I recall riding in the back seat of our family car from Palos Heights, Illinois, to northwest Indiana to visit my grandparents. The route we took crossed over what seemed to my young imagination like a bottomless pit. In that stretch of I-80/294, the road crosses over the middle of the Thornton Quarry. While I was initially fascinated by my glimpses of the big construction trucks operating in the area, the steep drop-offs on either side of the road had a way of pushing my fears to the front of my thoughts: What if we fell off? Though I’ve only crossed that stretch of road a handful of times in the last 35 years, the memories of those literal pitfalls still come rather easily to mind.
I share that story because when I think about the relationship between worship and mission, I tend to see some pretty significant pitfalls for those of us who plan and lead worship. But I also have come to see that there are some guardrails for our journey that allow for a healthy, integrated approach to worship and mission. By giving attention both to the pitfalls and the guardrails, we can navigate our way into a robust approach to Christian worship that also forms us for missional living.
Isolating Worship from Mission
Reflecting on contemporary practices of worship in North America, David Fitch remarks how there seems to be “little correlation between what constitutes a good worshiper and the consistent living of the Christian life” (The Great Giveaway, Baker, 2005, p. 95–96). That disconnect between worship and the rest of life is nothing new, of course. After all, our great-uncle Cain murdered our great-uncle Abel over the acceptability of their respective worship practices.
The prophets are emphatic that worship and our missional living ought never to be separated. Isaiah calls out religious fasting that is disconnected from care for those entangled in poverty (Isaiah 58). Jeremiah confronts those who claim the security of the temple while committing all sorts of injustices, including oppressing immigrants, orphans, and widows (Jeremiah 7). Micah dismisses the absurdity of offerings detached from the love of mercy and the pursuit of justice (Micah 6). Amos points to the economic injustices committed against the poor as evidence that the tithes and sacrifices of God’s people are meaningless (Amos 4–5).
When worship and mission are pursued as two distinct tasks of the church that really have nothing to do with each other, we present salvation as merely an assurance that our personal sins are forgiven. In doing so, we cut out and ignore the cosmic scope of the good news: that in Jesus Christ, God is reconciling all things—things on earth and things in heaven—to himself through Jesus’ death on the cross (Colossians 1:19–20).
Offering Minimal Opportunities to Respond
In her book Is It a Lost Cause? (Eerdmans, 1997), Marva Dawn (relying on Neil Postman) points out a second pitfall connected to worship and mission. She contends that our worship is in danger of adopting cultural patterns of pouring high amounts of information over us while providing few outlets for us to respond to that information. In other words, our worship can become saturated with all kinds of information about God’s love for the world and God’s hatred of injustice, about the brokenness and tragedies in which people find themselves, and even about agencies that are doing something to address tangible needs. But if there is no encouragement to engage, if there are only minimal opportunities for God’s people to respond to this information, we run the risk of perpetuating a cultural pattern that embraces the accumulation of information while diminishing the desire and capacity to respond to that information. Without concrete opportunities for response, information about injustices takes on a kind of spiritual voyeurism by which our prayers and worship can be filled with situations and images of people who are suffering but with whom we never get personally involved.
Adopting an Assembly Line Approach to Worship
Several missional church advocates have suggested that communal worship has little value if it cannot produce people who will treat their neighbors better than the baseline treatment they receive from the rest of the world. This co-opting of worship as a production plant for missionaries reduces worship simply as the means to an end.
In this approach, our worship becomes subjected to the language and priorities of manufacturing industries, where efficiency and material outcomes are the key evaluative measurements. But such an approach ignores the Holy Spirit’s ongoing involvement in forming the character of Jesus Christ among God’s people. This approach assumes that the entire responsibility for making disciples rests on the worship gathering, thereby eliminating the importance of mentoring, catechism classes, spiritual disciplines, and other contexts in which people can “grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.” Moreover, by assuming that there is a certain type of worship that can produce missionaries, we remove personal responsibility from the people who are worshiping. The worshiper becomes merely a product that the worship planners and leaders manipulate in order to achieve a particular kind of Christian.
While there are certainly other pitfalls we could name together, these three appear to be quite significant in their capacity to distort a healthy, integrated relationship between worship and mission.
Guardrails for Missionally Formative Worship
Just as the stretch of I-80/294 over the Thornton Quarry has guardrails that keep traffic moving safely over the pit, there are several key emphases in worship that can encourage the missional formation of God’s people without falling into the pitfalls noted above.
Worship That Immerses Us in the Grand Narrative of God’s Mission
The first of these guardrails is to emphasize worship that immerses us in the whole story of the Bible or, as Christopher J. H. Wright calls it, the grand narrative of God’s mission. At minimum, this immersion means including Scripture readings that draw from all parts of the Bible. More fully, worship that immerses God’s people in the story of God’s mission will take time to tell the whole story of God creating, humanity rebelling, God reconciling the world in Jesus Christ, God gathering and sending the church by the Spirit, and God working to bring about the new heavens and the new earth.
