The missional movement is now firmly established and influencing all kinds of churches, including mine, to the glory and praise of God. I love this re-energized focus of the church toward abandoning purely “attractional” models of evangelism and embracing the missionary-hood-of-all-believers paradigm. I’m enthralled by the resurgence of interest in the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation and its accompanying emphasis on the humanity of Christ as just as important as His divinity. I’m encouraged by the resulting discussions about contextualization, cultural exegesis, and externally-focused living. And I’m cheering on and supporting the uprising of new church plants, especially in all the major urban centers of the United States.
However, as with many bandwagons, sometimes the cart gets going before all the implications of its trajectory are really teased out, and I believe that discussions about the intersection of the missional church and worship are under-developed. I want to spur on this discussion by briefly laying out my own observations as to how a high view of what corporate worship is and accomplishes both challenges and affirms the missional movement.
How Worship Challenges Missional Thinking
The missional movement emphasizes “sent-ness.” Every Christian should be on mission, outwardly-oriented, bent on going out and incarnating the gospel in given relationships and contexts. One overriding concern with this focus is that the church can be so sent that it is never gathered. You see this being teased out in various ways, when it comes to worship. Some churches cancel worship services and instead do a service project once a month on a Sunday morning. They will argue that while they’re not holding a worship service, they’re still worshiping through service. Other churches are so “missional” that they really don’t gather for anything like a corporate worship service, whether in a building or a home. They will regularly gather, but they don’t go through anything remotely close to formalized ritual. They view their being together in fellowship as “worship enough,” or even more radically, as purer, better worship than the lifeless, institutionalized services of their traditional counterparts (and they view “traditional” as anything within the contemporary to traditional worship spectrum, because it is more formalized and organized).
A high view of corporate worship challenges these ideas. Such a view answers affirmatively to these types of questions:
- Does God desire that a regular, weekly gathering of the local expression of the church take place?
- Does God lay out for us structure and/or content for what rituals, ceremonies, and expressions are to take place during such gatherings?
- Does the Bible affirm a complementary distinction between “worship” as all of life and “worship” as the weekly corporate acts of the gathered people of God?
Again, a high view of worship answers all these questions with a resounding “Yes!” And here we have exposed the crux of the doxological difference between the more radical missional thinkers (who hold to a low view of corporate worship) and the more historic practice of the Church (and Jesus). The radical missional thinkers conflate the Bible’s picture of whole-life worship (e.g. Rom 12:1; Col 3:17) with what corporate worship is. When those distinctions are blurred, it follows quite logically that corporate ritualistic acts of worship are less important. If our lives, through mission and service, fulfill God’s call to worship on our lives, then, yes, there is no need for corporate worship in the “traditional” sense, and our need to gather greatly diminishes. The only purpose for gathering really becomes mutual edification, fellowship, and group-based missional endeavors.
But Was Jesus So Missional and Incarnational that Corporate Worship was Unimportant?
The missional discussion centers around Christology (the theology of Jesus), and understandably so. Everything should center on Christology. Christ is mission par excellence—God came, God incarnated Himself, and God sought us out. Jesus got His hands dirty, fraternizing with low-lifes, prostitutes, tax collectors, and all sorts of other “leasts of these.” But in doing so, did Jesus demonstrate that His full duty of worship of the Father had been fulfilled in such acts? Did Jesus model a sent life apart from a gathered life? It doesn’t seem so. All the clues indicate that Jesus valued the sacred, traditional worship rituals of the people of God. His parents guided Him to the temple at an early age. John 5-10 indicates that Jesus observed the liturgical year of feasts and festivals, even as He fulfilled it. Luke 4:16 (NIV) says, “on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.” Now, to be clear, Jesus called for radical re-orientation of these worship-customs, but He was nevertheless simultaneously missional and devoted to regular corporate worship. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, there’s reason to believe that corporate worship provides the best kind of fuel for a robustly missional church.
The Most Missional Churches are Intense About Worship
John Piper’s loaded statement, “Missions exists because worship doesn’t,”1 rings true here. We are sent because worship, done rightly, propels us outward. There is an elasticity, a rubber-band-ness to the way worship and mission function. Worship theologian Jean-Jacques von Allmen likened 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.2 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.
So, missional thinkers and worship leaders, let’s seize what is before us. Let us not abandon our sacred weekly call, but let us strive to make it all that it can be, so that, in turn, our mission would be all it can be.