“Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination,” croons Willy Wonka in the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. The enigmatic Wonka continues to sing as he welcomes five children and their various guardians into the Chocolate Room of his candy factory, a room where everything—flowers, grass, balloons, even the river—is actually some sort of sweet treat. “We’ll begin with a spin traveling in the world of my creation. What we’ll see will defy explanation.”
There is no doubt that Wonka, as played by Gene Wilder, is odd and at times even unsettling. But there is also no doubt that his Chocolate Room is mesmerizing and awe-inspiring. He has imagined something into existence that everyone, young or old, wants to visit and enjoy. It truly defies explanation, and Wonka’s imagination fires up our own imaginations. What else seems impossible but could become reality? What sort of creative endeavors await, calling a more beautiful world into existence?
As followers of Jesus, we too have encountered the impossible. All of creation was groaning for restoration, trapped in slavery to sin and death, when God stepped into our world to bring life and salvation. Life in relationship with the Creator became possible because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The good news of the gospel is that the kingdom of God has come near in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, and thus we can participate in this kingdom of life. Ultimately we will inhabit an eternal life where there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain, where God’s dwelling place is with God’s people in a new creation. As followers of Jesus, a new reality that was previously beyond our imaginations is completely ours. Thanks be to God!
Representing the Reign of God
Following Jesus isn’t only about eternal life. Those of us who have encountered the risen Christ are being formed into a community. The writers of the New Testament often referred to this community as “the church.” Being welcomed into the church is profound because the church is called to represent the reign of God in the world. Our identity as a community is rooted in the truth that Jesus is Lord, and when those who don’t yet know Christ look into our midst they should see what God is like. They should see the beauty of his kingdom.
It’s worth repeating: Jesus is forming us as a community to represent the reign of God in the world. This formation doesn’t happen in isolation (the importance of personal time with God for our discipleship notwithstanding). Our shared experiences and shared practices are vital pieces of the puzzle, and sometimes these are connected to each other in surprising ways.
Worship and mission have always stood as two pillars in the church. Although we mistake them for two different activities, they share a dynamic relationship in shaping our hearts and imaginations for the new kingdom. That relationship is seen in the steady, graceful rhythm of the church’s life: together we are gathered and sent, gathered and sent, gathered and sent. Through each week, each season, and each year, we experience the constant ebb and flow of being gathered in Christ and sent in his name.
Theologian Ruth A. Meyers refers to these two dynamics in relationship as “missional worship” and “worshipful mission”(Meyers, 2). Worship and mission both proclaim and celebrate the good news of God’s love, offered for the sake of the world.
We Become LIke What We Worship
Missional worship is worship that connects us to the mission of God by constantly forming and reforming us in our identity as followers of Jesus.
It’s lost on many people, but the reality is that you become like what you worship. N. T. Wright, in his book Surprised by Hope, eloquently tells us, “One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only to the object itself but also outward to the world around” (Wright, 182).
We need only look to the psalms to see this truth revealed in Scripture. In Psalm 135:15–18, the psalmist sings of the surrounding pagan nations:
The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them.
Carve an idol, give it your reverence and awe, and you will become like it. In the Western world that we call home, carved idols are a rarity, but the principle remains. N. T. Wright continues:
Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers rather than as human beings. Those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sex objects. Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns. These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch (Wright, 182).
The community of Jesus followers, though, gathers in the name of Christ to worship the living God, who has made himself known through self-giving love. Our worship forms our hearts in Christlikeness, and we discover that life is found in the practice of self-giving love. The very act of worship becomes a foundation for living in mission throughout our week. Every act of true worship is, by its very nature, missional worship. We become like our Lord Jesus, who gave himself up fully, even unto death, even for his enemies.
Worship forms us for mission, and each of the particular acts we take part in together as we worship can be understood in light of what will happen when we leave the gathering.
Call to Worship: We are called together by God not to leave the world behind and forget about it all, but to bring all of our experiences with us into the house of God. The muck and mire of a weary week, the burden of difficult conversations, the failures of faith, and the very real struggles facing our community need to be brought before the Holy God, laid bare at the cross. We’re called together as we are, not as we should be. Thank the Lord!
Adoration: We adore God because God is holy, perfect, and wholly “other” from this world. We adore God as Creator, but that reminds us that God dearly loves his creation. The New Testament writers remind us that the work of Christ is cosmic in scope—even creation is being set free and restored through the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
Confession: When we confess before God, we confess our inability to love our neighbor as ourselves. In Luke 10:27, Jesus calls loving our neighbor the second greatest commandment and ties it in a knot with the first great commandment so that the two cannot be separated: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” You want to adore the Almighty God? Lay down your life for your neighbor who votes differently than you. It’s brutally difficult, which is exactly why we are honest before God in confession.
Assurance of Forgiveness: We never wallow in guilt. Our forgiveness has already been won for us and promised to us. When we admit our lack of strength to follow through in the previous week, we are reminded that we are forgiven, restored, and renewed to try again with the help of the Spirit.
The Word: When the Word is proclaimed in our midst, it is never simply a self-help lecture or an emotional pep rally. Any sermon at its healthiest will point us to the presence of the living God, the good news of the gospel of Jesus, and the movement of the Spirit. And that will always include a call to partner with God in the work of his kingdom, because our neighbors need to know the presence of this living God as well.