Practically, different aspects of this storyline can be emphasized throughout the worship gathering. Whether in honoring the creating and reconciling God who gathers us together, or confessing our personal participation in the universal rebellion against God, or even in our prayers of intercession to the God who is even now working to make all things new, there are constant opportunities to simply name how different aspects of our worship are rehearsing different contours of this biblical narrative of God’s mission. The accumulated consequence of drawing attention to this overarching storyline is that we begin to see God as the primary actor in our worship and in our lives as a whole.
Worship That Orients Us through Liturgical Rhythms of Remembering and Anticipating
A robust, missionally formative worship will also serve to orient us within God’s mission through liturgical rhythms of remembering and anticipating. A significant aspect of Christian worship involves looking back at what God has already done. We look back to God’s creation of the world. We recall God’s relationship with the people of Israel and with the nations of the earth. We read, memorize, and sing the prayers of God’s ancient people (the psalms). We remember the events of Jesus’ life from birth to ascension. But this looking back is not a practice of wistful nostalgia. Rather, our liturgical remembering is designed to cultivate trust within us. As we remember what God has already done, especially in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, we grow in our belief and in our confidence that God is with us, right here, right now.
The good news is that this liturgical remembering also brings to our hearts and minds an anticipation of what God will yet do. When we remember in worship, we also recall God’s promised faithfulness to make all things new. We anticipate the day when there will be no more death or crying or mourning or pain. We anticipate the day when people from every ethnic community will gather around God’s throne in prayer and praise. We anticipate the rulers of the earth laying down their weapons and mutually flourishing in the coming kingdom of God’s shalom. We anticipate Jesus Christ’s return. As we within worship anticipate these promises of God, we are oriented in a direction that allows us to see our current circumstances within the trajectory of the always-present faithfulness of the God who was and is and is to come.
As John Bowen writes:
The restoration of all things in the future is just as certain as the resurrection of Jesus in the past. Indeed, God’s past is also a foretaste of God’s future. In the resurrection, God has lifted a corner on the veil that hangs over the end of time and given us something to hope for that is not dependent on us and our ups and downs, but is dependent on the God of Jesus Christ, who is faithful and therefore may be trusted (Green Shoots out of Dry Ground, Wipf & Stock, 2013, p. 19).
Worship That Locates Us in Our Respective Heres and Nows
Responding to the first two guardrails, faithful Christian worship also locates us in our respective heres and nows. One of the values of the missional church movement that I deeply appreciate is the insistence that there are no cookie-cutter approaches to missional living. The particularities of our contexts matter for how we live out our faith. They also make a difference for our worship. I’m not simply talking about cultural styles or which languages we use in worship, but about how the Holy Spirit cultivates our attention toward the particularities of our respective communities through worship. Robert Webber expressed it well when he wrote: “Here is what biblical worship does: It remembers God’s work in the past, anticipates God’s rule over all creation, and actualizes both past and future in the present to transform persons, communities, and the world” (Ancient-Future Worship, Baker, 2008, p. 43).
This present transformation can play out in multiple ways within worship. The simple act of acknowledging a variety of the congregation’s joys and concerns or a major news headline that is affecting the people who are gathering that morning reminds us that our worship does not take place in a vacuum. One of the more tangible ways to integrate our gathered worship with our realities outside of worship is through the congregation’s prayers. Even the small act of naming specific people, situations, institutions, vocations, and streets of the city within our prayers roots the congregation’s worship within its specific context. (For a few additional ideas on what praying for the city can look like, see my Reformed Worship blog post “And Pray to the Lord for It” (October 3, 2018). Additionally, sermons that engage places and circumstances from the local community can help members visualize how the gospel can be embodied in their specific contexts.
Worship That Sends Us as Participants within God’s Mission
Finally, worship that sends us as participants within God’s mission guards against the danger of inaction. Part of the storyline within the grand narrative of God’s mission is that Jesus has sent us as the Father sent him (John 20:21). In this light, we are not merely recipients of God’s grace; we are recipient-participants. Following the Abrahamic paradigm of being blessed in order to be a blessing (Genesis 12), God extends grace to us through Jesus Christ that we might become an extension of God’s grace to others. In our congregation, we follow God’s opening greeting with the invitation to pass the peace of Christ to those around us. This perspective also frames our offerings so that what we give forms within us this pattern of giving to others what God has given to us.
A Continuing Conversation
In many ways, this article seeks to open a conversation about how to better integrate worship and mission. Most of the pitfalls and guardrails expressed here focus on how worship engages and spills into mission. A similar conversation could take place starting in the context of missional engagement, asking how worship liturgies and weekday liturgies can inform each other for community interaction.
This article draws from and expands on ideas introduced in Schoon’s book, Cultivating an Evangelistic Character: Integrating Worship and Discipleship in the Missional Church Movement, Wipf & Stock, 2018, available through both Wipf & Stock and Amazon.