Lester Ruth is Lily May Jarvis Professor of Christian Worship at Asbury Theological Seminary and an instructor in liturgical history at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. Carrie Steenwyk is the Project Manager for Publications at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW).
Together with John D. Witvliet, the director of the CICW, Lester Ruth and Carrie Steenwyck have developed the Church at Worship series, which the two describe here as intentionally practical in order to give modern-day worshipers a sense of the Scripture-centered worship that communities from around the world have experienced throughout Christian history.
“Why is it that churches that claim to have such a high view of Scripture often read so little of it in worship?” That’s the question renowned worship historian James White used to ask.
It’s a fair question — and a good one. One would think that believing the Bible to be the inspired Word of God would cause churches to devote a significant portion of a worship service to the public reading of the Bible. But that’s not always the case.
And so, here’s a follow-up question: What might it look like if a church did place Scripture at the center of its worship? Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth-Century Jerusalem shows us one example of what this could look like. Sometimes churches in the post-Constantinian era of the late fourth century get a bad rap, as if becoming legalized and being associated with the emperor Constantine caused the loss of everything good in early Christianity. But the church in Jerusalem at that time actually has something constructive to teach us about how a church can place Scripture fully, richly, and abundantly at the center of its worship.
As co-editors, we wanted to learn from other worshiping communities throughout history — including fourth-century Jerusalem and many others. That led us to create the Church at Worship series. Being concerned with questions of what the ordinary worshiper experienced means that we did not want our first book, or any others in the series, to be written only for experts in the field who rightly need to iron out the inconsistencies in the historical evidence. Thus we also wrote for modern-day worshipers, who can still learn from historic practices even when the historic data doesn’t all fit together perfectly. For example, the fourth-century church in Jerusalem used Scripture to fill the content of its worship with biblical richness. Worshipers today could do the same. And so, throughout the book, we try to note practices that could enrich the life of the church today.
That practical goal is the one we have chosen for the entire Church at Worship series. Having that goal means several things. First, it means we use a case study approach to talk about worship history, presenting “scrap books” of a particular place, time, and worship congregation rather than broad overviews that survey large sweeps of history. Since worship is planned and led for a particular group of people in a specific context at a certain time, this approach allows us to look closely at worship by a particular group of people in a specific context at a certain time. Readers can then more easily apply what they learn from a specific situation to their own. Our experience in the classroom has convinced us that this is great way to let history re-shape current practices.
The focus on connecting history to significant pastoral practices today also led us to design the CAW series to help readers identify with the historical characters. We present images, sermons, and firsthand accounts to help readers see what worshipers would have seen and to get a sense of what worshipers would have experienced.
This approach helps readers avoid dismissing history too quickly, especially if they are tempted to think that worship in the past was bad or not as good as modern-day worship. No one wakes up on a Sunday morning and thinks, “Let’s see how badly we can mess it up today.” All worshipers have reasons and motivations for how they worship, and others who worshiped throughout history did too. We want readers to try to understand those factors from the inside out. So, starting with someone from Jerusalem, we introduce Egeria, a nun on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the 380s. By connecting with Egeria, readers can walk in her shoes as she walks where Jesus walked.
Finally, this unique practical approach means that we make the case studies as data rich as possible. The result is that more and more readers piece together a new worship world, view it from the inside out, and make serendipitous discoveries, which continually amaze us. We hope that as you read Walking Where Jesus Walked and the other books in the series, you will not only be introduced to a new worshiping community but will also gain practical wisdom from your discoveries, too.