Sacraments: Baptism initiates us into the family of God, sealing an identity that is missional at its core. We are swept into a story that includes bearing witness to the risen Christ, and we’re reminded of that every time we make baptismal promises to each other. Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is the meal that sustains us for the good work of the gospel. All we need is a taste to remember, (or to be “re-membered” as the body), that we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection so that we can also participate in his restoration in the world.
Blessing and Sending: Every service ends with the twin movement of blessing and sending. We are blessed, so we go to be a blessing. We are changed to bring change. We are gathered in the name of Jesus and sent in the name of Jesus. Gathered and sent, gathered and sent, gathered and sent. The rhythm carries us out to our homes, neighborhoods, and vocations with a song of praise on our lips and hands ready to reach out.
Worship proclaims and celebrates the good news of God’s love, which has been offered in Jesus for the sake of the world. Of course, that’s exactly what missional living does as well.
Worshipful mission is the way we’re called to live once we are sent out from our gatherings. It’s missional living that proclaims God’s glory as our words and actions point toward the new reality of God’s kingdom for the sake of our world.
The apostle Paul is excited to remind us that, if we are in Christ, the new creation has already come (2 Corinthians 5:17). It’s here—present tense. If we have already tasted of the new creation that is to come, when the restoration of all things arrives with Christ’s second coming, then we have the privilege and honor of living in such a way that the new creation is revealed in us. That’s true for each of us as individuals, of course, but remember that we are sent out as a community of believers. Even when we’re sent, we collectively represent the reign of God in the world.
Jesus-followers are invited to leverage a faithful imagination, to reimagine our world made new as we participate in Christ’s mission. It’s not hard to see worshipful mission already surrounding us, coming to life through vibrant imaginations at work. Just look at some of your mission initiatives and partners. What follows are some stories from my own congregation.
Steve and Sarah Caton had a vision that the church could begin to grow in England again if Christians lived missionally within their neighborhoods, helping the communities flourish. Their journey has had amazing twists and turns, leading to the founding of a coffee shop, a neighborhood church, and an international retreat program for those living abroad on mission.
The fact that some families might not have proper beds for their kids is heartbreaking, but a faithful creativity led some of our Covenant Life Church craftsmen to imagine a new world where we could provide beds to those who need them. This is communal flourishing, caring for those with a need by offering our skills and resources.
Kids Hope was born out of the idea that we can serve our community by serving students in need in our neighborhood schools. At Covenant Life, Jill Pyle faithfully steers this amazing program, building on the foundation laid by Trisha Wolvolek and Ann Sluis. These women have helped us spark hope through relationships with hurting students, and they’ve even sent students to summer camp—an adventure they would otherwise never know anything about.
One of our global partners working with Muslim refugees in Spain was captured by a vision of Muslims, and especially Muslim refugees, being introduced to Jesus. Her deep love for Muslim brothers and sisters overseas has led to a life of caring for them in the name of Jesus. The good news of the gospel is shared alongside groceries, healthcare, and friendship.
This is new-creation work. This is God’s people cultivating a faithful imagination for what flourishing could look like here and now. We refer to this work as “mission.” But it’s also worshipful mission. These efforts, led by the Holy Spirit, represent a way of life that proclaims God’s glory and shouts the good news of the gospel.
Dreams & Visions
There are gaps in education, health, poverty, and church development that we can stand in. How beautiful would it be to imagine a new world that bridges the life of Christ and the flourishing of our community and world? How beautiful would it be to partner with the Spirit in bringing that imagined world into existence?
The glory of the next age exists in this age because the Spirit inspires God’s people to imagine and dream beyond what we see. If we can envision a world with no tears, no pain, and no death—a world we’re already tasting in part—then we can also envision new ways to step toward that goal while we are awaiting Christ’s return. Just as we can dream about a world where each kid has a great bed to sleep in, Muslim refugees fleeing warzones are welcomed and cared for, struggling students can find encouragement for school and life, and a neighborhood coffee shop can be a home for significant spiritual conversations, there are countless other opportunities in front of us to dream about.
As Christ’s disciples, we should be first to serve. We should be first to give. We should be first to worship. We also have a chance to be first in line to dream, to imagine, and then to cultivate beauty in our world as a way to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection.
Willy Wonka continues to sing as the children explore his Chocolate Room, declaring in song that paradise is all around them and that they have the ability to change whatever they want to in this world. It’s a beautiful and poignant moment. It’s not totally truthful, of course. This isn’t paradise. We have too many battle wounds while we wait for Christ’s return. And we can’t change the whole world. Only God can do that. But if chocolate and sweets can inspire such visions of a new reality, then you can bet that the gospel has claims that are even greater for us.
Christ taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Our missional worship forms us in Christlikeness and sends us out into the world to proclaim the gospel. Our worshipful mission is participation in Christ’s mission and propels us back into the gathering to adore God for the work done by his Spirit in our community. We can’t fully view paradise yet, but we can taste it. And each taste is a reminder that we want to share the feast with our neighbor. What joy that we’re called into such a rich imagination, to see visions and to dream dreams (Acts 2:17)! We worship and live missionally in a way that proclaims and celebrates the good news of God’s love, given for the sake of the world.
Meyers, Ruth A. Missional Worship, Worshipful Mission: Gathering as God’s People, Going Out in God’s Name. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014.
- Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.