“Ancient-Future Worship”

I remember writing book reports growing up and I always thought that it was a peculiar practice. What value was there in regurgitating what the author said? Now a little bit wiser I can assure there is some value to this practice, as it ensures (or not) that you understand the author’s purpose for writing the book and the thesis therein. It also gives the one writing the review an opportunity to affirm or critique the author.

174px-Zoso_John_Paul_Jones_sigil_interlaced_triquetra_overlaying_circle.svgThis is my first book review here on TalkingWorship.com and it will come from arguably the most influential book on my worship ministry. Influential in that it was the first book I read that truly explored what worship is and how it is enacted and in that it has provided avenues to other authors and books to read in my pursuit of worship and liturgical studies.

Here is Baker Publishing Group’s summary of the book:

“God has a story. Worship does God’s story.

There is a crisis of worship today. The problem goes beyond matters of style—it is a crisis of content and of form. Worship in churches today is too often dead and dry, or busy and self-involved. Robert Webber attributes these problems to a loss of vision of God and of God’s narrative in past, present, and future history. As he examines worship practices of Old Testament Israel and the early church, Webber uncovers ancient principles and practices that can reinvigorate our worship today and into the future.

The finalvolume in Webber’s acclaimed Ancient-Future series, Ancient-Future Worship is the culmination of a lifetime of study and reflection on Christian worship. Here is an urgent call to recover a vigorous, God-glorifying, transformative worship through the enactment and proclamation of God’s glorious story. The road to the future, argues Webber, runs through the past.”

Worship does God’s story!

Here is Webber’s story that provides the background to this book:

“Some time ago a pastor friend of mine looked me in the eye and asked, ‘What is worship? Give me a one-liner that will solve my confusion.’ I shot back the four words of this chapter title: “Worship does God’s story!”

Webber begins by giving a brief overview of God’s salvation history from God and the Garden of Eden, God and the desert (Israel), and God and the Garden of Gethsemane, including the Incarnation, Creation and redemption, and the union of the divine and human. He concludes with God’s eternal garden.

The Story

Webber asks the reader to read his overview “for the picture – get a vision of the whole.” His objective is not to provide a comprehensive and detailed orientation of God’s work in time, rather, to allow the reader to understand their place in the whole story. This is the starting point of Webber’s worship theology.

It is interesting to note that Webber preludes his overview with the Pentecost event. Here he suggests is “new understanding and new empowerment”. For him it is a major turning point in God’s story. The Spirit begins a new work, one of re-creation. From here he leads into the four major sections of God’s story.

This reflection on God’s whole story, of which we know the beginning (Garden of Eden) and the end (God’s Eternal Garden), the reader understands his or her place within the whole of God’s story. It takes the attention off the reader onto God’s work.

Remembering and Anticipating

From here Webber breaks down worship into two parts: remembering and anticipating. Since we are in the middle of the salvation story, this only makes sense. Worship ought to compromise of remembering God’s works while noting that He is still working today to bring about the future.

Webber cautions the reader regarding fragmentation of worship, especially as it pertains to the Trinity. Are we worshiping all three persons of the Trinity or are we focused only on one or two persons of the Trinity? The question of whether we are worshiping the one, true God then turns to whether we reduce or fragment the story as well. This is not a faith where one is allowed to pick and choose what we recognize or focus on.

“Remembering is the opposite of forgetting. When we forget the past, the past is dead in our lives.” Webber suggests that biblical remembering is not simply intellectual remembrance, but with the whole person, body, mind, and soul. Therefore our worship ought to re-enact the story. “Biblical worship is always about remembering all of God’s saving acts in history.” This includes our biblical response to that remembrance.

Consider the numerous accounts both in the Old Testament and the New Testament where the people of God are called to declare the works of God (by remembering) to one another and to those who are not of the people of God (worship as mission?!).

What is great about Webber’s work is that although they are theological, he always includes practical ways of fulfilling his theologies. He then goes on to list ways in which we can remember the past. First, Webber suggests that we can exercise biblical remembrance through historical recitation such as preaching, creeds, and songs. Secondly, Webber notes that we can remember through dramatic re-enactment, such as the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, various liturgies and rituals as found throughout church history, and through marking time with the Christian calendar.

Through historical recitation and dramatic re-enactment, Webber proposes these are the two primary ways in which the church remembers in her worship.


Webber then introduces the reader to eschatology, the study of the end times. What was once the mapping out of the end times as scholars understood the Scriptures and preaching these charts during worship, Webber now says is a small understanding of eschatology in worship.

“Just to know worship should envision God’s future for history and for the world opens windows to view what we do in worship in a new way.” Consider the biblical themes you and your church focus on. Which ones have an eschatological touch to them? Probably more than you think.

Webber begins his eschatological pursuit with the Creation event. It is through the lens of the creation and the incarnation that we understand the re-creation and the eschaton. The Creation liturgy begins by recognizing one God, who is both Creator God and Redeemer God. Through the Sabbath it anticipates the eternal Sabbath.

Maintaining narrative language, Webber uses the phrase “God’s vision” while talking about anticipation in worship. Our worship spaces and Paul’s call to holy living not only reflect Christ’s present reign, but are also indications of God’s Vision for His Eternal Garden.

Webber’s hermeneutic features layers, and draws St. Augustine to mind. Augustine thought it was prideful to assume that there was only one correct interpretation to Scripture and that one could prove their interpretation was right. So long as the person demonstrated it was consistent with Christ and His Church, it could be a right interpretation.

