Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel
Crossway, 2013; 224 pages
The tagline of Mike Cosper’s book Rhythms of Grace sets up an excellent premise: that worship in the church should tell the story of the gospel. Two introductory thoughts occurred to me as I first read it: first, that I happily agreed with the subtitle; and second, that such a concept felt thoroughly familiar. Forty years ago it would have had few allies in evangelicalism, or at least would have been met with a good deal of head-scratching. But much revitalizing work has been done in the area of theology of worship in my lifetime, and for that we should be profoundly grateful.
Cosper spends the first third of the book walking conversationally through the biblical narrative. The remainder of the book is devoted to application in several parts: the current state of the church’s worship, the goals of the corporate assembly, the application of liturgy to spiritual formation, a discussion of contextualization, and a concluding chapter on the role of the worship leader.
In his preface, Cosper sets forth an ambitious plan: to provide an overview of a biblical theology of worship, methodology, liturgy, musical and linguistic relevance in contemporary culture, qualifications for worship leadership, and practical resources for corporate gatherings— all in a 220-page paperback intended to be broadly accessible. Such a herculean undertaking is a noble aim, but ultimately the book falls short. My review here is longer than usual because I know this book has been well-received in evangelical circles, and I want to be fair in my treatment of its claims.
The greatest strength of Cosper’s book is the chapter on liturgy (chapter 8). Cosper draws heavily from Christ-Centered Worship, Bryan Chapell’s excellent work on the history of liturgical forms in the church. But Cosper synthesizes the major themes well and offers helpful commentary on their modern-day application. These 30 pages are the book’s greatest strength and are not rendered superfluous by a thorough reading of Chapell.
Cosper also offers a brief but helpful look at the arc of worship practices through the Reformation into the present day. He observes, “Both revivalism and Catholicism measure the presence of God through the work of the church— the Communion service in one, music in the other” (114). That’s well said, and I wish Cosper would have spent more time distilling the actual history of church practices in his conversational writing style. We need more of this, not less. Unfortunately, these are really the only parts of the book I can commend.
What Is Worship?
The most glaring omission early on is the absence of any substantial definition of worship from Scripture. Cosper begins, “When we say the word worship, a lot of activity comes to mind—singing, reading the Scriptures, preaching, praying, celebrating the Lord’s Supper—but we often see these practices as ends in themselves. Doing so defines worship in our minds as merely a list of things that we do even if we aren’t certain about why we do them” (25). One would hope that here Cosper would proceed to a biblical theology of worship. Due to the book’s brevity, even a brief discussion from the text would suffice. But in its place is a largely conversational, sometimes clichéd, 50-page narrative from Genesis to Jesus that, while easy to read and resonate with, is so broad and brief as to lack any real purpose (apart from a handful of helpful observations). Cosper never actually defines worship (besides the familiar trope of “ascribing worth”). I found this omission disappointing, especially when later on he appeals to an assumed “biblical definition of worship” to support his premises.
A second weakness throughout the book is its frequent appeal to false equivalence, which states that two opposing viewpoints are equally valid (or invalid) when, in reality, they are not. This fallacy can be identified by its insistence on repeating the phase “on the other hand” (or its equivalent). Its inevitable consequent is argument to moderation, which claims that the correct position between two extremes should necessarily be their midpoint. Cosper repeatedly appeals to this fallacy, pitting attractional churches against sullen ones (74, 87, 89, 94), presenting two opposing views of lyrical objects (84), identifying preferences on musical style (152-53), and even lining up “A Mighty Fortress” against “Mighty to Save” (155).
The problem with false equivalence is that, while its logical construction is valid, its premises are false. Cosper continually resorts to saying, essentially, Lots of people are way over here, and others are way over there, but I’m in the middle. The problem is that the categories he presents are often arbitrary and caricatured—and without an appeal to authority, all opinions on such matters are equally valid.
At the most basic level, I found that I simply disagreed with a number of Cosper’s statements. Sometimes these disagreements were presented—and critiqued in return—as matters of mere opinion, sans authority. Other times they were deeply flawed and concerning. Chief among them is Cosper’s implicit claim that any worship is acceptable:
Worship done humbly in Jesus’ name is received with joy by the Father. We needn’t fear our acceptability or lack thereof. We need only trust in Jesus as we gather and scatter…. Having God in our audience means there is one who accepts us just as we are and deems our imperfect worship as made perfect in Jesus. When you worship, seek him out, and let his assured presence, peace, and comfort be foremost in your mind (84, emphasis mine).
I understand what he’s trying to say, but the danger here cannot be overstated. Worship is on God’s terms, not ours. Any evaluation of worship through a biblical theology would clarify this point, but Cosper’s statement here is profoundly unhelpful. Indeed, two sentences later, he quotes Hebrews 12:28-29: “Let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire”! While it’s true that the acceptability of our worship is in Christ and not in our own merit, Hebrews 12 also makes it clear that there is a particular kind of worship that God accepts. While inexplicably quoting this passage, Cosper seems to disregard its plain meaning.
Another general category of disagreement I had related to Cosper’s claims regarding contextualization. Cosper quotes Keller here: “It is a false dichotomy to insist that if we are seeking to please God we must not ask what the unchurched feel or think about our worship” (86). Both men wrongly turn the command for clarity in 1 Corinthians 14 into a pursuit of cultural relevance, seemingly disregarding 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16. Cosper writes later:
Good pastoral work is, in a sense, always the work of a missionary. We seek to understand the culture in which we’re immersed and to speak in ways that are comprehensible to the world (170).
This is confusing at best. The role of a pastor is to shepherd his flock, and to nourish and instruct them from God’s Word. Throughout his chapter on the worship leader (chapter 10), Cosper displays a profound misunderstanding of both the nature of gospel proclamation and the ordinary means of grace that Scripture itself prescribes: the proclamation of the Word, prayer, baptism, the Lord’s table, and private devotion. Cosper instead vests artistic creativity with this transformative power:
Our God knows creativity well. As important as doctrine is, as important as legal language and clear facts are, God knows we need our imaginations to be captured by truth. We need to be won over by the surpassing beauty of Christ, the utterly compelling glory of God…. A little creativity can help to turn the imagination away from the promises of our idols and toward promises and hopes that will never fade…. If we nurture that creativity, it will pay dividends as we seek to lead our churches (184-85).
I don’t expect books to provide me with an echo chamber. I want authors to challenge my thinking and my practices, and even if I ultimately disagree, I want to do so respectfully and convictionally. As I read Rhythms of Grace, I found myself often disagreeing, but even when I perceived a resonance, it seemed often to be incidental; that is, when we arrived at the same place, the means by which we got there were were not the same. Besides the doctrinal and philosophical concerns, which were myriad, I found myself questioning the usefulness of the book. It seeks to answer many questions, but each of them seems better addressed by other volumes. A biblical theology of worship is better gleaned from Peterson’s Engaging with God or, more recently, Block’s For the Glory of God. Chapell provides a thorough treatment of liturgy and its implications in Christ-Centered Worship (though as I acknowledged at the outset, Cosper’s work here is helpful, if brief). Kauflin’s Worship Matters gives a far superior treatment to the discussion of the worship leader and his role, in an equally accessible writing style. And Keith Getty’s recent book Sing! addresses the issue of the corporate musical dynamic with much more theological clarity.
Nearly every book has its strengths, and a humble reader will recognize that he may be edified and challenged by reading a wide range of perspectives. Cosper is a gifted communicator pursuing an important subject here. But taken in total, its errors and misapplications render this book minimally helpful.