak to these issues in our society? Do present forms of worship, including the prominence of the ‘worship leader’ condone the world’s focus on the cult of personality? These are all questions that went unasked and unanswered.

One tendency that we are prone to as human beings in response to a real or perceived error is the tendency to over react and go to the extreme. If too much caffeine or alcohol is bad, instead of using it in moderation our tendency is to just cut it out all together. Unfortunately this tendency robs us of the freedom that Christ came to give us and forces us to live in prisons of our own construction. I am not saying that Mr. Carter is an extremist or that he is living in a mental prison, but I do think that any discussion dealing with worship from an African-American perspective that does not talk about the dignity of man and his role in the consummation of creation is one sided. All Christians should be concerned with the glory of God and making His name great, but at the same time good theology requires us to have a healthy and well defined anthropology.

This means that we have to avoid the overemphasis on our fallen-ness and unworthiness and remember that we are also designed with dignity. A balanced Reformed theology does not have this problem and we have to be careful not to allow our zeal for God’s glory to diminish our zeal for man’s dignity and devolve into ‘wormology’. The emphatic teaching that, “because of our sin we don’t deserve anything,” is just as wrong as the teaching that “I deserve my blessing right now.” God ordained that the work of building His kingdom should be our reasonable service and Christ condescended to die for us. Even though we are sinners, we are forgiven sinners and a royal priesthood.

This means that yes; true worship requires a sorrow for sin and is done in reverence and awe. But true worship also acknowledges the worth inherent in the individual and in humanity as a whole. Worship that is done in reverence and awe produces a concern for “one another” that is often lacking in Reformed and Evangelical circles. If we are going to have a meaningful conversation about worship in the Black church, a community that has been largely abused and marginalized, then we must also talk about how the everyday aspect of worship produces sorrow not just for the general conception of sin, but also for specific conceptions of sin such as inequality and injustice. This is the horizontal dimension of worship that visits the fatherless and widows in their affliction.

Another manifestation of our tendency to extremes is the habit of Reformed people to speak in Biblical and theological absolutes (I should know, I have repented of this often). I am a champion of the Reformed theology and strongly believe in its merits, but it would benefit us greatly as Reformed advocates to refrain from unverifiable statements like, “the Reformed approach holds the most biblically accurate and historically consistent understanding of the Christian life (page 96).

Our human finitude and limitations prevent us from knowing if this is true or being able to prove its veracity. But another point that is just as important is that this kind of thinking negates the theological imaginings of those outside the Reformed community, the Church Fathers, and all of the saints who lived before the reformation. If our worship is going to be characterized as “Something old, something, new, and everything true,” then we should be challenged to look not just to the Reformers, but also to orthodox believers everywhere, especially the Church Fathers. This is an area where we should heed the instruction of our more liturgical brothers and sisters who believe that the road to the future of worship goes through the past and the worship of the early church and not just the Reformers.

In his discussion of what worship is not, Carter laments the predominance of African-American artists who have gotten their start in the music business in the church. In his view, something about crossover artists should cause us to stop and “reflect upon the Black church and its worship” (page 83). This may be true. However, the preponderance of crossover artists should also cause us to stop and ask “Why have so many musicians and performers gotten their start in the church?” It says just as much, if not more, about American society that so many performers started in the Black church as it says about the church. Doesn’t this phenomenon also speak of deferred dreams and limited opportunities? Hasn’t the culture devalued Black performers and minimized their abilities? Just as the Black church has been a “great assessor of preaching ability” (see chapter 3), it has also been a great assessor of singing and musical ability to those who have historically lacked options and opportunity. In Practical Theology for Black Churches Dale Andrews writes, “Black preaching and black worship have established traditions in nurturing black wholeness and empowerment for living under oppressive conditions” (page 23).

It could be argued that the crossover of Gospel artists is a result of the church fulfilling its mission as a “nurturing institution”. In many cities and towns across America the Black church has been one of the few places where Black musicians and performers could regularly practice and develop their craft, interact with a live audience, and receive positive feedback and encouragement from their community. While the multitude of crossover artists may have helped blur the line between entertainment and worship, it could be said that this crossover is a response to the conditions that existed within this community (it should also be pointed out that this line is also blurred in the broader American evangelical church). Just as the Black church develops preachers, it develops singers and musicians. The church should not be condemned for this but should be applauded for ministering to its people and meeting them at the point of their need.

Finally, Carter believes that our worship should be directed by the regulative principal as prescribed in the Bible. He writes:
Such statements should cause us to wonder if God cares how we worship him at all. If Barna and Jackson are right, one form of worship is equally as valid as another form. Consequently, the God of truth has acquiesced to relativism and has left to the whims of sinful human beings the guidelines for the central function of the church-worship. This I cannot accept. This we need not accept because the Bible does tell us much about the worship of God, both in terms of method and motive (95-96).
But what does this mean? What “form” of worship is Carter speaking of? Does this mean that God does not leave room for individual or cultural expression in worship? Carter goes on to say that we should worship God in a Biblical way, but there is a great variety of opinions on this topic even among Reformed theologians.

Louis Weil notes in A Theology of Worship that “Christian Communities are always grounded in time and place and that the church’s identity is always explicit and local, never merely theoretical or abstract.” He goes on to say:
A person cannot be a Christian ‘in general.’ We are baptized in a specific place at a specific time, so that although we are by baptism members of the universal church, our membership is always experienced within a specific ecclesial context, in a specific parish or mission church made up of a particular group of people. We will live out this membership within the social and cultural realities of one particular community or many different communities over the course of a lifetime (53-54).
Weil’s comments remind us that worship is formed just as much by culture as it is by theological considerations. In seeking to improve Black worship we must make sure that our desire for change is being directed by the Bible and that we are conscious and aware of how our interpretations and evaluations are being culturally conditioned.

Randall Harris


Experiencing the Truth Chapter Reviews:
1. Experiencing the Truth: A Critical Review Article of the Introduction - Chapter 1 reviewed by Co-Founder Xavier Pickett
2. Experiencing the Truth: Biblical Theology - Chapter 2 reviewed by Mark Robinson
3. Experiencing the Truth: Biblical Preaching - Chapter 3 reviewed by Stephan Cobbert
4. Experiencing the Truth: What does Euro-American Reformed Spirituality have to do with African-American Christianity? (Biblical Spirituality, Chapter 5)
5. Experiencing the Truth: Grace So Amazing - Chapter 6 reviewed by Co-Founder Michael Mewborn