August 21, 2015

The Biology of Missional Worship

The Evolving Discussion of Worship and Mission

Since the flowering of the church growth movement in the 1980s and 90s, conversations about the relationship between worship and evangelism have ebbed and flowed. Sally Morgenthaler’s Worship Evangelism, originally published in 1995, is still the high water mark for the synthesis of this era’s wrestled-down thoughts. Somewhere in the early 2000s, with the dawn of the “missional movement,” the conversation (I think helpfully) shifted from worship and evangelism to worship and mission, and soon authors, thinkers, and pastors began grappling with how worship met the growing consensus that mission was not a program of the Church but part of its DNA. If God is by nature “missional”—if He is a sending, outpouring God in essence—then the Church, too, is an entity on mission.

With the Church waking up to mission as part of its core DNA, worship was called into question, at least for some. It became more important for some churches to be engaging in so called “missional” acts to the point that some churches viewed these wonderful deeds of justice, mercy, and service as their “gathered worship.” “Instead of meeting for worship on Sunday, let’s worship God as we serve the neighborhood through a community painting project,” one missional church might have said. Though this kind of perspective sat probably more on the edges of the missional church spectrum, it still exposed the reality that mission-mindedness seemed to be at least somewhat at odds with gathered worship. It seemed like the more missional local churches became, the less they cared about the weekly service of prayer, praise, sermon, and sacrament.

Two Helpful Metaphors

Thankfully, a host of voices have helped reframe perspectives so that we can see mission and worship not as strangers but as partners. And because the relationship between worship and mission seems to defy easy description, some have offered a few very helpful metaphors. Ruth A. Meyers, in her new book Missional Worship, Worshipful Mission, gives two great pictures. The first is that of a Möbius strip, with worship on one side and mission on the other, set in a twisted circular pattern such that we can’t tell where one ends and the other begins (pp. 34-38). This visual highlights the close connection between the two, such that we could think of worship as mission and mission as worship. The second is that of a spinning top, with worship as the core center spindle and missional acts and deeds as the top’s essential body. Though not identical parts of the top, neither can exist without the other for proper functioning, each serving its intended purpose for the top’s optimal work (pp. 38-45). I love both of these metaphors, and Meyers wonderfully teases out the implications of those metaphors. I highly recommend the book!

The Circulatory System

I’d like to (re)add a third metaphor to the discussion. One of my favorite worship theologians, Jean-Jacques von Allmen, seemed to have had a prescient awareness of the discussions to come way back in the 1960s when he observed:

It is by its worship that the Church lives, it is there that its heart beats. … As the heart is for the animal body, so [worship] is for church life a pump which sends into circulation and draws in again, it claims and it sanctifies.
-Jean-Jacques von Allmen, Worship: Its Theology and Practice (New York: Oxford, 1965), 55

If von Allmen were using today’s language, he might say that the circulatory system is a great metaphor for the relationship of worship and mission. And I happen to like it because of its organic and biological overtones over against the more mechanical illustrations offered above. So here’s my attempt at expanding on von Allmen.

If we think of the world as a body, then the Church is the vehicle within it through which God chooses to carry His life-giving Gospel. In this circulatory system of “Gospel-transport,” worship is the heart, the central propulsion chamber where the Gospel is given to the people of God, fueling and pressurizing us to be sent out. Mission, then, is the network of veins and arteries that take the Gospel out, ever expanding into further reaches of the body for the purposes of gathering more regions of the world back in and under the life-giving influence of its center and heart.  Just as arteries and veins follow a circular pattern away from and back to its source, so mission goes out and gathers in, to be “re-pumped” by worship. Together, worship and mission work as one unified system.  The Church, by definition, is both doxological and missional. Just as a heart has no purpose without veins and arteries, and just as those veins and arteries are useless without a heart, so worship is inherently missional and mission is essentially doxological.

Three Great Aspects of the Metaphor

What I love about this metaphor is that it preserves several things that are important to me as a Worship Pastor who is attempting to be missionally-minded in the way I plan and lead:

1) It places worship at the center.

Call me old school, but I still think worship serves a central place in the life of the church. What God does in worship through Word and sacrament is a precious giving of his Gospel that cannot be replicated or replaced “out there,” ordinarily. It places worship at the center of mission, providing its propulsion.

2) It preserves the ambiguity of where worship and mission begin and end while offering some definable locations.

Certainly we can remove a heart from a body and call it the “heart.” But just where is that point where the heart’s valves transition to fully becoming veins and arteries? That point doesn’t seem to be definable, given the organic nature of the system. I like this ambiguity for the same reason Meyers does with her Möbius strip. There’s something healthy for the church here.

3) It adds the element of the church’s worship and work being for the life of the world.

Several liturgical traditions like to say that worship is “for the life of the world” (see Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann’s book by that title). The picture of the Church (existing in worshipful mission and missional worship) as the world’s circulatory system gives vivid imaginative thought to this reality. It puts the church in vital relationship to the world and casts the often polemical “church and culture” discussion in a much different light.

I will tease all these thoughts out in greater detail (maybe even with a diagram or two) in my forthcoming book, The Worship Pastor (Zondervan, 2016), but I think even here we have creative space to sit in the metaphor for a while and understand the implications of the relationship of worship, mission, the Church, and the world together in God’s wonderful, cosmic plan of making all things new through the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Where do you see this metaphor offering help?

Zac Hicks (D.Min. candidate, Knox Theological Seminary) is Canon for Worship & Liturgy at Cathedral Church of the Advent (Birmingham, AL), blogger at, and author of The Worship Pastor (Zondervan, 2016). He grew up in Hawaii, studied music in Los Angeles, trained in Philosophy and Biblical Studies at Denver Seminary, and his current doctoral work is in the theology and worship of the English Reformation. Zac's passions include exploring the intersection of old and new in worship and thinking through the pastoral dimensions of worship leading. He is a songwriter, having recorded seven albums to date. Zac has been married for over fifteen years to his wife, Abby, and they have four children—Joel, Jesse, Brody, and Bronwyn.