Foundations: No.66 Spring 2014

Book Review


Encountering God Together
David G Peterson, IVP, 2013, 192pp, £9.99


Much has been written on the worship of the church, both gathered and scattered, since David Peterson completed Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (IVP, 1992) over twenty years ago. In Encountering God Together, his latest volume on the subject, Peterson seeks to advance and apply his biblical theology to the regular gathering of the congregation. Indeed, this new work could well be described as a condensed, developed, up-to-date, applied and practical version of Engaging with God. This makes it both accessible and useful to the target audience. The author’s aim is that everyone involved in planning and leading church services would think more biblically and creatively about this important ministry in the face of what he describes as “a poor understanding of why we gather, little awareness of how to lead a gathering effectively, and an inadequate grasp of what we should expect from our time together” (11).    

To address this deficiency, Peterson sets forth this treatise on the gathering, its purposes, and its elements, encouraging more honest engagement with what scripture reveals concerning these things and how they have been understood throughout church history. The vast majority of the engagement is with scripture. This is interspersed with brief, yet helpful, summaries of historical development and contemporary challenges.

The first three chapters build the foundation, tracing the themes of the gathering work of God, the worship of God, and the edification of the church through redemptive history. Once a biblical theology of the gathering has been established, and worship has been robustly defined, edification emerges as the controlling theme for what follows. The remainder of the book seeks to demonstrate how each element of the gathering should be achieving such edification (strengthening) of the congregation. And so there are chapters on patterns of service, listening to God, praying together, praising God, singing together, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, plus a final worked example from Nehemiah 8-9, which is applied to church congregations and their hearing and response to the ministry of God’s word today.

Throughout the book, Peterson displays a winning combination of solid bible handling, astute theological reflection and pastoral wisdom, along with a good awareness of some recent trends. His call to pastors to take responsibility for modelling and teaching good practice in this area gathers momentum as his argument and application progress.

Chapter One outlines the theology of the gathering: The author proposes that God’s eternal plan is to unite all things in Christ (Eph 1:10). And so God gathers Israel, and later, in fulfilment of his promises, gathers the church of Jesus Christ, who themselves are to anticipate the ultimate gathering in the heavenly assembly (Rev 21:1-4). This anticipation should be found in the weekly gatherings of congregations, which also serve to remind those gathered that God’s grace is the basis of their relationship with him. So gatherings should be “gospel-shaped” (21). Peterson then explores three general purposes for the gathering. Notably, at this stage, “gathering to worship” is only one way that he proposes we experience the gathering. As is pointed out, “…since other terms such as ‘fellowship’ and ‘edification’ can describe the purpose of the gathering, it is not helpful to use ‘worship’ as the main or exclusive term” (25). This paves the way for his discussion of worship in Chapter Two, as does his desire to tighten up the translation of the different words that are often rendered “worship” in our English translations.

In the second chapter, Peterson seeks to correct misrepresentations of what worship is, reaching the same conclusion as in his former work, namely that “the pattern of acceptable worship throughout scripture can be defined as an engagement with God on the terms he proposes and in the way he alone makes possible” (40, emphasis original). This chapter provides an excellent survey of the different terminology related to worship that is used in both Old and New Testaments. “Homage”, “reverence” and “service to God” are traced through the scriptures with examples of each given. Such clarification provided by the word studies is undoubtedly necessary given the loose understanding and use of worship terminology today. However, the call to change “worship” to “service” in the rendering of latreuein (for example, Rom 12:1)is not applied in the same way to proskynein and phoboun, which the author renders as “paying homage” and “revering/respecting”. One wonders if Peterson might have followed this to a logical conclusion of contending for clearer translations of the latter two terms. This, it could be argued, may avoid the need to repeat the discussion every time someone asks, “which worship word is this?”

