November 24, 2020

Worship: Robert Webber’s Proposals

By Chaplain Mike

As we’ve been talking about worship music over the past few weeks, I’ve been encouraged to go back and review some of the sources that first caught my attention and made the study and practice of Christian worship such a major part of my thinking and ministry.

Most evangelicals who have learned anything about Biblical, theological, and historical perspectives have been touched by the late Robert Webber. Last year, I called him “The Father of the Ancient-Future Path” because he helped low church evangelicals like me appreciate the tradition of the church’s liturgy. However, Webber himself was hard to categorize. He studied, participated in, and learned to appreciate a wide variety of Christian worship expressions. One of his goals was to encourage the church to come to some fundamental understandings about worship and then let the Holy Spirit build upon those within each tradition.

His seminal book, Worship Old and New, remains required reading for anyone who is concerned about worship renewal in today’s church. The copy I have was published in 1982 (the year before I entered seminary and began studying worship in earnest), and his words and proposals are as pertinent today as they were then.

Today, I would like to discuss his “Nine Proposals” in the book. These came out of discussions with students in his classes at Wheaton College. He asked them to suggest how the material he was presenting might be useful in the church. The result was this list of nine recommendations for evangelical churches and worshipers.

PROPOSAL ONE: Educate the people.
By consensus, Webber’s students agreed that many evangelicals know little about worship. It was therefore proposed that it was a priority for churches in the evangelical traditions to study the biblical, historical, and theological sources of Christian worship.

PROPOSAL TWO: Acknowledge the distinction between services for worship and services for teaching.
At the time, it was observed that the sermon held such a prominent place in evangelical, Bible-believing churches, that the emphasis was on teaching or evangelism and not on worship as understood traditionally. At the time, students suggested having at least one meeting a week devoted to worship, using other gatherings for teaching and outreach.

Since that time, it would be my opinion that what has happened is this: the seeker and other church-growth movements have created a new portion within the service itself—the “worship set”—meaning a more extended period of singing led by a praise and worship band. In other words, instead of building upon the history and tradition of Christian worship, the “contemporary” church has come up with a new, more limited definition of worship. The sermon remains prominent in the service, and to it was added a new component understood as “worship.”

PROPOSAL THREE: Do not disregard the tradition of your denomination.
As Webber’s students considered what they had learned about worship, they recognized that most of their denominations already practiced the most basic elements of the church’s historic worship. Renewal then did not involve starting from scratch, but refining understandings and activities already in place.

A lot has changed in thirty years. Denominations have been in decline, and there has been a strong movement toward a “non-denominational” approach even in many historic groups. In a sense, “Church growth” has become the new source of tradition, and today’s “denominations” are defined by which stream of church growth practice one follows. This has involved not only a lack of emphasis on historic worship practices, but in some cases the wholesale discarding of them in the service of growth.

PROPOSAL FOUR: Orient worship toward God rather than human beings.
Here’s a quote from Webber’s book: “Many students felt that the worship of their church was more oriented toward human beings and their experience than toward God. They pointed to the current trend in Christian music that emphasizes a near narcissistic self-interest and to the entertainment approach in worship that attracts the crowds but fails to lead them into the praise of God’s person and work.”

What does it say that we are still engaged in discussing these same issues thirty years later?

PROPOSAL FIVE: Restore a sense of awe and reverence, mystery and transcendence.
Students in Webber’s classes were concerned about the casual atmosphere in evangelical churches. What would they say today about an entire movement that uses the concept “casual” as a way of attracting people and telling them it is the very reason should come to our church?

PROPOSAL SIX: Recover a christocentric focus through enactment.
Since we’ve not been reading the book together, this one may require explanation. A basic principle observed by Webber is that “worship” has been traditionally defined as re-enacting the drama of our salvation in Christ. The pattern and content of the liturgy is designed to bring worshipers into an encounter with the saving Christ and lead them through the story of salvation. The pattern of Word and Table proclaims the Gospel. Christian worship involves immersing the congregation in the Gospel and lifting up Christ’s finished work each time they gather.

PROPOSAL SEVEN: Restore congregational involvement in worship.
One weakness of typical evangelical worship pointed out by Webber’s students was the lack of active participation in the service. The pattern was: sit or stand, sing, and listen while those up front do most everything. From my perspective, the main difference today is that the congregation sings more, but not much else.

PROPOSAL EIGHT: Attain spontaneity with the proper balance on form and freedom.
Webber’s students did not think bringing more historic understanding, order, and ritual practice meant that one had to sacrifice freedom of expression. Rather, they saw the possibilities of allowing freedom within forms.

PROPOSAL NINE: Restore the relationship of worship to all of life.
In our worship, it should be made clear that what we do on Sunday connects with our life between Sundays. For example, a renewed practice of the Church Year would enable the congregation members to shape their whole life around the story that is being proclaimed in worship each Lord’s Day.


