This is the final article in a series introducing “Worshiping the Triune God,” a working document published following the inaugural meeting of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) in June 2010. In this document are a series of “proverbs” designed to provoke ongoing discussion about the nature and function of Christian worship. In this series of articles, Reformed Worship is providing a study guide to help localize this global conversation, inviting those of us who design, lead, and participate in the liturgical life of particular congregations to experience deeper blessing and to exercise greater wisdom in the way we approach worship. In this article, we will examine the missional implications of our worship: how does what happens in the worshiping congregation impact the community around it?
Blessed and Commissioned
What does it mean to be “a blessed and commissioned people serving in Jesus’ name”? The answer to that question forms the basis for life in the church.
Eugene Peterson, paraphrasing John 1:14 in The Message, wrote, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.” And at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Peterson’s paraphrase of the Great Commission reads, “Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life . . . instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”
These words not only sent the first disciples out of their gatherings and into the world, they are also the commission Jesus has given to every believer. Many of us in the contemporary church, however, have been hoodwinked into believing that the purpose of the church is to attract people into it, and we have measured the effectiveness of our congregation by attendance, participation, growth, and institutional vitality.
How we understand the core mission of the church (to draw secular people in or to send God’s people out) impacts the central act of the church: worship. If we assume the primary desire of the Triune God is a “flourishing church community,” with full pews and overflowing activity calendars, we will focus time, effort, and resources on making our congregation more appealing than the church down the street, and “success” will be measured by the number of people who come through the door and their overall satisfaction with the “programs” and “services” they receive.
But when we discover that the primary desire of God is the redemption of the world, and that the church of Jesus Christ is commissioned by God to be an equipping agency rather than an amusement park, our time, effort, and resources can be focused on nurturing believers who expect to be sent by God into the world to participate in God’s mission, and who fully engage in the worshiping community to prepare for that mission.
5.1 God’s Sending
Blessed is the congregation in which believers are encouraged by God’s gracious blessing, and challenged by God’s gracious call to proclaim the good news of Jesus and to live as a healing presence in the world in the name of Jesus.
When God’s people have assembled for worship in Jesus’ name, joyfully proclaimed God’s Word, responded with prayer and offerings, and celebrated our faith at the font and at the table, our final act of worship is to be sent “. . . into the neighborhood . . . day after day after day” so others can see with their own eyes the one-of-a-kind glory of Jesus revealed in us; like Savior, like people, generous and just inside and out, true from start to finish. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a community where that is a priority? And yet, this act of intentional sending is often neglected or minimized. We sing a few quick stanzas of a hymn, glance at the clock, and head for the parking lot.
A worshiping community without a proper sending is like a restaurant without a functioning wait staff trained to use their expertise, imagination, and passion to feed hungry people. In worship, God’s people are prepared and commissioned to use our combined understanding of God’s Word and our personal experience of God’s grace to change the experience of daily life for people who are hungering for compassion, justice, truth, and freedom from the captivity of this fallen world.
Questions for Reflection
- In what ways does the worship in your community encourage your people through God’s blessing?
- In what ways does the worship in your community challenge your people to respond to God’s gracious call?
- How are you measuring the effectiveness of worship as a tool for preparing your people to “move into their neighborhood” with the good news of Jesus?
- How are these expectations articulated in the closing section of every worship service?
5.2 Daily Worship
Wise is the community that nourishes faith by encouraging daily worship of all believers, with emphasis on reading and meditating on God’s Word, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, offering prayers of praise and petition, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, listening for God in the “sheer silence,” and living every moment before the face of God.
You may be thinking, “Are you nuts? Who has time to do all this every day?” Here’s a word for you: breathe. Believers in the Western Church, especially those nurtured in more evangelical congregations, have been taught to spend “quiet time” with God each day. This can involve reading a few paragraphs in a devotional guide and prescribed Scripture passages and prayer. Adding all the other parts of this proverb into that “assigned” time is an absurd idea. But we’re talking about daily worship—worship that happens throughout the course of each day. While the discipline of designating time with God can be a good place to start, the daily worship of the Triune God is not intended to be episodic. It is our 24/7 calling and joy that, if taken seriously, changes every part of life for a believer.
A question often attributed to William Temple is “What do you think about when you have nothing specific to think about?” The answer to that question, Archbishop Temple contended, identifies our “default” god. Intentionally worshiping the Triune God daily allows the living God to become the natural focus of our thoughts, even and especially when nothing else demands our attention.
