An Unintended Consequence of the Missional Movement on Worship

Zac HicksChurch & Ecclesiology, Worship Theology & Thought3 Comments

God as Mission, Worship as Expendable

“God is missional in essence.” “God is a missionary God by nature.” “The Church doesn’t do mission; it is on mission.” All true. And I’m so grateful for the recovery of “sentness” as a part our essence as image-bearers of God. Mission isn’t optional. Thank you, missional movement. 

At the same time, with some of the missional movement, some unhealthy ideas have leaked in. In my opinion, they can be exposed with this question: Is it possible for the Church to be so sent that it is never gathered?

Some in the missional movement have championed a church-on-the-move philosophy—to be the church is to be serving, “building the kingdom” in the community. So they’ve replaced some (or sometimes all) weekly worship gatherings (prayer, singing, preaching, sacraments) for “worshiping through service” out in the community.

The problem with this approach is that you’re chopping your legs out from under you. Worship fuels mission. The circulatory system that pumps lifeblood to the world (mission) is missing its heart (worship). This issue was again brought up by a great article my friend, David Taylor (check out his site, Diary of an Arts Pastor), pointed me to. In “Christianity Cannot Survive the Decline in Worship,” Kazimierz Bem put it starkly:

The refrain I constantly hear is: “The Church of the future is the Church of service.” It takes all shapes and forms, but it always boils down to the same thing: Don’t focus on worship—“do stuff” instead! So, a denominational leader blogs that the vocation of churches is to be local community centers, food banks, day cares, or places for diaper drives…I cannot help but think to myself that we should stop ordaining people to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament and instead create an office of “Community Organizer” (with Brief Prayers).

Whew. It is probably not surprising that the missional movement of this brand/variety has taken greatest root in traditions of Christianity with lower view of ordained clergy and a more memorialist view of the sacraments. Because worship and its leaders don’t do anything particular and special, they’re replaceable or expendable. Bem’s article is important; I encourage you to read it.

For the record, I try to say that the downplaying of worship in some missional thinking is unintended. However, sometimes I frankly feel like some of the folks (who have probably had bad, maybe even abusive, experiences in worship) have an axe to grind. Perhaps it is their zeal for mission that has them down on things that can get churches “staying put” in their ruts. I share that angst. Complacency has always been deadly. But that’s not the fault of worship in essence but of worship poorly practiced, led, and conceived of. 

How Worship & Mission Work Together

I broke this all down in a post a while ago: “How a High View of Worship Challenges and Affirms Missional Thinking.” One of the best metaphoric insights about this comes from one of my favorite worship theologians, Jean-Jacques von Allmen, a forgotten continental liturgical scholar who wrote an important but buried book back in the 1960s, Worship: Its Theology and Practice. (I really hope some publisher eventually reprints this work.) Von Allmen used the circulatory system metaphor above in a slightly different (and probably more helpful) way.* He likens worship and mission to systolic and diastolic blood pressure—one central core, the heart of God, pumps life into the system, and that life perpetually and cyclically gathers the Church in for worship and pushes the church out for mission.** Why do they work hand-in-hand?  Because worship is the goal of mission.  We are on God’s mission precisely because the world has been side-tracked off its central call—the worship and glory of God.  The world should be singularly and harmoniously gathered for the worship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but when human beings were manufactured and hit the market, we broke down pretty fast.  Mission is God’s “factory recall” of the world’s worship. 

If this really is the case, then those who are most intense about mission will be most intense about worship.  They will revel in the presence of God among the people of God.  They will “get” just how sweet and fulfilling it is to be in union and communion with the Trinity, and because they have so basked in that love, they are overflowing with desire to see others taste what they have tasted.  Apprehending, beholding, and encountering God’s glory in worship is one of God’s most effective inoculations against missional apathy.  In encountering the fullness of God, we experience the fullness of our humanity.  Worship shakes up our amnesia: we “remember,” as it were, who we were in Adam before and after Adam fell, and we experience who we are in our union and communion with the Second, Greater Adam—Jesus Christ.  In this remembrance, we taste for a moment our full humanity—the fullness of who we were designed to be and what we were made to do.  We experience wholeness, peace…shalom.  And then the inevitable “aha” occurs.  “This is what the world has been groaning for!”, we realize.  And at the Benediction, we are shot out into the world with all the centrifugal force that an encounter with God can muster, until we are sucked back in by God’s next summons in seven days, then re-energized and shot out. 

There’s a new book out there that looks to be on target with what we’re talking about here. I haven’t read it, only thumbed and perused. It’s in my queue. It’s Missional Worship, Worshipful Mission, by Ruth Meyers. People I trust give it a major thumbs up.

Doing and Receiving

A Church that is always “doing stuff” is in a perilous position in an even more fundamental way, though. The Church is always, first and foremost, a group of receivers, not doers. In all our emphasis on being Christ’s hands and feet in the world, we may forget Christ’s hands and feet on the cross. Not in our minds/hearts, but in our practice (which shapes our minds and hearts), we can functionally forget the gospel…that faith is God’s action, a Divine gift…that Christianity preaches Someone to receive, not something to do. In short, we can fall into the age-old confusion of fruit for root, when we begin to think of ourselves as doers, not receivers, by essence. 

Ironically, worship is good medicine here. Perhaps part of the reason it itches some missional thinkers is that in worship, we’re all very passive. We’re all receiving God’s Word to us, God’s grace for us. Even our singing, according to Scripture, isn’t so much our action, but Christ’s action through us (Heb 2:12), and not in our own power, but in the power of the Spirit. Before we become missional gift-bearers to the world, we must first, and perpetually, receive Christ as gift to us. This is why some Christian traditions call weekly worship “The Divine Service.” 

Worship teaches us that “Christian service” begins with God’s service to us by providing all the resources for His forgiveness of sins and justification of the ungodly. And then, as He fills us (perpetually and ongoingly), we go out, enabled to offer ourselves in service as living sacrifices.

*What follows is taken from that original post.
**Jean-Jacques von Allmen, Worship: Its Theology and Practice (New York: Oxford, 1965), 55.

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