Story-Shaped Worship: Robbie Castleman


Story-Shaped Worship: Following Patterns from the Bible and History, by Robbie F. Castleman (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013). 

One of the books that presents a helpful balance between deep insight and accessibility is Robbie F. Castleman’s Story-Shaped Worship. A professor of biblical studies and theology at John Brown University, Castleman seeks to counteract the individualism prevalent in worship today (189) by articulating a theology of worship that finds its “story” not in the individual and his preferences, but in the shape of the gospel itself “outlined in Scripture, enacted in Israel, refocused in the New Testament community of the early church, regulated and guarded by the apostolic fathers, [and] recovered in the Reformation” (14).

Toward this end, Castleman progressively builds a case for worship that is an ordered (chap. 1) reenactment of the gospel (chap. 2) in a sacred space (chap. 3) according to God’s Word (chaps. 4–5, 7) that results in obedience to God’s will (chap. 6). This particular worship pattern, she argues in Part Two, continued to be nurtured in the patristic church (chap. 8), by the Reformers (chap. 9), and still shapes worship in some traditions even today (chap. 10).

Castleman begins formulating this understanding by arguing that the ordered rhythm rooted in creation (48) provides “a significant bedrock aspect of liturgical development” (34) since, just as “what one does and how one does it really is indicative of who one is and what one truly believes,” similarly “how people worship . . . does reflect what they truly believe about the God they worship” (30). Thus, just as God created the cosmos in an “orderly, sequential fashion” (32), even so one who truly believes in this God will worship him in an ordered way that reflects the character of the Creator.

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The worship of Israel reveals the particular shape of such ordered worship as one of reenactment. Everything about Israel’s worship, from the tabernacle construction to the sacrificial system (80–81), displays the essence of their worship as “remembering how the Lord God had delivered them and reenacting this deliverance” (43) through seven primary elements: call to worship, praise and adoration, confession, declaration of God’s good news, the Word of the Lord, responding to God’s Word, and the benediction (81–87). This kind of reenactment continues in the New Testament (58) and provides a means to “reflect the biblical story that is central to a congregation’s identity as God’s people,” to “serve as a corrective to worship which is designed mainly for the contemporary concerns of a congregation,” and to “celebrate the character of God and his redemptive work in the world” (58–59).

This requires establishing a “set apart” space and time for such reenactment (73) that “helps worshipers worship and does not distract their attention from the worship of God” (66). Castleman rejects the popular repudiation of a sacred/secular distinction in favor of “all-of-life worship,” insisting that “when ‘worship’ means anything that anyone does, it tends to mean very little in terms of what pleases God” (74). Rather, she argues that a sacred space allows the worship to “reflect, even if imperfectly, God’s holiness and character” (64).

Nevertheless, corporate worship that follows the biblical pattern also affects life outside the sacred space, for “this liturgy is a godly rhythm for the whole of life” (91). Since the pattern acts out the gospel, and since the gospel motivates godly living (Tit 2:12–14), regular reenactment of this “story” on a weekly basis will shape the worshiper by the gospel. And since this is the pattern set forth in Scripture, ordering worship according to this structure “helps God’s people steer clear of the ambiguity of using worship as a tool to fulfill their own desires” (97).

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The book presents a case for gospel-shaped liturgy similar to the other recent volumes under review, but in a clear and accessible manner that does not sacrifice depth. Castleman builds her argument progressively in a way that is convincing and very easy to follow. Her clarion call to evangelical churches to abandon worship shaped by the market in favor of worship ordered by Scripture is refreshing and much needed.

The most glaring weakness of the book is the absence of Communion in Castleman’s sevenfold worship pattern. Communion with God is the essence of worship, beginning at the Garden, pictured in the Hebrew feasts, and culminating in the Lord’s Table. Indeed, it should be the climax of any gospel-shaped liturgy, for in eating at the Table of the Lord, we picture his acceptance of us through Christ by faith. The other puzzling item with how Castleman presents her case is her rejection on the one hand of the regulative principle of worship in favor of what she calls the “canonical theological approach to worship” (19), compared with her insistence on the other hand that worship must be “by the book” for “maintaining a right relationship with God and for offering worship that honors God’s character” (97). Perhaps she believes that she needs to reject the regulative principle in order to follow the gospel-shaped liturgy she proposes, not realizing that while the regulative principle protects the God-approved elements of worship, it nevertheless allows for flexibility in the order of worship.

Story-Shaped Worship strikes a healthy balance between the depth of argument in James K. A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom, which would be difficult to follow for an average layperson, and the popular accessibility of Mike Cosper’s Rhythms of Grace, which makes a good argument but doesn’t explore the issue as fully. In many ways it resembles Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Worship, but Castleman presents a more robust biblical argument than Chapell, who spends more time examining the historic liturgies. Thus, I highly recommend Castleman’s book for pastors and church musicians as a thorough but readable introduction to gospel-shaped liturgy.