Just as there is no one set of “magical” words and actions that constitutes or guarantees the efficacy of corporate worship, there is no one way to worship God throughout the day. Here are some suggestions for how to do that:
- Read a passage of Scripture in the morning and the same passage again at night. Consider how your experience of the day changes the way you hear or understand God’s Word.
- Read Scripture slowly, allowing yourself the luxury of being distracted by a particular word or phrase and allowing the Holy Spirit time to speak to you through that “distraction.”
- Sing hymns and worship songs attentively when you are in your worshiping community. What thoughts or images catch your imagination and stay with you into the week?
- Memorize words and melodies of the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs you sing in corporate worship. Allow them to “visit” you at other times throughout the week.
- At the beginning of each day, pray for the people you expect to meet; and as you go to sleep, remember in prayer the needs and hopes, hurts and desires you heard people express through the day.
- n Use your “down times” traveling between projects, meetings, and conversations to pray for the people you are encountering, or simply to talk with God about the joys or frustrations of the day.
- Build times of “sheer silence” into your day: turn off the iPod or the TV, move away from the computer, close the door—give yourself periods of silence and don’t be afraid of what you will encounter in them.
- Remember, as you move through your day, that in every conversation, situation, decision, or action you have the opportunity to move a little closer to God and be a witness to his redeeming love or to move further away from God’s truth and grace and from God’s purpose and mission for your life.
Questions for Reflection
- How many people in your congregation currently practice some form of intentional daily worship?
- How can worshiping communities encourage their people to a deeper life of daily worship?
- How can you help your people prepare each week for the Scripture, music, and focus of corporate worship?
5.3 Hospitality and Evangelism
Blessed are the communities in which hospitality is practiced in both public worship and in personal lives, where strangers and guests are welcomed and embraced, where the poor and marginalized, diseased and forsaken can find refuge under the shadow of God’s wings.
Blessed are the communities in which all people are invited and challenged to become disciples of Jesus, receiving baptism and formation in the faith.
An eighteenth-century hymn could still serve as the welcome statement for any contemporary congregation seeking to experience the blessings of hospitality and evangelism: “Come, ye sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore; Jesus ready stands to save you, full of mercy, love, and power.” These words were written by Joseph Hart, an antagonist toward Christianity in general (and John Wesley in particular) whose subsequent experience of God’s transforming grace and the patient nurture of Christian peers led him to become one of the most influential preachers in London. Jesus Christ is willing to meet us wherever we are—and because Christ is Redeemer, he is not willing to leave us there.
This is very good news, but proclaiming it is seriously countercultural. In the increasingly pluralistic and polarized world of the twenty-first century, disciples of Jesus Christ must be neither. This is challenging to many people. Those who are sociopolitical conservatives will be frustrated by such an open embrace and such seemingly indiscriminate acceptance when it is offered by a congregation that faithfully embodies the love of Jesus. Likewise, those who are sociopolitical liberals will find it hard to believe that the same faithful and welcoming congregation remains committed to the existence and definability of ultimate truth, when such a belief logically leads to the expectation of confession, repentance, and growth in discipleship. Yet it is this odd mix of compassion and commitment that characterized the life and teachings of Jesus and that molds and sustains a congregation determined to minister in Jesus’ name in the twenty-first century.
Questions for Reflection
- How does concern for hospitality and evangelism shape and influence your congregation’s worship?
- What impact might these same concerns have on the daily worship of individuals?
- Who are the “poor and needy, sick and sore” in your neighborhood?
- How are their lives different because worshipers of the Triune God live and worship near them?
5.4 Formation for Worship
Wise are the congregations that invite believers of all ages and abilities to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Blessed are congregations that nurture the faithful interplay of Scripture, doctrines, practices, and the fruit of the Spirit.
Wise are congregations that deepen worship through reflection on and teaching about the meaning of worship practices.
At every stage of life we attempt to teach vital practices in age-appropriate ways. Young children do not need to read and understand the full manual of driving regulations to learn to look both ways before crossing the street. Adolescents don’t need to know how to complete and file income tax forms to understand wise use of money.
