Thursday, January 7, 2016

Book Review: Serving with Calvin by Terry Johnson

Terry Johnson’s book Serving with Calvin is a follow-up to his previous book Worshipping With Calvin. In that book, Johnson made the case that a bare soteriological Calvinism would be an insufficient foundation for the new Calvinists to build upon. Rather, he argued, Biblical and Reformed worship was not only at the core of Calvin’s reformation in Geneva, but it must also be what captivates the upcoming generation as well. Taking this previous work for granted (while also not requiring that one has first read it), Johnson offers Serving with Calvin as a wonderfully practical rejoinder that essentially answers the question of how the ideals of Worshipping with Calvin can really be put into practice.

In Serving With Calvin Johnson helpfully lays out for the reader what an ordinary means of grace worship service looks like. The three ordinary means of grace that God has given, as explained in Shorter Catechism #88, are the Word, sacraments, and prayer. An ordinary means of grace ministry is a ministry where “these properly receive our focus, our attention, our energy, our resources, our emphasis” (329).

Johnson is self-aware of the abuses that are possible, even under the ordinary means of grace model. He mentions and addresses these in his next-to-last chapter where he discusses the possible errors that ordinary means of grace churches could fall into.

For example, he says, an ordinary means of grace ministry could end up mistaking presumption for faith. What he means by this is that “Trust in the power of God through ordinary means can become an excuse for negligence and sloth” (320). This is a realistic possibility that churches need to be vigilant to look out for. In the same section he cautions against looking at small or shrinking congregations as a “sign of faithfulness” (322). Rather, he says, shrinking does not always (or even usually) equal faithfulness. Rather, “There is a presumption of growth in the New Testament.”

Johnson also reminds his readers that ordinary means of grace does not mean only means of grace. Not only should ministers and churches be absolutely committed to administering the Word, prayer, and sacraments to the flock, but they should also do the work of a pastor. As he puts it, just because the pastor has preached his sermon, prayed, and brought the sacraments to his people doesn’t mean that his work is done. “Healthy relationships, or more to the point, our pastoral care, is crucial, if our ordinary means ministry is to be received” (329). It may be a temptation, says Johnson, for the pastor to “hide in their studies, and thereby neglect the kitchen table, the coffee house, and the counseling room.”

Johnson also cautions against neglecting church programs that could greatly benefit the body. Ordinary means ministry doesn’t mean that the church doesn’t have special programs focused on children, college students or families, for example. Of course, “none of these…should usurp the role of the public assembly on the Lord’s Day.” The Church, while having its focus on the right things, needs to learn to walk and chew gum, as it were. We cannot focus on the means of grace and think that neglecting other things that are helpful to our members will simply turn out fine. I appreciate the candor of a book that commends ordinary means of grace ministry while recognizing possible mistakes or errors that such a ministry can be prone to.

There is much to commend about Serving with Calvin. But there is also some that I disagree with. This is to be expected in a book that deals with such practical matters. Nearly every reader, I suspect, will find things that they simply do not agree with Johnson about. I like that — it’s a sign of conviction. Few things are more frustrating than reading an author who seems to want everyone to like them.

Johnson’s biggest blindspot is probably the seeming lack of cultural self-awareness. Nowhere in the book does he seem to realize or admit the cultural reality that the church services he describes and advocates for are most certainly a reflection of Western European worship forms, firmly rooted in the 16th century. While I love those worship forms and would (and do) embrace and utilize them in most cases, I find the lack of self-awareness to be just a bit glaring.

In his discussion of the importance of reverence in worship Johnson rejects hip-hop as unsuitable alongside of John Cage’s atonal monstrosities (102). This demonstrates what seems to be more of a misunderstanding of other musical traditions than it does some inherent defect or irreverence in hip-hop. I would have loved for Johnson to have said something like: "For most churches that follow anglo-european forms of worship and music style (such as our own), hip-hop would probably too irreverent or disruptive to include as part of the worship service. There may be some contexts when this sort of music would make sense."

This complaint about cultural blindspots is really minor in such a helpful book. Serving With Calvin lays out very well the biblical justification for the use of various elements of worship. It does so with brevity and never gets too deep into any of the issues (it is trying to cover a very broad range of topics). I think this book would make an excellent textbook for an introductory class on Worship. Even if the reader ends up disagreeing with Johnson from time-to-time they will find much to discuss and be provoked to consider the worship of God’s church in greater detail than most ordinarily do.

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