Chapter Three on the theme of edification is very much the peg on which all following chapters are hung. Again the author makes use of the redemptive-historical approach to examine the theological context of edification – how the Messiah’s building work is anticipated in scripture and fulfilled by Jesus. Several relevant New Testament passages are surveyed and are used to support the primacy of edification in the gathering (Eph 2:13-22; 1 Cor 3:21; Rev 21:1-4; 22:1-5). The ministry of gifted leaders is described as critical to the process of edification (Eph 4:11-12) and all Christians are encouraged to share in this mutual strengthening process: “Edification occurs when Christians minister to one another in word and deed, seeking to express and encourage a Christ-centred faith, hope and love. Clearly this ought to take place when the congregation meets together, but also as individuals have the opportunity to minister to one another in everyday life situations.” (51-52). Not surprisingly, 1 Corinthians 14 is set forth as a key text in grasping the importance of edification in the gathering. The clearer aspects of Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians are dealt with well and clearly support what Peterson proposes. The more challenging aspects could have done with more support for the positions stated, for example the question of who is responsible for weighing the prophecies in 1 Cor 14:29. This does not detract from what is a profitable and well-presented chapter.

The fourth chapter, where the rubber hits the road, is the high point of the book. It proceeds to apply the teaching about edification to the content, structure and flow of the gathering, combining brief historical sketches and further biblical teaching with a range of practical examples. There is plenty here for those who plan and lead church services to benefit from as they heed Peterson’s call to take responsibility for the gathering itself, and for teaching and training the whole congregation in this area, especially those who lead different elements of the gathering. What is particularly good to observe in this chapter is Peterson’s engagement with those who come to different conclusions concerning the structure and leadership of the gathering. For example, he builds a cogent challenge to Brian Chappell’s view (Christ-Centered Worship, Baker,2009) that there is only one legitimate “gospel structure” suitable for the regular gathering of the church, preferring to explore a range of scriptures where the gospel is articulated and various patterns of response are outlined. Peterson also disagrees with the designation of song leaders or music directors as “worship leaders” (contra Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters, Crossway, 2008). Such engagement across different approaches is rare in contemporary literature on the subject and is therefore welcomed and commended.

Chapters Five, Six and Seven encourage the same biblically-informed preparation for listening to God (the reading of scripture and preaching), corporate prayer and praise as was evident in the previous chapters. The now usual combination of biblical teaching, practical hints and exhortation is directed towards preachers, encouraging attention not only to preaching but to the kind of response to the word they encourage. Some helpful suggestions are given on how and where prayer should be incorporated into the gathering, “enabling participants to relate every aspect of the service to God” (108). Peterson once again draws on his earlier work to encourage church gatherings to express the same confidence in God in their praises as is evident in the Revelation to John.

The chapter on singing that follows contains much biblical and pastoral wisdom and calls for appropriate training and support for those involved in this ministry to be made a priority. For consistency, it would have been nice to see the same Bible overview of the subject utilised as in the chapters on prayer and praise but this is a minor quibble. The ways in which singing plays its part in edifying the gathered church are gleaned from solid exegesis and application of key texts (Eph 5:18-19; Col 3:16). Unity between pastors and music leaders is encouraged so that together the leadership of the gathering might consistently model the biblical teaching on edification to the congregation.

The ninth chapter on baptism is perhaps the weakest element of the book. The author’s aim is to reflect on “what may unite believers and edify the church” (144). But, of course, different traditions would hold that their practice or understanding better edifies the church so there is, in reality, very little common ground for Peterson to apply his argument to. It could also be argued that baptism lacks scriptural support for being part of the regular gathering of the congregation, which also removes it from the main theme of the book. There is more common ground, and a more natural connection to edification, when the Lord’s Supper is explored in Chapter Ten. “We do not simply meet to have fellowship with God but to minister to one another as we express our common participation in Christ as our Saviour and Lord. Here is an occasion for edifying the church.” (174)

In conclusion, David Peterson has provided a much-needed resource for church leaders and all who participate in church services. It is my opinion that pastors and leaders of congregations will particularly benefit from reading and reflecting on Peterson’s challenge. Yes, it is a useful book for church musicians too, and others who take part in the leadership of the gathering, but really this is not a book to be read by such groups in isolation. For it to really achieve its aims, it will be up to pastors to take a lead in teaching and modelling this biblically-informed pattern of edification. Everything that is done when the church gathers says something. Reading and applying Peterson’s guide will help church leaders know what their gatherings should be saying, how to achieve such biblical patterns, and how to communicate these things to their congregation.


Andrew McKenna

Pastor, Christchurch Market Harborough and Music Ministry UK national team member (