Flow: The Ancient Way to Do Contemporary Worship | Lester Ruth


Ruth, Lester. Flow: The Ancient Way to Do Contemporary Worship. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2020. 132 pp. $19.99.

In a world where churches increasingly have to choose between traditional and contemporary services, Flow by Lester Ruth offers a way for liturgists to synthesize these seemingly divergent streams. Lester Ruth, a research professor of Christian worship at Duke Divinity School specializing in the history of contemporary Christian worship (CCW), stands well qualified to propose such a paradigm for worship planning. While Flow’s bibliographic information lists Ruth as the book’s sole author, the book identifies six of Ruth’s Duke Divinity School students as contributors to the work: Zachary Barnes, Andrew T. Eastes, Jonathan Ottoway, Adam Perez, Glenn Stallsmith, and Debbie Wong. This collective of scholars draws from Justin Martyr’s First Apology fresh insights into how early Christians worshiped and connects those insights to CCW elements. Flow argues that ancient Christian worship expressions possessed qualities similar to CCW and offers ways that biblically faithful liturgists can incorporate modern expressions of these qualities into a four-fold service order of Gathering, Word, Table, and Sending.

The book easily divides into two sections, each paralleling a different audience. The introduction and first three chapters have a theoretical focus that will interest scholastic readers. They explore the theological and historical rationale for practicing ancient Christian worship in a contemporary way. The remaining six chapters have a practical nature that appeals to liturgists. They give real-world tips on how to apply the ancient-contemporary concepts in traditional services.

In the introduction, Ruth provides the historical motivation for his thesis: a missed opportunity in the 1990s for two different worship renewal movements to work together in revitalizing worship in mainline Christian worship. Ruth identifies these two movements as the official mainline denominational liturgical reform movement that re-introduced the four-fold order and the CCW renewal that emphasized informality and cultural relevance. Ruth then lays out the argument for how contemporary and ancient worship frameworks overlap. He finds in Justin Martyr’s summary of Christian worship gatherings allusions to not only the acts of the historical four-fold order but also to three attributes of worship that more closely align with CCW expressions: “open-ended time, extemporaneity, and an understanding of worship as a flow of actions” rather than objects (7). He argues that as church structures developed, lectionaries formalized, and liturgical works codified, worship became increasingly scripted and these three flow attributes disappeared.

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After Ruth’s opening chapters, the remainder of Flow is written by Ruth’s Duke Divinity school students. Zachary Barnes provides a historical overview of how “flow” became indispensable in contemporary worship, from its origins in the 1970s Vineyard movement to its twenty-first century advocates. Next, Adam Perez proposes an experiential—and subtly Pentecostal—understanding of the four-fold order where services are “encounters with God” (29). The rest of the book offers examples of how to plan corporate worship that is both relevant to contemporary culture and authentic to historical/biblical principles. The authors outline methods to incorporate flow into worship planning, music, spoken elements, and visual technology. The book concludes with two chapters and two appendixes that give additional resources for the ancient-contemporary liturgist.

Flow aims to bring ecumenical harmony; therefore, it adds a welcome voice to the growing field of worship studies. Where other worship scholars critique contemporary worship’s short-comings—and often rightfully so—Ruth and his contributors offer a historical-theological argument for the acceptance of some CCW elements while stopping short of championing the CCW movement as a whole. They propose and model the possibility of divergent forms of worship finding a biblically and historically rooted synergy. However, the authors do not address the concerns often raised by four-fold liturgists surrounding the fittingness of contemporary artistic forms for corporate worship. Instead, Ruth and his students assume that intentionally using these artforms and “flow” qualities to support the message of the gospel in a worship service will result in the artforms increasing worshiper engagement rather than serving as entertainment.

The main limitations of this book rise from its brevity (only 132 pages) and narrow scope (it only gives examples from a United Methodist context). When the authors give examples of how to incorporate flow into musical and technological elements, their examples always depict the most traditional four-fold order services and assume little-to-no preexisting knowledge of technology from the reader. They do not provide examples of more advanced techniques. Therefore, this book has only a few rings of influence. It will most benefit liturgists and worship students of the United Methodist church and to a lesser extent those of other denominations that follow a traditional order but seek to incorporate CCW elements. Finally, worship leaders and students in a contemporary context can benefit from Flow by deconstructing its lessons and applying them in a retrograde fashion. Indeed, a fruitful companion work to Flow: The Ancient Way to Do Contemporary Worship would be a book subtitled The Contemporary Way to Do Ancient Worship.


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Jordan Covarelli