Robert Webber’s Conclusion

“Clearly worship renewal does not consist of moving chairs in a circle, rearranging the order of worship, or finding new gimmicks. The heart of worship renewal is a recovery of the power of the Holy Spirit who enables the congregation to offer praise and thanksgiving to God. The value of studying the history and theology of worship is that it provides us with insights into the work of the Holy Spirit in the past and allows us to be open to His work in the present. In this way the Holy Spirit may lead us into the ways of worship that are continuous with the historic witness of worship given to the church throughout its history in the world, and at the same time He may lead us into the discovery of new forms and patterns that meet the needs of people in our day.” (WO&N, p. 196)


  1. I bought the three volumes out of his 7-volume “Library of Christian Worship” series that I wanted in Logos Bible Software when they last had them on sale:

    The Biblical Foundations of Christian Worship (volume 1)
    Twenty Centuries of Christian Worship (volume 2)
    The Sacred Actions of Christian Worship (volume 6)

    If you want to know about all the other volumes, you can look here:

    Go to and look them up for some previews of the volumes (TOC, excerpt, covers)

    Individual Titles
    Vol. I: The Biblical Foundations of Christian Worship
    Vol. II: Twenty Centuries of Christian Worship
    Vol. III: The Renewal of Sunday Worship
    Vol. IV: Music & the Arts in Worship (Book A and B)
    Vol. V: The Services of the Christian Year
    Vol. VI: The Sacred Actions of Worship
    Vol. VII: The Ministries of Christian Worship

    Since I’m not a pastor or in an organized church or a worship leader or in a church that follows a liturgical calendar, volumes 3, 4, 5, and 7 didn’t have much relevance for my studies and interests, though if they are ever offered at a super sale price I might.

    Unfortunately these volumes not been approved for viewing on mobile devices.

    From what I’ve read so far (not much, I admit), these are well worth acquiring. You can find cheap prices for the hardcover editions of some volumes online. Of course, Logos offers a 30-day return/refund policy for any resource you purchase.

  2. CBD has two of them on sale for $5 each, but the rest of the series is not listed. A more concise, condensed summary, not necessarily a reference like the Webber series, yet amazingly thorough as an overview, is Protestant Worship, by James White.

    I know, it’s limited to Protestants, but it is the best book I have read on the subject, hands down. It gives analytical summaries of different aspects of all the major traditions.

  3. sarahmorgan says

    Regarding evangelicals and worship, I can only offer a comment on the very first proposal (“educate the people”)….successfully educating adults requires that the adult first recognize and accept that they don’t know the thing they ought to learn….and all of the evangelical church leaders I’ve dealt with in the last 5 years have been some of the proudest people I’ve ever met, and would never admit that they don’t know something, or comfortably accept that someone else knows something which they ought to know. Sadly enough, unless this changes, no education will occur. Maybe the first thing that has to be taught is humility, but is that even possible?

    • Wisely said: this is true for individuals and institutions. LORD give us a SHORT glimpse of what we don’t know and should.

    • I agree with this as a generalization. But I have found that there do tend to be at least a few teachable people who will let your foot in the door. It’s just a matter of getting enough wiggle room to kick down the rest of the door.

  4. Stick a PowerPoint-and-light-show-oriented Evangelical worship leader in a pewless non-instrumental (not even an organ!) Eastern Orthodox Church that has a sizable number of serious converts for members for about 6 months. That will give him or her a startling wake-up call to what worship and congregational prayer and liturgy participation can be. 🙂

  5. Regarding step 7: have you thought about the role or part of a MEAL, as in an honest to goodness real meal, to be part of worship (afterwards, I suppose). I’m struggling to find ways in which ALL the congregation can join in. Prayer comes to mind, but even that has its limits or peculiarities. Some of the best worship I’ve ever been part of was with a small (roughly 100) group that reguarly broke bread together.

    Just wondering.

    • Greg:

      I went to an Orthodox church in Edmonton Canada that does just what you said. After the service is a meal where people spend time together. It was great. I was quite impressed.

      • I miss that part, too. Jews do the same thing after Sabbath services, from my experience and remembrance, though maybe more snackish than mealish. We meet in a home but tend to go out as a group afterwards, though I’d like more meals at the house than we do. I think incorporating communion with a meal would be good, too, but that may present problems for non-believing visitors or guests unless one’s view of the Lord’s Table is as an extension of Jesus’ table meal invitations into the Kingdom for one and all and/or His feeding of the multitudes.

        • Saw your smiling icon over at thegreycoats blog the other day (probably a post from many months ago; IHOP related) Oh how you get around.