“Worship” means different things to different age groups, cultures, and ethnicities, but everyone is capable of learning how to sing and how to pray (and why God’s people are called to do both), what it means to confess sin, and how much God loves us. Announcement of the good news of Jesus Christ is only “good” if it calls us beyond our “bad” news. Jesus never said to a person who was blind, “Take up your mat and walk.” In the same way, a worshiping congregation wisely connects people with the Triune God through images, practices, music, movement, and media that speak most clearly to that particular group of people, nurturing a conglomeration of individuals into a congregation of worshipers, and then commissioning those who have encountered the living God to go into the world as contagious disciples.
Questions for Reflection
- How and when do you “teach” people to worship in your congregation?
- What special care and provision could you make for deepening the experience of welcome and worship for children; people new to your congregation; people with mental, emotional, and/or physical challenges; the elderly?
- In what ways does the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23) influence the nurturing of worshipers?
5.5 Worship, Compassion, and Justice
Blessed are congregations whose public worship points to Jesus Christ and Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God.
Blessed are congregations whose corporate worship and public witness are consistent with each other and faithful to God’s Word, whose worship and witness are a testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit.
Blessed are congregations who seek to receive the liberating work of the Holy Spirit, who alone can break through hypocrisy and through whom justice and peace, worship and witness can truly embrace.
Rather than a commentary on this particular section, I’d like to offer a benediction for prayerful reading and discussion. It was originally written in 1995 by Hal Warheim, a professor at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and has been adapted by Rev. Rebecca Heid, currently an associate pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Louisville. I believe it captures the essence and the challenge of these three proverbs as God’s people—forgiven, loved, and freed—are sent into ministry in God’s World:
Because the world is poor and starving, go with bread.
Because the world is filled with fear, go with courage.
Because the world is in despair, go with hope.
Because the world is living lies, go with truth.
Because the world is sick with sorrow, go with joy.
Because the world is weary of wars, go with peace.
Because the world is seldom fair, go with justice.
Because the world is under judgment, go with mercy.
Because the world will die without it, go with love.
It is God who will give you the grace and strength to do all these things.
Go in the grace of Christ Jesus, and may all glory go to Him! Amen.
Questions for Reflection
- In what ways does the worship of your congregation most clearly point to Jesus Christ and God’s kingdom?
- In what ways does your congregation seek justice and peace as expressions of the kingdom of God?
- What evidence have you seen of the Holy Spirit breaking through hypocrisy and uniting justice and worship in a common witness?
5.6 Maranatha! Worship and Christian Hope
Blessed are congregations who are not content to live only in the present moment, but whose worship expresses the groaning of all creation for the fullness of God’s reign in Jesus Christ.
Blessed are congregations whose life together is summed up in the certain hope of the prayer “Maranatha”—“Come, Lord Jesus.”
This final section brings our five-installment study guide to a close, but, like the act of worship itself, does not let us be content with “accomplishment.” Rather, the final proverbs, like the “charge” and “benediction” at the close of every experience of worship, send us beyond ourselves and our experience into God’s world.
As we have said repeatedly throughout this study, worship is not about us. Our experience of God’s blessing multiplies exponentially when we intentionally move beyond the experience of the moment (did we “like” the music, were the chairs comfortable, did we end “on time”?). Our participation in the act of worship as a vital, multisensory, multileveled interaction with God— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is, as the poet Carl Shalk once wrote, “. . . a glimpse of heaven’s bliss—a teasing taste of what we [confined to earth] miss.” We are, after all, part of God’s creation; and, as such, we hear, from around us and from within us, the groaning for God’s redeeming about which Paul speaks at length (see Rom. 8). Worship is when our groaning is turned into song and our sighs become prayers.
But more than this, worship is the opportunity to be reminded and to remind other believers that the life we now experience is only a nanosecond of the reality of God’s eternity, and that the Creator of the universe invites us beyond ourselves into his limitless hope and joy. The world we now see as fallen and flawed will one day be redeemed—restored to its original beauty and to God’s original intent.
We close this section and this study with enduring words of hope and promise. May they live on your lips and in your heart as you worship the triune God, lead others to do the same, and then follow God into his mission—wherever that may lead you in his world:
And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
the trumpet shall sound, and the Lord shall descend.
Even so, it is well with my soul!
—Horatio Spafford, 1873
To God alone be the glory!
Questions for Reflection
- Where/how do you most clearly hear the creation “groaning” for the fullness of God’s reign?
- How is or can that be expressed through worship of the triune God?
- When we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!” what images, hopes, and expectations come to your mind?
- How has this extended study of the worship of the Triune God impacted you personally and the worship in your congregation?
- How has this study of worship challenged you in mission and service to others?