Karmen Krahn

The Conrad Grebel Review 23, no. 2 (Spring 2005)

Jane Rogers Vann, Gathered Before God: Worship-Centered Church Renewal. Westminster/John Knox, 2004.

Each word in Jane Rogers Vann’s three-word title is essential to understanding her intention: (a) Gathered – Her book takes a corporate view of church renewal. Gathered before God are not only God’s people corporately assembled, but the practices of those people – in worship and out – as a single expression of faithfulness. (b) Before – Placing every aspect of Christian living before God, Vann can describe worship as a morally demanding endeavor. “Before” may indeed be the one-word descriptor of church renewal – when all aspects of life are lived before God in expressions of faithful praise. (c) God – “[T]he central purpose for the church is the worship of the triune God made known through the story of the people of Israel and in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (2).

Professor of Christian Education at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education, Vann proposes a process of church renewal based on experiential learning theories. This combination – education and theology – is the book’s warp and weft. The shuttle is the question, “How do we learn the Christian life from the experience of congregational life?” (2) If a collection of mature Christians is the sum of a church on its way to renewal, what shall its practices be? What characteristics will it bear? How do spiritual renewal and worship renewal enhance each other? Answers are furnished here both in a sturdy theology of the worshipping church and in stories of ten Presbyterian congregations embodying characteristics of worship-centered renewal.

Not only is “worship’s integrity compromised every time it becomes an instrument used to support other programs,” the programmatic church implicitly suggests that when people participate in those programs “their Christian lives will be faithfully formed” (6), and presumably the church will be renewed by way of such programming. But programs do not equate to vitality, nor participation to growth. Gathered Before God leads readers to imagine worship as a paradigm for the whole of Christian life and the organizational hub of all congregational life (9). This should come as both a challenge and a relief to those searching for new vitality.

In the first of two accessible parts, Vann lays the theoretical groundwork for congregational renewal. Renewal happens through learning, and learning occurs when experience is followed by reflection. In educational terms, we learn by doing and finding meaning in what we do. Theologically, we experience God by participating in activities that expect God’s presence, and we learn from them when we take time to reflect upon them. Vann’s three-to-one ratio of experience to reflective discipline might seem a bit lopsided, but she contends it represents “not a devaluing of experience in favor of reflection but a careful valuing of experience as the ground of all knowledge” (39).

Chapter three describes worship as the setting of concrete experience. Worship is the environment of primary theology, firsthand experience of God by God’s gathered people in the midst of some really peculiar dynamics. Secondary theology is the work of reflecting upon that encounter, and here Vann’s unique offering of theory and story forms the book’s core. Chapters four through six examine prayer, study, and mission as environments of reflective practice and practice. Congregational stories help the reader understand worship as primary experience, with the church’s other functions organized around it as spaces for reflection and implementation. Part two is immensely practical.

One of this book’s strongest attributes is the balance given to art and academics, education and theology, theory and narrative. It is also unique in its ability to talk to Protestants about ritual while cautioning against ritualization, to address moral formation without being moralistic, and to address mission without using worship mechanistically.

Karmen Krahn, Swift Current, Saskatchewan