          Love the idea of communion table as part of, I guess THE part of the meal. I think having the sacraments with those you love over a meal honors GOD’s goals for unity and the body.


          • When you’re as old as I, and you live in the Bible Belt area of the U.S., you get around in terms of meeting and experiencing a lot of things, both good and bad. We were at SKCF/KCF/MVF/MCF, etc., when Bickle started in Kansas City, long before IHOP. And the Internet has made the ability to “get around” and touch people so easy these days – e.g., I had a brief email note back and forth with Gordon Fee a number of years ago on tongues and prophecy. One from Roger McGuinn, too. 🙂

            Re: communion table and meal, perhaps read Come To The Table: Revisioning the Lord’s Supper by John Mark Hicks © 2002 Leafwood Publishers, ISBN 0-9714289-7-2. Also do searches at his blog for things he has written about communion, the Lord’s Table, etc.


            including this one


            XAPIC KAI EIPHNH

  6. I wonder if part of five might be addressed with architecture and interior design, of all things. There are churches and cathedrals I have instantly felt awe in upon simply walking into the building. In fact, if I lived in Paris, I’d probably be attending regular masses at Sacre Couer simply for the sense of the sacred that suffuses the building.

    While I recognize that many evangelical churches are small and thus cannot afford such a building (I’m thinking here of the numerous storefront churches in Brooklyn), there are still a great number of larger churches that perhaps could help cultivate a sense of mysterious and awe in the presentation of themselves. Given the operating budgets of some of the mega-churches, they could easily build structures that are (from the pictures I’ve seen) not simply stadiums crossed with lecture halls. I’m not calling for the construction of new grand cathedrals (although that would be amazing), but instead an attempt to humble the entrant when they enter the church. I’m originally from the Boston area and have visited some of the historic congregationalist churches in the area along with a few others that have interested me. All of them have made me talk quietly while there, despite being there on a Tuesday afternoon.

    I’m not sure exactly how to do this, but a sense of the grandness of God and the smallness of humans I think would go a long way towards both instilling more mystery and awe and orienting people more towards God and less towards themselves.

    If I’m wrong about the mega-churches, please tell me. My memory of the only evangelical church I’ve been in (which was ages ago to watch my friend’s participation in an Easter pageant/play) was more of an auditorium than a church, but given the reason for being there at the time, it was not something I thought was a problem.

    • great points about the architecture, thanks

    • David Cornwell says

      “I wonder if part of five might be addressed with architecture and interior design, of all things. There are churches and cathedrals I have instantly felt awe in upon simply walking into the building.”

      I think this is an important observation. Even simple churches can find ways to enhance the feeling of awe that we should have when approaching God. Paint, colors, fabric, texture, floral, and many other elements and arrangements can be used to good effect. Entering a building that resembles a gymnasium offers little to enhance that feeling. Nor do paper cups or beverage bottles lying around.

      I know I come from another generation, and I want to be careful here. But something always seems a bit wrong to me when people come into a church worship service dressed like they’ve been to a beach or slept in their clothes that night. Don’t get me wrong. Neither am I for turning anyone away. But shouldn’t the maturity of some Christian believers lead them to at least dress to the point of meeting the standard of meeting someone important, such as applying for a better paying job? I don’t wear a suit and tie very often on Sunday anymore. But neither do I dress like I’m crawling under the house.

      Maybe that’s just another rant of a retired old man!

      As to Proposal One, it is the pastor’s duty to teach about worship. This may require lots of time and as much patience.

      • I’m an un-retired younger man but feel the same way! The idea of “putting on one’s Sunday best” seems a laughable, antiquated idea nowadays. Like you said, we don’t need to turn anyone away, but there doesn’t seem to be much awe and reverence when one’s dress says that it’s all about my being as casual as I possibly can be.

        I think it’s all part of a loss of appreciation for beauty in our culture.

        • Richard Hershberger says

          I am a grumpy middle aged man. I have moved around a lot in my life. When looking at churches in a new town, how people dress was one of the things I looked at. Men wearing suits was a plus. Men under the age of fifty wearing suits was an even bigger plus. It’s not that there is any magical quality to suits. It is the idea of, as you say, “Sunday best”. This doesn’t mean we should all dress like lawyers, but it does mean that we should take some thought to the matter and dress nicely. The actual result will depend on the individual. Being a grumpy middle aged man myself, this means I follow the white shoe rule, wearing a suit most of the year and business casual from Memorial to Labor Day. Others’ mileage will vary, but in no case should Sunday be the worst dressed day of the week.

          • Well put.