He then draws on his earlier introduction of fragmentation to answer the question why people have a hard time of understanding a biblical and ancient worship. If one has never considered the Creation liturgy as it relates to God’s vision for the world, then Webber’s theology of worship seems abstract and foreign. We have a tendency to focus on the cross and Paul’s writings. While both of these are biblical, we must be able to take a step back and see everything in relation to one another. In other words, we must be able to understand God’s story from Creation to Re-Creation.

Early Church Worship

Here we begin to see Webber’s intrigue with the worship of the early church. Michael Farley suggests that Webber operates from a patristic-ecumenical regulative principle for worship (see my review of Farley’s work here). I am not sure I entirely agree with Farley. Webber clearly lays out a Scriptural foundation for his theology. I think there are two reasons Webber appears so enthralled with patristic and ecumenical worship.

First, consider Webber’s audience. Evangelicals need the practical application of worship theology or it has no significance for them. Webber lays out the biblical foundation of worship and quickly moves to how this affects our worship (especially Sunday mornings).

Secondly, our patristic fathers addressed themes that we have forsaken. I do not believe in an evolution or diminishing of the Christian faith, but I think that there are things we can be reminded of from each era before us. Webber believes that this early period of the church is an appropriate balance to our modern evangelical worship.

Webber’s Critique

Webber then offers his critique of modern-day evangelical worship. His first critique is that of content. Webber points out that our worship has been individualized thereby making worship about me.

His second critique is that of structure. He argues for the historic pattern of Word and Table, but notes that our worship today follows a programmatic approach and one that does not necessarily have biblical precedence.

Webber’s final critique is that of style, which he recognizes is related to content and structure. While the worship wars of contemporary and traditional are still being waged, Webber suggests that with biblical content and structure, worship can become indigenous and contextualized for its people.

He then follows with examples of early church worship. I would highly recommend the reader buy the book to look at examples of worship and liturgy from the ancient church. If the reader can grasp the first half of the book, I think he or she will find the liturgies very real and formative. You can find the book here.

Webber then touches on several key aspects of worship. The first is that of Word. Webber first notes that our approach to Scripture is often from over the story rather than from within the story. There are two ways to read the Scriptures from an “outside” perspective; the historical and literary models and a subjective “what does this have for me” approach. Neither are an appropriate way of reading and understanding Scripture.

While both of these approaches can have benefits, the prior offering a more accurate lens to understand the Scripture and the latter often providing immediate nourishment, they can both become harmful in the long run.

Webber offers the patristic way of reading Scripture: that of reading the Scriptures to find Jesus Christ in every part of the story. Jesus himself tells us to do this as recorded in John 5:39! With this approach, we can preach the Scriptures passionately and relationally, utilize the power of metaphor, and preach the Scriptures in such a way that it reads us rather than us reading into the Scriptures.

Next Webber considers the worship event of Table, otherwise known as Eucharist or Communion (all of which are appropriate names). “How should we approach the crisis of evangelical doubt, the failure to affirm the communication of Christ at Table worship? The primary way to see the crisis at Table worship is to place it in the larger process of the desupernaturalization of the entire Christian story at the hands of Enlightenment rationalism.”

We claim a supernatural world through the creation and the incarnation, but we struggle to live this out today. What is the role of Christ in Table (and the Word, for that matter)? Through the writings of Ignatius and Justin Martyr, Webber builds his case that Christ does communicate with His Church through the Table. He then reflects on the whole story, once again, to demonstrate God’s work through bread and wine. It is time that evangelicals reconsidered their Table theology.

And finally, Webber talks about remembrance and anticipation as it relates to the act of prayer. First, he notes that the gathering, the Word, the Table, and the sending are all acts of prayer, specifically, acts of public prayer. This is what Webber means when he says that we pray the story, because in this four-fold pattern of worship we are proclaiming and re-enacting the whole story.

While every church prays at some point during its service, Webber’s concern is that evangelicals do not see the whole service as an act of prayer. He suggests that prayer arises from the story of God (which is proclaimed and re-enacted throughout the whole service) rather than arising from ourselves (which may be the typical evangelical understanding of prayer). In this way God initiates the act of prayer and then we respond in prayer. This stays constant with Webber’s theology that God initiates our worship; it does not grow from us.

Once again Webber offers examples of praying the story with ancient liturgies. I would add that if you are a student of worship and liturgy as myself, we ought to immerse ourselves in worship and liturgy cross time, space, and denominations. This allows us to appreciate Christ’s Church in all her forms. We can see where our worship and liturgies are lacking and where our worship and liturgies proclaim and enact God’s salvation story. Not only this, but our appreciation for the Church in all her forms of worship and liturgy may allow us to take one more step towards unity.

Webber asks one more question concerning prayer. “How can a contemplation that leads to participation in the life of Christ be attained?” He gives a three-fold answer: we must remember that worship is a prayer that is focused on historical events, we must remember that the prayer of worship is done, not with the language we mortals create, but with the language of God, and that the contemplation that we do is situated in this story and in the language of prayer that discloses this story.

To not participate in God’s story as outlined in Scripture is to write our own story. Our own story is centered on us, not Jesus of Nazareth, and does not transform us. At best, we may simply exchange one habit for another.

Ancient-Future Worship

Webber concludes that ancient-future worship is “the common tradition of the church’s worship in Word, Table, and son, practiced faithfully and communicated clearly in every context of the world.”

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this book began my adventure into studying worship and liturgy. Webber lays out a worship theology that evangelicals can embrace because it is biblical. Worship does God’s story, encompassing God’s work and our response to that work, which is primarily our participation in that work, or story.

JP#4Jason Palmer is the Editor of TalkingWorship.com. Jason has a Bachelor of Science in Ministry with a Worship Arts Major and Music Minor. He has lead worship for evangelical churches for 7 years and desires to see worship leaders become confident in their calling.

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