Mike Cosper had an incredible impact on me in 2021 that had nothing to do with “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” In 2021, I read his book, Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s worship tells the Story of the Gospel.
I read it because, ever since a teenager stopped me in the foyer after service one Sunday years ago, I have grappled with the same question this book addresses. “Why did we gather? Why did we sing? Why did we do it the way we did?” (17). This question sent Cosper and others searching for answers, leading them back to the gospel. In the book, he shows how the story of the gospel is a story of worship, “The gospel [is] all about worship, once broken by sin, now restored in Jesus. Worship, too, was all about the gospel, rehearsing the story and allowing it to shape the lives of the worshiping church” (19).
Connect the Dots From Doctrine to Practice
Connecting the dots between the gospel and worship answers the “why” question for church gatherings. Why do we begin with a call to worship? Because worship begins with God: “Worship begins with God because God begins everything, and everything that exists is a testimony to his handiwork. Worship begins with God because God made us in his image, a mysterious stamp that hard-wires us to reflect and declare his glory in a way that’s unique among creation” (125). Why do we sing and pray? To give a shared language to such diverse life stories. “That’s what songs and hymns are meant to do. They provide language for experiences that often leave us speechless” (162). Why do we sit and listen to Biblical preaching? To affirm our identity in Christ and have God form us by his word on the lips of other Christians. “Believers gathered to continually remember the gospel, to be nourished by God’s Word, and to encourage one another” (112).
Drawing the lines makes the picture visible. Connecting the dots shows us the origin and the purpose behind each element in our worship gatherings. When we understand this, we see church worship isn’t a religious service to consume but a family habit “forming the character, beliefs, and devotional life of those who attend” (120).
Of the many suggested applications in the book, two are front and center as I think about worship in our church: Enable and encourage participation and being mindful of everyone.
Enable and encourage participation
A friend who is a worship pastor explained to me the difference between choosing songs for Sunday mornings and songs for concerts. He picks songs he can sing for a concert, but for Sunday morning, he picks songs everyone can sing, regardless of musical ability. The difference is because gathered worship aims at participation, not performance.
I watched Spiderman: No Way Home with a crowd of people, yet I was entirely passive. Worship is different. We are not passive recipients but active participants in weekly worship (101). We participate with our voice, hands, and sometimes with dancing as we sing together. We touch and taste the elements of communion. We embrace others with hugs and handshakes and put our hands on a shoulder to pray over someone. We participate in worship with our whole person and with one another. “For the church, then, worship is participation in Jesus’s own worship of the Father by the power of the Spirit. It’s initiated by the Spirit’s prompting, made possible by the Son’s work, and all about the Trinity’s glory” (71).
When considering things like song choices, prayers, which Bible translation to use, what to say during communion, the volume of the sound system, and more, consider what will draw out and encourage the most participation from the entire church.
Be Mindful of Everyone
Churches get messy when we make our preferences the gold standard of worship. So, I appreciated Cosper’s challenge to have a posture of deference towards the “style” of music in our church. He writes, “Sometimes I get to sing with my preferences, enjoying the songs, styles, and sounds of music that resonate with my cultural “place.” Other times, I defer to others in my church family, joining my voice with their choice of music” (167). God’s church is a beautiful tapestry of people from all over the world, so music tastes and styles will differ. People who love hip-hop and people who only enjoy string quartets sit beside each other on Sunday morning. The beauty of God’s work is that such diverse people truly delight in putting aside their preferences to join in each other’s songs. “Grace makes that deference joyful” (167). Or, as Paul says, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others” (Php 2:4).
People arrive at worship gatherings in different places emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Some are full of joy, and some are sorrowful. Some are confident, and some are worried. Some are brimming with hope, and some feel boiled by despair. Labor for the songs you sing, the prayers you pray, and the substance of your service to minister across the entire spectrum.
Remember: Corporate Worship is Special.
There is nothing like corporate worship. Normal Sunday mornings are one spectacular scene in an epic story. Every week, when the church gathers, the story of the gospel is proclaimed to the watching world and the heavenly host (Jn 13:35 & Eph 3:10-11). Rhythms of Grace helped me understand that truth deeper and challenged me to think more about how that story forms and informs our church. It’s a book worth having on your shelf.
Scott Hurst pastors at Northminster Baptist Church in Toronto. He enjoys sports, books, and spending time with his wife and their two boys. Keep up with his writing at Write to Understand.