            By the way, I’m “younger” in relation to David, the retired “old” man. I’m best described as middle aged, but I’m not sure if I’m grumpy. Sleepy or bashful, maybe…

    • One more Mike says

      Well said. I haven’t been in Europe for several years, but always enjoyed visiting cathedrals over there. I grew up in a small-medium sized city with a Gothic Cathedral, but grew up an evangelical going to very unadorned churches. I got tired of going to church in gymnasiums in more recent years. Have lately been attending services in a small lutheran church which is majestic in its architecture and design. It is a sacred space and I feel holy when I’m there. There’s a lot to be said for reverence and awe.

      David Cornwell, every one of your comments is a gem.

  7. “PROPOSAL SEVEN: Restore congregational involvement in worship.
    One weakness of typical evangelical worship pointed out by Webber’s students was the lack of active participation in the service. The pattern was: sit or stand, sing, and listen while those up front do most everything. From my perspective, the main difference today is that the congregation sings more, but not much else.” … I’m not sure that congregations actually sing more. I think there may be more music, but my observations in some churches at least are that it’s often so loud and performance oriented that few actually sing, and even if they do the can’t hear themselves, much less anyone other than the musicians sing. What could be a congregational act often becomes very private due to the wall of sound.

    • I agree with you Rick, but even with the situation this way it gives the illusion of participation because the crowd gets “into the music.”

    • Pastor Rob says

      I am a typical evangelical who does traditional worship, and sees how empty and vain our liturgy is in mainline churches. I believe it was the prophet Isaiah speaking the word of God when he said that God does not want empty ritualistic worship, giving praise with our lips while our heart is far from him. God desires our heart in worship. That takes on a different dimension for different people. Worship is never about people, and always about God. But, more and more I read pages like this where liturgical worship promoters have their high and right views on worship and look down their noses on all the wrong things that the Contemporary Worship promoters do or say in worship. I can’t wait to see your surprise in heaven when worship is loud (Psalms remind us of door frames shaking due to the volume), and so awe inspiring that you might stand silently by and not participate. I disagree with many of the proposals above. When followed to their due end, they lead to the same problem as we see in Contemporary churches today – worship focused on my likes and my involvement. Does that mean the the silent worship of the Puritans was not acceptable worship because there was not group participation? Does that mean that 700 youth singing praise to God from their heart while singing a Chris Tomlin song is not pleasing to God? Or does it mean that yet again, we see the need to compare worship styles as to what is acceptable in drawing people into the presence of God and what is not…I think Scripture is clear about what worship is to be and what it is not to be. Ancient Liturgy can very easily be classified as dead and lacking engagement of the heart in today’s churches.

      • And where do you get, from reading this, Pastor Rob, that this is promoting a certain form of worship? I think you definitely missed the point, which transcends styles.

  8. Educate the People
    The only way that it is likely to happen is if the worship leaders really buy into it and believe it.

    The worship leaders are really where the work starts. For example, in the mainline churches in the first part of the 20th century the ministers in many seminaries got a solid dose of liberal theology. This continues until today. Over time, it has changed those churches. This was not good, but it is how it works.

    What I have seen (and it is limited) is that many worship leaders are musicians leading worship. I am not sure at all that they have even studied or thought out the consequences of the way they lead worship.

    There is a saying that comes from church history Lex orandi, Lex credendi Some say it is loosely translated as ‘The way we worship affects what we believe.’

    I have seen this to be true many times. Has anyone else?

  9. Thanks for this. It breaks my heart when the congregation goes whoring after the electric guitar, but hardens their hearts against the Tuba.

    1. But what if they try to “educate” you back?
    3. How old does it have to be to count as a tradition? Or a “denomination”?
    4. I guess evangelicals are against Vatican II, then…?
    5. I tried that but they just wouldn’t bow to me. PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE PULPIT!
    6. Hooray for those crucifixion reenactors from the Philippines!
    7. Other than sitting, standing, or singing, what else are they supposed to do? Give hugs? Utter prophecies? Discuss whether the sermon was any good?
    8. Well who could be against balance? But I feel the Holy Ghost calling me to sing Slim Whitman.
    9. “All life…?” For a minute there I thought you had gone over the bunny-huggers!

  10. I kind of like the Anglican way.
    I started attending an Anglican church and it was different.
    It is structured so that you pretty well have to take part. Stand up, do responsive readings, sing the following hymns, sit down, listen for a bit, stand up, recite the apostles creed, go forward to take communion.
    I found it next to impossible to remain a spectator.

    Some people do, but most of the time those who just sit there are too old to stand up. In that case communion is brought to them.

    • Agreed. An Anglican service (even when – perhaps particularly when – it’s abridged or adapted to suit local circumstances) really can feel like a corporate act of worship rather than a stage show, PROVIDED it’s clearly led so you’re not wondering what page they’ve suddenly jumped to, or wondering why the organ has suddenly cut in for a sung response. Otherwise it can be utterly mystifying (not in a good way).