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Worship Words

Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry

Debra Rienstra


Published: Feb 1, 2009
Baker Academic
Retail Price
: $26.00
Length: 288 pages
Binding: Paper
ISBN: 9780801036163

“Deeply personal, wise, and practical, this book provides trustworthy guidance to all who seek to employ faithful and energized language in worship.”

— Thomas G. Long
Candler School of Theology, Emory University

Words have great significance. They both form and inform us. They convey meaning and shape understanding. They express our highest thoughts and our deepest emotions. But because of their ubiquity, words are easily taken for granted. In Worship Words, part of the Engaging Worship series, professor of English Debra Rienstra and professor of preaching and worship Ron Rienstra make a careful examination of the role and use of language in the worship practices of the church. Their goal is to help students, pastors, and worship leaders come to a renewed appreciation and understanding of words in worship and to inspire them to use words more intentionally–to the greater glory of God and the greater blessing of God’s people.

The book is scholarly–-the result of much field research and theological reflection–-but also highly practical. Its topics include dimensions of language, repetition, authenticity, metaphor, tradition, lament, and worship planning. It is ecumenical in scope, demonstrating understanding and appreciation for various branches of the church while addressing important questions that cut across worship styles and theological and ecclesial traditions. Each chapter includes group discussion questions and exercises for evaluating and creating worship service elements.


Debra Rienstra

Debra Rienstra is professor of English at Calvin University, where she has taught writing and literature since 1996. She is the author of four books—on motherhood, spirituality, worship, and ecotheology/climate change—as well as numerous essays, poems, and scholarly articles. She writes the fortnightly Refugia Newsletter on Substack, a newsletter for people of faith who want to know and do more about climate. She also writes fortnightly for The Reformed Journal blog, writing about spirituality, climate change, pop culture, the church, the arts, higher ed, and more. Her literary essays have appeared in Rock & Sling, The Examined Life Journal, and Aethlon, among other places.

Ron Rienstra

Ron Rienstra is professor of preaching and worship and director of worship life at Western Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is an ordained pastor in the Reformed Church in America. He is the author of Church at Church: Jean-Jacques von Allmen’s Liturgical Ecclesiology and numerous articles in Reformed Worship and scholarly journals.


Each chapter concludes with a summary and a series of exercises based on the material in the chapter. The exercises include suggestions for discussion, observation, resource development, and preaching. The following excerpt is from Chapter 7, “Naming God: Meeting the One Who Is.”

Summary Calls to Action

  • Analyze the metaphors/images/titles/names for God used in your church’s worship.
  • For every name commonly used, find appropriate ways to say yes-no-yes to that name.
  • Name, explain, and worship the Trinity.
  • Expand the repertoire of names/images/titles/metaphors for God in all aspects of worship language. Explore the Bible’s treasury.
  • If possible in your context, reduce the number of gendered pronouns for God. Use gendered titles (such as Lord) but seek ways to diminish the gendered aspect of these names and also seek to use alternatives.

What are the images for God most common in your imagination? In what ways might the Bible expand or challenge your common images?

During a worship service you attend, observe the presence of KINGAFAP. Was this the dominant metaphor system in the service? Were there any elements of the service whose language compellingly challenged the distortions of KINGAFAP, that is, more than a passing reference to God as servant, sufferer, or something other than the distant, masculine ruler? Based on your observations, does this worshiping assembly have a KINGAFAP problem? Now that you are looking for this metaphor system, reflect briefly on the role it plays in your own devotional life. Is it your own dominant image of God?

During a worship service you attend, observe whether or not the congregation is worshiping the Trinity. Are all three persons of the Trinity somewhere named in songs, prayers, liturgical words, sermon? Are the persons of the Trinity related to one another or named separately at different points without reference to the relational nature of God? Which person of the Trinity seems dominant in the worship of this assembly? How might this affect the people’s worship and their Christian life as a whole?

During a worship service you attend, make a list of all the names and images used to name God as well as the actions God is said to perform. Include some notes about the frequency of each name or action. What picture of God might a newcomer receive after attending this service? What confusions, distortions, insights, or comforts might a newcomer take away? Did this exercise reveal anything to you about your own unconscious images of God?

Choose any Psalm that you know and love. Explore a name for God in order to shape a prayer. Choose one image from the Psalm, and write a prayer in which you name God in terms of the image, then expand the image in praying for the congregation and the world. Remember to speak this image in light of the gospel.

Psalm 23

Example: God, you are a faithful shepherd to us. You know each of us by name, and love us with a fierce, protective love. We ask you to tend the wounds of those who are sick and grieving today, especially…. We ask you to comfort those who are fearful today, fearful of… We ask you to protect those who are in danger today, … Many people in this world do not know your voice. We pray that you will continue to call to them. Let your Spirit speak to them through the church…

Let the shape of the psalm as a whole shape the prayer. Write a prayer that names God in terms of the psalm, then follows the contours of the psalm.

Psalm 1

Example: Judge of the nations, Judge of the heart, all things are revealed to you and nothing is hidden from your wisdom. Teach us to walk in the right paths. Lead us away from all the bad counselors of this world: cynicism, fearfulness, despair, prejudice. Lead us instead into the delight of your ways and teach us to meditate on them. Teach us to pray. As a congregation, plant us like healthy trees near the water of your gracious words. We long to yield fruit for you…

Using an image from the Psalm that especially strikes you and explore an action of God through that image.

Psalm 68:9

You gave abundant showers, O God; you refreshed your weary inheritance.

Example: Dear God, we come to you thirsty, like dry ground. We look to you for all that we need and we wait for your gracious care. Send your Spirit to us, nourishing God, like a drenching shower. Work among us so that, like a fertile field, we might grow good deeds that will feed others in this world…

Variations on this exercise:

Tailor the prayer to a particular place in the service: a call to worship, a prayer for illumination, a congregational prayer, a confessional prayer, and so on. Other passages of Scripture could, of course, form the basis of similar exercises.

