Every so often a book warrants the thought in my mind, “I wish I would have written this book.” Such is the case with What Happens When We Worship by Jonathan Cruse, pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Cruse’s primary concern is Christians who find worship boring; the solution to this problem, Cruse argues, is not that worship needs to be made more interesting, rather, Cruse insists that we find worship boring because “we are not aware of what is happening when we worship” (3). Thus, Cruse argues that “something is happening when we worship. Something happens to us, something happens between us and the people we worship with, and, most importantly, something happens between us and God” (1).
In Part 1 (chapters 2–7), Cruse explains a theology of worship from Scripture that will answer the book’s central question. Part 2 (chapters 8–13) explores the various elements of a worship service that enact worship’s purpose. Part 3 (chapters 14–15) encourages believers to consequently prepare their hearts for worship based on this more robust understanding of why we gather and how what we do in corporate worship accomplishes the purpose.
Cruse argues that in corporate worship we meet with God, shaping us into worshipers, which is the most important thing we will ever do. This transformational meeting is a regular renewal of our covenant with God, where we are reminded again both of our sinfulness and God’s faithfulness to remain true to the promises he has made to us in Christ. In corporate worship, we renew our commitment to obey God’s commands, and we enjoy communion with other saints with whom we share union in Christ.
This understanding of what happens when we worship informs each element of the service from the call to worship, to confession of sin and declaration of pardon in Christ, to the preaching of God’s Word and feasting around God’s Table, to the final benediction. For each of these elements, Cruse presents practical, meaningful definitions:
- God calls us to the most important work imaginable, hears our plea for help, and promises to be with us and accept us despite our inadequacies. (83)
- God, week in and week out, puts to death the old self of sin through the law and brings to life and sustains a new creation in Christ through the proclamation of the gospel. (94)
- By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus speaks through his ordained servant, saving sinners by the spoken word to the glory of God. (108)
- Through the Lord’s Supper, God’s Spirit strengthens our faith, hope, and love in the finished work of Jesus Christ as believers really and truly feast on him. (124)
- God blesses his people by confirming that his name is on them for good in Christ, and thereby strengthens them to serve him in the week ahead. (142)
- God has gifted us with song that we might have a fitting way to praise him for his work, pray to him with our deepest needs, and proclaim to one another the sanctifying truths of the gospel. (150)
A thorough understanding of these significant realities that take place each week we gather for corporate worship, Cruse suggests, should lead us to intentional preparation and heartfelt engagement in the service. We won’t chase after excitement or entertainment; rather, we will be satisfied with the simplicity and “ordinariness” of what we do, recognizing that truly extraordinary things are happening by the Spirit of God. He concludes in the final chapter with very practical advice for how we can prepare and engage in light of these truths.
Cruse’s argument is both biblically rich and historically grounded. He offers nothing “new,” per se; rather, what Cruse presents is an important and necessary corrective to the expressionist worship so common in modern evangelicalism, and he does so in a winsome, clear, and practical presentation. The one quibble I have is not so much a disagreement as a wish for an addition. Cruse’s chapter on singing is very good, but he emphasizes the importance of singing as a response and as a proclamation of truth, while neglecting a discussion of music’s formative power. Music in worship does not merely help us express toward God, it also forms our expressions.
This book will become required reading in several of my classes. It is easy to read—suitable for laypeople, pastors, and students—but deeply profound and enriching. I wish I would have written this book.