I wanted to be a worship leader once. At the time, my church wasn’t playing much in the way of contemporary songs, and so I reasoned that maybe it was time for me to step up and promptly bought an acoustic guitar, a few Matt Redman albums and Soul Survivor Songbooks 1-4.
Sadly I was born without any natural rhythm, but I stuck it out for a few years and firmly believed that I was doing pretty well. In fact all I was doing was making a fool of myself around a bunch of people who were too polite to tell me otherwise, but there you go.
And there was me thinking it was easy.
Had I read it a few years back, then Simon Ponsonby and Neil Bennetts‘ timely reflection on the theology and practice of worship might have made me think again. It’s an intelligent, heartfelt and robust discussion of what worship is truly about, and, had I read it at eighteen, it would have called me up on my own arrogance and the selfish motivation behind my so-called ‘worship’.
The question that the book poses is whether or not gathered worship is truly the priority of the church, and whether it should be. It’s an important question to ask, and actually quite a bold one too – especially in light of new missional or service-focussed initiatives in church culture, the divisiveness that a difference in worship styles can bring about and the amount of money some churches invest in worship music.
The conclusion that Now to Him comes to is an emphatic yes. Throughout, the focus is repeatedly brought back to the reason behind our worship, and indeed the reason for all we do – Jesus. The implicit assertion being that if we get our worship right, if we truly see Christ as he is, then everything else will fall into place – but if this isn’t established, then everything else our churches do will prove to be a struggle.
It’s an important wake-up call to the church from two individuals who have seen much of what is good (and less good) in modern worship. On first glance Ponsonby, the Pastor of Theology at St Aldates church in Oxford, seems to tackle the bulk of the meaty theology in the book, while the chapters by Bennetts, the worship pastor at Trinity Cheltenham, feel more like extended meditations around a particular theme. In general, the two authors styles generally complement each other well, with Bennetts’ chapters reading like Brennan Manning in points and with his own worship lyrics in the text adding to the power of his personal reflections. It’s very clear that for both authors the book is written from the heart, though, and this comes across throughout, with stories from their own lives illustrating the message throughout and an impressive level of vulnerability. A couple of Simon’s personal anecdotes in particular stand out long after you have put the book down, and really help to ground these thoughts on worship in day-to-day life.
Initially the depth of Ponsonby’s analysis is rather daunting, and in the past I’ve found some of his books hard going, at least to start with. The intellectual weight behind his words is easy to get lost in, and although when he speaks in person his gift for communication comes across, in print you often have to work a little harder to hear the heart of what is being said. Honestly, Now to Him looked like it was going to be the same until I listened to it with worship music in the background. It was the same with More, one of Ponsonby’s earlier books – it seems to me that you have to commit to what is being said, to lose yourself in the obvious wonder that Simon feels about what he is writing and experience your study as a form of worship. But with worship music in my ears there were passages that took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes, so I recommend it.
In the end, though, the book is a love letter. It’s a book about Jesus, and a heartfelt letter to any churches and worship leaders who may have lost that focus, for whatever reason. When Simon writes of how the Anglican church is “full of people who want to feed sheep, but who don’t love the Shepherd” (p101) and comments on how the Anglican ordination service never asks its ministers, “do you love Jesus?”, you can hear his pain for the churches that do not have such ministers. And when Neil writes about heaven, where Jesus is in his rightful place and where an attitude of worship naturally flows, both his longing for people to see Christ and his awareness of the power of the cross to change a broken world are evident.
So when, in the stunning final chapter, the authors turn their attention to the closing words of the book of Jude, which states:
Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of His glory with great joy, to the only God, our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.
it is clear that although this may be a book about worship, it is not just for musicians or worship leaders.
On the contrary, with its high view of worship and its high view of Jesus, it is a vitally important reminder for all churches and all individuals who so easily lose sight of the reason behind what we do.
Because it’s not about us, and it never has been. It’s not about the mechanics or the experience of worship. We need to be reminded that it’s about Jesus. He is the reason we live and the reason we come together to worship in our churches, and although it may seem obvious, it is all too easy to forget that much of the time – whether that happens in the busyness of life or because of our church’s culture of worship.
All credit to Neil Bennetts and Simon Ponsonby for a wise, accessible and powerful affirmation of that in Now to Him. It is much needed, and I would highly recommend it to anyone, even if you may have previously heard some of the sermons that provide the raw material here. I’ll certainly be buying copies for friends.