Review of Seeking the Face of God: Evangelical Worship Reconceived by J. Daniel Day

October 11, 2016

seeking-face-godDay, J. Daniel. Seeking the Face of God: Evangelical Worship Reconceived. Macon, GA: Nurturing Faith, 2013, pp. 287, $16, paperback.

Daniel Day is the former Senior Professor of Christian Preaching and Worship at Campbell University Divinity School in North Carolina, and he is the Pastor Emeritus of First Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC. As a pastor, he also served congregations in Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Oklahoma. His publications and articles appear in Ministry Matters, Review & Expositor, Baptists Today, and the Abingdon Preaching Annual. Day is a graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and earned both MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

In the preface, Day clearly states his aim in writing: worship is about God. In his view, evangelical worship has been shaped by models other than “seeking God’s face”—the understanding that God is the object and subject of Christian worship. Instead, most contemporary evangelical worship falls within one of three categories: the “evangelism model” which makes worship synonymous with an evangelistic meeting, designed to facilitate the conversion of the worshiper; the “inspiration model” designed to entertain and attract worshipers with only positive words, images, and songs; and the “experiential model,” rooted in classical Pentecostalism and the charismatic renewal of the 1960s, and designed to elicit a strong emotional response from the worshiper. All three have a continuing influence on the worship life of the average evangelical congregation, and each leaves both a positive and negative legacy on Evangelicalism.

As a remedy to the prevailing contemporary models, Day proposes a constructive retrieval of the past, particularly the first three hundred years of Christian worship. Acknowledging the limitations of space, and the inability to provide a comprehensive treatment of the history of Christian worship, Day uses the classic description of Sunday worship from Justin Martyr in the mid-second century as a springboard for the future, and encourages recovery of its dialogical, Trinitarian, and social nature. From there, he surveys the longer heritage of the Church’s worship, distilling it into seven “landmarks”—navigational aids for thinking theologically about worship—and finally ending with a Gospel-centered model based on images from Jesus’ life and ministry as a way of planning worship that “seeks God’s face.”

Of the three prevailing models, Day saves his strongest critique for “Praise and Worship” (P&W), a form of the “experiential model,” descending from the neo-charismatic churches of the late twentieth century, reaching its fullest expression in Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) and the bifurcation of evangelical church services into “traditional” and “contemporary.” “Music is unquestioningly the signature of the P&W tradition,” writes Day (p. 74), so much so that the P&W tradition effectively relegates the entirety of worship to music. The tradition also creates a threefold service order of worship time (music, usually the first part of the service), teaching time (the sermon, usually the second part of the service), and ministry time (a time of prayer for individual needs) with little connection between them. Consequently, the P&W tradition is the origin for the idea of the musician as “worship leader.”

The issues with the “experiential model” in general, and the P&W tradition in particular, are both terminological and foundational, according to Day. By restricting the understanding of worship to only the musical element, P&W creates a form of worship that bears no resemblance to historic patterns, one that “can be sustained only by a strained interpretation of select scriptures” (p. 76), such as Psalm 22:3, a key text in the P&W tradition. Because P&W is wholly dependent on music, the proclamation of the Word is effectively severed from worship and has nothing to do with the more “expressive dimension” of music. As Day points out, P&W is not the first time that music has been the source of contention in the history of Christian worship, but “when music becomes the driver of an entire tradition’s worship, legitimate caution signs are appropriate” (p. 78).

In addition, Day asks if the P&W tradition’s “praise priority” is fully justified. While emphasizing the experiential element in worship, P&W does so to the exclusion of certain emotions. Following the Psalms, does P&W have any place for lament, for example? In any case, “A baseline for Christian worship is: Are our feelings, our emotions to be our primary means of acknowledging our relationship with, knowledge of, and love for God? The history of Christian thought gives a resounding ‘No’ to this question” (p. 82). On the role of music in historical patterns of worship, especially in the Church’s first three hundred years, Day writes, “It is also a sobering reminder that the explosive years of the Church’s growth were not what might today be called musically rich—and certainly not performance oriented. Something other than the power of its music made [Christian] worship compelling” (p. 130).

Day seems less certain when writing about the role of charismata in Christian worship, especially glossolalia. While valued in certain quarters of P&W, Day claims that the charismata disappeared by the middle of the fourth century. His source for the claim, however, is an older monograph. More recent scholarship, particularly from Catholic liturgical theologians Kilian McDonnell and George Montague, shows otherwise (see esp. Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit: Evidence from the First Eight Centuries, Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 1991).

Seeking to recover the depth of early Christian worship for the modern era, Day provides seven “landmarks” for churches to pursue as a corrective to the prevailing evangelical models above. Here, Day moves from the historical to a synthesis of theology and praxis. His seventh landmark is particularly relevant to P&W-styled churches: “Christian worship will be holistic, giving legitimacy to mental, physical, and emotional responses to God’s revelation in Christ” (p. 181). Borrowing on the work of Swiss theologian J.J. von Allmen, Day outlines an order of worship shaped by the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. Recast in biblical language as Bethlehem, Galilee, Jerusalem, and Olivet Moments, students of liturgical studies will recognize the paradigm as the classic fourfold order of Gathering, Word, Table, Sending. “The biblical narrative,” writes Day, “is placed in a primary, shaping role for the Church’s worship…and places a theological frame about each moment of worship…the greatest gain…is that this order asks worship planners to work theologically rather than psychologically or pragmatically” (p. 196).

Seeking the Face of God is both academic and pastoral. Written in part as a text for seminary-level worship classes, it is equally valuable as a resource for musicians, pastors, and others involved in regular worship planning, as well as anyone interested in the biblical, historical, and theological models undergirding worship across evangelical churches. Students of biblical and theological studies, as well as pastoral ministry, will find in Day’s book a foundational text and robust survey on the state of evangelical worship at-large (and a treasure trove of footnotes for further exploration). Each chapter ends with discussion questions suitable for continuing reflection, a writing assignment, or study group.

Brian Turnbow

Institute for Worship Studies, Jacksonville, FL

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