Here’s a homiletical exercise, fitting even for nonprofessional preachers: Write a short sermonette in which you explore an unusual image for God from Scripture. Start with a text that has a striking image in it. For instance, consider Exodus 13:21-22 and the image of the pillar of cloud and fire. How can that image speak to us today? Or, explore Luke 15:8-10, the image of the woman and the lost coin from Jesus’s parable. In what ways is God like a determined housekeeper? To get the most out of the exercise, do the following:

  1. Identify the Scripture text that will be the heart of your mini-sermon.
  2. Pray through the text, and research anything that puzzles you about it.
  3. Write a three-sentence paragraph (at most) that simply restates what the text says, and does so well and beautifully. This is the second paragraph of your three-paragraph sermonette.
  4. Write another three-sentence paragraph, this time in response to asking “So what?” of your second paragraph. This is the third paragraph for your sermon
  5. Think about your friends, both Christian and non-Christian. What would connect their experience or life to this text? Write another paragraph of no more than three sentences. This is the first paragraph of your sermon.

Compose a three-part prayer structured on the persons of the Trinity. Consider using alternative names for the persons of the Trinity, such as Abba-Servant-Paraclete, Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer, or Lover-Beloved-Mutual Friend. Be careful to avoid modalism! The prayer could be fully written out, or a bidding prayer with petitions alternating with congregational responses and silent prayer, or simply a set of notes that show a planned structure to be improvised on in the moment.

During a worship service you attend, observe the presence of KINGAFAP. Was this the dominant metaphor system in the service? Were there any elements of the service whose language compellingly challenged the distortions of KINGAFAP, that is, more than a passing reference to God as servant, sufferer, or something other than the distant, masculine ruler? Based on your observations, does this worshiping assembly have a KINGAFAP problem? Now that you are looking for this metaphor system, reflect briefly on the role it plays in your own devotional life. Is it your own dominant image of God?

Compose a new song acclaiming the Trinity. Can we adore the Triune God with the same intimate love with which we adore Jesus? What images can we employ to draw people into worshipful awe at the beauty and holiness of the Triune God?


“Debra and Ron Rienstra carefully articulate the importance of words used in a worship setting, and the effects our preaching and song language have on our congregations and our faith. . . . After the first page or two, you will be pulled in by a deep conviction to watch what you say, or sing. . . . Designed for teams, complete with exercises for both worship leaders and pastors, as well as exercises to be done in worship, this book gives what many of us lack in our daily life: space and time for discussion and wrestling with the text. Discussions on metaphors, descriptive language, naming God, gender language, Trinitarian worship, and tradition are a few of the topics in this rich resource. There is no way that it can be read, or should be read in one sitting. With love and care, [the authors] challenge the leadership in the Church to be accountable for the words they choose, their biblical faithfulness, and to think deeply about the historical and societal implications of these words. By drawing upon theology, history and modern worship trends, the Rienstras present a thorough dissection of the words used in worship and their unending importance to the body of believers.”

Worship Leader Magazine


“Deeply personal, wise, and practical, this book by Debra and Ron Rienstra provides trustworthy guidance to all who seek to employ faithful and energized language in worship. Their insights on the words of prayers, hymns, and sermons move us from the chatty excesses of much worship today to language that is lively, crisp, inviting, profound, and full of wonder.”

–Thomas G. Long
Bandy Professor of Preaching
Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA

“I keep only classic worship books on my shelves. Worship Words will be there, assuming I ever get it back from my worship musician friends. Who knew! Music isn’t everything!”

–Sally Morgenthaler
author, Worship Evangelism

“In an age when well-chosen words can be misinterpreted as inauthentic, Worship Words makes a dramatic case for the opposite. Followers of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, need to be attentive to the words used in worship. Theological and practical insights work hand in hand in this volume as it shatters the myth about the powerlessness of our words. See and hear the possibilities for well-chosen worship words in a text that is itself a fine example of verbal craftsmanship.”

–Lester Ruth
Lily May Jarvis Professor of Christian Worship
Asbury Theological Seminary

“This book is an extraordinarily rich treasure chest of new insights, the best of research, and time-tested wisdom. Because of the unusual combination of their brilliant literary, musical, and theological gifts, the Rienstras offer phenomenal contributions to all of us who care about the church’s worship. I most heartily recommend this book to everyone who seeks to glorify God fittingly.”

–Marva Dawn
author of Reaching Out without Dumbing Down,
A Royal “Waste” of Time, and Talking the Walk

“What a stretching book full of rich ideas and thoughtful challenges to all of us who design worship experiences! I will put Worship Words in a spot on my bookshelf where it can be reached easily and used often as a resource for my own thinking and planning and to remind me of the profound significance of the language we use to call people to worship, to sing praise and lament, and to offer prayers to a holy and sovereign God. I am deeply grateful for the wisdom, experience, and research shared with us by the Rienstras.”

–Nancy Beach
executive vice president for the arts
Willow Creek Association teaching pastor
Willow Creek Community Church

“In Worship Words, the Rienstras present an elegantly written and masterful study of words that will assist the 21st century Christian worship leader. Learning how to use words meaningfully in worship is vitally important, and the Rienstras bring fresh, clarifying, practical insight to that endeavor.”

–Charles E. Fromm
publisher, Worship Leader magazine
Song Discovery, and Worshiper


Worship Words

Worship Words Interview with CICW

This article was first published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship on their website: Words are powerfully formative. Worship words shape how we understand God and worship together. In Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry Debra and Ron Rienstra show why and how to give…
September 30, 2008